Life as a User Group Leader

Microsoft MVPs are recognised for their voluntary contributions to the technical community. There are many types of eligible contributions, but one of my more notable ones was serving as a user group leader. This is a significant undertaking, and in this post I hope to outline some of the aspects of the commitment and also some lessons I’ve learned over my 14 years of fulfilling this duty.

My Experience

In 2005, I was asked by Microsoft to start the Brisbane BizTalk User Group. The motivation came through working for one of several organisations that adopted BizTalk Server to handle critical enterprise integration processes. As a newbie to the product, I was heavily reliant on the help I received from the very few experts around Australia and the world, including Bill Chesnut, Mick Badran, and several other MVPs who blogged about their experience. With so little available knowledge and experience in Brisbane, Microsoft’s Geoff Clarke decided it would be a great idea to start a user group. It was a daunting challenge and Geoff had to twist my arm a little… but I was encouraged when over 30 people turned up at the first meetup, proving that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. I also had lots of support from Microsoft and my colleagues, and the group met monthly for years to follow.

Then in 2014, I was asked to take the reigns for the Brisbane Azure User Group, which had been established by Paul Bouwer about a year or two earlier. When Paul earned his “blue card” and became a Microsoft employee that year, he felt it was inappropriate for him to continue leading the group and that a community member would be more appropriate for the role. Again, I reluctantly agreed on the condition that I had at least two co-organisers to help. One of these gentlemen (Damien Berry) remains a co-organiser to this day.

I’ve also ran the Global Azure Bootcamp in Brisbane for four years, and the Global Integration Bootcamp for a couple of years as well.

Time Commitment

Image result for 3d little man timeSeveral years ago, Greg Low led a Tech-Ed breakout session on “How to be a Good User Group Leader”. He was asked by someone whether 5-10 hours per month was a reasonable expectation for a time commitment. Greg agreed. Experience has shown me that is a pretty good estimate, at least once you get the group up & running. Initially it may take more time getting things organised. And of course, if you happen to be speaking at an event, then you would need to add those hours of preparation as well.

It certainly helps to have a co-organiser assist with various tasks. But it is vital that there is constant communication between all organisers so that everyone knows what they are responsible for. We recently had an unusual gaff where both Damien & I invited and confirmed a different speaker for the same date. Fortunately one of them was flexible and we were able to shift him to another date. Today with so many collaborative communication mediums such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep all organisers informed of activities. I know some folks who live by Trello, which is another extremely useful tool for tracking tasks. We also use Microsoft OneNote to record information and share files.

Some of the tasks involved in organising just a single meetup session include:

  • Finding a speaker
  • Booking a venue
  • Organising catering
  • Advertising on social media
  • Sending and tracking invites (e.g. Meetup or EventBrite)

Not to mention all of the ongoing maintenance tasks for group, which may include:

  • Securing sponsorship
  • Managing finances
  • Paying subscriptions & dues

Challenges

There are numerous challenges with both getting a user group off the ground and keeping it running. Here are but a few:

Generating Interest

Related imageYour user group isn’t going to be much of a community if no one shows up, right?

First and foremost, make sure your group’s area of focus has a community to support it! If the topic is too narrow, you’ll have trouble attracting enough members. If the topic is too broad, you risk overlapping and competing with other user groups in the same area (always worth checking to see that there isn’t a competing group already before you embark on this journey!)  Also beware of focusing on a specific product offering, as that can limit the lifetime of the community.  For example, my BizTalk User Group survived for a good five years, but because it was product based and that product had a very narrow following, it was difficult to attract a sizable audience each month. It can also tend to limit the presentation topics a bit, unless it is a very formidable product.

By contrast, the Brisbane Azure User Group has an extremely healthy membership (1600+) and we generally get a solid 30-50 attendees at each session. There is a broad range of topics that come under that heading, so we’ll never run out of things to speak about. We also manage to attract good speakers with very little effort.

Next, you’ll need to plaster your meeting announcements all over social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.  It’s a good idea to setup a group page on Facebook and LinkedIn to attract members. Make sure you setup a Twitter account and a memorable hashtag so that you can be followed easily.  When first getting the group started, you might hit up other Meetup organisers in your area who have related topics to plug your meeting for you. Appeal to an organisation who is invested in your user group theme (e.g. Microsoft for the Azure UG) and get them to plug your group in their community publications. Send emails to co-workers and colleagues whom you think might be interested, and invite them to bring along a friend (use discretion here, unwanted spam doesn’t help to generate interest!).

