The mad dash to set up Facebook fan or group pages by businesses has reached the early majority and may be entering into the late majority. Even United Airlines has a "fan" page (Is anyone really a fan of an airline? Notice they seem to have turned off posts. Perhaps JetBlue or Southwest Airlines in their early days?).
The social media platform player Ning has grown quite a bit recently as more organizations determine they want more control and functionality over their organization-sponsored social network. Ning allows you to brand your site to your liking (for the most part), set up your own profiles and integrate more content than a public social network like Facebook.
However, if you set up your own network, you'll have to work harder to get people to join and participate. Facebook's beauty is its inherent viral functionality; when someone signs up for your page, all of their friends see that they've done it and some will sign up also.
We think it is useful to think of using each tool at different points of the customer adoption funnel. For example, a Facebook fan page will probably generate more members at the earlier stage of commitment, but due to its light functionality, it is less likely to deeply engage.
A customer social community, on the other hand, is more likely to attract true advocates who are seriously ready to engage with like-minded advocates. This one that designed and manages for the Hatfield-McCoy off-road trail system is a great example. Fans of HMT are already deeply engaged in answering questions, connecting with each other, and providing feedback.
In some cases, companies and non-profits are forgoing a traditional web site and just launching a Ning-based site as their primary web presence. In many cases, especially where deep interaction with customers or constituents is important, this is a smart move.
Does your company participate in social communities? On what level? We'd love to hear about your successes and challenges in this ever-evolving world of social marketing.