For the technology industry, user groups are a hugely powerful tool for both users and developers of new hardware and software. At our sister company Outsourced Events, we run the Citrix user group, so we are no strangers to how they work and what goes into setting them up. If done well, a technology focused user group can benefit everyone involved, whether you’re a CIO or CMO, a developer or an original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
In this detailed guide I want to look at technology user groups, what they are, why they’re important and how to set up and manage a successful one. We’ll end by looking at how tech user groups are organised across regional, national and even international boundaries.
Let’s begin though with a little history lesson.
A short history of technology user groups
Technology focused user groups aren’t new. Their advent and evolution dates back to the 1950’s and the birth of the modern computer. One of the oldest known user groups was called SHARE, which was set up specifically for Los Angeles based engineers working in the aerospace industry using IBM mainframe computers and is still running today.
The point of SHARE, and other similar groups that sprung up at the time, was to create a forum for corporate users of new computing technology, and the engineers involved in its development, to discuss and exchange knowledge and technical information about programming languages, operating systems, database systems, as well as to just share their experiences using this new and exciting technology.
By the 1970’s the microcomputer revolution was in full swing and technology user groups were beginning to appear everywhere. Many of these operated like clubs or associations, populated mainly by hobbyists who would meet up on a regular basis to exchange technical know-how and assist each other with technical problems.
Tech user groups tended to be set up around specific systems or programs with a very specific remit and in that respect they haven’t changed much to this day. As PCs and the software they ran began to become increasingly fundamental to business and global trade, so too did tech user groups become a fundamental forum in which users, IT professionals and senior managers and directors could meet up to discuss and exchange knowledge with each other in an open and mutually beneficial environment.
Today there are many thousands of individual user groups that meet up all over the world, with many more maintaining just an online presence.
How tech user groups function
One way of envisaging a technology user groups is to think of it a bit like an association. The crucial distinction though is that the field of expertise and focus of a user group is associated with a particular company or original equipment manufacturer. More often than not they will focus on a specific program or application. This does not in any way make them another marketing channel for those companies or OEMs and often the relationship between user group and the technology provider can be very occasional and passive with the user group operating as an autonomous independent entity.
At the other end of the spectrum the relationship can be a more active one, with the OEM or developer developing a strategic partnership with the user group and sending its own representatives and experts to participate. In either case, the focus is on increasing understanding, exchanging information and identifying technical issues and workarounds, so all parties involved can benefit.
User groups will therefore function on an open and three tiered system between the users, the user group and the OEM or developer. In this sense user groups are highly symbiotic in structure and function with each party benefiting from the other. For OEMs and developers it is an opportunity to connect with and learn from its customer base, helping to identify issues and gauge customer satisfaction; possibly with a view to future product development. For users, the user group represents a rich resource of technical knowledge, often from individuals with unparalleled insight into a given system, program or technical area.
How to set up and run a successful tech user group
Let’s take a closer look now at what goes into setting up, establishing and running a regular successful technology user group and some of the considerations you need to bear in mind.
Below are some vital first steps to take when setting up a technology user group:
Define your remit
All user groups need a specific remit in terms of what is going to be covered and discussed. Too narrow a remit and you may only attract too niche and specialist a crowd, resulting in very few attendees. Too wide and you risk losing focus and your user group becoming a jack of all trades with no direction. The trick here is to understand the software, system or service in question as well as the needs of its userbase.
Research a suitable venue
We’ve already looked at some of the considerations to bear in mind when sourcing a suitable venue to host your event in a previous blog post but there are some important things to remember here. When setting up a technology user group it’s important to get an understanding of what other similar user groups may exist at a regional and national level (we’ll discuss the geographical structure of popular user groups later). Many user groups start off in pubs or even people’s homes, but bear in mind, you may well need to quickly source a larger capacity venue if your user group begins to grow in popularity. As a rule you should make sure your venue can cater for things like big screens or projectors and has a decent wifi connection.
Set a suitable date
IT professionals and technicians are often busy people, as are corporate software users, so settling on a date that suits everyone down to the ground can be nigh on impossible. The important thing, once you have finally settled on the best date for all involved, is to stick to it. Whether you’re running a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly event, moving the date around to suit the schedules of your VIPs isn’t the way to go and will put your regulars attendees off. Get the year mapped out so people can get it all in their diaries. If you have to change the date, then the more notice the better.
Promote to a wide audience
User groups were once the domain of hobbyists but nowadays your attendees are much more likely to be developers, IT professionals and senior corporate users. Promotion is crucial though if you are to create a forum that marries the right kind of expertise and knowledge with the right kind of user. Event promotion and marketing is something we’ve covered in a lot of detail in this blog before but it’s crucial you have your online assets like a website and social media up and in place beforehand. We’ll go into more detail on the online side of running a technology user group in the next section.
