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User Group Marketing

I blogged about this back in September of 2010, but technology changes so it’s time to revisit this again.  Now I’m not anything even close to a marketing expert, but I’ve been the Director of Logistics and Communications for the North Texas SQL Server User Group for the past 2 years (I just started a new 2 year term as the Director of Programs).  I’ve also been the Director of Marketing for the PASS Performance Virtual Chapter for the last year until becoming the President this year.  Since I started those positions, NTSSUG’s average has gone from around 50 to around 80 (in fact, we had 87 last month), and the virtual chapter went from 40 in January to 235 last month.  Now that’s what I call exciting.  I’ve helped put on a SQLRally, several SQLSaturdays, an all-day virtual training event, and currently serve as a PASS Regional Mentor for the South Central region.  So I’m not a marketing expert, but I have gained some experience with all my volunteer activities.

Here are the things that I have learned and work for both local user groups as well as virtual ones.  Remember that every group and area can be different and what works in one place might not in another, so your mileage may vary.

  • Email – Discussion Lists
    • I send 4 emails per month.  The first two I send 1 week prior to the meeting.  The second two I send the morning of the meeting.  This gives people enough notice to get it in their calendars and that last minute reminder for those who need it.
    • Why two?  I send one to the group discussion list and one via the PASS website.  If you’re not running a PASS user group then the latter does not apply.  This means I get the news out to anyone who finds my chapter via the PASS website and also the current members.  It sounds simple but I see some established groups that just send to their discussion list and not from the website.  They are completely missing all the new members that signup on the chapter site.
    • Why have a discussion list and not just send email to all members on the PASS chapter site?  The chapter emailer is just a way to get news out to those who have signed up on the site.  It does not allow for 2 way communication because members cannot reply back.  I suggest creating a discussion list where members can ask technical questions.  Google Groups is my personal choice here.  It’s easy, everything gets archived, and you can always go back and search the site for past threads.
    • If you don’t have an email registration on your site like the PASS chapters, then I suggest creating a second list just for meeting announcements.  This gives people the choice to reduce the noise of the discussion list and only get meeting and event announcements.
    • Be consistent.  For me, I live and die by my Outlook calendar and I sync it to all my devices.  Add reminders in your calendar to make sure these emails get out on time.  As soon as you get the speaker and meeting information, go ahead and pre-stage it in your drafts.
    • I want you to notice that I didn’t call it a distribution list, but a discussion list.  That’s your goal; to create and foster technical creativity.  If things get quiet then throw out a question to keep it lively.  Maybe find an unanswered question on a forum and pose the question to your discussion list with a link back to the forum thread.
  • LinkedIn
    • Create a group on LinkedIn.  This is a professional networking site, so its scope is already what you are wanting to target.
    • Every month you should create a discussion in your group.  Don’t just post a link to your site.  Make it easy and post all the details along with a link.
    • Once you create the discussion you should click the “like” button.  When your connections see the discussion they will also see that you liked it, and that peaks their interest.
    • Make it a manager’s choice.  The newest discussions are listed at the top which means if your group is even slightly active your meeting announcement gets pushed off the screen.  A manager’s choice discussion gets put in its own box at the top of the right hand column.  This ensures that it is always visible.  The box only holds one item, so make sure to remove the previous month.
    • My last suggestion is to click on the discussion after it’s posted and share it.  Once you are in the discussion you’ll see a “Share Discussion” box at the top of the right hand column.  This lets you advertise the discussion topic through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.  You will notice that the first option is LinkedIn and that seems redundant since you just posted it, but it’s not.  What you did was create a discussion in your group and nowhere else.  Clicking this link lets you advertise it on your activity feed, and also post it in your other groups.  Posting it to other groups that might have an interest can make it seen by a lot of people.
    • LinkedIn used to have an events function but it was removed in December of 2012.  It was a pain to create an event and then a discussion to advertise the event you just created, but it was cool to automatically see which of your connections were planning to attend.
