Following up on Part 1 of my tips for organizing and maintaining effective user groups, this post will cover the physical and virtual spaces that support great interaction.
Where you host your meetings is probably the biggest variable in the equation for an effective user group. There’s no perfect answer because you must find the best balance of function, space, and cost that meets your needs. I’ll offer my own experiences for your evaluation.
Probably the most common place to start a user group is at the leader’s office. If you have a large enough conference room or even a lobby space with plenty of stacking/folding chairs, this might be all you need. Sometimes it’s fun to rotate locations of a user group meeting to various participating companies. The main drawback is the number of people you can pack into a space. Meetings can get disrupted when attendees are standing or sitting on the floor (yes, I’ve had that experience!)
Issues: Building security, space set up & clean up, limited number of attendees
The DC Revit Users Group meets at a beautiful space atop the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington. I’ve done some research in the past into meeting spaces in New York City and the cost may be $1,000 – $2,000 per event.
These kinds of spaces are likely only available in major metropolitan centers, but they are an interesting option. Product manufacturers like Steelcase may have showrooms in your region that can be utilized for group functions. In NYC, I’ve attended events at Steelcase, The Gunlocke Company, Haefele, and the McGraw Hill Auditorium. I’ve never organized a meeting at a showroom, so I can’t speak to the costs involved.
Why not mix learning and networking with some food? I’ve attended a few user group meetings held at restaurants over the years. One of the early NYC Revit User Group meetings was held at a bar which was actually an old bank. Our ‘private meeting room’ was actually the old vault and I recall giving a presentation where the ‘screen’ was actually a backdrop of safe deposit boxes! The Ontario RUG used to meet at a restaurant called Alice Fazooli’s. This was fun because they had a large dedicated space and the food was great.
Issues: Cost, A/V equipment
Our group was really fortunate to connect with Pratt Institute and use their lecture space on a monthly basis. For two years, we were able to utilize this space without cost because they enjoy the exposure for Pratt’s continuing & professional studies programs in the building. Recently we were asked to provide insurance coverage for our meetings and yet again, an interested company came to the rescue to provide this contribution as a group sponsor. More on this to come in Part 3…
Personally, I think an academic location is the best option because it seems that it is the most mutually beneficial solution. You can bring potential students in and they can provide a space well-suited to learning events. So reach out to your local university or technical college and see if they are willing to share some space.
Now that we’ve covered the physical space, let’s talk about virtual space. As I mentioned in Part 1, there are so many free social tools available on the web today that can support groups. When we got the NYC RUG started in 2006, Google Groups was a pretty good option. This free service is still around, but its functionality is somewhat limited. You can create custom pages, upload files and manage members – but that’s about it. I’d keep an eye on Google+ and see how it evolves.
In addition to an Internet home for your group, you should also think about how you want to handle events. In the past I used Evite.com to manage events while we were on Google Groups. It’s a free service and does a nice job handling RSVP’s and automated reminders; however, it wasn’t integrated with the group website, so I had to manage two member databases.
Facebook seems to have highly functional group tools where you can create and manage events, have discussions, post links, photos and videos. It’s all free, but you have to be a Facebook user to join a group. Some people like to keep their personal interactions on Facebook, so they may not want to mix business-related stuff there. Also, some offices may even block access to social sites like Facebook. LinkedIn has groups as well, but I haven’t found them as easy to use as FB.
The NYC Revit Users Group uses a site called Meetup.com. It’s a paid service ($45 every three months), but our members seem to really appreciate the functionality. It has discussion boards, file/photo uploads, topic suggestions, and it’s event management is great. Automated email reminders, dues collection (if applicable), name tags, sign-in sheet, and more.
I’ve only discussed a few web-based group platforms here, but there are so many more out there. Do some homework, look at other group sites and pick one that suits your taste such as Ning.