Thursday, January 19, 2012

Effective User Groups, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about sharing my user group experiences for some time now and an email came in asking me about just such information. (How do you approach businesses or individuals to attend and then speak at the meetings? How do secure sponsors for venues and food? How do you deal with topics specifically geared towards a particular discipline without losing the rest of your members?…) Needless to say, I am taking the initiative to write about the evolution of the New York City Revit Users Group.

In a series of posts, I’ll discuss the following topics:

  • Getting a group started
  • Organizing topics and speakers
  • Meeting locations
  • Group websites
  • Sponsors
  • A/V technology

I hope you will find my opinions interesting and I welcome comments about your experiences.

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Getting a Group Started

There’s quite a bit of a story leading up to April 2006 that I now realize will have to be yet another series of posts on my journey with BIM. That said, I was 2 years into implementing Revit on World Trade Center Tower One at SOM and each of the New York area Autodesk resellers were starting to ramp up their own Revit user groups. As I recall, there were at least two – maybe three – separate groups and they all wanted me to speak at their events at one time or another. I thought, "there has to be a better way.”

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Lesson #1: By the people, for the people

Users don’t need to sell anything. There…I said it. I have the utmost respect for the VAR’s (value-added resellers) and trainers with whom I’ve collaborated in my career, but (in my opinion) they don’t have that grassroots, real world, in the trenches, battle-scarred approach to the tools. Whether a VAR has an agenda or not, I frequently get that feeling when I attend a VAR-organized user group. We’ll talk more about sponsorship later…

The first step in creating a successful user group is finding some local people in your industry who share the same passion. Look at your current or most recent project team, consultants, contractors…did you make some new friends as you worked through the last all-night deadline? Get together for lunch a few times and you might have the seedlings for a user group!

Back in 2006, we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook, so getting the word out about new user groups was either by word of mouth or mass e-mailings (but you had to know your recipients first!). And websites were pretty expensive back then…if GoDaddy.com was around, you sure couldn’t buy a site for $9.99 and be up and running in a matter of minutes.

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Today, you can create a group presence for free on Facebook with just about everything you’d need to get a group going. More on technology in a forthcoming post…

Lesson #2: Maintain regular meetings

Research has shown that the leading cause of user group death is apathy. OK, that’s my own observation, but I’ve seen it happen. Even if you just get together and have a roundtable discussion about BIM standards, it’s still a meeting and your attendees will come to expect the next regularly scheduled meeting.

Organizing Speakers and Topics

So, what’s the magic formula for finding interesting speakers and topics? Sorry, there isn’t one. In the early days, we did two things: spoke about our own experiences; and had VAR trainers give how-to lectures. The best advice I can give to new organizers is to network, network, and then network some more. I’ve met so many people at events like Autodesk University and those connections inevitably lead to memorable guest appearances for our group.

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Lesson #3: Get help

We have been conducting regular monthly meetings for almost 5 years and with over 770 registered members, we only recently have achieved 10 volunteers on our advisory board. The overwhelming majority of user group attendees just want to receive content – not participate in creating the content. The best thing our group did was to assign vice presidents (those who were the most active and available to co-organize the meetings), and create an advisory board of members who just wanted to help contribute topic ideas and perhaps suggest some contact connections for guest speakers. The burden shouldn’t rest squarely on one person.

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Lesson #4: Lock in dates for guests early

When you are speaking to potential guest speakers, try to get them to commit to a date far in advance. They may not know what their schedules look like two months or more ahead, but they will know when they have agreed to present at your group.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, coming soon…

1 comment:

Unknown said...

James, great post. Looking forward to the rest of this series!