Recipe for a Successful (Azure) User Group [Updated]

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Back in 2015 I wrote this blog post based on over 15 years of experience running user groups. Time does not stand still and things have changed a little since then, however the basic ideas are still valid. Here is an update in case you are a user group leader or are contemplating becoming one. My notes in square brackets represent what I have learned since then.

May 29, 2015 Post [Updated]

Let me start (or rather restart) this blog series with a post that only tangentially has to do with Azure.  It does however relate to starting and running a user group (which I hope will focus on Azure. Smile)

I have been involved in one way or another with user groups for many years. I currently run the Nashville Microsoft Azure Users Group. Our group has grown from 4 members in 2013 to over 800 members today. I encourage everyone to either get involved in a local user group, if one exists in your area, or to start one if it doesn’t.

By way of motivation; because I was very active in the user group community years ago I was made a Microsoft MVP. That eventually helped lead to my working for Microsoft as an Architect Evangelist. That, in turn, led to my discovering Azure (before it was actually called Azure) internally at Microsoft. Ultimately that led me to be an Azure Specialist and to my day-job as a Cloud Technical Solutions Specialist at Stratum Technology Management in Nashville.

As part of my user group involvement I published a white paper years before the original blog post on how to run a successful user group. (I am the original author; however, a lot of other user group leaders have contributed to it along the way.)  Hopefully it will help anyone who wants to start a group of their own. Here it is:

The Recipe

Having been involved with user groups, for computer industry professionals for many years, I’d like to offer some recommendations.  If you’re thinking of starting a user group for computer industry professionals or are running one now, please contemplate these lessons, drawn from my experience. You might want to consider reviewing the list from time to time to keep you true to your mission.

1. You need a Web page [or a Meetup page]

You might be able to get by with a Meetup Group on Meetup.com.  They have some good services for posting meetings and notifying member as well as discussion groups and forums. But in any case, having a separate web site (in addition to the Meetup group) adds a degree of professionalism. [Note: Despite this advice written in 2013 this is clearly a case off “Do as I say and not do as I do” Smile I do not have a separate web site. I use MeetUp for everything. I do have a custom domain name, but more about that later.]

If you have a web site keep it simple and clean.  This will allow members and potential members to find the information they are looking for quickly. Let your members and potential members know when and where meetings are located prominently on the home page.  Make it obvious.

2. Your own web server or a web hosting service?

Use a web hosting service, here’s why.  Web hosting services can be had for $5-$10 a month.  You can’t even power a server for that much a month.  Think about it. Your volunteer web server maintainer has to provide, 24X7 up-time, server monitoring, back-ups, software updates and hardware upgrades.  Using a web hosting company, they are responsible, not one of your volunteers, and issues over hardware ownership are non-existent.

You might consider finding a company offering to donate web hosting.  I would strongly advise against it.  While it may appear appealing, in the long run it’s not worth the trouble.  I have tried it, and these are the issues I have run in to.  You are a low priority, if a priority at all.  If the company ever retracts the offer, you will have the hassle of moving the web site, and then making sure all the pages and links work on the new site.  You will then have to change the DNS and wait for the new DNS info to be updated while your site is unavailable.

For less than $100 you are better off focusing on other issues than your web site.

3. Your Web page needs a findable URL.

The usual http://www.some-isp.com/~username/UGname/ URL isn’t any good. You want people who know no more than the group’s name to find you easily. For that, http://www.our-group.org is ideal in the USA — and similar names for groups elsewhere. For instance, my Azure meetup group can be reached by its MeetUp group URL or at www.nashazure.com.

You should choose a user group name whose Internet domain isn’t taken.  You can check at http://www.internic.net/whois.html   Do not type the potential name into your browser, as some companies will immediately place a 30 day hold on the name and then offer to sell it to you. Sad smile

4. You need a regular meeting location.

Changing meeting locations will cause your group to lose attendees.  Why?  It’s too hard for people to remember where the meeting is from month to month.  The other reason is because it’s a strain on people.  They have to find out how to get there, where to park, whether the neighborhood’s OK to walk in, etc. You can tell them, email them, and they’ll still wind up at the wrong location.  Once that happens the word will get out that the group has folded, and then it’s too late. 

The location doesn’t have to be impressive: member company conference rooms, college cafeterias, library meeting rooms, a coffee shop, pizza parlor or community center are a few ideas.  See what’s available in your area. Sometimes restaurants will have a meeting room that you can use if your members are going to buy food and drink during the meeting. Others will want to charge for its use. (I have got to mention here that I have been running user groups for over 15 years without a bank account and without charging anything for memberships and events. Sometimes those things are unavoidable. In most cases you can find sponsors willing to provide refreshments and even meeting space without getting involved in the finances. Incorporating as a non-profit is a hassle involving lawyers and financial reporting.)

5. You need a regular meeting time.

“Regular” usually means same day of the week or month and keep it that way.  Most groups meet once a month; first Wednesday at 7:00 or third Thursday at 6:00.  (Give people time to get there from work.) Make it easy to remember and easy to enter in people’s smartphones and PC calendars as a reoccurring event. Don’t get fancy with things like “every other Thursday”. Avoid Monday’s and Fridays if you can. You should also avoid having meetings near 3-day weekends. Make it so anyone with a calendar can easily figure out when the next meeting will be.

6. You need to avoid meeting-time conflicts.

Check out the schedules for nearby events: other user groups, sporting events or other events your audience is likely to attend. 

