7 Quick Tips to Create User Groups
Finding and networking with the right people is every business challenge. When I ran my own company 5 years ago, I spent time vigorously going to events twice a week and following up with people afterwards. Sometimes I loved it and sometimes I hated it, but we were getting business out of it.
When I decided to start working in full-time employment again, I never really stopped networking as it was still giving various benefits to me and people I know. To find work locally, I set up my first user group – <a href="http://www.meetup.com/Open-Coffee-Letchworth/" target="_blank">Open Coffee Letchworth</a>. I got my work offer from first meeting a sponsor and continued the group for another year, getting it up to 150 attendees. When the group was not relevant to me anymore, I set up another group <a href="http://www.syncHerts.com" target="_blank">SyncHerts</a> (tech + startup community in Hertfordshire) and have been running it since. As we have now reached our 1 year anniversary, I wanted to share with you what worked in setting up groups and growing my second one to 400+ people.
1. Ask why
Why do you want to set up a user group in the first place? How would you / your business want to benefit from a group? Do you want to engage with local community, hire new people to your company, learn new things about a particular topic or meet like minded people?
Doing this will shape how you are organising your event and who you are inviting, so spend some time deciding. My second group was created to recruit people for the company I work for. They have succeeded in that, plus gained lots of business contacts in the local area.
2. Do research
While you can set up a Meetup group or Google user group easily, it might be better if you do some research beforehand. Go to similar events to yours in some other locations, look at event formats, topics and speakers they have.
Sometimes it's much easier to jump on an existing brand than create one of your own. So, if there is a meetup that is similar to yours, but on the other side of country contact them, take their branding, description, format and speakers – they have done it all for you! On both my groups I jumped on an existing brand (Open Coffee, SyncNorwich) that I knew before. And it worked great because people knew what to expect from the brand upon joining.
Think about what kind of event format works. Maybe you want to try different ones and play around to see the best. Some, but not all, could include going for lunch or drinks, having one or two speakers, doing lightning talks, hackathons, product presentations, workshops etc.
Decide what time of the month / week you will be holding it. Recurring events are most likely to be attended, because people remember the date and time (e.g. first Thursday of the month). Create polls and e-mail potential attendees, this is great way of getting feedback.
Finally, you have to decide if your event will be free or paid. There are various discussions about this topic and you have to decide this for yourself. You could use a free event as a marketing tool to get benefit for your company. If you have sponsors that are paying for the venue, drinks etc, then that's another reason to make it free. There is an argument that free events have a bigger percentage of no-show rates and they are harder to promote. This is something you have to decide and see what similar events in the market are doing.
I have a big belief in free events and if I can run it for free, I will run it for free; but I do agree that paid events have better attendance per person who signs up.
3. Pull idea together
One of the hardest things (and all organisers will agree) is to get a regular venue. If you have to spend time before every event to find a different venue, it will be time-consuming and expensive. Search for venues, approach the right people and go look at venues to make sure they are right for your event. Think about location of venue – is it easy to get there by public transport; is there parking etc? I have used pubs, coffee shops and business centres for my local business meeting and they are happy to get local business out of it.
Get a co-founder for your event that will help you with idea generation, can back you up if you are sick or on holiday and can help you on the day of the event with initial greetings and talks. Brainstorming often is the best way to move something forward.
It's very important to get an initial sponsor. Using your company or venue to pay for teas / coffees / pizzas would be a long term investment in the event as it will ease costs if you can't find other sponsors. Get other sponsors. People love getting freebies at the event and a lot of them will turn up to get pizza, beer or a t-shirt. Get sponsors to pay for that. I have used speakers at the event as sponsors so it is double deal.
Preferably ask speakers a few months in advance so you won't be stressed out before every event. People are busy, get your event in their diaries early and they will happily turn up and speak. You will be surprised how many people are happy to do a talk. This doesn't mean all of them can do it well, but give them a chance.
4. Create group
This is easiest step, go to a meetup site / Google User groups / Facebook groups and create a group. Use the right keywords, tags and invite people already in your social network.
5. Build Hype
You can start to do this (even during your research) by posting questions and polls on social networks. Now e-mail every person you know on your social networks, tell about your group and ask if they know someone who might be interested in attending. Every person knows somebody who might be relevant to you so do word those e-mails correctly. Don’t be afraid – it's not spam if you know that person personally and you are mailing them only once.
Use social channels to promote your event. Create LinkedIn / Facebook pages, create a Twitter account, start following people and creating content. The Meetup, Twitter and LinkedIn networks worked very well for my groups, but there might be other social networks that are a better fit for you.
6. Hold events
Create a checklist for your event and re-use it for each of them.<ul> <li>Confirm venue information (parking, teas, wifi etc.)</li> <li> Create marketing materials - flyers and business cards before an event so you can share it with people at the event and they can share it with others</li> <li> Get somebody to take photos of the event or video it</li> <li> During the event, tweet about it and engage with social marketing community</li> <li> Ask for feedback – what type of events would people love to have in future? How did they find the date / time and venue? Were the speakers right? Etc.</li> </ul>
7. Post-event hype
Just as important as before the event, it's important to follow up with people after the event. E-mail people you met, ask them to write a review of the event or tweet about it. Put photos, videos and slides about the event on your group. Start telling people about the next event already.
Armed with these proven techniques, you're all set to go and run your own user groups! Don't be afraid and just get stuck in!