Starting and running a technical user group (isn’t easy)
I’d just like to preface this post with the fact that everything I mention was by no means a solo effort. I want to share my experiences of building and running a user group. So much of that is learning from others, be that other user groups or the co-organisers I’ve worked with. I’d also like to point out that I’ve been diving in and out of this post for over a year as I’m still learning as I go.
A little bit of History
I got involved with the Glasgow SQL user group back in April 2016 after the SQLBits conference in Liverpool. I was inspired by the SQL community and the amazing sessions I attended at what was my first SQLBits conference. The group was already briefly established by a friend and previous colleague of mine, Robert French (t|b) and I bumped into Robert while registering at that very SQLBits with another previous colleague and friend, John McCormack (t|b).
For a quick history of the group, John and I started out by getting a logo and Twitter account set up for the group to point people to the meetup.com page Robert had created. Over the course of a few months and while hosting in Robert’s employers’ offices, John pursued sponsorship from a local recruitment company, Eden Scott. This then saw us host the events at their offices, with John’s and my employer, Monster Worldwide, coming on-board to support us with pizza for our meetups, thanks to our very supportive director, Raymond Peacock. John later stepped down as organiser to pursue further learning on the AWS platform but we soon enlisted Louise Paterson (t), a DBA at Monster to help organise the sessions.
In March of 2018, I moved on to Incremental Group where they embraced my community involvement and welcomed us to our new venue at the brand-new Glasgow office where we have hosted sessions ever since. Eden Scott stayed on-board with us and filled the gap of Monster to provide us with food and refreshments.
That’s our relatively short history but in that time, we’ve made countless mistakes, missed opportunities and gone the long way around on a few occasions. I want others to learn from those mistakes and I want the data and other communities to grow too so here’s what advice I have to offer.
If you’re already running a user group, feel free to skip this section. I’ll touch on all the areas here that I’ll expand on later.
In short, just start it. Don’t hesitate and plan, just start a user group. If you need a place to start, an “official beginning”, you have a few options, but these are my suggestions in order of preference:
- Create a meetup.com page. Meetup is great for this exact type of community engagement. People can discover your group easily; the site is geared specifically for regular “events” and keeping “members” up to date. The main drawback being that it isn’t free and thus already creates a financial burden.
Cost: £9.99 / month
- Create a Twitter account. You might not use Twitter yourself, but it’s used heavily by the data community and many other technical communities. It’s an easy place to share snippets of info or get involved in tech conversations. It’s also a great place to reach out to potential speakers but I’ll go into that more later.
Cost: £0.00 / month
This is all you really need to get started. You can host meetings virtually to gauge interest. Everything else is either icing on the cake or more administrative overhead, unless you like that sort of thing?
There are free conferencing services available to help you run the group with no or minimal costs. To name a few:
TIP for Virtual Groups: If you intend to start off as a virtual group and progress to a face-to-face group, you may have a problem getting a meetup.com page approved. Try setting a location and then setting each “event” as virtual until you have secured a venue. This breaches meetup.com’s policies so if you intend to stay virtual meetup.com may not be for you.https://help.meetup.com/hc/en-us/articles/360002897712-Meetup-Group-Policies-Standards-for-Meetup-Groups
Another point to bear in mind is Meetup.com has a user limit of 50 where the pricing increases. You may find you reach this quicker than you’d expect, even if you only see a few regular members attending. I’ve found that there are a lot of users on Meetup.com that join groups with no intention of attending. You’ll need to decide on whether you want to regularly prune these users to keep under the free limit or pay and allow anyone to join. There’s arguments for both methods.
Another TIP: Meetup.com subscriptions allow for up to 3 groups under a single subscription before you reach the Pro level. Find other groups locally, willing to share the cost or lookup at groups in the same technical area nationwide.https://help.meetup.com/hc/en-us/articles/360001620472-Organizer-subscription-pricing-and-plans
Getting the Word out – Marketing
I’m not going to lie, this is the single hardest part of running a user group and requires continual effort. For so long we had very low numbers and when new faces did show up they had no idea our group existed before their first session.
A great example of this that I always tell people is where a new member found us on Meetup.com while searching for a yoga class. (+1 to Meetup).
Posting session announcements on Twitter using relevant hashtags gets your tweets in front of the right people. Also tagging speakers will encourage them to retweet and will highlight your group to their followers.
You can also use Facebook to reach new members though I’ve seen limited success with this personally and it ended up being more of an administrative burden.
LinkedIn is a great place to post this type of content as it’s focused on professional engagements.
There’s a difficult balance to strike between reaching as many people as you can and being snowed under in administrative tasks though. This is where you must find the right balance.
This is your reason for creating a group. The content. You want to learn new things and you want to help others learn too but how do you get that content and what does it look like. With the Glasgow SQL User Group, we focus primarily on presented sessions. This is probably the easiest type of content and often the most engaging. A speaker presents on a topic in person (or remotely) for you and your group members.
There are other types of content that I’ve seen delivered with great success at other user groups, but these are something to aspire to in my opinion;
- Workshop style sessions being led by a speaker with hands-on tasks for attendees. I’ve hosted a few of these in the past, separate from the user group with limited success.
- Hackathons are great for collaboration but can put pressure on people to “perform” when you have disparate skill levels.
- Social events can be beneficial for group members to network and foster a more social and safer environment for attendees to share opinions and ideas. This can also be an aspect of each meeting if you have a venue.
Coming back to presented sessions, in my experience, speakers are easier to find than you expect. Many speakers are happy to speak at user groups to prepare for doing conference sessions or to raise awareness of their business and brand. These are some good routes to source content for your group, not specific to the data community:
- The Community Connect Portal is a great site to find speakers;
- Reach out to similar user groups in other cities or countries for suggested speakers;
- Request sessions via social media are reliable ways to get you the content you want.
