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Inspired by this question, I have looked into user groups within my area in England, and there does not seem to be one at all for a few hundred miles. I would like to look into the possibility of setting one up in a local city, but I have no idea what the format should be.

My questions are: What is the purpose of a user group? Is it to simply network or are there expectations for presentations, informal learning, etc? How and where does one promote a user group? Is it run as a free enterprise or is there usually a charge to allow for investment back into the meetings?

Thanks.

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There is a Geekup in Preston tonight. If all you want to do is network, and chat about geekery, and technology. Details here: geekup.org/events/301 –  cometbill May 16 '11 at 11:51
    
Have you looked at ineta (international dotnet usergroup assosiation) for more info? –  k3b May 16 '11 at 11:56
    
Unfortunately INETA hasn't really done much in the UK overall. What you see there is only really the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is available. –  Colin Mackay May 16 '11 at 12:45
    
For the UK, Colin is sadly right. INETA doesn't seem to offer our community anything above and beyond what we can get just by working together with each other and the community at large. However, from what I understand INETA do a great job for emerging communities. I have heard good things about their support in Eastern Europe. Maybe at a point certain groups just "outgrow" INETA, I'm not sure. –  Rachel Hawley May 16 '11 at 15:05

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

I see from your profile that you're based in Warrington. What type of user group were you looking for .NET, Java, SQL ... general? There's a nice group in Manchester that you might be interested in: http://www.nxtgenug.net/Region.aspx?RegionID=11

In my experience, user groups derive their focus out of what the co-ordinator (or group of co-ordinators) is interested in. For example, if you are big into Silverlight then your own group would probably have that bias. Similarly, if your focus is more to network with other local devs just to chat, maybe code a little, talk about jobs and share experiences, then you will find that people with similar persuasions will join you. After all, there is not much point to a group where the people attending are not interested in the information that they get from the group :)

Depending on what it is that you are looking to get out of spending time with other devs will determine whether you want your group to be an educational group or a networking group. Groups like London's Silverlight user group, London .NET and the regional NxtGen User Groups focus more on education and sharing knowledge. They invite a monthly speaker to come and share their specialities with the group. On the other hand "meetups" (I think there is a fledgling one in Cambridge) have a more social aspect where the attendees participate more to spend leisure time after work with like-minded people rather than to necessarily "learn about" new stuff.

If you haven't yet got a feel for what you want your group to focus on, maybe you could arrange an informal meetup to see what others in your area are interested in - educational talks or networking - that may help to determine the expectations of your potential attendees and formulate the best plan.

Depending on what type of group you have, there are a lot of places that you can promote your group or meetup. Microsoft operate a list that includes UK events in its Flash newsletter. Twitter is a great way to promote your group, since people in the UK community share links and events like wildfire. You might also try promoting it to local companies that you know have an IT/development department, maybe a printed flyer or a quick call to the company to get the email address of someone who might be interested enough to share the group information with their colleagues. I would offer this advice: don't be put off if you don't get great traction right away. We have a .NET user group in Cambridge and it has taken us a long time (almost 4 years, I think) to get a regular turn out of 30-40 each month. The success and benefits of your group will depend on your commitment to keep pushing on through even if you think you're not getting anywhere.

As to the financial side of things, the single biggest pain in the butt is finding a venue who will allow you to make a regular arrangement to hold your meeting there. If you plan to do more of the networking thing, this might not pose such a problem for you as you can arrange to meet at a pub or coffee house where you can usually ask to reserve a little bit of space for no fee. If you are going for the regular education meeting style approach, try asking your company if they might let you have a room in your building one night each month to hold it. Regularity and consistency is one of the keys to hosting a successful educational user group.

If you want to organise food and drinks for your attendees, you should try seeking out vendor support from organisations who offer products/services in the field that you are interested in. For example, I help with the Cambridge NxtGen group and I also work for DevExpress. NxtGen is a Microsoft technology focused group for the main part, and DevExpress offer products in this area. NxtGen reached out to us and other vendors like Red Gate, JetBrains, Pluralsight for support in the form of money to pay for pizza and also prizes for monthly raffles to entice more attendees into the group (if they know that they can win valuable stuff and pick up things like shirts and trinkets then it might make them think favourably about coming to your group every time you host a meeting). If you know of vendors who operate in the area that you are interested in then try the same approach and see what they say. I have mostly found .NET vendors to be very forthcoming with their support, so I can't imagine why vendors in other areas might not work the same way.

I'd be happy to link you with other user group leaders who can offer you advice. You can find me on Twitter (@RachelHawley) and you can email me at rachelh at the DevExpress domain.

Good luck! Rachel.

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I would add at the moment that the Manchester group are meeting near Daresbury (about 10 minutes from Warrington) –  cometbill May 16 '11 at 11:06
    
Wow, great answer. The nxtgenug is exactly what I am looking for. I've signed up with them today. I'm only disappointed I never knew about it earlier to see Jon Skeet in action :) The good thing is, they are literally a 5 minute drive or so from my house. Thanks again :) –  Darren Young May 16 '11 at 18:25

What is the purpose of a user group? Is it to simply network or are there expectations for presentations, informal learning, etc?

It is for what ever you want it to be. I help run Scottish Developers and we have a wide scope. We run evening talks, book clubs, geek dinners, conferences, workshops, etc. Each has its own challenges and its own rewards.

If all you want to do is network with fellow developers in your local area then I'd suggest activities that encourage discussion: Geek Dinners or a Book Club. (We get people to vote on a book, when the votes are counted we publish that and get people to sign up.) Then on the evening of the meeting we meet in a pub (although a coffee shop may be a good venue for this) and talk about the book. We often talk about other things to that are generaly inspired by the book. Maybe somebody's already done what the book was talking about and it worked well, or maybe it didn't work. Maybe it inspires someone to try something new and they'll tell us at the next meeting how it worked out for them. etc.

If you want to bring in speakers to talk about specific subjects then evening talks or conferences work well for that. They are more work to organise, but there is a vibrant community in the UK for that. Just go along to one of the DDD (Developer!Developer!Developer!) community conferences and speak to the speakers and organisers in order to start building a contact list of folks who would be willing to talk at your user group.

How and where does one promote a user group?

I can't speak for everyone, but Scottish Developers use twitter, we have our own blog, we recently set up a LinkedIn group, any Microsoft focused events appear in the MSDN Flash Newsletter.

Is it run as a free enterprise or is there usually a charge to allow for investment back into the meetings?

It depends on the group. Scottish Developers try not to charge people for things. Obviously, some things like Geek Dinners are charged for, but evening talks and conferences we try not to charge. However, I'm finding that an increasingly difficult proposition. We do have some free venues and we are very grateful for the companies that have helped us in that regard, but unless you have a good relationship with someone that has space to give you will have to pay for it and that money has to come from somewhere.

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