How to Start a User Group
At this year's SharePoint Conference there was an active Community Zone where people could learn more about user groups, MVPs, and current events in the SharePoint community. I answered questions in the Community Zone on Monday and the most frequent was "How do you start a User Group?" Here are my thoughts, and I'd love to hear yours so please comment.
The first and only requirement is location, once you have one you can book a speaker and make your announcement. Find a location where you can get consistent access as often as you plan to meet (e.g. monthly).
It helps to choose a consistent day each month (e.g. "the third Wednesday of each month") and be ready to announce your next meeting's speaker at each meeting. If you can't plan that far ahead, give members at least a week's notice. The longer notice you can give, the more people you will attract.
Build a website. I like Meetup.com because it's free for small groups and inexpensive as you grow (~$75/year). You can host your own SharePoint site but be aware this is a significant committment that introduces risks that a volunteer-run UG doesn't always have the resources to support. Meetup.com takes that whole headache away and lets your planners focus on planning (find ours at http://www.tspug.com).
At your first meeting (or every meeting) ask people what they want to learn about. I write the ideas on a board or flip chart and then run through the list a second time to vote on topics. For the top 3 to 5, ask if anyone there would would like to present. You can often plan 2-3 meetings at a time like this. The point is to involve people and asking them what they want their group to be is a good step towards being able to ask them to contribute.
A box of reusable name tags goes a long way.
After your first meeting register the group with MSTC: https://www.technicalcommunity.com/
A user group exists for the community of its members, not its sponsors. While all UGs rely on sponsors for facilities, speakers, giveaway items, catering and other perks, you will build a stronger community with a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion. If you ever have to ask or answer who is "allowed" to be a sponsor or speaker know that you walking a slippery slope. Diversity strengthens.
Your own members are your best speakers. Develop them. A night of 10-minute talks is a great way to encourage new speakers to share their stories.
At TSPUG we start meetings by having new people introduce themselves and doing a general Q&A. People are often there to find answers, and if you can supply them right away they can sit back and relax for the rest of the night. User groups started as gatherings to talk about work. While those are officially "SharePints" now, always set aside time for people to chat and get to know each other.
Let your local Microsoft office know you exist and ask for their support. Get your group announced in their regular missives to partners and customers (e.g. MSDN Flash), ask for giveaways, ask them to present.
As you grow, delegate. Different people can confirm the facility a few days ahead, coordinate speakers, check the registration count for catering, answer queries on the website, act as emcee, and tabulate evals.
Speaking of evaluations - use them to get feedback about what people want to see, and get comments and scores to your speakers so they can improve. To encourage people to fill them out, use evals to raffle off the prizes you've collected from sponsors.
Sit back and enjoy your new user group!
What did I miss? Do you have a story to share? Comment!