Not content to live in the social networks of others, some small business owners have taken to platforms like Ning to create their very own social communities. Why would someone want to create their own social network when there are plenty of sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace available to jump on? Because when you own the community, it's your brand that takes center stage. You get to control the content, to talk to new customers more easily, and to form one centralized location to host your living, breathing community. What is Ning? Okay, so what is it? Ning is one of the many sites out there that let regular people create their very own social networks. Small businesses can use them to meet, network and engage with potential customers or simply to arrange events. You can make your social network as complex or as simplistic as you want. As the creator of the network, you determine what the site looks like, whether it's public or private, and set all functionality, like if you want to include videos, photos, in-group chat, forums, blogs, etc. There's also a premium version that will allow you to choose branded URLs separate from the Ning domain and remove ads from the site. How do I Create One? One of the benefits of creating your own Ning is that it's super easy to do. There are four basic steps: Name it: If you already have a Ning account, simply click the Create Your Own Social Network link on the home page to get started. If you don't, you'll have to first register with the site. Once you do and you begin the creation process, you'll be asked to name your Ning and to pick your Ning-specific URL (ie: groupname.ning.com). Describe it: The next step is to create your description. This is your chance to tell everyone what your little corner of the Web will be about. You'll be able to provide a tagline that will appear in your header, write a brief description and select the keywords you want to be associated with your community. Try to use the terms people would most likely be searching for. Pick your Features: As I mention, as the creator of your community, you get total control over what it's going to look and feel like. You decide if you want a forum, a blog, groups, music, an option to chat, an RSS feed, birthday reminders, etc. Once you decide, you'll be asked to design your layout and select where everything will appear on the page. Customize your Design: In this step, community creators get to pick their theme (similar to a blog theme) and then customize it to look exactly how they want. If you can, try and use colors that are either similar or complimentary to your Web site. Once you're all set, hit LAUNCH and your Ning will be made live and sent into the world. Once you launch your social network, you'll receive an email showing you how to invite your first set of members (this is done via email import), how to add content to your pages to help them rank and how to take advantage of any of the customization features you may have missed. Yes, it really is that simple to create your very own social community on the Web. Once it's created, you should make sure to include the link on your site and to link to it from your other social media profiles to help it gain maximum exposure. How would a small business use Ning? Actually, there are a more than a few great uses: To create dynamic content: I mentioned yesterday how important it was for small business sites to feature some type of dynamic content to keep people coming back. Creating a community on a site like Ning helps you to do just that. You can enable chat to allow people to hold real conversations, create a Ning blog that people can contribute to, and even upload video, photos and apps to get people's attention. Everything that your audience is doing on the other social networks, they can now do through your Ning. You make your company the meeting place for your niche. To find a larger audience: Ning users are able to create member profiles that list all the other public Nings that they belong to. Ning also features a real-time news feed similar to Facebook. That means each time someone is interacting with your company, all of their friends on the site will know and will be able to read what they're saying. And once they do that, they'll probably visit your Ning. That's targeted advertising and brand exposure to people who likely live in your area. Meet other business owners: Last summer the Wall Street Journal profile Matt Milletto, a barista-owner in San Francisco who created a Ning called Barista Exchange (make sure to take a look. It's a great Ning example.). The purpose of the online community was to give baristas and coffee enthusiasts a place they could go to discuss tips, share experiences and help promote one another. And it's been hugely successful. Sometimes just creating a meeting area for your industry can empower everyone. Use it to organize events/meetups: Whether you hold a lot of events at your storefront or you're just organizing a meetup every few months, Ning is a great way to bring people together and keep them updated. One of the Nings I belong to is an SEO meetup group in my area. We use the site to arrange new dates, coordinate locations, to chat about issues/industry news, and to keep everyone in the loop. It's become a great tool for us to connect online so that we can better connect offline. To integrate all your other social stuffs: One of the great things about Ning is that it gives you the ability to add your YouTube videos and Flickr photos, to pull in blog posts and to use content from other mediums. Doing so, allows you to aggregate your content to one common source, which makes it easier for users to digest. It also makes it easier to share. If you've never take a look at Ning, give it a shot. You may find its the perfect place for your company to take up show and create its very own social network.