Building a successful group or community can be hard. In my opinion it is always worthwhile, but it takes dedication and consistent effort and a bunch of other clichés that all of us struggle with among our daily work, side projects, and personal life.
First, the oh-so-obvious stuff: You’ve got to have passion, desire, organizational skills, the ability to motivate volunteers, yadda-yadda-yadda. We all know that. These days you also need a context (software, platform, social cause) that has enough members to get going—a fair bit of technology and social media skill doesn’t hurt either.
Tell you something you don’t know, right?
This post isn’t about any of that stuff
Those things are organic and are anything but universal. They are uniquely formed within each organization. If those things do come, they will come naturally from within you and your community members. This blog post is about the pragmatic things. The kinds of nuts and bolts that hold ALL user groups and community meetings together in those times when the flush of ephemeral excitement and enthusiasm start to wain. I have seen dozens of worthy causes—social and technological—that had all of those “soft” qualities going for it, but they still failed to get user groups off the ground because of a few pragmatic errors made early on.
This blog post is for them and to help future organizers to avoid those pitfalls.
The Top Ten User Group and Community Errors:
1. Don’t do Fridays
Unless your are starting the Kardashian Club of South Florida, if you set meetings for Friday evenings after work no one will show. People either want to go home, get out of town, or paint the town red. This is why we all like Fridays, isn’t it? Also, don’t do Monday—everyone will be brain-dead after the weekend and will have forgotten because most people do not look at their business calendar until Monday sometime after coffee. Wednesdays and Thursday have had the best success in my experience. You get to send a reminder email on Tuesday and avoid the Monday/Friday curse.
Simply don’t send emails, don’t have conference calls, don’t have meetings on Fridays or Mondays unless there is no other choice, one time. What’s that? You’re not available on those days? Then evaluate whether you have the time to invest in this project yourself.
2. Make Meetings Start at Either 5:30 or 6:00 PM
I like 5:30 because it gives people a reason to leave work on time without feeling rushed or having to make excuses to their boss. You want the attendee’s boss to feel good about the event. Not only will it make the attendee’s life easier, but his boss will be the guy who lets you use their facilities/conference room for meetings and might sometimes sponsor refreshments. Win-win-win!
3. Use Meeting Discipline
Strictly limit the meeting length formally—I like 90 minutes. Start on time and end on time. If people want to hang out for a bit longer and chat professionally and/or socially, great. But some people are repelled by open-ended meetings of any kind. I do not care whether you are in a band performing music on stage, giving a presentation to win a sale, or hosting a user group for a new app that will change the world as we know it; as soon as the first person in the audience thinks “When will this be over?” you have gone on too long. Always leave people wanting more and eager for the next set or session.
4. Choose Locations Suited to the Primary Audience
If a scheduled meeting location works for you too, even better. It needs to work for the “others” more than the organizers. You are already committed. Until they are, treat them like customers. Which brings us to ….
5. Remember Who Your “Customers” Are
All of the previous items apply to this simple principle. If you are asking people to participate in something after hours and without direct (immediate) compensation, you have to make it easy on them and their lives. The pressures on their time and resources are great. You need to mitigate impacts to their jobs, so do not put them in a place to anger their boss. Their spouses matter too, so start and end on time (predictability is key). And sometimes the group members want some personal time for themselves.
Other tools of guerrilla-marketing can be very powerful as well. Mail member’s bosses thank you cards for their support. Do the same on Mother’s/Father’s Days for the spouses of loyal members. Make one meeting per year a family and friends style event—pizza for everyone and give out your yearly appreciations, etc. When you are building a volunteer community your customers are all of the people in the lives of your membership.
6. Deliver Real Value
No matter how cool or well-located a restaurant may be, it all comes down to the food. If the food is sub-par, then no amount of advertising hype, specials, or celebrity endorsements will save it (anyone remember the Planet Hollywood chain before it morphed, ad absurdum, into a Vegas casino?). Meetings need to always have real value, the topics need to be real, and sponsors need to be properly appreciated without dominating any event. Get the best, most relevant speakers you can and then exercise meeting discipline (see above).
7. Avoid Scope Creep
You can’t do everything, so don’t even try. Are you the Windows Software Developers User Group of Cleveland? Do that and do that well. Expanding your scope to far-off regions and disparate technologies usually means only extending failure. It’s common sense—know your market and purpose and stick to it.
8. Let People Help
It’s not about you. Really, it’s not. This is not the chance for you to prove how great you are, to demonstrate much you love the software or social cause, or a personal resume enhancement. Emotional and psychological attachment and loyalty naturally build in people when they do things. Investment by action. Find a fellow community member and ask him/her to post a Tweet, make a graphic, bring the beer (even if you have a sponsor), etc. Anything that they can add or contribute gives them ownership, solidifies the community, and makes your life easier.
9. Don’t Be a Martyr
Sure, in the beginning you will do everything yourself. If things go well you will soon build a core group to help share the load and then you will build from there. But in the end it is all about the community. After the first ½ dozen meetings or so bits of the work—even very small bits—should start to be shared with other members. If they are not you will eventually burn out—even if the group is doing well and has god attendance. No one can do it all forever. Ask for help. Ask forcefully when you have to. If you don’t get a little help here and there in the first six months, either your group is an exercise in masochistic narcissism or you are hanging with the wrong group of folks.
10. Share the Love
Hey, we all want to be appreciated. After you spent the last two months pulling everyone forward to make a cool event, some people will naturally be appreciative. But that is not why you are doing it, right? For every compliment that you receive, pass out two to others. If they make you a plaque or certificate, accept it graciously and share it with the team.
I know … sometimes you and—if you are lucky—a very small, dedicated team will indeed have done the lion’s share of the work. But this is definitely one of those “cast your bread upon the waters” moments. Give all the credit and appreciation away and then buy anyone who helped a beer—even if they only helped a little. You might discover, as I have, that those who really matter in life will appreciate you even more and that other, seemingly separate, successes will find their way to you in strange and mysterious ways.
No Guarantees, But Still Worth It
None of this will take one task off your list, erase one frustration, or remove one over-worked hour spent building your community and making great and relevant group meetings. But avoiding these ten common pitfalls will give you and your organization a better than average chance of success.
Until next time, be well.