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ning livehereNing, the social networking startup that made some big, painful changes last year, just announced two new features that sound like the first in a wave of improvements coming in early 2011.

The Palo Alto, Calif. company allows customers to create their own social networks. It previously eliminated its free product and focused on paying customers, and chief executive Jason Rosenthal told me yesterday that Ning has been working hard on a number of fronts to keep the pay product compelling.

The big picture, Rosenthal said, is that companies want to have control over their social presence, which is why they come to Ning in the first place, so it’s important to provide as many customization options as possible.

Specifically, Ning plans to launch a new Design Studio on February 9, which Rosenthal said will “give all of our Ning creators the ability to create a stunning visual experience that’s as good as anything in the Ning community.” Products like Ning often give a similar, simplified look to all of their websites (it’s something that companies like Weebly and Posterous, for example, have been working on too). Rosenthal said Ning is trying to tackle that problem by giving Ning customers control over more than 80 design settings in their social network.

The Design Studio will also include new social network templates and will eventually offer designers a chance to sell custom designs to website owners.

Ning is also announcing a new Ning Engagement System. The idea is that different kinds of data are valuable to different Ning customers, so the new system gives them access to a broad swath of analytics, identifying things like the most active users and most popular content, and allows companies to focus on the data that they want. It also introduces a new “like” button for Ning social network members to emphasize the content that they like and share it with their friends. It’s similar to Facebook’s “like” button (which it also integrates with).

When I last spoke to Rosenthal, he was launching the Ning Everywhere program, where it partnered with mobile development companies who could turn social networks into mobile apps. There will be more mobile announcements coming soon, Rosenthal told me yesterday. He also reemphasized the growth that Ning saw after last year’s refocus, with the number of paying customers increasing from 15,000 to more than 80,000.

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