Key to a successful user group

Date April 12, 2009

So you have started a user group. Now how do you really manage it to sustain and running on a long term? You may want your group to grow and we all do agree that bigger is always better but to what extent? Some user groups usually start as a Special Interest Group (SIG) and then change to cover broader scope of IT focus and most usually start as a general IT interest groups. But the main goal should remain focused than generalizing it completely unless a group has a clear definition of demographics for its sponsors, solution providers, and its potential members.

Having a large groups is always advantageous as the solution providers, sponsors, have a long history of rewarding large groups with special materials, events, leader recognition, discounts, etc… However, they would question themselves on what does the membership numbers really mean to them? Whether the resources they spend, time and money they developed reach the people who need them? And what do they get really out of this relationship? We will discuss on this further as we move forward, however for now let us discuss on running a user group.

Growth of a community is similar to that of how a crop grows. To grow a crop, you need ample water, plenty of sunshine, right amount of fertilizer, and plenty of time for absorption of these three. The first thing you need to have is patience. No success of a community is instant and you may initially feel it is a waste of efforts. After several attempts and putting in much efforts you may not be finding members re-visiting either your portal or at the meetings. It is not about how strong efforts you put in to do, but how smartly and patiently you do some good quality work.

So let us now understand what are the three factors to grow a community:

Get your key team members right to market properly:

Just as we collect the fertilizer, it is really essential that you choose the right kind of rich soil which is your marketing material and a foundation to establish good roots by helping decision makers assess the value of incorporating the new or updated technology.

Small is sweet:-

As a crop needs to be regularly watered with sprinkles than using a fire hose, small amount of information delivered at a right pace for good absorption is exactly where the user groups and solution providers have a intersecting interest. Always have fresh content with timely presentations and support materials and a clear plan of execution.

Share knowledge as the Sun shines:-

Just as the sun shines over the crops properly without any hesitation, it is exactly how we will have to share our knowledge with the community members who always find it beneficial of being associated and in return shine their knowledge over other user group members and give them a recognition. In short, the Sun is the one who is always recognized.

So, the fertilizer (marketing materials) results in fertile ground, proper watering (slow, deliberate delivery of information) strengthens the roots, and the sunshine (recognition) reaps flowers / fruits.

Now, when we plan towards growing and maintaining a user group, we first need to determine what success looks like. Document this goal and drive towards it. Some may view it as a consistent 20 members attending every user group meeting and other may view in hundreds or thousands. Define clearly what you forsee. Feel free to set several benchmarks as much you desire and start slow without getting overwhelmed. Adjust your goals as your reach your initial benchmarks. In my next post, we will discuss more about goals. However, to start with now, here are few ideas you may use to set your benchmarks:-

  1. Number of people as members on your website
  2. Number of people on the mailing list
  3. Number of people that show up for monthly meetings
  4. Number of people that show up for special meetings (Annual / Half-yearly major events)
  5. Number of meetings (Monthly / Quarterly)
  6. Quality of training content at your meetings
  7. Number of services you offer to your members
  8. Amount of money and / or goodies you get out of local vendors
  9. Number of board members to help offer these services
  10. Anything else you want to measure

Now that you have set your benchmarks, you need to establish a plan to reach that goal. It may include some of the following ways:-

Ask yourself questions like as listed below and answer each of them:

  1. What is the plan about?: Definition
  2. Who is the plan for?: Audience
  3. How much will it cost? $ Required
  4. Why this project? Advantages and need for this project
  5. What will it achieve? Goals:
  6. When ? Project Timeline
  7. How will it be executed? Execution plan (Process)
  8. Who will execute the plan? Team-Roles responsibilities.
  9. Metrics – Measures of Success? KPI (Key performance indicators)
  10. Review process? (Detail of how it will be reviewed)

This will help you with setting your goal from planning to execution. You may now lay your further thoughts on why are you doing this and why should people help you on the board?

Your thoughts may be such as, Community service, reputation in the area / industry as a leader, learn more on leading tasks, awards and honors from the industry, etc…

By doing this, you network with other community leaders and develop relationships with people in your niche. There is no other learning opportunity that what you teach yourself from this. You get to know your community even better and get in contact with local businesses as you ask for support. Once your community shows it credibility, you will find the businesses establishing contact with you which gives them an opportunity to showcase their products and services for reaching the larger audience.

The most important step will be that of establishing a Board of Directors. Have the right breed of people to help the community. Identify those who have the following qualities:

  • Interest
  • Commitment
  • Consistency
  • Independent
  • Be Selfless

Set an expectation that they need to spend a calculated amount of time per week as you define their roles in helping you run a community. Even in case you do not find people helping you being on board, you may start the activities but make sure to keep your search open for people helping you. A Board of Directors can assist you in determining the topics, sponsors, and even direction to the user group.

Setup a mechanism either ideally on the website where you can have people signing up for your monthly mailing list. Here you may communicate your monthly updates, all in a single email. This may contain an update to your monthly or weekly community update to next meeting information. Keep it with very less noise and do not spam.

Determine your next user group meeting date, time, and venue. It may be conducted from a cafe hub to a local training institute to the conference room of a local business. Just go and build contacts with them even if the do not provide space now, they may help sometime later. However, you have their contact established.

Never hesitate in asking support from those potential sponsors as they may help you with snacks, beverages, raffles, give aways etc… At the same time, do keep in mind when you approach to request support, have your thoughts ready on how you can help them. Always start a conversation such as:

Self Introduction

Introduction of the community

How can you help them on behalf of the community

Request support

You are offering them an inside track to a dedicated group of people that can potentially help them be successful. Do your homework smartly, understand their business and show them how they can be successful being associated with you (they will always search for value unless they are realised). It is always better if you could make some time and meeting them in person as it is a least possibility for any individual to say NO when in person.

Develop your topic and presentation for the upcoming event. If you are unable to do it yourself, find an expert among your sphere, and generate excitement in drawing people to register and attend the event. Do make sure of having information of your next user group meeting ready and announce them before the end of this meeting.

Send detailed information about the meeting to everyone you know and all your new contacts, and other user group leaders.and ask them to help you with spreading the word. You need to give the notice to everyone at least 30 days in advance and a reminder at least 2 days in advance.

For registration, you usually would have a mechanism on your respective group where they may sign up a confirmation of their attendance. You will have Facebook, Meetup, Regonline, Eventbrite, etc… Or if not, you may also send a request to email you with a subject time: Event Availability – <Event Title> etc…

Have a great event and at the end, collect their feedback, their name, phone numbers, email address, etc… Furthermore, also request them to join the steering committee to those who would be interested in joining you in driving the community.

Have a poll from the audience on their topic of interest and what will they want to learn next.

Remember:

  • Do not get complaisant
  • Deliver good content
  • Do the basics well
  • Constantly look for more value to add for memberships
  • Look for ways to increase number of memberships which means more support, more features to provide, more speakers, more contacts.

All these are not only applicable to you in running a community, but also in your regular profession which teaches a lot by self.

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