D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Making User Groups Work in Small Markets

Saturday, March 1, 2008 12:46 PM

I read Gary's recent post and totally understand his frustration. Trying to maintain a user group in a small market can be a difficult, and although we have great national sponsors (especially in MSDN), the reality is that community initiatives from a corporate point of view occur based on corporate objectives.

This is why places like Yellowknife or Whitehorse will never get any type of Microsoft event...it just doesn't make sense from a business point of view. Or take the Atlantic provinces: they routinely get left out of any launch event tour...but Microsoft sales there are higher for Office and operating systems and less on developer tools; so why would you bring a tour touting the latest developer tools when there's no market for it?

So how do you survive if you're a small market and still want to bring in quality speakers, have quality events with food and door prizes, and ignite energy within your group members? I've seen our own Winnipeg .NET User Group evolve over the last few years and here are some things we've learned/implemented to help our small-market group succeed:

Tap Into Local Speakers

I'm an INETA Membership Mentor, but I'll be honest: getting speakers to come to Winnipeg in January when we're sitting in -40 C weather isn't going to be easy. Over the last few years though we've been trying to nurture local speaking talent that we can pull from for our events. This has a few benefits:
1) You aren't having to play telephone/email tag with organizations trying to organize speakers
2) Your costs for trying to get the people to your location is less because they're already there
3) The ultimate goal is community, and what better way to promote community than letting your local experts present to their community?

Tap Into Regional Speakers

In addition to local speakers, consider branching out and making connections with other user groups in the area (realize area might mean out of province, out of county, bordering states, etc.). We routinely communicate with speakers in Calgary and Edmonton to arrange for speaking tours, and have had great success. Travel costs are typically lower, and the shorter distance for travel is always appreciated.

Identify Local Corporate Community Leaders

They do exist, and they're just waiting to put money towards your events! The biggest thing we found was that you won't get until you ask, and that can be anything: break it down to food/venue/prize sponsorship or place a dollar amount and set up different layers of support. But there is marketing involved. Find out who the companies are in your market and blast them with letters asking for support. Setting up something in return like logo placement on the website and at the events is typically one offer, although we also told our UG sponsors they'd automatically be included in any code camp or special UG event marketing that we did.

If you can, identify the Microsoft Gold Partners that exist in your community. These organizations are typically more apt to participate in community initiatives, but that's not to say non-Microsoft partners aren't. Also, let your membership know what your needs are. If they're getting value from their group, they can be the evangelists for the UG to their employers.

Keep The Focus Relevant Technology

I used to have this idea that user group events should be big, flashy, and huge draws. What I've realized is that the user group isn't an entertainment venue; its a community learning venue. That's not to say that presentations shouldn't be professional or that you can't have fun and make it an *event*, but ultimately the value of the user group is in learning from each other and having a venue to start conversations.

For our recent code camp, we went in with a very specific goal: a day long event with 10 slots and no food. We'd query companies to sponsor, but weren't expecting the moon. Having good logistics and getting quality presentations meant more.

So what happened? We gave away over 3 grand in prizes, had two different companies approach US to cover breakfast and dinner, got a discount on the venue from a local college, and had an event that exceeded our expectations. The moral of the story? Focus on what's important and the bells and whistles seem to work themselves out.

Independence, Independence, Independence

Don't rely on any other body to support your user group. This was a big thing that our group realized and has worked phenomenally for us ever since. MSDN is still one of our biggest backers and provides a couple of tours a year. But we're not entirely dependant on MSDN: we collect our own sponsorship. organize our own speakers, etc. MSDN is a *partner* with us, but doesn't rule us (and I think MSDN would agree that's not what their intent is either). The more you can think of your group as independent the better you'll be.

You Aren't Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, or Vancouver

You need to realize what your market is and tailor your expectations accordingly. Toronto will always get more focus than Winnipeg will, but that's ok: Toronto has more people, more company HQ, etc. You also need to be realistic about your market's needs. Winnipeg traditionally has been slow to adopt bleeding edge technology (not always, but generalizing here). That means that although .NET 2.0 development might not be as "sexy" as .NET 3.5 development, if its what your market is entrenched with then it should still be a focus. Throwing new stuff over and over doesn't necessarily help anybody...and it could just confuse. So don't feel bad if you're still talking about VB 6.0 conversion to .NET...its not about keeping up with the other markets, its about meeting the needs of the people in your current one.

Anyway, those are some thoughts off the top of my head. If anyone else has experience with small-market UG success stories please comment on what's worked/hasn't worked for you.



# re: Making User Groups Work in Small Markets

Timely advice for our brand spankin' new user group in a country of 300,000 at www.bahanet.org. Hope we don't have too much trouble getting speakers in winter. 3/1/2008 5:27 PM | Kyle Baley

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