Find a venue
So you’ve got:
- A place for people to sign-up or join you
- A way to reach new members.
You could continue as a virtual group at this point with minimal, if any costs. This is often favorable if you have few members and the Scottish PowerShell & DevOps UG ran like this for a while. The problem is a virtual group misses a very important benefit of user groups: networking.
Meeting face-to-face gives you and your members the chance to make contacts within your industry. It encourages people to share problems and solutions and it also gives a platform for people to progress in their career through recruitment.
The decision to remain virtual or become an in-person user group hinges entirely on a venue. This is where you need to start calling in favours, approaching managers and get your sales hat on.
- Your first port of call should be your own employer. Many employers actively encourage user groups to use their meeting facilities. It gives them access to what is potentially the best talent (those interested in their field enough to give their own time to further their knowledge). Supporting user groups also raises their profile in your user group’s community. It may not always be possible though, due to security procedures or other company policies.
- Local recruitment companies are a great second option for much the same reasons as it is attractive to your own employer. These first 2 options are also top of the list when looking for financial support (for food etc).
- Beyond these first two options you want to look at local companies working in your user group’s subject area.
Cost (hopefully): £0.00 / month
Hopefully it won’t come to it but not all venues are free or come without strings attached and that’s where you need to be looking at financial support. Even just as an incentive to secure a venue, you can offer a lot in return as I describe next.
Getting Financial Support
This is a tricky one and something people often shy away from. It’s not easy asking people for money. The key thing to remember with this is that both parties should benefit. You’re not asking for charity. You’re asking for support/sponsorship/investment. You will be providing a business with something in return for money or food to cater your meetings. This can come in many forms but here’s a few ways you can provide value to any company:
- Brand marketing – You proudly announce your sponsors on social media, you have their logo on your website or meetup page. You may also have their banner at the venue or even share a banner with your group info and their logo. All of this is great, positive marketing for them.
- Access – This is especially key for recruitment companies. You are giving them access to the top and most enthusiastic candidates in your field. This is invaluable and can be incentive enough on its own.
- Involvement – An agreed introduction slot at the start of each meeting or a sponsored speaker slot once or twice a year gives a sponsor a platform to discuss their product(s), engage with the community or raise awareness of their services.
These are the key things you should take to a business when you are asking for sponsorship.
Cost (dependent on attendees) ~£40.00 / month
Make it easy for yourself, automate!
One of the biggest killers of a user group, outside of financial burden is the administrative burden eating up TIME! As people progress through their careers, change jobs or grow their family, free time shrinks. It’s inevitable.
The amount of time it takes to prepare, organise and run the user group meetings has always been something I have struggled with. On numerous occasions we (SQLGlasgow) have tried to make this easier with limited success. Here are a few suggestions based on our trial & error.
- Minimise the tasks required to setup and announce a new meeting. At present we create a Meetup.com event and then link that into a new post on our WordPress site. When that post is published, it sends an automatic tweet from @SQLGlasgow and posts to LinkedIn. We use Mailchimp to trigger an email campaign once a week based on new posts in the RSS feed from our site which goes out to our “subscribers”. This is as automated as we can get the process, using the tools we want to use.
- Plan ahead. This is something we falter on but planning dates of meetings and organising speakers 6-12 months in advance will drastically reduce the amount of work you need to do each month. You can also schedule tweets or blog posts to announce these each month.
Making links to other communities
It’s important to remember that you’re not operating in a bubble. There are other groups on your technology in neighbouring towns, cities, countries. There may also be other tech groups in your city that cross over into your subject area.
Take it from me, organising the community corner for SQLBits and trying to get info from over 50 user group leaders – collaboration is difficult.
Everyone has different schedules and do things their own way but reaching out to other groups only benefits you and your members. SQL Glasgow has collaborated with the Glasgow Azure user group and the Scottish PowerShell & DevOps UG on a few occasions. It was never simple to organise these cross-over events but they were great fun and really helped our members network with new people and learn new things.
Icing on the cake
I mentioned a few additional things we do at SQL Glasgow that I didn’t cover already. These are little extras that have helped us “make our mark” but aren’t really essential:
- Website – We built this in WordPress so it’s easy to maintain and add posts but it was a good 5-6 hours work of branding it and getting the right layout as I’m quite picky. This isn’t a necessity but may give you a central, constant place for people to find you alongwith a suitable domain and email addresses.
Hosting Cost: ~£10.00 / month
Domain Cost: £30.00 / year
- Logo Design- John helped us out with this one, initially with a great database shape. I loved the colours but for us to use it on anything I asked a graphic designer friend to recreate it as a proper, high-res image. This was free thankfully but could cost between £50 £100 depending on the complexity.
Design Cost: £0.00
- Stickers & banner – We invested in turning our logo into stickers as it was such a compact and recognisable design. Stickers aren’t cheap but if you can wait for discount codes or incentives, the sting is a little less. We also designed a banner for our meetups. This only cost £30.00 which was a bargain and it’s something you can get a long-term sponsor to help with if you share the banner with their logo.
Cost (300 Stickers + 1 banner) ~£90.00
So if I look at all the costs we have, running a user group and the sponsorship support we have from Incremental Group and Eden Scott, we don’t cover all of our costs but that’s mainly the additional things we don’t need but want to have. I have always pushed for a zero impact on the user group leaders financially. The time we give to run and support the group should be enough and makes the whole endeavor sustainable. There’s so much more I can say here but we’d end up with a book and not a blog post. If you want to discuss anything I’ve mentioned or not mentioned then please feel free to reach out here or on Twitter.
Overall Cost: ~£330 / year