Over the past three posts in this series entitled “Revive your User Group”, I’ve shared some of best practices that I’ve learned over the years for keeping a technical user group going. If you haven’t read those posts already, I’d encourage you to go back and read those before continuing on with this post. Or at least go back and read them after you’ve completed this one so you’ll have the complete picture of the recommendations.
In this, the final post in the series, I’d like to share with you some ways to expand the boundaries of the user group.
Most groups think of their group as one meeting per month where someone else is willing to share their knowledge with the group. But a technical group can be much more than that. You can, with a little effort and setup, transform your group from a once-a-month meeting to a continuous interaction among the membership.
Establish a web presence
This one seems like a no-brainer, particularly in today’s Internet ladened world. Unfortunately, however, this is where many groups stop. They create a static web site, publish it to their hosting provider, and “forget about it”. Sure, the site may contain there meeting frequency and location, but little else.
The problem with static, or stagnant, web pages are this: If someone visits the web site and it hasn’t been updated in months, they’re likely to think the group has just faded away.
Your group’s web site is one of the primary ways you have to communicate with the existing and potential members of the group. Make sure the web site is up to date with meeting times, locations, and even recent meeting information. As suggested in part three of this series, appoint one person to update the web site regularly.
But don’t stop there. Make the site dynamic and give members a reason to visit it. Post speaker’s slide decks, aggregate RSS feeds and blogs on the site, write summaries of recent meetings, and post pictures from the meetings.
The Microsoft web site has RSS feeds for many of their technologies. Find one and display the feed on your groups web site. It’ll give it fresh information without you having to do anything. You can even subscribe to custom feeds for your location. Visit the TechNet Events Custom RSS Feeds page for more information.
If you are a SQL Server User Group and you don’t have a web site, PASS can help by giving you hosting space and Dot Net Nuke (DNN) content management system framework. Visit the PASS Chapters page for more information. Similarly free hosting probably exists for .NET user groups as well as for other technologies. If nothing else, turn to a blogging site such as WordPress or Blogger.
Stay in touch with three emails per month
To really keep a group going, meeting just once per month is not enough. If someone misses a couple of meetings in a row due to scheduling conflicts, he may not return since he’s gotten out of the habit or it’s fallen off his calendar.
To really build a community, you’ll want to make sure you regularly stay in touch with members. Email is a great medium for that. Send an email one week before each meeting. The body of the email should include the meeting time and location, the speaker’s name, topic, and bio, and any free give-aways that you’ll have. Also be sure to thank your sponsors.
A second email the day before (or the day of) the meeting is also a good idea to give people a last minute reminder.
And finally one week after the meeting, consider sending a wrap-up or summary email to the membership. This email should contain four or five tips that the speaker shared with the group, a link to his PowerPoint slide deck on your web site, a thanks to the sponsors, and if possible some information about the next meeting. The follow up email is designed to let those who didn’t come know that they missed a good and valuable meeting and that they should really come to next month’s meeting.
As a bonus, each new subscriber to your group should receive a “Welcome, we’re glad you’re here” email.
Many successful groups go beyond the traditional web site and email approaches. They also use online social networking platforms to encourage members to reach out to each other for technical issues, for job searches, and for purely social exchanges.
For example, Twitter is a great tool to share information with your membership. Have someone tweet messages about local events or Internet resources of interest. Use hash tags, like #nashsql, to identify tweets specific to your group. LinkedIn is another great option for creating an online social presence for your group. There are others, too, just do a little research and ask your membership what platforms they regularly use.
The goal is to give people in your local technical community a way to keep in touch. Some may not use one particular platform, others may. That’s up to them. What you want to do is to provide ways that they can connect to others if they choose.
And in conclusion
Over the past four posts in this series I’ve outlined some best practices that I’ve found over during my years of leading both local and international user groups. But this list is not be comprehensive. There may be ideas and techniques out there that work for your group that haven’t been covered in this series. If that’s the case, I’d love to hear about the them.
Please post how your user group stays vibrant and active in the comments section of this post. After all, that’s what we’re all trying to do, keep a good technical community going so we can all benefit from it.