The following post was written by Kirk Jackson who leads the Wellington .Net User Group. Kirks group is one of the most consistent and well run groups in New Zealand.
Continuity, speakers and good running
I organise the Wellington .NET user group, and over the past 5 years we have had about 45 user group meetings, and consumed approximately 800 pizza!
As you can imagine, it's easy to struggle under the weight of all those pizza, and finding speakers for each meeting is the most challenging part of my role. I'll try and share a few hints and experience on how I do things...
Sports clubs, cultural clubs, churches and other outside-work activities all have a regular interval, and I'm convinced that holding meetings on the same day of each month makes it easier for our members to schedule meeting attendance. It also helps motivate me to get things done, which is pretty important too!
In the beginning I'd organise meetings every 4 or 5 weeks, but since I didn't have any regularity about it, people couldn't calendar the event until I had organised the speaker, venue and sent out the invite. Now, I have a fixed "first Wednesday of the month" schedule for the Wellington group, and that means that I don't have to start advertising the details of the event until one week before the event.Also, this helps with booking the venue (we are hosted by Microsoft Wellington), and our chaperone (Darryl).
We're just trailing fortnightly meetings in Wellington to see how they go. The plan is to see whether we can keep numbers up even when we're meeting twice a month.
Just a quick word on venue.We're lucky to have a regular booking for the meeting room at Microsoft in Wellington, which is a nice, neutral place for people from different companies to come. I think it's easier for members if we always meet at the same place, although there hasn't been many problems when we've moved somewhere else in the CBD. One thing to watch for is the time that the front doors or elevators lock -- there's nothing worse than locking out your attendees!
Speakers / topics:
This used to be the most difficult part of organising the user group, so I won't kid you and say it's going to be easy. Things have gotten easier lately now that Wellington has a good community of regular presenters, but in the beginning I used to find myself presenting regularly.
It helps if you have a willingness to present, and keep a topic in mind in case you find yourself short one month.
We normally have 60-70 minute sessions each month, and discounting the break of Christmas normally have ten or eleven sessions per year. In the .NET space, 12 hours isn't enough to learn about everything new, so it's hard to choose which topics to focus on.
We normally have forward-looking topics at our user group, based on technologies, products or techniques that have been recently released or demoed at conferences. I normally try to map out 6 months of session ideas, and then approach speakers from the community who I think may be interested in presenting each topic. Through Darryl at Microsoft, the .NET user group incorporated society, and travelling speakers, we get a lot of other speakers coming through Wellington with prepared topics, which are usually on upcoming technologies.
For speakers, it usually makes sense to prepare once for a talk and then present it several times. The .NET user group incorporated society has some funds to transport speakers around the country which you could try to tap into, or you could contact speakers who have presented in other cities and try to convince them to present in your city next time they are visiting. Also, if a speaker is presenting at another event nearby, you could try and lure them to your user group with the promise of pizza.
Mixing it up:
Lightning talks are an idea that I stole from the Perl user group. Each year we do 10 or 11 sessions, and often it's hard to do justice to all the new and cool things going on. Once a year I like to organise a lightning talk night, where 10 or so presenters each speak for 5 minutes on a topic. It's a good idea to find out a little information on a lot of topics.
Refreshments and Costs:
The NZ user groups try to keep to a budget of $7 per person for refreshments. I know, it sounds like an awfully large amount of money, but you'd be surprised how hard it is to eat healthily on that budget, especially when you want to buy beer as well. I normally buy a mixture of beer and soft drink, and budget for half a large Pizza Hut / Dominoes pizza per person, as they are pretty good value-for-money, and fit the developer event stereotype.
In the beginning we used to take money at the door to cover the costs of pizza, which worked well but was quite difficult to manage. Now, the .NET user group incorporated society collects sponsorship money to cover the costs of pizza, and user group leads get reimbursed for the costs. The incorporated society may be able to help you with your food costs, so you should get in touch. A third option is to find sponsorship for the pizza and drinks for each event, or perhaps even find a sponsor willing to sponsor all of your events.
And now a closing thought on motivation. It's tough to find the energy sometimes to organise a user group event, especially if you're sick or busy at work. Sometimes you'll get some negative feedback from an attendee, or you'll find it tough finding a replacement speaker at the last minute.
Don't give up! Think of all the people that come along each month with their enthusiasm, looking forward to something new!