For our Azure meetups, I usually send out tweets two weeks before, one week before, and then daily from two days out to remind folks. This is of course in addition to the Meetup announcement and posts on LinkedIn, etc.

Finding Speakers

Image result for getting attention imageThis is related to the previous challenge in ensuring that you choose an supportable theme/topic for your group. If it’s a rare or highly specialised focus, you may find yourself having to speak at every event! Some organisers don’t mind that, they like having a forum to promote themselves – but chances are your following will dwindle after a short while if there isn’t enough variety.

You generally want to have speakers lined up for at least 2 or 3 months in advance. This helps keep the community engaged as well; when they see you have a solid schedule of speakers they have more confidence in the group’s vitality.

Not everyone feels comfortable with public speaking, even those who have lots of knowledge to share. One technique I find that works well is occasionally hosting an “Unconvention Night” where instead of featuring one or two main speakers, dedicating the event to a series of short, sharp topics about 10-15 minutes in length. This is a lot less intimidating and can provide an initiation for future speakers as they speak about something really focussed, with or without slides or demos. It can be a stepping stone for inexperienced speakers to build more confidence.

You can also put out Calls For Papers (CFPs) to solicit speakers. There are many people (like some of us Microsoft MVPs) who actually seek out opportunities to engage with the community via public speaking. Two sites that I know of are Sessionize and PaperCall. Be specific about the topic scope you want. You can also use social media to solicit potential speakers.

Lastly, be sure to treat your speakers well! They donate a lot of their time preparing the talks and deserve to be recognised for this. Make sure you prepare a nice introduction and… introduce them! Also be on hand beforehand to help them get setup with A/V equipment, etc.  Make sure they know what their time constraint is well in advance. If you intend to record them, be sure they are comfortable with that first. Lastly, I always like to give my speakers a gift as a token of appreciation – usually a bottle of wine or perhaps a gift card of some sort.

When other people see the benefits your speakers are afforded, they will have more incentive to step forward and offer themselves to speak at a future event.

Finding Sponsorship

Related imageUser groups take money to run, if not for paying for a venue than almost certainly for providing catering. Most user group attendees expect to have pizza or something similar on offer, especially for evening or lunchtime events. Moreover, they are used to the events being free of charge. Unless you are independently wealthy or very generous, you’ll need sponsorship of some sort.

There are a lot of companies out there who want the publicity and advertising opportunities that come with sponsoring communities. But you may have to do some searching. Start with your own company! Chances are that the user group you started centres on a technology or subject related to your work. If not, reach out to companies that have an interest in your subject matter, as they know that attendees are possible customers.

Sponsors of course will want something in return. You can offer them the opportunity to display a banner or poster at the meetup site. You can acknowledge them with their logo on your group’s website or Meetup site. Perhaps even offer them a brief presentation slot occasionally to promote their product or services. But be careful to set clear boundaries. Never offer your group mailing list to a sponsor! This is a terrible violation of privacy and trust, and it is the fastest way to lose members at best, and invite legal action at worst.

Remember that your caterer of choice can also be a sponsor as well. For example, our Azure group orders from Crust Pizza who offer special services for us; they come in earlier than usual to cook the pizzas and usually throw in free soft drinks. Be sure to promote their logo as well on your site, as either a sponsor or a preferred caterer.

There are different ways that sponsors can help, for example paying the caterers directly, providing a venue for free, etc.  In our case, Microsoft Brisbane provides the venue for free, including a host who kindly stays back late (and often presents for us too). I find the most convenient arrangement is a sponsor who provides a fixed monthly stipend, as this can be used to serve multiple expense types (catering, subscription fees, travel costs for speakers, swag/prizes, etc). Of course you will need to set up a bank account for this, and that can be tricky in itself.

Finding a Venue

Image result for 3d little man buildingThis is often a big stumbling block for some cities. Venues for hire are typically very expensive. The best solution is if your employer can accommodate a large meeting space, or perhaps another business that chooses to donate a space as sponsorship. Other options are university or community spaces. Some of these may come with a price tag, but will be much cheaper than commercial hosting venues. In Brisbane, we have used The Precinct for an event by just paying a nominal cleaning fee, as well as QUT Gardens Point for another event at a reasonable price. I’m sure there would be similar spaces in other cities. Fortunately, Microsoft Brisbane is extremely generous in providing a large theatre for our regular meetings, all for free.

