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So, you want to start a user group?

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The community in Heartland is very strong, it is vibrant. It is a community I am proud to be a part of. But there are always new audiences that need new ways to work together to learn and develop themselves. Here are some basic steps to get a user group started. The goal in these steps is to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible, and as free as possible.

0. Get a name. All things must start with a name. Something to encapsulate your major topic or focus. A geographic term is usually also included. The name should be pronounceable. You see, us geeks like to verbalize our acronyms. It shows a degree of acceptance of the acronym, and hence the group, when this happens. Examples:

CinArc (Sin-Arc) – Architecture in Cincinnati

ColArc (Call-Arc)– Architecture in Columbus

CONDG (Con-dug) – Central Ohio .NET Developers Group

POOP (Poh-op)– Portland Open Office Professionals

Once you have a name, you can try to make a logo, although that is optional.

10. Create a Live ID and live email address (for example poop@live.com) that will belong to your user group. You should not use your personal id, because as the group grows, you don’t want the groups assets tangled with your personal assets.

Create a blog at any of a number of free online blog hosters (blogspot.com for example). Use the group email address to sign up for this. Pick a template, give the blog the same name as the group, and give it a good description so that it can be found by search engines. This blog will have a generic address, such as poop.blogspot.com.

In the blog template, make sure you put contact information, directions, and meeting schedule (every sixth odd numbered Tuesday after Lent, at 6:00pm).

Buy a domain name for your group. Again, any of the domain registrars can do this. I use godaddy.com. Once you buy the domain (poop.com), follow your blog hosters directions for having www.poop.com direct to your groups blog page (this concept is similar to host headers in web servers). Then you can market www.poop.com to possible attendees, speakers, and sponsors.

Go to skydrive.live.com, and create an account with your poop Live id. This will create some online storage for you so you can store the presentation materials online, and make them available to your members.

Now go register all of this with www.codezone.com (if your new fancy user group is MS centric). This will give you membership and event management tools. It will also allow you to buy swag with points to give out at your meetings. Other benefits are that people will be able to find your user group in the directory, and it will be submitted to the different MSDN newsletters and event search engines.

There are other online registry’s for user groups and events. Check out www.communitymegaphone.com.

One more big step. People will want to subscribe to your new blog with an RSS reader. If they subscribe directly, then it is very hard to move your blog later (sometimes the neighbors borrow tools and don’t bring them back). I suggest you create an account at www.feedburner.com with your user group email. Feedburner will publish your RSS feed for you, redirecting readers to where ever you might host your blog in the future. Think of it as DNS resolution for your RSS feed.

I also recommend that you keep a three to six month schedule of speakers and topics prepared. Being able to tell your members what the upcoming meetings will be about will keep your attendance rate up.

This will get you started. There are other things you will eventually need to work on. I would wait until you regularly get more than 42 people per meeting, and you have had a good 12 month track record. At this point, the group is stable, and you will start to need help. Recruit a board (2-3 other people), and look into filing as a non-profit in your state.

You will also need to come up with a sponsorship and job-posting policy. I can cover these topics in another post.

Blogs are conversations (macro-twittering at times). Post your recommendations to someone who is new in the community, and is trying to start a group.

Oh, one more. Network in your community, and join up with other UG leaders in your area. They can help you.

Also also, it seems some of the strongest groups were started by the person that just wanted other people to learn with.

Also^3, looking back at this post, this is the tip of cloud computing, and hosting solutions in the cloud. I didn’t have to setup a server, arrange for patches and backups, and composed several different vendors and services to present the application I needed. This is indeed the start of Renaissance 2.0.

Ok, I promise, only two more things:

a) try to play after the meetings. go to a local adult beverage dispensory, and bond as a group.

two) 70% of your speakers should be local enthusiasts. not every speaker can nor should be a speaker from outside. groom and grow your local talent. it’s the community bootstrap effect. (that's my term, I just made it up. it’s trademarked.)

4 comments:
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blindman said...
8/25/2008 10:10:00 AM  

Excellent step-by-step guide and advice, Brian. Thanks.
-blindman

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SweetSirena said...
8/25/2008 12:54:00 PM  

Thank you so much Brian, This will make it so much easier to start up my user group. You would be proud, I figured out my name and logo last night before ever reading this. :) My game is back on...hehe.... Thanks again

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Jason said...
8/27/2008 02:45:00 PM  

One thing I believe most Columbus groups seem to be missing (I'm looking at you CONDG, COSPUG, COALMG, MOCSDUG; everyone except COJUG and Columbus Ruby Brigade) is to make a public, subscribe-able calendar! It's so much nicer than an Events feed when you can add the calendar directly to your [insert calendar program here - (GCal)].

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Brian H. Prince said...
8/27/2008 09:01:00 PM  

Thats a great point. So in addition to your blog feed, with real announcements, you can publish an iCal feed that people can subscribe to in their favorite calendar program.

I just figured out how to do this with my TripIt calendar. Outlook (I just got out of Notes prison after five LONG years) overlays the two calendars into one master calendar.

Thanks Jason.

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