Now let’s turn our attention to five crucial ingredients to building and running a successful tech user group:
Probably the most important rule for running a technology user group is to keep it user focused. These are not marketing events. Users must feel like they are getting honest and genuinely unbiased information and advice. If they don’t then they will leave in their droves. It’s vital therefore that you empower users and create a space in which communication is two-way and all parties can benefit. We’ve talked about this earlier as a symbiotic system, but it’s also vital that you identify those individuals in your user group with the most up to date know-how and technical expertise and seek out their feedback and advice on how to steer the group. Get it right and these users will also become your strongest advocates.
Slow but steady growth
Don’t expect your new technology focused user group to be an overnight success with a ton of people showing up to the inaugural event. Many user groups start off slowly with a small but engaged group. This is the stage at which you need to get as much feedback as possible, whilst allowing members set the agenda. As you gather more momentum word will spread and, if you have your online marketing and forum in place, membership should grow. The key is to maintain this momentum by plugging your events on social media, engaging with the online forum and encouraging industry experts and developers to get involved and spread the word.
Putting on any live event in the technology industry invariably involves putting a lot of like-minded people in the same room who will want to debate and discuss IT related things with each other. There’s more to encouraging knowledge sharing than this though and with a technology user group this comes down to community building. By creating an open and welcoming environment that’s also friendly and fun, as well as professional and useful, you will be creating a space that people want to be in, instead of one they feel they need to be in. For many individuals the hardware or software up for discussion is their passion, as well as their fulltime job, so try to appeal to the hobbyist in them as well as the corporate professional. The more relaxed and friendly the environment, the more popular your user group will be.
Maintain an active online forum
Up until now we’ve been talking about live events, but it’s worth mentioning that there are many tech user groups based solely online. Whatever setup you go for it’s important to remember that maintaining a healthy and engaged online forum is essential. There are advantages and disadvantages to members using online forums. Unlike live events, online forums afford more privacy if the information being shared is commercially sensitive. Online forums are obviously a lot cheaper to set up and administer as well. Live events however are more memorable and more hands on, meaning the learning experience is more dynamic. It’s worth pointing out that for all their advantages, online user groups won’t come close to the level of interactivity that comes from being in the same room as a developer.
Feedback from all attendees is essential if you are to refine and grow your user group into something useful for all parties involved. This means that everyone benefits in some way from the sessions, whether it’s finding a workaround for a perennial problem or software bug, or refining a product in time for a new update or patch. User groups are the perfect opportunity for developers and OEMs to meet users and talk to them in a non marketing focused environment about their product and what they think of it. It’s important then to make sure your members can use you to feedback information to the developers in between user group meet ups. This will help you organise and structure forthcoming events. As well as a good old fashioned email feedback can be encouraged through a number of online channels including webinars, surveys, feedback forms and social media outreach.
Local and regional user group structure (a case study)
I want to finish by touching on the subject of location, specifically the relationships between user groups across a geographical location. The nature of how a new user group will fit in with other similar existing user groups at a regional, national and international level is largely dependent on the ubiquity of the product involved or indeed the specialist nature of the user group’s remit (these specialist groups are often referred to as special interest groups).
Let’s look at a massively popular corporate product like Sybase (which is owned by SAP) as an example.
Sybase has an international user group (ISUG) that is an independently incorporated entity that links up to regional user groups (RUGs), which in turn link to local user groups (LUGs).
The RUGs are split into global regions (Europe, North America, Asia / Pacific, etc) which are then further subdivided into regions within each area. RUGs effectively provide a communication mechanism between the ISUG and LUGs.
LUGs operate at a far smaller geographical level (usually within 2-3 hours travel) and are self governing and independent. LUGs will become chartered if 60% or more of their membership or mailing list are members of the ISUG.
On top of this are special interest groups (SIGs) that meet up and conferences and use online forums to share information and raise issues.
Sybase’s user group structure may seem complex but it is predicated on the fact that its userbase is huge and its products are used by a multitude of large corporate organisations. Members of the ISUG have a real influence on affecting the direction of future Sybase iterations, whereas local user groups, which are autonomous to a large extent, will depend on their own pool of local expertise to address issues and share knowledge.
This is just one example of how a huge product like Sybase operates at both an international, national and local level. Key to this structure are the two way lines of communication and the huge forum that connects all users. Also key is the degree to which the organisation facilitates the setting up and running of new LUGs. With smaller products or more niche or specialist systems or areas, a less formalised structure may be needed.
If you think you have enough interested parties and the resources to set up a technology user group, then the first thing to do is to check if there isn’t an existing structure like this in place, in which case you could be eligible for support.
Setting up a user group? Contact us for help
If you’d like advice about setting up a user group or need assistance running your user group or taking it to the next level, then call us on +44 (0)330 460 6007. Alternatively feel free to drop us an email or complete our contact form.