T-SQL Tuesday #148 – Advice on Running a User Group

Today’s T-SQL Tuesday edition comes from Rie Merrit and she is asking about “Advice on Running a User Group.”

Fortunately she’s only asking for 1-2 ideas, not an entire book (though there’s at least one book out there on the topic, which I’ll admit I’ve skimmed but not read cover to cover).

It Starts at the Door

This is actually an area I’ve not done as well in as I’d like, but I’m going to continue to work on. For your in-person meetings (we remember what those were like, right?) find one of your more outgoing, sociable members, ideally someone who is good with names and details, and position them by the door to greet people. When someone new comes in, this person should make sure they get their name, ask them if they have any particular interests, and then introduce them to others, ideally with similar interests.

It can be very intimidating to walk into a new User Group meeting where you know no one, and every already there is already happily chatting away and you end up feeling like an outsider.

By assigning someone to the role of greeter, ideally any new person instantly can be made to feel welcome. Besides simply introducing them, the greeter can explain how things work in terms of schedule, where the bathrooms are, where food is at, etc. This keeps newcomers from feeling lost and left out.

On the flip side of this advice, the greeter has to make sure they’re not too enthusiastic either. If the newcomer indicates they’d rather just sit in the corner and listen and leave, that’s fine too. The goal isn’t to force everyone to socialize. The goal is to make it easier for those who wish to.

I can guarantee that if you make people feel welcome, they’re more likely to come back.

It Pays to have Sponsor

Or more accurately, its sponsors that make it possible to pay for food and other costs. Several years ago at a User Group Leader meeting at PASS Summit, I listened as a speaker talked about looking for sponsors you might not normally consider, i.e. going outside of getting sponsorship from technical companies. This has worked really well for me in the past. But before you even go that far, you need to get some data. And since we’re DBAs, we should be good with data. I recommend once a year, collecting data about your group with some questions such as:

  • How many people receive your weekly or monthly emails. You don’t need an exact number, but is it 100, 300, 500, 1000?
  • How many people typically attend your meetings? (and now ask in-person versus on-line if you’re doing hybrid)
  • Where are they coming from?
  • How many years have they been in the industry?
  • Do you have a breakdown by age range?

You’re trying to get a sense of demographics. This will come in handy when you look for sponsors that are non-technical (for technical sponsors you will want different demographics). But with the data from my group, I have approached a number of different sponsors such as banks, insurance agencies and the like. My sales pitch is generally along the lines of:

I can put your name in front of 400 people via email and 20-30 people in person that are in your demographic (generally 40-50 years of age, higher income) that are probably in the market for your services (such as life insurance, investment opportunities, etc).

I’ve had a lot of luck with this approach. Sometimes I’ve gotten a check right there, sometimes they’ve had to go up their chain of command, but now they have data to sell the idea to their boss. And sometimes, you find out a prospect is not a good match. This happened with me when I approached a contact at the local, then new casino. Turns out their target demographic was older, retired women. Apparently they spend a lot of time and money at the casino. In contrast, mid-life professional DBAs don’t gamble much!

The other key detail when approach a sponsor is being clear on what you’re selling them. You probably recognize this without really realizing it. At any conference you’ve been to you’ve seen Platinum Sponsors, Gold Sponsors, etc. The more someone is willing to pay, the more mention they get, the bigger their logo may be featured, etc. This works for user groups. My advice here is to not overdue the number of sponsorships and to deliver on what you promise. For my group, pre-Covid, I would typically try to have no more than 3-4 sponsors at a time, and total over a year, perhaps 6 or so. Some sponsors would sponsor for 3 meetings, some for the entire year. There were discounts for an annual sponsor as opposed to a quarterly sponsor. If you were a quarterly or greater sponsor, besides having your logo in emails and being mentioned from time to time, you were given the opportunity once a quarter or so to give a 5 minute pitch before the group. Some took advantage of that, some didn’t. But I have to say those who did, I think made a better impact when they could introduce themselves and point to the food and say they were glad to sponsor our group.

I’ll close with one final comment on sponsors: not all need to provide a direct financial contribution. We have a local hotel that has provided us 1-2 free room nights a year. We typically use one to put up a speaker who is coming in from out of town, and the second as part of our annual holiday raffle. We also had the local garbage collection company provide a free year’s service as a prize for our annual raffle. That was surprisingly one of our more popular prizes. In SQL Server you don’t have to worry about garbage collection and for a year neither did one of our DBAs!

In Conclusion

I can’t speak for other user groups, but I do know we’re probably very close to going back to in-person meetings in the near future so I’ll be dusting off the playbook and doing the above as well as other things in order to build up our successful in-person attendance again.

I look forward to seeing what other group leaders advise!

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