Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Social Networks for Bicycle Clubs 101: Using NING for Bicycle Club Websites

Since 2007, I have been responsible for managing the HOOTS, (Hoosiers Out On Tandems), a central Indiana based tandem bicycle club.  The HOOTS operate under the umbrella of the Central Indiana Bicycle Association, and is funded from proceeds of hosting the Midwest Tandem Rally (MTR 2004 in Columbus, Indiana and for MTR 2010 in Shipshewana, Indiana).   Along with a mailing list, I am responsible for the HOOTS web site, which provide information to member and non-members.  Since 2008, the HOOTS web site (http://www.tandemhoots.ning.com) has been on the NING social networking platform (http://www.ning.com).

More than a website, the NING social networking platform provides many of the essential elements of a bicycle club in an easy to administer and maintain platform.  It is entirely web based, and can be run from any modern web browser.  Costs are very reasonable and comparable with traditional web hosting solutions.

NING services are available in 3 plans, Mini, Plus and Pro.

The Mini plan is $19.95 per year, you are limited to 150 members, and this plan does not support events.  (This plan is ideal for a small club, or for someone just wishing to experiment with NING.)
The Plus plan, at $200 per year, includes Events and Calendars, and allows you to use a custom domain name. (This would require a custom domain hosting service and fees.)  We use this plan for the HOOTS web site.  (http://www.tandemhoots.ning.com )
The Pro plan, at $500 per year, offers many additional customization features, allows up to 3 additional custom domain names, and allows you to store video and music files on your site, among other features.

The NING environment requires little technical skill to maintain.  Only the Pro plan, which allows for a custom home page, would require any web page creation skills.

Page Administrator
The person who sets up the account with NING and creates the site becomes the Page Administrator (or Page Admin). The Page Admin has access to a Dashboard tab, that allows for the site and features to be configured for appearance and privacy. Other members can be designated has a Page Admin to spread the work around and allow for vacations, etc.

Once the site is up and running, the other role of the Page Admin is to manager membership and content moderation.  Potential members can be invited by email, and membership approval (by the Page Admin) can be required.  I strongly advise using membership approval.  The Page Admin can also broadcast messages to all members.  For content moderation, (controlling what appears on the site), each feature can be set to allow content to require approval prior to being made public on the site.

Basic Features
The NING platform offers many features that make it ideal for bike clubs: Membership, Events (Calendar), Photo Albums, Blogs and Discussion Forums.  Each of these features is easily managed by the Page Admin from their Dashboard tab (only visible to the Page Admin).   Each feature can be configured to allow members to add content, and for the content to be moderated before being made public.  Each feature is visible on its own tab, and features can also be included on the Main Page.  The Main Page opens when you use your default page address, for example, http://www.tandemhoots.ning.com .

The Main Page
The Main Page becomes the home page for your NING hosted web site.  Page customization is available through the Dashboard, and this includes themes and colors.  The Main Page can summarize all your club activities, with the most recent items from each of the feature you choose to use their.  Your site privacy settings determine if non-member can see content beyond the Main Page.  Your Main Page content is also searchable by Google.  With the Pro plan, custom home pages can be created for a look that is different from the Main Page options available from NING.

Members join the site and have full access to all information on the site. Each member has their own profile page, which has information about themselves.  Profile page information is set-up by the Page Admin.  Members can also choose to have a profile picture, which they can upload.  Profile pictures are very handy helping members get to know and recognize each other. A member can allow other members to include them in site friend lists; one member can only send messages to other member’s they have approved.  Any member can post a message on another member’s profile, a good way to allow members to start connecting with one another.

Depending on site settings, member can post to any of the features (Events, Blogs, Photos, Discussions) that are on the site.

If allowed and set up by the Page Admin, potential members can apply can apply and members can login into the site using their Facebook, Google, or Yahoo accounts.  This eliminates the need for another site-specific password.

Events and the Calendar
Events have all the standard items: Event Name, and Event Image (a photo or logo), description, event type, start and end time and dates, location and address, a link to another web site or Google Map to the location, and organizer contact information.  About the only missing feature is the capability for adding recurring events.  The description box allows you to include active hyper links, and the final event also generates a link to the event that can be emailed to others.  Events can also be shared or linked to a members Facebook profile.  Members can also RSVP to an event, creating a guest list.  Member can also leave comments on events, or contact the event organizer.

Blogs are short articles for your members. They can be ride and event announcements, general news items, ride reports, and other information useful to your members.  You can configure your site to allow any member to post a blog, and determine if Page Admin can moderate (approve or refuse) a members post. Blog comments and sharing are also standard features.

Pictures and Albums
Members can post pictures through a photo upload tool, or email directly their profile from an Internet capable phone.  Pictures uploaded to the site can be organized into Albums, by either the submitting member or the Page Admin.

Discussion Forums
A full discussion forum tool is available.  Discussion and content are fully configured and moderated by, you guessed it, the Page Admin.

More Bells and Whistles
Other features include member-to-member chat, video and music sharing, advertising options and Google Analytics.  I have only covered the most important features to clubs here.  On the other hand, you mind find these useful for your club.

How Does It All Work?
The HOOTS site now has over 2 full years of use.  In my next article, I will fill tell you more about our experiences with the site and what we have learned, and the advantage of NING over some of the other alternatives.

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