The first user groups were launched in the 1950s. People using technology, such as IBM's mainframe systems, came together into loose clubs to support each other, spread best practices, and share ideas. From the dawn of the micro-computing revolution through the proliferation of web-based software, software and technology user groups have grown in importance and numbers.
While user groups have their roots in early technological platforms, today, user groups are a major force behind the voice of customers for almost all software and technology companies. While many in the business technology arena have been members of, worked alongside, or operated on the periphery of user groups, user group management is still a fuzzy concept due to their organic origins.
These are only a few of the questions that swirl around companies and their customer communities since there has never been a roadmap for creating and using a user group.
We want to address many of these unknowns, covering the basics of starting and running a successful user group. This includes everything from establishing your leadership structure to important user group management processes.
In today's day and age, one of the most important elements of a thriving user group is their website. While it is the user group's public-facing website that will help to attract and recruit new members, it is the members-only website that is at the heart of user group growth.
The exclusive value and tools to keep user group members engaged are primary reasons why your customers or members make time to participate in your user group and make return visits to the online community.
Let's dive deeper into the elements of an engaging user group website.
Your website should include an easy method to track who is a member of the user group and who is not. If it is an independent group, then a dues payment may be required. If it is run by the company, then integration with a CRM system may be necessary to manage access to the private user community.
The most widely used feature among our user group customers are the online discussion forums. Members want to ask questions and get answers from their peers. Give them easy tools to participate in discussions across the organization.
Tip: Using a discussion forum platform with integrated email listserv increases participation, while maintaining the search and archive features of discussion boards.
The second most popular online community feature is file or document sharing. Some files may be uploaded by the company or vendors, but most will be uploaded by user group members.
Tip: With today's IP laws, be sure to have click-through acceptances to limit the user group's risk when people are uploading and downloading files from your site.
While there will be many general areas of the site available to all members, you will also need private areas for committees, chapters and boards as the user group grows. You may even want to segment user communities by product usage so that each user sees only the information that is relevant to them.
Feedback is a cornerstone benefit of a user group. Be sure to initiate feedback from members on current releases, upcoming products, and new feature/product ideas. Members will appreciate the opportunity to have a voice in the future of your company and your company will gain valuable insight from your market.
If run by a company, enhance your partner program by enabling limited access to the online user community by vendor partners. For independent groups, vendor access and sponsorships is a great way to turn the private online community into a revenue-generating machine.
Online collaboration is great, but you cannot beat sitting and meeting with people face-to-face to build a strong community. Be sure to have at least one event that brings people together to train, share best practices, and network with others in the community.
Tip: Just one in-person event a year can give a huge shot in the arm to year round online community participation.
In between online communication and in-person communication, you will find a valuable tool in webinars. Have members give a best practice webinar once a month, allow your company to update the members on new features, or ask a partner to outline a new product or service. Exclusive members-only webinars are a great engagement tool to keep members interested in the value your user group offers.
Giving a voice to your company and members is an opportunity to create interesting content on a regular basis in the user community. Blogs are a great way to facilitate this voice. Enable thought-leaders in your membership to write about what interests them or enable vendor executives to share company thoughts.
Tip: Enable commenting on all blogs. Two-way dialog facilitates great ideas and user group growth.
As a company with a user group, one main benefit is that you have a community of people that want you to succeed. Give these members a voice in new features, services, and products that will help them become more successful with your solutions. A strong relationship with you community also gives you valuable insight into new opportunities for your company.
It can be difficult to get the time and attention of your busy customers or user group members. The solution is to provide clear and overwhelming value in solving their most important problems.
Your user community website platform offers a flexible and secure way to engage members. By providing exclusive access to information, a platform to get answers from peers, and access to experts, your user community website is one of your most valuable member benefits.