As a .NET programmer who strives every day to further my technical and social skills, I attend user groups. Your typical user group is sold to the community which it supports as an excellent resource for learning and interacting with like-minded individuals. In my experiences, few actually deliver on their promises. This results in stagnant meetings with few attendees, the same four or five speakers repeating the same four or five topics, and a general lack of engagement. This downward spiral continues to drive away your user base until you suddenly find yourself wondering how it all went wrong. Yet, by avoiding a few simple and common pitfalls, any user group can become a mecca of knowledge and engagement.

I am a moderator for an amazing user group. LIDNUG, the LinkedIn .NET Users Group, is an online user group which boasts over 49,000 members from every corner of the internet. We strive to encourage our members to participate in the group. Some prefer to present to the group, some prefer to assist with the development of our website and other tools, some enjoy the exposure to new skills, technologies, and opinions, and others simply enjoy mentoring and giving peer-to-peer feedback and advice to others. Our success is drawn from social media, diversity, interaction, and humility.

LIDNUG has found success in an unlikely place: social media. We are a purely virtual group that thrives within LinkedIn’s social networking platform. Most of the people who join us are referred by friends or co-workers. Our user group remains highly accessible to all potential members; if you have the internet and a LinkedIn account, you can be a member. For us, social media provides accessibility while word-of-mouth satiates our advertising budget (we’re not for profit). Whether a user group is based online or meets at a specific location each month, reachability and reputation are essential. If people do not know how to reach you, or it takes significant effort to do so, experience shows that they won’t bother. If people aren’t having a good time at your user group, your “advertising” tends to be negative. Ensure that people can reach you easily, and that they’re having fun. The first point is easy enough, but how do you make your meetings fun?

In offering an exceptional experience to your users, diversity is important. Whether this diversity is geographical, social, or based in professional experience and skills, it is the ticket to a successful user group. People attend meetings to learn something new, and this something is not always technical. They want to have their skills and experience challenged, to discover new and exciting ways to approach old and classic problems, and to receive input from others, all while making some new friends or professional contacts. Having 49,000 members with varying experience from all reaches of the world, LIDNUG offers something for everyone. Whether you’re into C#, VB, Mono, WPF, WCF, F#, Web or Windows programming, or even IronPython and IronRuby, we’ve got people who would love to discuss it with you. Our presenters are as diverse as our members and include such names as Patrick Dussud, the “father of CLR,” and Scott Guthrie who has kindly attended not one or two, but fourteen impromptu Q&A sessions in which our users get to ask him anything and everything that comes to mind. The diversity of our presentations and our users creates a unique and exciting experience for all of our members.

Delivering a fantastic user group experience is not just about meetings; it is about engagement and involvement outside of traditional channels. Users should have the opportunity to engage at any and all times. LIDNUG offers many volunteer opportunities to our users. If you don’t have a lot of time to spare, we would love for you to carve out a few hours and present a topic to us. If you have a few free evenings or weekends, we also recruit members to help develop and upgrade our website and supporting tools. Our managers and moderators are all regular users who commit substantial personal time to improving our users’ experience. Ultimately your users will participate if they see a benefit in doing so, and thus offering a top-notch learning environment and informal activities will attract hobbyists and professionals alike. All of these activities promote a sense of community and camaraderie. As a result, people begin to hold a loyalty to the group and remain involved due to pride and satisfaction. They get out even more than what they put in.

One of the largest contributors to the success of a user group is the first impression. In welcoming and engaging a new member, humility should be abundant. Too many times I’ve attended a new user group, only to feel nervous and very out of place amidst a group of elitist members who don’t care to step outside of their comfort zones. These kinds of experiences are not pleasant; they drive your user base away. Having a management and volunteer staff that check their egos at the door is essential in succeeding as a user group. At LIDNUG, we welcome everyone regardless of experience, skills, or opinions. We encourage people to challenge each other. We thrive on healthy debate and discussion. We welcome recruiters who want to get to know our members and discuss potential opportunities with them. People who join our group feel immediately welcomed, and often comment on the lack of ego and attitude. Realizing that you’re not better or worse than anyone else – that you’ve simply had difference experiences – is paramount to promoting a welcoming user group environment. Nobody wants to feel left out or looked down on.

If you feel like something is lacking in your user group(s), it’s time to step back and re-evaluate your approach. By becoming highly available to your users via tools such as social media and word-of-mouth advertising, offering substantial diversity in skills and viewpoints, promoting interaction outside of the user group, and offering a humble environment, you will to draw a substantial, engaged, excited user base.

David Haney
Moderator, LIDNUG