My User Group Findings
My local .NET user group (CRINETA) has had a bumpy road recently after loosing several key contributers. I stepped down as leader of the group around 10 months ago. Since then, I've tried to stay involved the group through email, but I'm typically unavailable to attend meetings. The information below are some of the lessons learned during my 3 years running the user group. I hope that other user group leaders find this information helpful.
There are many International and National organizations out there to with the sole purpose of supporting user groups. For a .NET user group, make sure your user group is registered with INETA and Codezone. A few other organizations that I know of are PASS and Cullumis
This is an area that many groups struggle with however, it's actually pretty easy to obtain SWAG, funding, etc from sponsors. Associations often provide a quartley kit of SWAG for their members, however that isn't typically enough for a thriving user group. To really keep the SWAG and funding rolling in, you need to contact companies directly. Most companies have user group programs that are free to join, and they're always looking for new members. These companies are typically 3rd-partly software shops, development magazines, book publishers, local businesses and local consluting companies. For a list of known user group sponsors see the INETA User Group Specials page.
Once you've obtained your sponsorship the question of "where to draw the line" always come up. Many sponsors will give you their expectations up front, however local businesses and consulting companies are a differnt breed. I heard mixed opinions about user groups involvement with local companies. My personal view is that it's that they can be one of the best resources for a user group, but you must know where to draw the line to avoid conflicts with sponsors and your members.
This a is key element to starting and maintaining a user group. Sponsors and local businesses play a key role in marketing a user group. Not only will they invest in community but they'll promote their investmest. Some common marketing techniques are word of mouth, flyers, and mass emails. Other approaches that I've found useful are advertising at local venues that attract a technical target audieance (movies theatres, gaming events, best buy, etc). Also, make sure you utilize your existing membership to advertise the user group. Ask them to post your flyer at their business or run a bring a buddy campain. You can reward their contribution with additional prize raffles.
Topics & Speakers
Topic selection and communicaiton can make or break a user group. Poll your membership often on their satisfaction with the group and topic selection. Ask for topic suggestions and guest speakers. If you're struggling with feedback, the safe bet is to present on the latest technologies. Lastly, you can also lookup/contact other groups in your region to see what topics they're presenting. This can often help both group since they may have talented speakers, but they've already covered their subject matter with their local group. In this sceneria a speaker exchange typically serves both group well and give the speaker more a wider audiance.
User group in my region are:
If you're not aware of other user groups in your area, you can also look them up on the INETA website.