If you’re lucky enough to find a free venue, make sure you are respectful to the owners by leaving the place clean and tidy afterwards. And of course don’t forget to acknowledge the venue provider as a sponsor!

Other Tips and Pitfalls

Here’s a random collection of other tips and traps:

  • Event publication and tracking – You may not like paying the subscription fee for Meetup, but by golly it is worth it. No other tool I’m aware of is designed to support user groups as well. You can schedule events, send out announcements, track attendance, and post related artefacts (e.g. links to PowerPoint slides, sample code, pictures, etc) all in one tool. Some folks use EventBrite to track “tickets”, which also has some good features. One thing I would warn against… use one tool or the other to track RSVPs for a given event, but not both. That will just create confusion as some people will respond on one, some on the other, and some on both. Keeping the RSVPs to one tool will make life a lot simpler for you and more reassuring for your members.
  • Getting the catering right – The trouble with free events is that you will find that a lot of people will RSVP and then just not show up. This is a big bugbear for me, but there’s not much you can do about it. I’ve learned to expect about a 30% attrition and then cater accordingly. Only on rare occasions have we run out of food or drink because I’ve underestimated.
  • Wasted tickets – The second biggest bugbear for me. If your venue is limited in size and you have to issue a capped number of tickets for your event (EventBrite is really good for managing a waitlist, by the way), the no-shows are even more bothersome because potentially there were other more interested (and responsible) parties who missed out because your event sold out. Some organisers keep track of these ill-mannered folks and put them on a “black list” for future events (I don’t – but I can certainly understand the motivation).
  • Alcohol – If you’re going to serve alcohol at your event(s), be sure to check with the venue first and make certain that there are no rules or restrictions. You may also want to consider if liability insurance might be required.
  • Keeping it going – If your meetups are intended to be regular (i.e. monthly), do your best to keep that rhythm and not miss a month. It’s also best to keep it to the same night (e.g. the 2nd Wednesday of each month) as your members will get used to that pattern and attendance will be more regular. If you have to move an event off the usual schedule (perhaps because of a public holiday or to accommodate an out-of-town speaker), then be sure to give plenty of notice and broadcast at least twice as much as usual on social media. A member who turns up at the normal day/time expecting a meeting only to be disappointed is likely to leave your group with a bad taste in his/her mouth.
  • Member buy-in – Ask your attendees what topics they are interested in hearing about. This is best done live in a meeting, as those that actually turn up should be rewarded by having influence. Then do your best to find speakers on those topics. Remind your members that this is their community – and that they can and should take some ownership in terms of where it goes.
  • Extend the Reach – Nothing beats a live event. However, if you can convince your speaker to allow a recording, publishing the video presents an opportunity to reach more people, even from around the globe. Just be aware that not every speaker will agree to this; don’t push them if they are uncomfortable. You could always invite them to make their own offline recording if they wish.  If you can afford the equipment, I’ve found the RØDELink Filmmaker wireless mic to be excellent for crystal clear sound quality. For recording software, I use Camtasia, but there are free programs out there as well, for example OBS. Just be aware that editing these recordings can take time.  For an example of how this can work, please visit the Brisbane Azure User Group YouTube channel where we have posted a number of session recordings.
  • Be welcoming! – Make your members feel appreciated. Ensure they get a nice welcome email when they register for your group. Make an effort to meet and greet newcomers. Try to learn their names so that you can greet them the next time they turn (“Hey Bob! Great to see you again!”) A large benefit of live meetups is the networking and social aspect; make the most of it! Members are likely to come back more often if they get a warm & fuzzy feeling. If they are ignored and/or feel unappreciated… well then you know what to expect.

Summary

Running a user group takes some time, effort and planning – but it is a very rewarding experience, especially if you can build up a healthy attendance. Forums and blogs are useful, but nothing beats the impact of live presentations, not to mention the networking opportunities of meeting people who share the same passion as you.

About Dan Toomey
Enterprise integration geek, Microsoft Azure MVP, Pluralsight author, public speaker, MCSE, MCT, MCTS & former professional musician.

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