User Group Startup -- Content, Content, Content

In the sixth installment of this series we’ll discuss meeting and event content and how important it is to creating a great community. Developers, by our nature, are an inquisitive group of individuals. Most developers have realized that they will need to continually adjust their knowledge if they want to stay at the top of their game. Community, which is what we’re trying to create through user groups and other events, is defined by dictionary.com as “sharing, participation and fellowship”. The first word in that definition is sharing and there are a number of ways to include this as part of the developer community. I’m a firm believer that although developers and other IT professionals will come to user group meetings, code camps and other events to share ideas and make contacts amongst themselves, the main purpose for attending is to learn and expand knowledge.

Because the primary reason for attending events is to receive knowledge transfer, the content of these events must be a primary focus of the people organizing them. There are the obvious content statements such as .Net user groups focussing on .NET content, but the person or people responsible for content selection need to address it at a much more granular level. For example, if you are a .NET user group you should be looking at presentations on different languages, different areas of the .NET framework and different tools that are commonly integrated with .NET and the Visual Studio IDE. No matter your user group’s focus don’t be hemmed in by it. Open the content to topics such as Patterns and development methodologies. Most periphery topics like this can have demos and examples shown in a pertinent technology.

Where should you source your speakers from? There are a number of options available for finding speakers. One of the most well known is the INETA Speaker’s Bureau which can provide, at no cost to the user group, up to three top quality speakers per year. This program is very widely used and thus requires advanced planning and booking. INETA will not provide the speakers to your group without you asking, so step up and ask.

Here in Canada .NET focused user groups have the ability to tap into the MSDN Canada Speaker’s Bureau. This program is similar to the INETA program, but is open only to Canadian user groups and focusses, but isn’t limited to, Canadian speakers. Again, like the INETA program, it is up to the user group to make the requests.

Another group to tap into is any Microsoft MVPs that you have locally. A big part of receiving and retaining this designation is community participation. Additionally these people have been awarded the MVP designation for their technical knowledge.

The fourth option, and in my mind one of the most important to the development of a strong community, is the creation of a group of local speakers. Finding capable people willing to take on the task of a presentation could initially be difficult. These people are out there though. I have found them by simply suggesting that their knowledge on a specific topic is significant enough that they should consider sharing it with a larger group, like our user group. It’s amazing how positively people react to that suggestion. Like the speaker programs I outlined earlier, local speakers will rarely walk up to you and offer to make a presentation. You will need to search them and out and possibly nurture them. They payoff for doing this will be a stellar lineup of speakers for all your events. Another

When we were organizing Edmug we realized that unforeseen circumstances may cause our scheduled speaker(s) to be unable to make their event. If this happens we wanted to be able to provide the attendees with a substantive event. To ensure that this will happen we have required every member of the user group leadership to have a presentation available at all times. If the scheduled speakers can not make the event it will be one of the leadership who fills in the time slot.

The most obvious and most common method that user groups use during their meetings is a single person presentation. While this is a very good format for meetings it is not the only one that you should consider. Larger conferences have started to use presentation techniques such as Birds of a Feather and Grok Talks. Both of these have circumstances that they work best in. Birds of a Feather sessions are meant to be used in a more intimate (smaller group) environment and should have significant crowd and speaker interaction. Grok Talks allow you to have many people make short presentations on many different topics. The draw back of this format is finding a large enough number of people who are willing to make a small presentation. This may be a great way to give attendees and members a way to break into the speaker circuit without the pressure of having to do a full presentation.

One of the first things that we decided when we were starting our user group was that “Content is King”. We spend a great deal of effort searching for speakers, ensuring their content is appropriate and meeting the requests of our members and event attendees. Some people have suggested that content should not be king and that we should concentrate on creating a community. I think that by having excellent content we will, and do, draw significant numbers of people from the local area together and from that we build the community.