User Group Getting Started Guide

I just got back from the best systems management conference called the Midwest Management Summit. The reason this conference is so great (besides all of the awesome technical sessions and information) is because it is built for the community, by the community. In fact, the Microsoft Management Summit actually started out as a User Conference – I still remember the very first one I attended – The SMS & Windows 2000 User Conference.

Every year at the Midwest Management Summit, there is a session on user groups – how to find them, start them, or make one better. The first place to start is by searching for a user group in your area. The Minnesota System Center User group maintains a pretty comprehensive list of systems management/System Center user groups here. And if you know of any that should be added, just reach out to them and they will gladly add it.

Since I have been running the Arizona Systems Management User Group (AZSMUG for short) for over a decade, I often get questions from individuals on how to start a user group. I recently decided to put this in my OneNote for future use but thought that it would be great to share with everyone that is looking to start a user group. There isn’t an exact formula for what works and many of the user groups all run a little different. But the most important thing is to stay the course and keep the group going.

Fellow User Group Leader Daniel Ratliff also has a blog on his tips here.

Now for my tips and information on how to get a user group up and running:

Domain Name
Purchase and register a domain name. For AZSMUG, I use GoDaddy because it works well with Office 365 (the DNS settings for Skype for Business are important). I also use it to redirect to our Office 365 SharePoint page so that others can find the user group.

Technical Community
Register you user group with Technical Community. This will get you access to a free Office 365 E3 subscription that you can use to setup a few email accounts. It also gets you access to SharePoint in which you can use as a public website for your user group so that others can find it. You may need to let them know that you are a new user group just getting started and use one of the other user groups or user group leaders as verification. Note that the Office 365 subscription needs to be renewed/verified every year by proving that you are still an active user group. The following is what currently you get with the E3 subscription:

In addition, you can get funding (if you are lucky) from Technical Community for user group meetings. Although, I have given up on requesting funding after being denied several times.

Email Addresses
As soon as you get your domain name and Office 365 account setup and configured, create a few email accounts that you will use for official user group communication. I suggest setting up a shared mailbox for your user group – like (where usergroup is the name of your user group). Also setup account for any members that will be helping to run the user group. Give those accounts access to the shared mailbox.

Chair Members or Board
If you are just getting started, you may just have a yourself or another person or two that helps run the user group. In this case, it is probably fine to not have anything official in terms of who runs the group and how the group is run. If after you start the user group you find that you have lots of interest from members wanting to help run the user group, you may want to adopt some formal bylaws in which elections are held yearly for various positions (like President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer). I know groups that use both models and each works well depending on the group.

Email lists
Email can be a primary method of communication to your user group members. There are several email distribution lists available today, plus you can create your own distribution list with your Office 365 Account. Otherwise, myITforum still maintains some distribution lists. Mail Chimp is another one that some user groups use (this has some integration into Eventbrite).

Sponsors & Sponsorship
Depending on how your group is set up will depend on how you get sponsorship. Some user groups get non-profit status so that they can have an operating budget and checking account. Other user groups get sponsors to come in and pay for food & beverage (and maybe guest speaker travel). Sponsors are given the option to present on their products at your user group. Just make sure that they keep it technically focused and do not turn it into a time share sales pitch (your user group members will thank you). Also, some vendors will want your user group member list of names/companies/email addresses. Depending on your sponsorship agreements, you may turn this over – just make sure your members know in advance and they are okay with this. Otherwise, have them raffle off an item at the meeting they present at. That way, user group members can opt-in to the raffle by providing their information. This keeps you and the user group out of any privacy issues.

Try to speak at your own user group at least once a year. This will help you in your current position at work and be beneficial for your career to get some public speaking experience. Also try to encourage other user group members to present at your meetings. This will help them out as well. Plus, chances are that someone else is facing the same problem and needs to come up with a solution. Or use it to demonstrate your knowledge about a specific feature and how that helps in your day to day job.

Getting guest speakers can generate interest and get more people to attend the meetings. Many of the Microsoft MVPs will gladly present at your user group if they happen to be in town and are available. Otherwise, use sponsors or sponsorship money to pay for their travel to come to your meeting.

User Group Focus
Some user groups run a general focus (like all things Microsoft), whereas other user groups are more specific (like System Center or just even one product focus). Find out what fits for your audience. The last thing you want to do is put a bunch of time and effort into a meeting only to get a few people to show up because the topic is not of interest to the other user group members.

Meeting Invites
There are two good services that do not cost anything for the basic level of service for sending out invites and tracking registrations. Eventbrite and Meetup both work well and have professional looking invitations. The also provide other things as well (like promotion and the ability to email notifications and reminders – either natively or using external service like MailChimp).

Social Media
In addition to the meeting invitation service you provide (which can be used to promote events), use social media to promote your user group. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are all great ways to spread the word about your user group and upcoming meetings.

Meeting frequency
This can be a tricky one. If you are just starting off, don’t bite off more than you can chew. In other words, start by planning for one meeting per quarter or four times per year (summers can be slow). Getting everything lined up for a user group meeting is a lot of work. I have run meetings every other month for several years and changed to a quarterly schedule a couple of years ago. This seems to draw more interest and attendance from user group members. If it is too frequent, members are more likely to have conflicts or decide to skip a meeting and catch the next one. But I do know groups that run every other month or even every month. Just keep in mind that it can be a lot of work keeping up with that cadence unless you have others helping out. If you can set a fixed date, say the third Thursday of the third month in the quarter, great – this will help people plan and know when the next meeting is going to be. If you cannot have a fixed date, then be sure to let your user group members know enough time in advance when you are in the pre-planning phases of the next meeting so that they can ‘pencil’ it into their calendar.

Meeting duration and times
This is another one that can be tricky and you will not be able to please everyone. The time might also depend on when you guest speakers can present. If they are busy working/consulting/teaching during the day, then you might have to run evening meetings (like from 5 – 7).

Meeting locations
If there is a local Microsoft office, then chances are you will be able to have your meetings there. Reach out to your local Microsoft contacts as you will need a Blue badge sponsor if you plan on having meetings outside of working hours (like after 5 PM). Also, they will be able to check the meeting room schedule and book the room for you. They can also help promote and generate interest in the user group with their customers in the area. Otherwise, a local library, training center or a member’s work location are all other alternatives. Pick a location with free parking or one that will validate parking.

Online Meetings/Recording Meetings
If you get to a point where you want to open up meetings online for others to attend or if you just want to record them, you can use Skype for Business that is part of the Office 365 E3 subscription.

If you have any other suggestions, please let me know in the comments below or send me a message on Twitter.

Originally posted onĀ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.