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Chris G. Williams Beware: I mix tech and personal interests here.
Occasionally I get emails from people who have recently started user groups or are trying to revitalize an existing group.  One of the top questions is about finding speakers. 

INETA gives groups a couple of speakers each year, but finding speakers can be tough on a monthly basis. The great thing is most of the time you actually don't need to look any further than your own members.

Here are a few tips I have found to be pretty successful...


Reduce the amount of time people have to speak.


Instead of having one guy talk for an hour (very intimidating to new speakers) pick a theme for the month and have 4 or 5 guys talk for 10-15 minutes on the topic.  Think about it, most people can easily talk about a topic of interest for this long without even really trying.


Not every meeting needs a presentation! Just a topic.


Consider offering a round-table discussion format for one of your meetings... skipping the speaker altogether. Get people discussing a specific topic, and occasionally jumping up to draw something out on the whiteboard while the discussion continues.


Figure out your slowest month and plan an alternate activity.

In some places, the summer months can really kill the attendance of user groups. In other places, it's around the holidays. Pick the month that typically has the worst attendance and skip the meeting that month. Instead, offer something else fun to do. Perhaps a pub night, or a Geek Dinner at a local restaurant. Maybe even a cookout. (Try to involve your local Microsoft DE in this event... they have budgets for this sort of thing.)


Try to plan as far in advance as possible.

This probably falls under common sense, but the longer you plan stuff out, the more people will hear about your event and show up. If you can schedule at least 2-3 months in advance, you can typically count on pretty decent attendance (and better yet, people who are more likely to be interested in the specific topic.)



I also get questions from groups looking for help in spreading the word about their existence. This is an easy one to answer.

Promote, promote, promote!

Starting a user group is way easier than sustaining one. Getting the word out for the initial meeting can be easy, because of the buzz surrounding something new. The trick is getting people to show up for the following meetings... and getting new people who may not have heard about the group until recently.

How do you promote a user group? That's easy!

1. Do you have a blog? (Hint: if you don't, you should!) Write about your group meetings, including where/when/what. Do writeups AFTER each meeting. Talk about the topic, what went well and what didn't. Talk about what swag was given away.

2. Get others to blog about your group. This includes your local Microsoft DE. Get them to add you to the MSDN Flash (if you're Microsoft relevant, of course.) Many book publishers maintain event calendars as well. Sign up with them.

3. Most major cities (and may smaller towns) offer some type of free community events calendar. Get on it. Every month.

4. Add a sentence about your user group to your email signature. Make sure to include a website link.

5. Ask your local libraries, book stores, computer parts stores, etc... if you can post fliers.

6. Email area companies (try the HR or Marketing folks) and ask them if you can email them a flier for their IT Department. Seriously, this works more often than you know.

7. Network with other groups in your area. Is there another group with a similar focus within an hours drive? If so, contact them! Give them some support by showing up at one of their meetings. Carpool with some of your friends. Offer to speak at their group in exchange for a speaker for yours.

8. Be sure to sign up for CodeZone and INETA (again this assumes a Microsoft focus.) Both of these organizations offer group finders on their websites, among other benefits.



Just follow these tips and you should be well on your way to a successful, thriving user group. If you have some other tips, I'd love to hear about them. Posted on Wednesday, April 2, 2008 11:55 PM General Interest | Back to top


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