User groups have long been an essential element of customer marketing programs at technology companies. But, along with a multitude of other customer marketing programs, they tend to wax and wane in popularity over time.
Today, with companies of all types investing in community, customer success, and customer experience initiatives, we are seeing companies of all sizes revive their user group programs– or start one from scratch.
What is a user group?
User Groups are an opportunity to bring customers together in order to connect with and learn from each other, see how they can use your company’s products more effectively and provide feedback. If they are in-person, participants can get out of the office to “sharpen their axes.”
There are many ways to bring customers together in such a way:
- Annual user group meetings held in a destination city
- Informal user groups or Meetups
- Live online user groups
- Online communities
- Regional user groups
Five years ago at Brainshark, we decided to focus on the last of these options: regional user groups that we control and organize on our customers’ behalf.
That means we hit the road with a 12-week spring and six-week fall series. For those who cannot make one in person, we host monthly 60-minute online User Groups on specific topics of interest via On24.
Why Host User Groups?
The effect that user groups has on sales and retention is undeniable. Over the past five years at Brainshark, we have carefully watched the effects of meeting our customers for these in-person events.
Here are the results:
- Within 90 days of the meeting, our customers use the product an average of 15% more.
- Renewal rates are 10-15% far higher for customers that participate in the user group program.
We started the program with just 10 events in 10 cities, chosen based on the number of customers in each location. A typical user group brings 30-40 attendees together. With travel, lunch, and some room rentals, the average cost is $2,000-2,500. That cost easily pays for itself with the results that our events bring us.
In the early days, customers raved about our initial groups and word spread that others could participate. Soon, others were clamoring for user groups in their cities.
The question was: how do we scale an ad hoc series of 10 events to a program with 40 per year? With finite resources and a short timeline to execute, we identified five key steps to organizing user groups that I’m sharing here today.
The 5 Steps to Organizing a Successful User Group Program
1. Choose cities to visit.
Use a mapping tool such as BatchGeo to identify where your customers are concentrated. Then, look deeper to see if they are downtown or along an urban ring.
It is important to know your audience. If it is millennials or creative, go downtown. If your customers are older with kids or dogs, try the urban ring.
Some cities can be notoriously difficult (Los Angeles and Chicago). Experiment with moving locations around.
And – your best of all – ask people where they want to meet!
2. Schedule the user group.
In order to avoid traffic, it is best to start your user group at 10:00 AM and end at 2:00 or 3:00. Because this will run through midday, you need to provide lunch.
If your customers are downtown, an after-work Meetup might be viable.
If you’ll be at these user groups yourself (or you’re sending someone on the team out to them), keep self care in mind. Three user groups in a week will lead you to burnout. Always leave an extra day for an additional customer meeting or travel and schedule 1-2 weeks in the office between trips.
3. Choose a venue.
On the face of it, this seems simple. Just call a hotel, sign a contract, and show up. But this can get expensive and the feel of a hotel is usually too stuffy.
Here’s what we do instead: About three months in advance, we first ask our customers to host. Why would a company want to do this? The host benefits by making it easy for their people to attend. If your software is essential to the work of your customers, think what a benefit this would be. The biggest challenge when hosting in an office is Wi-Fi. Double check that guest Wi-Fi and A/V are available at the host’s office.
If customers are not able to host (major cities are a challenge here), start searching early. Try Googling “meeting space or room in”…. You’ll find everything from function halls and hotels to churches and restaurants.
You can also expect these results:
2. PeerSpace. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, there is a new service, PeerSpace, with unique meeting rooms at a reasonable cost. Think of them as the Airbnb for meetings. Expect them to add more cities.
3. Co-working spaces. This is hit-or-miss. Be careful as some co-working spaces can be in the low-rent district. There are both independent spaces and networks such as WeWork and Impact Hub. Most do not have a room large enough and if they do, it is important to have doors and walls as you do not want to bother their members or the opposite. We have had some success at the Hub (Seattle and London Westminster). It feels like each Hub is an independent franchise and there is no centralized source of information so you have to call each one.
4. University of Phoenix. This will most likely not come up in your search and is a very viable option as their 100+ rooms are usually available during the day. The price is right, they are in many urban ring locations with parking, and they have one point of contact for scheduling and billing.
5. Universities and libraries. Try “colleges or libraries with meeting space and conference rooms in xxx”. We have had good luck with public universities and downtown libraries with parking being the biggest challenge (City University of NY, University of Minnesota St Paul, and Hartford Public Library). Business universities often rent space in their conference center (Babson and Bentley outside of Boston and DePaul University Center for Sales Leadership in the Chicago Loop.)
6. Conference centers. These are similar to hotels without sleeping rooms and have good in-house support. A little cheaper than a hotel, they can be a viable alternative (Scott Center in Omaha and Waltham Woods outside of Boston are good picks).
7. Training rooms. Microtek is a good one-stop shop for a training room or computer lab. We look for half-day rentals in the $500 range and order in sandwiches bringing the costs to about a third of having it at a hotel. Most places have their act together, but as it is not feasible to visit each one in advance, ask for photos as room configuration is site specific.
The venue is critical to the success of your user group. Click here to see our favorites. Let us know yours and we will add them to the list.
4. Day-of considerations
There a few things you can do to minimize the inevitable curve balls. You will definitely want to send out a reminder email 24 hours before with all the details.
Here are some other suggestions:
- Include the venue’s GPS address, any other location considerations (i.e. parking, public transport), and your cell phone number in your reminder email.
- Arrive early to test A/V and get set up.
- Use in-house caterers and order platters rather than boxes.
- If there is a flat-screen monitor, make sure you have a HDMI connector for your PC.
- Bring a decent portable speaker (we use the JBL Charge) and a few power strips for attendee laptops.
- You may need a second person to help with checking people in, setting up, lunch etc. Consider Task Rabbit for an extra hand.
5. It’s show time!
Remember, this is not your meeting, it’s their meeting. We set up all of our user groups so that our customers can get to know one another throughout the meeting.
We started our events by dividing the agenda into sections for networking, sharing presentations, best practices, and hands-on training.
We typically bring together about 40 of our customers or sales leads, and then we introduce them to one another. Now it’s your turn to put the spotlight on them.
Regardless of the management of a user group program (you can ask your customers to run these on your behalf, but you’ll have less control and a harder time running logistics), customers want to meet each other, see how they are using your product or service, learn about best practices, hear about product updates, and provide feedback.
Here’s an important note to keep in mind as you’re planning: User groups are not for lead generation, which are very different events. That said, if a prospect is more than halfway through the sales process, they may benefit from meeting people who use your product and, in a larger company, sales should be encouraged to send out invitations to their prospects.
Thanks to Sarah Papachristos, HubSpot’s User Group Program Manager for her insights here.