  • Twitter
    • Create a Twitter account for your group.
    • Tweet about your meeting, especially the week of the meeting.
    • Use a hash tag specific to your group, so others can find it and follow along.
    • If it’s a PASS chapter, then also use the #sqlpass hash tag.
    • Be as inventive as you can within 140 characters.  Words like “FREE” and phrases like “$100 Amazon gift card” can go a long way.  It’s cheesy, but it works.
  • CommunityMegaphone.com
    • This is a surprisingly unknown marketing resource.  I constantly have chapter leaders telling me they didn’t know about this.  You can create a calendar event on this site for your meeting and Microsoft pulls community events from the site to put in their MSDN newsletter. That’s a huge technical audience!
    • Note that the site says it has to be done 3 weeks before the meeting.  There are a lot of chapters out there that have a hard time getting speakers, especially that far ahead of time.  Don’t let that stop you!  Put it in the calendar anyway with a link to your site for further information.
    • Make sure to put this in your personal calendar to create an event on this site every month.
  • Website
    • This one is obvious and that’s because it’s your group’s front door.  This is where new members are the most likely to find you and where current members know they can easily find meeting information.  The site gives your group a face and personality.
    • Make sure pertinent meeting information is always right up front and clear.  Don’t forget things like directions, and throwing in an interactive Google map is all too easy these days.
    • People need reminders, so why not make it easy and give them one.  Add an iCal event to your site that they can easily open and save to their personal calendar.
    • If you are using a PASS chapter website, then I highly recommend starting to use the new Events Module if you are not already.  Things like an iCal are already baked in for you.  It also automatically moves your events to an archive module that you can put on your archive page.
      • It’s not immediately obvious, but you can use HTML in all the fields while creating a new event to customize the look and formatting.
      • HTML customization is not limited to the creation of a new event, but is also available in the module itself.  It’s a template and you change what it shows and how it gets shown.
      • In the past you might have noticed that as soon as the event start time hit, the event would get moved to the archive page.  That’s really not cool if you are a virtual chapter and someone is looking for the LiveMeeting link any more than 1 second past the start time.  It also makes your home page look out of whack if you don’t have the following month already entered.  That was recently changed and I am now told this only happens 6 hours after the meeting.
      • If you think this new module is awesome and makes your life easier then I encourage you to send a simple, “Thank You” email to the folks that made it happen.  Thank Allen Kinsel who drove the chapter tools initiative while he was on the PASS board.  Thank Wesley Chang, Benny Su, and Jason Lau in IT at PASS HQ for developing and implementing it.  I’ll make it easy for you.  CLICK HERE, and just hit send with a simple already filled out email.  If you want to elaborate, feel free to tell them you want an RSS feed for the module.  We can automate all of the above once we get that….hint….hint

You’ll notice that I don’t have Facebook listed.  The reason is that I have only seen one group say that worked for them.  The main reason is that most professionals use Facebook for personal stuff and keep their professional life on LinkedIn.  This just goes to show that not every method works for every group or part of the country.  Go try it out and see if it works for you.  If it doesn’t work; just delete it.  Go try other things, and if you find one that really works then make sure to let me know.

I hope this post comes in handy and helps some folks out with growing their groups.  It takes time to see the benefits and it certainly takes time to do this every single month (I know, I did it for 2 chapters at the same time).  If your group grows as a result of these ideas then let me know.  Any time we have successes in the community I love to hear about it; it’s just encouraging.

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams has worked for Verizon for 15 years. His primary focus is the SQL Server Engine, high availability, and disaster recovery. Previously he was a Senior Active Directory Architect and designed the company's worldwide Active Directory infrastructure. He serves on the Board of Directors for the North Texas SQL Server User Group and is President of the PASS Performance Virtual Chapter. He also serves as a Regional Mentor for PASS and holds the following certifications: MCP MCSA MCSE MCDBA MCTS MCITP.


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