We all need to geek-out, and let’s face it, friends and family don’t get it, or just aren’t as interested in the latest bit of technology breakthroughs as we are. Of course, you are likely involved in at least one form of online social network; Facebook, MySpace, an e-mail list or IRC can provide the outlet that you may not have in the physical world, connecting you with others who share your techno-interests. Now, the odds are good that there are other geeks in your locale, but you may not know them, and if you do, it isn’t always easy to find them. You may connect at an event every so often, but that connection fades over time as other bits of life come and go. Luckily its easy to keep that connection alive, and even better, build upon it.
I’ve written this article to provide some tips on creating or expanding a group. It doesn’t have to be centered on the Web or technology. Hell, a lot of what I write about below is based on lessons that I learned as the founding president of a local Guinness drinking society! I hope you find this useful, and would love for you to add a comment about what I’ve written and your experiences with building a group.
- Leadership, Consistency and Communication
- Tools That Will Make Your Life Easier
- Coming Up
- What is Meatspace?
- Expand the Conversation – Comment on this Post
I’ve found that many social groups that form around a common interest run into problems when they are weak in one of these three key areas. It doesn’t take much work to get these right, but if you are missing any of the three, you’ll find it much harder to grow.
When no one makes decisions, nothing gets done. Having a strong voice, or ideally, a small group of unified voices makes a world of difference. The important thing is that the strength is founded upon the desire to build something that all will benefit from. This is a pivotal time for your group, so step up, or support someone who is willing to step up.
You don’t need a president, though if that works for you, go for it. We, in Refresh Austin opted to form a rotating board, which allowed us the ability to split up the duties so no one person was overwhelmed with work. If you are trying to revive or improve an existing group, contact some of the most active members of your group and invite them to join the board. It is vitally important that you select people who are excited about the group and have participated in the past.
We specifically set a three month cap on this first board so everyone understood that we were in the roles merely to get the group moving, and that after the first 90 days anyone could volunteer for a spot on the board.
These are the roles we created for Refresh Austin.
The Venue Coordinator chooses and reserves a venue that is relatively convenient for the group. The goal is to have a regular meeting spot that is projector and discussion-friendly, and at or in walking distance of a bar or restaurant where people can socialize afterwards.
The Topic Scheduler publishes the schedule of discussions and presentations two to three months in advance so everyone in the group will know what will be covered at each meeting. This person gathers and coordinates requests for topics, receives feedback from the group as to which we should cover and lines up volunteers to present on each topic. Ideally they will create a good mix, so each month’s topic(s) is different than the last.
The Materials Wrangler guarantees that a projector is brought to each meeting, and is responsible for gathering any other materials that may be needed. They do not have to own the materials, they merely need to ensure that someone will bring them.
The Communicator ensures that meeting notices and reminders are sent to the group throughout each month and updates the Web site and any other tools.
The Archivist is responsible for gathering the presentation materials and posting them on the site after the meeting. Additionally, they should take notes during the meeting so we also record questions and answers that may arise. Ideally the Archivist would capture audio or video of the event which could be turned into a podcast.
You Will Piss Someone Off
The reality of the situation is that you can’t please everybody, and you know what? That’s not your job. Your job is to get this group moving forward and ensure that the most amount of people can participate as possible. It is very easy to not do something as a group because one member isn’t able to participate, or isn’t interested in a topic. Frankly, that’s dumb. You’ll find that people who want to be a part of the group will find a way to participate, and with the changes you’ll be making, it will be easier for them than was in the past.
Set up a regular schedule for your meetings. Refresh Austin meets the second Tuesday of every month from 7:00 to 9:00PM. We have also chosen a location to stick with for several months, and if we choose to change the location, it will only be after we have gotten a guarantee from the new spot that we will have that day and time every month. Switching the day, time or location in any but the most extreme of circumstances is a recipe for confusion and a reduction in participation. Make a choice and stick with it for at least three months!
Your members will appreciate the consistent schedule as that gives them a chance to arrange for babysitters, reschedule other events and make it easy for them to avoid conflicts down the line.
It is very easy to let the days slip by without sending an updates to the group, yet we all hate a communication vacuum. Make sure you let people know what is happening early and often. This is your opportunity to build some excitement and provide some warning when change is in the air. Once you have established your routines and the group is running smoothly, make sure you continue to send updates. I cannot stress this enough – update update update!
It’s important to try things – what works for one group may not work for another, so be willing to give something different a shot. You also should be ready to kill off an experiment if it isn’t working, just make sure that you won’t frustrate the members of the group with too many changes in too short of a time. It can be a hard balance to be both experimental and consistent, so experiment in small doses, and make sure that you communicate the changes to the group.
There are a wealth of tools that you can tap to cut down on your workload and make it easier for others to participate. Here are just a few:
We at Refresh Austin use Google Groups as our central point of communication list as it is very convenient and easy for us to administer and provides our members the ability to choose how they want to interact with it. Each person can choose to receive every message posted to the board as it comes in, or opt to receive a batch message each day, or they may choose to use it as a message board, visiting whenever is convenient for them. Keep that last option in mind – you may have a significant amount of members who do not receive any e-mail from the group, and who may not check the message board very often, if at all. Don’t forget other methods, like chat rooms or IRC channels if your group would be into it. Pibb is a handy Web app that provides a great combination of chat and forums in a single interface.
I’ve used SurveyMonkey to gauge which subjects we should cover in our Refresh meetings as well as to gain a better insight into what members would like from the group. The basic level is free and has served my needs well. There are likely many other free options, so please add your recommendation as a comment.
Refresh Austin uses Upcoming to provide event information and to track potential attendance. Upcoming makes it easy for us to re-publish the information on our main site. Meetup is another great option, especially when you consider how many people already belong to their site, but they charge an annual fee. Keep in mind that you can’t wholly trust the RSVP numbers on either site, as many members of your group may not use either of them.
You can also keep it simple, and just send out notices to your group and keep your Web site up-to-date, as the Austin 1759 Society does.
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but I want to ensure I include everything I can think of. Make sure you have a site that includes the most up-to-date information regarding your meetings and topics. You may also want to include a wiki or a blog to make it easier for your members to follow group news and contribute to the expansion of the site through comments and new content. As to which platform or content package you use – the only thing that matters is that you have a t least a few people who know how to use it and keep it up to date.
I will cover these topics in the next few entries. Please leave a comment if you would like me to cover any additional topics!
- Setting up Formal and Informal Meetings
- Choosing Topics
- Spreading the Word
- Getting People to Participate
- Transitioning Leadership & Ensuring the Group Survives
- Decisions that Must be Made
- Maintaining Your Group
Thanks for reading this article, I hope it has provided you with some useful tips. Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail if you have any questions, feedback or if these tips work for you. I would love to hear some success stories or ideas on how to improve upon these ideas!
I’ve been asked about the title of this article by a couple of people now, so here’s a quick definition of Meatspace from Wikipedia:
Meatspace is a dysphemism for real life or the physical world, and conceived as the opposite of cyberspace or virtual reality. The term originated in science fiction literature, specifically the cyberpunk genre, but it has become increasingly common in general usage, as a reference to transactions or interactions which occur in the presence of physical bodies (“meat”), rather than online or electronically….The term may be used as a conscious rejection of the derogatory connotations inherent in the term “real life” and the implication that interactions in cyberspace are less real or meaningful than physical interactions.