When should your user group meet?

This is a tough question. No matter what kind it is, finding the right time for a group of people to meet is hard. Even churches don't have it easy – the traditional Sunday morning doesn't work for many people, and while churches try to figure out how to cater for as large a demographic as possible, they generally figure that most people will turn up on a Sunday if they want to, and they run extra meetings at other times to try to provide alternatives.

A technical user group is a very different beast, so it's good that Rie Merritt (@IrishSQL) has asked us to write about user groups for this month's T-SQL Tuesday. I mean, if someone wants to go to church, there are plenty of choose from. In most parts of the world, there aren't exactly an abundance of Microsoft Data Platform user groups to choose from, so hopefully the time that the current one meets works for the people who want to go.

In the new "virtual world" since the start of Covid, the availability of user-group style content online has expanded massively. Presentations are more likely to be delivered from the presenters home nowadays, with the audience members in their own home. At that point, what's to stop the group members being spread out around the world? Nothing. Except that people typically attend the meetings that they feel a connection to, and a group that is hosted from your local area is more likely to hold that connection to you. They speak your language, are experiencing the same part of the day, all that. And that's just about the host, regardless of who the presenter is. My group can host a presenter from Canada, but most of the attendees will be from Adelaide because they feel a connection to the group as a whole, and to me the host. The presenter is a guest for the month. It's different.

So if it's just content you want, the time and day of meetings isn't relevant. Churches know this too, and many have seen attendance drop as the congregation members that just want content have become happy to tune into the streaming services from any church, not just their own. I think they miss the concept of a 'congregation' being 'those who congregate'. They've become an audience at that point. They listen, without meeting.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

If your group is simply trying to provide content, then fine. There are a lot of virtual groups and virtual conferences with live presentations so that the attendees can talk to the presenter, ask questions and have them answered. This isn't entirely about the content, but it's still quite different to in-person meetings, especially when considering when is best to meet.

An in-person meeting doesn't just need attendees to block out the time of the meeting. They will need to travel there, maybe find a park, and so on. The timing is definitely harder to work out.

And so I would encourage you to look into how your city works. Do people typically try to rush off home at the end of the day? Do many people stagger their days so that they start early and also end early? Is it hard for people to get into town? Do people gather down the pub after work, and delay going home until later? Could that happen at a user group venue?

These are the types of questions that mean I run the Adelaide Data & Analytics User Group at lunchtime. Adelaide is a pretty small city on the whole – it's easy to drive around, and most people who work in the suburbs do tend to drive. But many also try to get in early and leave early – the peak traffic seems to start around 4pm. Restaurants in the city seem to close early during the week. And so I don't try to host a user group in the evening. I do it during the day. On people's company time, so their bosses can be aware of the professional development event they're attending. Not in family time, which is even harder for people who are single parents or who have other responsibilities in the evening.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who can't come along to the meetings because I host them at lunchtime. And I hope that there aren't particular segments of society that I'm discriminating against. If I ask the group if it's a good time for them, the answer will be skewed because the people who can't make them may have unsubscribed and not provide an answer. If I change when it is, there's every chance I'll lose more people than I gain.

So research what works in your city. Explore the culture, come up with an idea about what might work, and then go for it. If your group is worth being at, people will work out how to get there. Do make sure there's no discriminating factors though.

@rob_farley