This post may well come out sounding like an ad for Meetup.com. Not my intent, but so be it if that's how it comes across.
I'll also state clearly that I don't have any formal connection with Meetup, although I am a co-organizer of theDC/Baltimore Windows App Developers Meetup, and I've also written a couple of APIMASH Starter Kits that leverage the Meetup API.
And last, but not least, I want to emphasize that this does NOT represent the official position of Microsoft, nor my advice as a Technical Evangelist. This is my PERSONAL opinion as someone who's spent many, many years speaking at, attending, and participating in user groups in the DC area and beyond. Reasonable people can certainly disagree, and almost certainly will. And if you're one of them, feel free to leave a comment with your reasoning.
Making the Case for Meetup
The title of this post is a pretty bold statement, as it's meant to be. As background, while I've not run a technical user group of my own, I have been a part of the technical user group community in the Washington, DC area for more than 15 years (and the Mid-Atlantic as a whole for nearly a decade), both as a speaker and in my current role as a Technical Evangelist for Microsoft. During this time, I've seen user groups face numerous challenges with their online presence, including:
- Domain names expiring, due to leadership transitions
- Infrequent (or no) updates to online presence
- Meeting announcements posted only days before the actual meeting
- No formal means of knowing how many folks are going to attend (which makes ordering the right amount of pizza very difficult, I can tell you)
- Poor (or no) communication to members
- No discoverability mechanism for non-members
- Limited extensibility
Now I'll grant that not all user groups have all of the above issues. There are a number of groups in Mid-Atlantic that are well-organized, plan their meetings months in advance, and get the word out via their websites in a pretty effective manner. Some have extensive mailing lists, and communicate effectively with their membership. But in my experience, this tends to be the exception, rather than the rule.
My contention is that, by hosting their own custom website for their user group, many technical communities face an unnecessary barrier to effectively communicating with their members (and potential members). This may not have been true a decade ago, when groups had few options but their own custom site. But today there's an alternative, one that I believe has compelling benefits, and one which anyone leading a technical community should strongly consider using, namely Meetup.com.
What is Meetup?
For those not yet familiar with it, Meetup.com is essentially a web-based service that provides all of the infrastructure you could want for running an effective user community. Meetup itself is not limited to technical communities, but it's widely used by technical user communities, and for some very good reasons.
Why Meetup Rocks
Here are some of the compelling advantages I see in the service Meetup offers:
- It's affordable. For many groups, the cost of a year's worth of Meetup service would be less than the cost of pizza for one meeting. While that's not as cheap as free, it's something that's very reasonable for what you get, including:
- Easy management of upcoming events. It's super-simple to add a new event for your Meetup, and the service handles all of the hard stuff like RSVPs, sending out meeting notifications (and allowing folks to opt-in/out to these announcements), etc.
- Archives of past events. Meetup lists all the past meetups you've hosted, including comments from members, etc.
- Built-in support for event ratings, comments, and photo uploads for members, making it super-easy for folks to participate more fully in your events both before and after.
- Built-in support for meeting RSVPs and a check-in API.
- A rich API that enables all kinds of possibilities, from building apps (more to come on this, but in the meantime, do check out my Meetup/Bing APIMASH Starter Kits), to integrating Meetup information into your existing user group web site.
- Discoverability. Your group automatically becomes discoverable to people looking for technology Meetups in your area. Whether through Meetup search, or through their suggestion algorithms, your group has a much better chance of being discovered on Meetup than if you simply rely on word-of-mouth or SEO on your own website.
And that's just a few of the advantages that I see of Meetup as a platform for technical communities. There's a lot more, much of which you can learn about from Meetup's Help section.
In addition to the the DC/Baltimore Windows App Developers Meetup that I'm involved with, I've seen several local .NET user groups switch over to, or add a Meetup presence to their existing sites, including the DC .NET User Group, CapArea.NET, and BaltoMSDN.
I've also got an admittedly selfish reason for being happy that these groups have made it onto Meetup...it makes it that much easier for me to promote the events they're running. I recently added the ability to import from a Meetup event id to my Community Megaphone website, so you can just grab the event id from the url for the Meetup, as shown below:
Then, head over to the Add Event page, click the Import from Meetup event ID link, paste in the ID, and click OK, and the form will be populated with the information from the Meetup url:
The form fields will then be pre-populated from the matching data from the Meetup API. A quick check for correctness and any formatting issues, and the event can be submitted to Community Megaphone, after which it becomes part of my weekly event promotion blog posts, and for events in the US that are related to Microsoft technologies, they are also published in the bi-weekly MSDN Flash newsletter.
For local groups that are on Meetup, this is a win-win. They get greater visibility and manageability by being on Meetup, and it's easier for me to promote their events. Everyone wins.
I hope I've made the case that if you manage a technical community, you should at least evaluate whether Meetup makes more sense than having your own one-off website and mailing list. I don't know of any user group leader I've ever met who has gobs of time to spend managing users, updating web sites, etc., so the simpler this process can be, the better.
And if you're a member of a technical community, talk to the leader(s) of the groups you frequent, and suggest they consider moving to Meetup.