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Chris G. Williams Beware: I mix tech and personal interests here.
Sometimes people ask me what it takes to get a good user group going... so hopefully these tips help to minimize the pain a bit.
1. INETA ( won't even talk to you until you've had at least one meeting on your own. Then you go to their site and fill out an application. (You'll need to register on their site first.)
2. CodeZone ( works basically the same way. Both of these will net your group some free swag, and INETA will get you a couple speakers per year.
3. Find out who your DE (Developer Evangelist) is and contact him/her as soon as possible. If you're tapped into the community and serious about starting a user group, you should probably already know who this is. If not, try hitting some MSDN Roadshows or other groups in your state.
4. Have a meeting or two with other people interested in helping out.  Maybe you want to be President, or maybe you want an Executive Committee, either way... have a couple lunch or coffee meetings. Talk about the group, your plans (you do have a plan, right?) and see what people think.  Then write this up.  Congrats you just had your first meeting.
5. After you have done this once or twice, see #1.  THEN once you're really moving forward, contact all the "Influencers" in your area to mention it in their blogs.
6. Get your DE involved at this point for your first "big" meeting.  Ask him for swag and pizza. The DE's have a budget for User Groups, so be sure to tap into that.
7. After your initial "big" meeting, you'll want to plan the next couple meetings carefully. You'll want to meet on a consistent date, like 2nd Wednesday or 3rd Thursday, etc...
8. You also want to get sponsors lined up. Most won't talk to you until you've had a meeting or two. Some will send software licenses (almost never shrinkwrapped stuff) or offer to pay for pizza.
9. Do NOT have your first meeting at IHOP... that never goes well.  If the company you work for has a large meeting space, try to get them to sponsor it. Just be aware that some places lock up (or password the elevators) at night and can be hard to get to.
10. Be aware that based on where you live, there will almost certainly be a couple months out of the year where nobody shows up due to other things going on.  You have two choices:  cancel the meeting, or hold a special event like a cookout, pub night, etc...  nothing is more depressing than having more speakers than attendees. (It's happened.) 
11. You'll also want to hang flyers at various places like Libraries, Colleges, GameStop (you laugh, but it works) and Bookstores. Print some 1/4 page size "ads" and stick them in the relevant books at Barnes & Noble or by the register.  (I'm not responsible if you get yelled at for this one.)
12. Always start your meeting on time, but start with something that isnt time dependant, like pizza or meet&greet. That gives people some traffic flexibility.  I always started my groups at 6pm, but it depends on the traffic in the city you're having it. some groups start at 7, some at 5.
13. Anything longer than about 2 hours and you lose people fast.  That doesnt mean good discussions should be killed, just wrap up the group after a couple hours and then let the discussions continue, if the venue permits.
14. Give out the swag at wrap-up time... and use speaker/session eval forms to draw for the swag.
15. The people who complain will always outnumber the ones who tell you they are happy with what you are doing, because the happy people just assume you know. Most of the time, the complainers really are the minority, so dont change anything right off the bat.
16. Take #15 with a grain of salt. Some complaints really are valid. Fix those quickly.
17. People who complain loudly about the way you do things need to be given a little responsibility. They usually come around pretty quick, or go away entirely. Either is ok.
18. Don't be afraid to ask your group what they want. Sometimes they know, sometimes they don't.  Either way, they'll appreciate the fact that you value their input.
19. You don't have to have a speaker EVERY month.  Sometimes it fun to just hangout over pizza (and beer, if appropriate) and talk shop for a couple hours.
20. Ask for help. Have a backup. If a meeting can't possibly go on without you there, you're missing the point. User Groups should focus on the technology, not the leader. This isn't the "Look at me" show.
21. not everyone is at exactly the same level.  Try to provide advanced content and beginner content... and ample warning for both.
Posted on Monday, December 10, 2007 12:21 PM General Interest | Back to top

Comments on this post: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group

# re: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group
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As for number 15, that hasn't been my experience. I've had some semi-complaints about us meeting on Wednesday: "I know someone who will come if you moved the day." But by and large most people have expressed gratitude that there's a group.

Of course, every town has its nuances. Columbia just happened to be dry for a while.
Left by Chris Eargle on Dec 10, 2007 4:46 PM

# re: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group
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As you said, your situation was different. I guess that makes you the exception that proves the rule. :)

Your mileage may vary.
Left by Blogus Maximus on Dec 10, 2007 6:03 PM

# re: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group
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I run the Bellingham, WA (USA) group. In addition to the above, we also hold a monthly "social" lunch. No presentation. We move around town to different locations and let a different member choose the spot each month. Draw some of the same but frequently a different crowd. During the summer, we have trouble drawing for our evening presentations. The lunch always does well. Turns out to be a nice way to keep in touch.
Left by Andrew Robinson on Dec 11, 2007 6:27 AM

# re: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group
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Hey Chris!

Great article. I thought I add some tips and tricks we learned from starting PDANUG,

Here's a list of some addition things that might help start a new user group:
Left by Chris Craft on Dec 16, 2007 4:30 PM

# re: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group
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Hi Chris,

Thanks for the helpful post. I am leading the Bloomington, IL .NET Users Group. Your post reminded me that I need to request additional leadership.
Left by Tod Birdsall on Dec 20, 2007 8:36 AM

# re: my 21 thoughts on starting a user group
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number 13 is my most vital key to succes. People are not made for discussions longer than 2 hours. I can say that with my 4 years of experience in project management. My trick is to make the people feel that well, they know theyre finished soon!
Left by Pete Boeterente on Feb 25, 2008 5:37 PM

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