Revive your User Group, part II
July 4, 2009 5 Comments
In the first part of this post, I discussed the importance of local user groups as a technical and even career resource. If you haven’t already read that post, I’d encourage you to go back and read it now since it really lays out the groundwork for this one by outlining how and why local user groups are important.
At this point, I hope we can all agree that local user groups can play an important role in helping us to furthering our careers. I’m not say that the do play that role for each of us, but that they can have a positive impact by helping us to gain knowledge in our field, to meet new people in our industry, and to stretch ourselves by making presentations.
Some Lessons Learned About Meetings
In this post, I’d like share some lessons I’ve learned along the way about how you can help to ensure that your local group’s meetings are as vibrant and enduring as possible. I’ve learned these lessons by being in the trenches myself, first as a local user group leader for the Nashville SQL Server User Group, and then as one of the leaders of the world’s largest SQL Server User Group, PASS.
The more successful user groups meeting regularly. That should go without saying. And it’s almost by definition that that’s the case. But it’s really hard to get people used to coming to a user group meeting, and to feel invested in the user group, when meetings are held haphazzardly or infrequently. Check with other user groups in your area and find a regular meeting time that doesn’t conflict with something else. For example, schedule your group to meet on the third Thursday of each month.
Depending on the time of your meeting, some days of the week are less appealing that others. Wednesday evenings are generally not good user group meeting times for people who attend mid-week worship services. Here in the U.S. in the fall of the year, you’ll likely see a noticiable decrease in attendance if you meet on Monday nights due to the NFL football games.
So do some planning, come up with a time that makes sense and stick to it.
Consider lunch meetings
The defacto standard for a lot of user group meetings is to meet in the early evening on a weekday, say 6:00pm on the third Tuesday of each month. And if that’s works for your group, that’s fantastic.
But in my experience, many people are getting more and more protective of their personal and family time. They do, indeed, want to grow professionally but giving up an evening for a user group meeting may not be as alluring or even as acceptable as it once was.
My group used to meet on Thursday evenings and for years we struggled to keep a good critical mass of regular attendees. We’d average 10 to 15 people attend depending on the topic for the evening. And because of scheduling difficulties, many meetings had only at 6 or 7 people there. At that point, those who came questioned why they even bothered. Eventually the group collapsed, meeting less and less frequently until it just faded away.
When we put the back together, we decided to do things differently. We decided to meet during the lunch, from 11:30am to 1:00pm. Our first meeting back had almost 100 people. Since then we’ve averaged around 60 per meeting. People are willing to take a little extra time for lunch when it’s work related.
There is such a thing as a free lunch
Another way to attract and keep people coming to your user group meeting is to provide a meal there, especially a free meal. People love free.
At our group we have a sponsor for each meeting. The sponsor provides some kind of food and beverages. Nothing fancy, typically pizza or Bar-B-Que sandwiches and sodas. It usually costs them a couple of hundred dollars. It’s inexpensive enough that they can pay for it out of their expense account or petty cash.
And in return they get plenty of exposure and good will. They get to stand before the group for 5 minutes to introduce themselves and talk about their product or service if they’d like. Most don’t focus on that. Most just simply say ‘hi’ and that they’ll be in the back if anyone wants to learn more about them or their company. We also thank and mention the sponsors on the web site and in our email communications.
From the sponsor’s perspective, it’s a great return on investment. They get a lot of great publicity in front of people expressly interested in a certain topic or with a particular skill set for just a couple of hundred bucks.
You can also ask vendors and other organizations for door prizes. Microsoft, PASS, Quest, Red-Gate, and other SQL Server related organizations are usually more than happy to provide some kind of give-aways.
In part three of this series, I’ll share some lessons I’ve learned about setting up the leadership and managing the group.
Until then, if you know of some other best practices for user group meetings, please share in the comments below! I and the community will thank you for it.