User Group Startup -- Knowing and Meeting Your Market

In installment three of my User Group Startup stories I’m going to discuss ways to make contact with the developers in your community. There are a number of different ways that we’ve used with Edmug to make contact with our community. I’ll comment on those, plus I will briefly discuss a few that I’ve heard from other user group leaders.

Making contact with your community is one of the most important things that your Membership Director will do. Although you don’t need monumental attendance numbers for your meetings or group, making your events known to the largest number of people will create the most technically and professionally diverse group of attendees possible. This is important since one of the greatest benefits that any group member can get from your events is the ability to learn from people in different situations, companies, roles and experience levels.

In Edmug we’ve used only a couple of different techniques to reach the people in the community. The one we’ve used the most regularly is an announcement newsletter. Our newsletters are nothing more than an email that we send out to our distribution list. In the newsletter we include information on our next event, a listing of upcoming events in the local and virtual communities, comments on sponsor discounts that are being offered and a small paragraph on the user group in general. There are two key pieces of information that we include in the newsletter. One is a link to directions for getting to our meeting location. The second is a sentence that explains that our user group is free for attendance and requires no registration. These have been the two most frequently asked questions that I’ve fielded through email or in person and if people are worried about how to get to your event or how much it will cost, you need to proactively promote this information.

We also have created two different websites (Edmug.net and bloggingonit.com) which we are using as portals for the Edmonton .NET developer community. The Edmug.net website is a collection of information pertaining directly to the user groups activities and it’s members. BloggingOnIT.com is directed at creating a central community for the IT bloggers within Edmonton. Although these two sites are serving two different purposes, both are important ways to get information out to current and potential members.

In addition to these two methods we have recently started a program we’re calling the User Group Evangelists. People will be asked to participate in the program based on their enthusiasm in the local community. In return for them selling the user group via word of mouth, blogs and/or email they will receive information on upcoming events, priority registration and other benfits. What we’re hoping to accomplish is a group of people that help to spread the word about the user group beyond their cubicle or close friends. We hope these people will help us reach deeper into the development teams of the larger IT shops in and around the city as well as offer substantial feedback to help guide the group going forward.

It’s all well and good to have a number of different channels to communicate with your community, but you must also know and understand what is driving these people. Running a user group based only on the desires of your leadership will alienate membership very quickly. Edmug has been very proactive in soliciting information from our event attendees and the people that are visiting our websites. When using Dot Net Nuke as the platform for the Edmug.net website, we have run monthly surveys aimed at gathering information about the running of the user group and what content members would like to see. I’m a firm believer that this, along with impromptu surveys during meetings, is the information that should be used to guide the direction of the user group.

Recently there was some discourse amongst the members due to a presentation that didn’t meet their specific expectations. One of the biggest concerns was that going into the meeting they had no idea what level of discussion to expect. This was a valid point as all we were doing at that time was announcing speakers, topics and dates to the members. We listened to this and within days had implemented a topic level number system that would adequately tell what difficulty to expect from a meeting. Not knowing that the members would have liked this information was an oversight on our part, but ignoring it would have been suicidal. Never underestimate the desires and whims of your members. They are why you exist.