Over the past three months or so, I have found myself wandering into the same conversation over and over again: what makes a user group good? We all too often hear about what is wrong with a user group. It might be locations, sponsors, food, etc.. But I feel like we often overlook what is good, or great, about specific user groups.
First off, we have to define what “good” is. Good for the leader can be very different than good to the attendees. Are there sponsors? If so, what does “good” look like to them? If we don’t know what “good” is, then chances are you’ll eventually end up with an empty room.
WHAT A USER GROUP SHOULD BE
User Groups by their sheer definition should be a space for users to meet. In the truest form, you’ll have presentations or group discussions, all with input from users. Now the definition of a user can easily be stretched. Some might say that users should only be paying customers. Others might argue that partners/implementation specialists are users. In the case of technology user groups, in my opinion, a user is someone who does not work for the company that the group focuses on, but uses their technology. Partners are generally quite welcome as they tend to bring a lot of experience to the table, but selling services is a big NO.
The user groups meetings should also provide value, and that value should be on-topic. In my case, I run a Veeam user group, and we make sure to focus on Veeam content (duh!). VMUGs are similar: you’ll see a tight focus on VMware technologies and environments. This can start to be troublesome the more the group grows though. How many of our environments are strictly VMware? Likely none – last I checked, we all likely had workloads based on Microsoft, Linux, BSD, etc. operating systems. As VMware’s footprint grows larger (into more and more datacenters), we start seeing folks introducing other technologies. These might be products that compete with VMware’s interest (for example, software-defined storage that isn’t vSAN). At what point does it make sense to start talking about this technology that competes, but complements the vendor?
Further to the above, user-created content goes a long way. If I am listening to a user talk about how they implemented a new storage array, I’m going to put a lot of stock into to. Hearing from someone who has implemented the technologies, the gotchas they found, and their overall experience … well, that’s priceless. Unfortunately, getting users to present can be a bit tedious. The most common response I have heard is “I have nothing to present”.
I get it, I really do, but presentations don’t always need to be about an elaborate project. Rather it can be even about a small part of a project. For example, I might detail one component of my DR plan, such as how do I get my data offsite. What technology do I use? How often do I push it? Why – what are the business drivers for that? How do I get it back? All of that could easily turn into a 20-minute conversation.
Notice how I said conversation, and not presentation? Going back to getting users engaged, you want conversation. If you have someone (whether a sponsor, presenter, or leader) talking AT people, you won’t get far. Rather you want to be inclusive and get conversations going – get the whole group involved. Doing that doesn’t always have to be hard. Do you see someone nodding their head in agreement? Ask them why – have they run into the same issue? Did they take the same approach? What if they are shaking their head in disagreement? Engage and see why their experiences are different. Turning the presentation into a discussion is a great way to get large groups interacting, and gaining insights from our peers is a key component to user groups.
WHAT A USER GROUP SHOULD NOT BE
Users groups should not be an avenue for sales. If I am attending a user group conference for Technology X, I don’t want to be hearing about sales figures. If I care that much, I’ll reach out to a sales rep after the fact. Instead, this is an opportunity to show me the nuts and bolts – make me understand why or how your product will help me. It also shouldn’t be just a way for folks to show up for free food or drink; if that is the only reason why most are showing up, then you will need to re-examine the group’s focus.
If you are running a user group based on a specific technology, you also need to figure out how much influence, if any, that technology vendor should have. Assuming the vendor is helping out with sponsorship, how many of the decisions should they drive? If they start doing things like assigning dates, specific agendas/topics, forcing locations, etc. … well in my eyes, that is when it goes from a user group to a marketing event. On the flip side, if they come at you with all of these things, but are open to change, then they might just be trying to be helpful, which is great.
Going back to my VMware vSAN example above, how would VMware feel about sponsoring an event that mentions a competing product? On the one hand, you don’t want to give competitors free marketing. On the other hand, this is a user group – user’s work in the real world; as per my statement above, nobody works in a strict VMware environment. As a user, I would prefer to hear about real world experiences compared to “vendor world” experiences. Please note, I just used VMware as an example as VMUGs are some of the largest user groups out there. I am not a VMUG leader, nor do I pretend to be one 😉
I’ve been to fantastic user groups, horrible ones, and everything in between. Incidentally, I have found that the better ones all tended to be vendor sponsored (money helps run these things). But I’ve also seen vendors get too involved and cross that line into marketing territory. Once you cross that line, it can be hard to go back. If you are a vendor, a huge thank you for sponsoring, but please keep marketing out of it. If you are a user, please consider getting involved and helping the group grow. If you are a leader, thank you.