Will "the Mighty" Strohl

How Do You Promote/Run a User Group?

I recently saw a post in the DotNetNuke® Forums asking, "How can I promote my User Group?"  What this usually translates to is, "How do I run a user group?"  I was hoping that I could attempt to tackle that question in this blog entry. 

I was only a couple of days late from founding the Orlando DotNetNuke® Users Group (ODUG).  As it turns out, Brian Scarbeau had the same idea only days before me.  (Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell is the inventor of the telephone only because he filed the patent first, and only by something like an hour of time?  Had he decided to do it the next day, we'd know the name of the other guy.)

Of course, no matter who founds a user group, it is a great thing for the product, and an even better thing for the folks in the area that use that product in some way.  Face to face networking and support will beat forums and blogs any day of the week.  It probably goes without saying, but even though you decide to put together a user group, it doesn't mean that anyone will know about it, or attend a scheduled meeting.  So, how do we market and promote the user group?  It is important to note that there is no secret sauce, and not everything will work for everyone.  That being said, here is what my experience is.  What I will tell you should work for most user groups, regardless of their focus.

I most certainly cannot claim to be an expert on the subject, but I can tell you what I thought made sense then and now, and what I did.  When I first took over the user group we had less than 40 registered members, and now we are approaching 100.  That stat will quickly tell us that in the very least, more people know about us.  So far, when I consider the number of new faces we see at meetings and how many of those are registered on our web site, I can make an educated guess that there are many more people in our area that haven't yet registered on our web site or attended a meeting. 

You should know and understand that before you take over the responsibility of leading a user group, there are a lot of people that will be depending on you, and each will have their own unique expectations.  You shouldn't accept this responsibility unless you have significant time to donate to the tasks, and you should also have a goal or vision of what you want to accomplish with the user group. 

When Brian first tapped me to lead the user group in his place, I immediately recognized the responsibility I had and began to formulate a plan.  There were other succesful user groups in the area, so I e-mailed their leaders and asked to speak to them about what I should expect and what to do.  Luckily, one of the people had ties with Microsoft, so we were able to have a Live meeting online and telephone conference with each other.

I had some very specific questions for these people since they already had successful user groups:

  • How do they find speakers?
  • How do they fnd sponsors?
  • Do I need to have an organized leadership structure, and if so, how should I organize it?
  • Should I have ByLaws?  What should they say?
  • How do they promote their user group?
  • How do they promote meetings and raise their attendance?
  • How do they acquire door prizes?

I would imagine that these questions are not unlike those that other have had.  These questions obviously led to other questions and conversations.  We spoke with each other for over an hour, and it was incredibly helpful.  I really should openly thank Shawn Weisfeld, Jessica Sterner, and Ken Tucker.  I do not know what our user group would be like without them. 

That should be your first step, but here is that one and others...

  • Meet with other current and past user group leaders.  They will have very valueable insight, experiences, and contacts to help you.
  • Attend other area user group meetings.  Not only will you get a good feel for how a user group meeting is run, but you will be able to promote your own user group at the same time.  (And let's not forget that you will learn something to boot!)
  • Volunteer at other user group events and meetings.  This is for the same reasons as above.  When you do, make sure you work harder than you would expect someone else to work for you as a volunteer. 
  • Post updates regularly in industry or product specific forums about your meetings and user group events.
  • Constantly ask your members what they want for the meetings, web site, and everything else.  Poll them during meetings, conversations, e-mails, on the web site, and in forums.  Pretty much any time that you can.
  • Figure out who are vendors for your product/technolory, and contact them for sponsorship.  It is not a good idea to ask for money from them, but you can ask for swag or door prizes.  One good way to entice them is to offer web site advertising.  Be sure to keep them updated with user group statistics.  You would be surprised at how easy this is and how quickly they will turn around and sponsor the user group.  I have found that about 30% of potential sponsors already have an area on their web site specifically dedicated to this purpose.
  • Write a monthly newsletter.  In the newsletter, be sure to keep everything short, include sponsor advertisements, and thank those who have contributed to the user group in some way.  Try not to e-mail everyone too much.  You will lose your subscribers, and no one will know about your meetings any more.  1-2 times a month is good.  Anything over that is pushing it.  Usually one newsletter at the beggining of the month, one just before the meeting as a reminder, and one after the meeting will do it.
  • Pick a good day to schedule your meetings.  Try not to meet on the same night or week as other similar user groups.  Also, do not schedule meetings on Wednesdays or weekends.  Weekends are valuable for people, especially those with families.  Wednesdays are church days for many people.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are the most popular.
  • Find Speakers.  Speakers can be found at local user group events such as meetings or code camps.  Also, if you partner with a publisher, they will often fork up speakers when they know one will be in town.  If your user group covers a Microsoft technology, join INETA and CodeZone to help get speakers.  Another good way to find speakers is to read blogs of popular developers in your area, and just e-mail them.  You'd be surprised at how often they will say yes to you.  You can also ask people in your user group to present topics that they specialize in, or local Software Architects/Lead Developers.
  • Bring in relevant and interesting content.  Not only should you find speakers, but make sure that the content relates to your user group technology focus, and it is relevant to the to current technology version.
  • Get promotional materials.  This is actually a very affordable way to promote your user group.  Services like Cafe Press makes it easy to have a handful of shirts with your user group logo and branding.  Get business cards for the user group web site.  It is not necessary to put anyones name on them.  They just need to have an easy way to remember the address of your web site.  Vista Print is one of my favorites for business cards.
  • Self Promotion.  Make sure you wear and display your user group swag as much as possible.  Just like any company, people will begin to recognize your branding and logo.  They will begin to associate you and the logo with the meetings and the user group.  Before you know it, they will be promoting the user group to their peers for you.
  • Put the user group information in your forum and e-mail signatures.  Make sure that when you name goes on something for personal or professional correspondence (not work stuff), that you promote the user group there.  Don't forget places like LinkedIn as well.
  • Contribute to forum discussions.  All technologies have an official forum site.  Contibute to the site as often as possible.  Now that your branding is on your signature, this is more promotion.
  • Make yourself accessible.  No matter if someone is a registered member or not, they should be able to find your contact information and contact you very easily.
  • If you have the resources, sponsor user group events at other similar user groups.  Sponsoring a table and sitting behind it at a code camp is just like putting a welcome sign on your forehead.  People want to talk to you whether they use the same technologies or not.
  • Become a 501(3)c.  If you are large enough and need to save and/or spend money, try to become a 501(3)c.  This will allow you to easily have a bank account specifically for the user group.  From that point, you can sell marchandise and accept donations without having to track it in your own account. Just be sure to get the taxes right.  ;)
  • Talk about the user group.  Make sure that you talk to every person that you can about the meetings and how much fun they are.  If nothing else, they might tell an interested friend who will join and come to a meeting. 

That is about it.  I hope that with these tasks and tips listed, you can see and appreciate how much time and effort is involved.  In turn, you might have a head start to get your user group on the road to success.  This is a very rewarding position, and it is very much like having a second job.  I hope your user group becomes very successful for you and your members.

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