One of the great things that goes on here at TechEd is the concept of Birds of a Feather sessions, where people with similar interests can get together and discuss a topic. Last night I went along to BOF55 (yes, there are over 50 such sessions, one of my favourites is titled "Geeks with ADD: It's an Advantage!").
The format of the session was a panel-led discussion with representatives from INETA and CULMINUS, as well as our very own Regional Director (and highly relevant author), Greg Low. There was some great discussion around marketing, sponsors and venues, re-energising committees and more, but the thing that seemed to be closest to home for me was the question of starting a new user group.
This is something I get asked a lot. Greg led the discussion on this topic and shared his (very successful) formula for new leaders - personal contact. It's much more likely that people will come and, more importantly, come back if they feel like they're part of a community. Take time to learn peoples' names, assign members of the community to be door greeters to take new attendees under their wing and introduce them to others. Reply individually to RSVP emails. All of these things build a sense of belonging and identity and mean that your group has a much higher chance of success.
In addition to this very important ingredient, I'd add my own 3 key factors at the beginning of a group:
- Have a passionate and committed leadership team. This can be one person or, preferably IMHO, two or three. Make sure that these people want to do it because they have a genuine desire to foster a community. It can't be something they have to do for their job, it's got to be something they'd do anyway.
- Decide on and stick to a standard day, time and location for the meeting. For example, always have it at 6:00-9:00 on the 3rd Tuesday of the month in room 104 at the local community college. Try very hard to never deviate from this schedule and location. Attendance will become habitual for members. They will schedule other things around this recurring appointment, rather than having to try to schedule the meeting around other things.
- Have content scheduled for 6 months from the start. Later, as the group becomes established, you can let this drop back to 3 months, but the thing new groups find hardest is sourcing content and speakers, so solving this problem early is essential
We'll be running this session some time during TechEd on the Gold Coast in August, so if you're there, be sure to keep an eye out for it.