This post is cross-posted from my personal blog site.
I see user groups of all kinds and types, all over the place. They all serve a purpose. Typically, that purpose is to gather like-minded individuals together in one place, to network and learn about whatever it is that brought them together. For pretty much anyone that reads my blog, this common thread is probably DotNetNuke. However, I could just as easily be talking about SQL Server, .Net, PHP, Java, etc. Name the technology or cause, and that’s the only thing that changes. The principles remain the same.
These same user groups usually get created and ran by someone because they are simply too passionate about the topic, that they are boiling over and have an overwhelming need to share this passion with others, and help them learn more about the topic – but in general, the idea is to HELP them.
This is exactly what a user group should be – a group of individuals helping each other. Nothing more. The format may vary in terms of delivery, but the core value is all about helping your peers. Keeping to this ideal ensures the longevity of the group - increasing attendees, repeat attendees, membership, and participation.
Why is that? It’s simple…
In a user group-type of environment, everyone feels a lot more open and willing to contribute their expertise, code, experiences and more – because they feel that their contribution isn’t going to be taken away from them, and used to directly promote another entity – or a competing entity. They are helping their peer. Their neighbor. The person that might have helped them – at this meeting, online, or at a previous meeting. But those that understand this, also know that this is a relationship-building process. That peer might be the key to your next great opportunity, and you theirs.
Let’s contrast that statement and dive into the topic a bit more to lend a little perspective… I am going to use the example of advertisement, because it’s the most common form of sponsor benefit user groups have.
What Not To Do
Assume that you have a user group, and the leader runs a company that benefits either directly or indirectly from the technology you’re talking about. In the DNN world, we can use a web host as an example. Let’s say that the user group leader is the owner of Acme Hosting company. They specialize in DotNetNuke hosting. How would you feel if the newsletters coming from the user group, and banner advertising had Acme Hosting branding everywhere?
Personally, I would assume that the Acme Hosting company is using the user group as their advertising vehicle. I would feel less inclined to participate in any way, much less attend a meeting or register on their website. Having run a few user groups myself, and participated in quite a few over the years, I can say with 100% confidence that I would be part of the 97% majority of people feeling the same way.
Very much like any poison, things like the previous example can eat away at the user group.
Are there exceptions to this example? Absolutely! If the advertisement of the user group board member was not the only one, and was given fair placement in contrast to the other advertisers that the user group might have, then it would seem a lot more genuine. After all, the user group leader is indeed spending quite a bit of their free time to make things happen, and probably are using company resources too. Unfortunately, yes, this deals primarily with perception, and not intent.
The bottom line in this example, is "no special treatment.” To give another viewpoint from the same example, your sponsors wouldn’t be very happy either. They’d feel that they don’t get fair value for supporting the user group. You’d soon lose them too, along with your members.
There are no hard and fast rules that can literally span all user groups, because user group formats can be very unique. All you have to do is think about the message that your activities will be sending to not only existing members, but also potential new members that have no context of what you may communicate with existing members.
If you don’t feel that your activity will send a positive message to nearly all of the members, and all new members, then you should reconsider you decision.
I’ve never been a member, but I happen to know about a methodology that the Rotary International uses as one of their core values. They believe in maintaining a standard, where decisions are balanced against a set of 4 rules, which they call the 4-way test. Those rules are:
- Is it the TRUTH?
- Is it FAIR to all concerned?
- Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
- Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
I think you can agree, that even though their intention is to use these rules to make more responsible business decisions, they can be generally applied to all areas of life, including user groups.
Community is a very organic thing. It’s a very trustworthy thing. When you’re part of and leading part of a community, the people around you have very high expectations of you and what you do. Ironically, most of the people in the community don’t know what those standards are until you cross the line. When that happens, you lose a ton, if not all, of your credibility – and it’s not an easy task to recover from that kind of situation. We see this in business almost daily.
Think of community as a field of [insert crop here]. A leader is very much like a farmer. You need to give the crops a place to be, you need to give them water and nourishment (information), and you need to maintain the crop field so that the existing crop will live just fine, but crops in future years will also thrive. However, if you do something you’re not supposed to, the crops will die. Your community will be lost. Using a user group for your own direct and personal gain is like spreading poison all over your crops.
Just remember this, be a good farmer! :D
Practice What You Preach, Will!
I wanted to end this with an example of what I did as the user group leader for the ODUG. When I first took over as the leader, there were 4 advertisements on the website, and not really any other sponsor perks in place yet. Among those advertisements were just sponsor ads from the companies that the main contributors of the user group belonged to. It wasn’t quite wrong – yet. There weren’t any rules or guidelines to tell anyone to not do it, and there weren’t any other sponsors. Heck! There wasn’t really a format for the meetings yet.
When I began soliciting for sponsorship, the first thing I did was lower the impression rate for the banner ads for user group members, and move them to the bottom of the list on any listing of site sponsors. I didn’t remove them unless there wasn’t a direct tie-in to the user group that added value.
For instance, we began holding meetings at my current employer, RezHub. RezHub was donating meeting space and company time to the user group. For example, I had my IT guy on-hand to help with issues, and they were paying the bills for lights and a/c. Not to mention, the RezHub business runs 100% on DotNetNuke. So, there was prominent ad placement. However, when we moved our meetings to the ABC Fine Wine & Spirits corporate office, RezHub no longer offered any value to the user group. The ads came down.
To further give you a glimpse into my insight into this specific use-case, I saw the need to make sure that once I stepped down as the user group leader, there were rules in place to protect the integrity of the user group – ensuring its future from anyone that might step into the picture. I pulled ByLaws from various user groups all over the globe, and wrote the ODUG ByLaws.
These rules gave a lot of power to the President of the user group, but it also had in it checks and balances to remove rogue leaders, and allow the board to override decisions made by the leader. More importantly, it specifically mentions my topic of choice in this post:
No member of the Board of Directors may use their position on the Board of Directors for direct personal or financial gain.
If you would like to see the ODUG ByLaws, you can download them from the Orlando DotNetNuke Users Group homepage.
I hope this blog post lends you some insight into how important it is to ensure that the user group is by, for, and benefits the members of the user group, and not anyone running it. The members in all cases should come first. Believe me, any benefit that you might hope to get from leading a user group will come to you anyway if you’re doing the right things. There’s no reason to cut corners.