7. You need to make sure that meetings happen as advertised, without fail.

Show up to have a meeting rain or shine, locked meeting room or not.  Have a few members show up early to avoid potential problems.  If there is a problem, let people know by posting a sign or flyers apologizing and letting them know when the next meeting will be occurring.

If you need to cancel or reschedule an event that you’ve already been advertising as “upcoming”, don’t simply remove the original listing on your Web pages: Continue to list it, prominently marked as cancelled or rescheduled.

[7A. Meeting coverage

You need someone who can back you up and run the meeting if for any reason you have to be out of town on business on the day of the meeting.]

[7B. Have help running the group

Better yet have a board of directors that can help with running the group. (I jokingly refer to myself as my group’s “Benevolent Dictator. But I do not recommend that because that is a lot of work. And some things that we could be doing better do suffer.) ]

You may want to have a Program Chairman, A Sponsorship Director, A Publicity and Outreach Director to help. Ideally you need help focusing on things like dealing with sponsors, soliciting SWAG for meeting raffles, outreach to local colleges, etc.

8. You need a core of several experts.

You will need a couple of experts who are energetic and willing to share their knowledge with your members.  A users group should be neutral territory for community interaction; Vendors should not be allowed to sell their services during a meeting.

9. Your core volunteers need out-of-band methods of communication

By that, I mean outside your user group’s regular electronic means of communication.  Use a list server or email groups.Meetup.com provides a mailing service, as do most web site user group CMS packages such as Kentico. [Today use of collaboration tools abound; such as Slack, Yammer, Microsoft Teams, etc.]

10. Place your meeting time and location prominently on your web site’s Home page.

Make it overly obvious when and where your meetings are.  If you don’t, people will find your email address and ask. A lot. Sad smile

11. Include a maps and directions to your meetings.

Be helpful to your members, include a map and clear step by step directions.  Offer suggestions for parking, and public transit if available.  Give as much detail as you can.

12. Emphasize on your main page what your group is all about, and the dues or fees or if meetings are free of charge and open to the public.

Make it clear before people arrive.  If there is a fee let people know in advance.

13. Use a list server or mailing list program to send out info to your group.

I have found a closed list server is the way to go.  It’s easier to maintain than a mail group, and you will not receive all of the “I’m out of the Office” or bounced message replies. For a small group you can use BCC or Meetup mailings. [Note: When I wrote this List Servers were in vogue. Today I don’t even know if they exist Again I use Meetup for this, and have for years. ]

Some commercial services let you set up “free” mailing lists on their servers, where their gain lies in revenues from mandatory ads auto-appended to all posts, plus of course the ability to sell your subscription list to other advertisers. Beware that you may find yourself not the “owner” of your own list, in the event of a dispute over its management.  In my opinion, this is a bad idea. (See comments above.)

It is very important that you should own your mailing list and keep it private.  Make every message you send out important, so members will read them.  If not, your mail will quickly be linked to spam. Do not share it with vendors or sponsors. Most members will want their mailing addresses kept private anyway.

14. You don’t need to be in the Internet Service Provider business.

Leave the ISP business to the professionals.   Some groups have tried to offer this as a service to their members.  Don’t!  Same goes for email accounts.  You are a user group, not an ISP.  Leave that up to the professionals.

15. Don’t go into any other business, either.

Some user groups get sucked into the strangest, business schemes.  Don’t!  You are not a Web design firm, a technical support firm, a network design consulting firm, or a LAN cabling contractor or any other business. Not even if you’re told it’s for a wonderful charitable cause.

Along the same lines, remember that you are not a convenience for job recruiters: If allowed, they will spam your mailing lists and abuse every possible means of communication with your members. Nor are you a source of computers for the underprivileged, a repair service for random people’s broken PCs, or a help desk. I have been pestered by all of the above.  As much as you would like to help, leave it to the professional in you group.

The following checklist may be useful for your group, once established:

1. Web page:

a. Meetings:

[ ] Current meeting info?  Is it prominent?
[ ] Day of the week?  Beginning time?  Ending time?
[ ] Double-check day/date matches against a calendar and conflicting events.
(E.g., is the “Friday, March 28” you listed an error, because the 28th is a Thursday?)
[ ] Location?
[ ] Include a link to a map
[ ] Directions (car, public transit)?  Parking tips?
[ ] Information on upcoming meetings
[ ] Is an RSVP mail required to attend meetings?
[ ] Note that meetings are free and open to the public (if they are)?
[ ] If there’s a special fee, is it disclosed next to the event listing?
[ ] If location / time / date formula has changed recently, is this noted prominently?
[ ] Have you checked for event conflicts with other nearby groups, or with holidays?

b. General:

[ ] Includes event date-formulas (e.g., 4th Tuesdays)? Prominently?
c. Periodically (maybe every quarter):
[ ] Checked all links on your site for dead links?
[ ] Checked your Web server’s logs for pages requested but not found? (You’ll want to put a referral page at that URL.)
[ ] Read all your Web content attentively for outdated content?

c. Other, periodically:

[ ] Review and update all user group lists that have entries concerning your group.  Are they correct and up to date?
[ ] Reviewed all sites that link to yours? Advised their webmasters of needed corrections?

Best of luck with your group Smile

Bill Zack

About CloudyInNashville

I am a Cloud Architect and Consultant. Over several years I have been working with companies to help them design and build .NET based applications for public and private clouds. My focus is the Cloud, Public Clouds and Microsoft's Windows Azure Cloud platform in particular.
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