Starting A User Group

This article is still ongoing. I decided to publish it because I figured it still might help some individuals even in this primitive state.

First things first. What exactly is a user group? A user group is a group of people that get together by interest in a particular technology. It may be a programming language, it may be an Operating System, or even a generic technology just to name a few. User groups are also often referred to as Special Interest Groups (SIG’s).

Running a user group can be a very rewarding experience and a great way to meet like-minded people in your area. It can also be quite a bit of work, but as the old saying goes “many hands make light work”, the more helpers you’ve got the easier it gets. From my experience, if you’re giving something to the community, the community (or at least part of) will be happy to give something back.

My name is Chris Burgess and I’m involved in a couple of user groups in Melbourne, Australia. We have a very active user group community and I truly enjoy being part of it. I’m a firm believer in the statement that “there’s more than one way”, and this applies to running a user group, but hopefully this document will serve as a guide for those who’d like to create a local user group and are not sure where to start. Keep in mind that I’m a sys admin, not an event planner.


So what are some of the benefits of running a user group?

* Professional Development
* Business Contacts/Networking
* Fun/Social

Personally, I get a lot out my user group activities and I’m sure that you will too. I think that if you focus on making sure that your members are benefiting in attending your meetings, they will be more likely to contribute themselves.

Getting Started

The first thing to do is check to see if there are any groups that already exist in your area. If there is, offer to help. Most people that run user groups (especially the open source and free software groups) do so because they enjoy it or they have a passion for their particular interest, this doesn’t mean that they don’t need help. It’s safe to say that most user groups will welcome any help they can get.

You might find that there isn’t any user group in your area, so you’ll have to form one. You can tackle this problem head on and do it on your own, but I would highly recommend recruit helpers. A good committee of dedicated helpers is essential in growing your group while at the same time keeping it enjoyable for everyone involved. The saying is “many hands make light work”, and this is certainly true for running a user group. We all have day (and I use this term loosely) jobs and if all the work is left up to one person, it can be draining it will quickly become a chore. If there are a few of you to share the tasks, it’s possible to keep running the group and enjoyable activity.

I’m sure there are many groups that rely on a minimal web presence, however I would argue that a good functional web site is one of a groups most important assets (even more so if your technology is a web oriented one). Tools like mailing lists, forums and other collaborative communications can be crucial to successfully coordinate your group’s activities.

The tools:

* Mail List Managers
* Forums
* Project Management Systems
* Internet Relay Chat
* Instant Messenger
* Wiki’s
* Usenet Newsgroups

Of course offline methods of communication such as conference calls and face-to-face meetings are useful as well.

Finding New Members

The people are out there, it’s just a matter of finding them. There are many sites that can help you find potential members.

Here are a few to get you started:


Other places to promote your group:

* Blogs
* Trade Shows and Exhibitions
* Conferences
* Other User Groups
* Mainstream Media
* Alternative Media


Some groups benefit from having a committee with dedicated roles, so break up the running of the group into bite sized chunks and delegate. Most members won’t mind doing one or two small tasks and this will prevent the core organisers from feeling overloaded and/or burning out.

Committee Meetings

Ughh, meetings about meetings? Well, not really, you can keep these meetings informal and non-compulsory, but they really help get things organized. Having someone take minutes to distribute by email or publish online is also very handy, and it also gives other committee members who couldn’t attend a given meeting a way to keep updated. In addition to minutes, I thoroughly recommend and action list. An action list serves as a point form summary of who’s going to do what. That way everyone should know what he or she is doing. Below is (or was, a new bunch of people look after it now) an excerpt from an action list after one of the Melbourne PHP committee meetings.


Meeting Day!

You’ll need a venue.




Running Sheet


Meeting Format

As far as I know (and I go to a fair few UG meetings) this format is quite unique to the Melbourne PHP User Group. I’m sure other formats work equally as well, however we make a point to always try and encourage new members. Feedback from *all* members is highly encouraged, we have found that a good mix of educational material with some hands on demos always go down quite well.

Our meeting format currently looks like:

* Beginner Workshop (ideal for any newcomers)
* Main Presentation 1
* Break (tea/coffee)
* Main Presentation 2
* Informal discussion (useful for anyone with a particular problem)

If you can get people to present with slides, that’s great. Even better if you can get a copy of the slides uploaded to a web site promptly after the meeting. Making video or voice recordings may not be an option for most groups, but it’s worth keeping in mind.