If you've been thinking about taking the plunge into being "more involved" in the Umbraco community, in a meat-space kinda way (as opposed to a twitter/forum kinda way) may I suggest you consider joining your friendly Local Umbraco Meetup Group? What? There IS no friendly Local Umbraco Meetup Group near you? Then perhaps you can contribute even more to the community by starting one!

If you need some further nudging and another perspective on WHY you might want to take on this crazy project, check out Ravi Motha's article about his personal experience with the London group.

For my part, I'm going to assume that you are already considering devoting yourself to this noble cause and get into the nitty-gritty of how you might go about it.

How We Started the NYC Umbraco Meetup Group

At uWestFest 2014, I met Alex Lindgren for the first time, and we immediately connected over the fact of both being located in the NYC-area. We got to chatting about the apparent dearth of NYC-Umbracians and I mentioned that I had been toying with the idea of starting a meetup group, but hadn’t yet taken the plunge. Alex replied that he had been considering doing the same thing. At that moment we vowed to team up and finally do it.

Tip 1: If possible, find a partner to host with. Alex and I can bounce ideas off each other, decide on dates, and keep each other company at the meetup if we are the only two to show up

The following May we hosted the first NYC Meetup ever. Alex was able to volunteer use of his company, Flightpath's, conference room and fill it with a bunch of co-workers. (I'm still not sure what threat he used to get them all to attend...) We used the Meetup.com platform to advertise and did get a handful of attendees neither of us knew personally. We were off to a pretty good start!

Mixing Up the Meetup

Two months later, and inspired by Bob & Pete's CodeGarden Talk about ways to participate in the Umbraco community (where Pete explained how easy it was to keep a local meetup running by just picking out a consistent day of the month and a local pub), I thought that if I found a nice bar/restaurant with a space for us to meet casually in, it would be a piece of cake to keep things swinging along. I hit up one of my "in-the-know" city friends for suggestions and scoped out some spots in the Flatiron area of Manhattan, since it seemed reasonably central for an after-work gathering. Though I found a great spot, with a cool little back pool-room, the meetup was lackluster. We only got a few attendees, and though the conversation was nice, the general feeling was that if they continued in this vein, attendance would continue to drop.

Alex and I discussed it later and concluded that the "pub-style" meetup which seems to work well in the UK isn't very appealing to New Yorkers – perhaps because people in the USA are more "goal-oriented" and prefer a focused educational program, or perhaps because people in NYC have plenty to do, so it's less appealing to just go socialize with strangers. Not sure exactly, but after that we settled into meeting at the Flightpath office, and advertising at least a topic (even if the presentation wasn't going to be formal) for the meetup. Flightpath generously provides snacks for our after-work meetings.

Tip 2: Experiment with the venue/format. Your local culture is probably different, so you might want to try a variety of formats and locations for your event to find out what people prefer. If you’ve had some regulars, try asking them what they think would be most effective and fun.

Content Is King

Having learned our lesson, we now focus on coming up with interesting topics for our meetings. Especially at first, it was primarily Alex and I trading off on "presentation" duty (another great reason to have a partner-in-crime). As we gathered a few regulars we have been able to get them to volunteer to do presentations, or just discuss an interesting implementation they have worked on (thanks, Dallas Taylor!). Sometime we have more formal presentations – with slides and notes, other times it is just open discussion about what people are working on and what problems they are having.

In terms of format, we meet around a conference table. We start with brief introductions of everyone (name, company/position, Umbraco experience...) then we jump into the formal presentation or topic of discussion, and afterward, people ask questions and bring up other issues to discuss. Our meetings tend to run about 2 hours. Optionally, some people go out for food/drinks nearby afterward.

Tip 3: Though we have found that having defined topics is helpful, don’t stress about the content delivery – it doesn’t have to be fancy. Initially, it will be the hosts doing the presentations, but then you can ask for volunteers to present about interesting things they are doing.

We have also benefited from having guest speakers. Our Q&A with Paul Sterling from Umbraco HQ was very well attended and enthusiastically received. In December, Martin Sandvad from uCommerce presented about Umbraco eCommerce – and Danish holiday traditions!

Tip 4: Pay attention to visits to your area by willing Umbracians and plan a meetup featuring them! You might at least be able to piggy-back on nearby scheduled Master Classes by roping the instructor into a meetup visit.

Getting the Word Out

The most challenging thing about running your meetup group is getting attendance. Besides hitting up your co-workers and friends, you’ll need to try to find pockets of people who might be interested in coming to your meetup. I'll admit that Alex and I haven't quite cracked the nut on this one yet. We have tried some creative things – co-speaking at Microsoft's NYC Code Camp event, for instance – but not necessarily to the enhancement of our attendance numbers. We have batted around other ideas, but doing things like visiting other .Net and CMS user groups to network and spread the word can become time-consuming.

So far, our bread-and-butter marketing is via the Meetup.com group and Twitter. We’re also grateful to Skrift magazine and the Umbraco newsletter, who tend to pick up and advertise our meetups as well.

Tip 4: Advertise. Whatever platform you use to manage your events, make sure there is a way to gather a list of attendees to contact about future meetups. Also, don’t underestimate the simple stuff: Twitter, Skrift, and Umbraco HQ.

A Continuing Journey

Nine meetups and almost 2 years later, I'm really glad Alex and I have embarked upon this venture. It's so much fun to get together with like-minded techies and talk about our favorite CMS. I think it's safe to say that we, and the attendees, have all learned new things and gained valuable perspectives and resources we might not have gotten otherwise - not to mention making new friends.

Still, there have been meetings where Alex and I were the only attendees. We've had presenters call to cancel only hours before the event due to work or family emergencies. None of that has really put a damper on it, though. Once you’re in the room together, it's easy to come up with things to talk about.

We have found that consistency is helpful in gaining and maintaining momentum. We started with scheduling an event about once every other month, and recently have been doing them sort-of monthly. The other thing is enthusiasm – be excited no matter who shows up (or doesn't), and put on a great event with whatever you've got.

Tip 5: Keep at it. Don’t get discouraged by low attendance, especially at first. Just keep scheduling the events at regular intervals.

Now It's Your Turn

I hope you've found that our story and these tips have inspired you to start your own Local Umbraco Meetup Group. My final suggestion is just to give it a try. If you need topic ideas, you're welcome to come look at our Meetup page. Also, whatever is causing a buzz in the Umbraco corner of Twitter, or whatever amazing project you're currently working on can make great topics.

Running an Umbraco Meetup group is a great way to learn new things, make Umbraco friends, be a go-to-resource in your local area, and become a pillar of the international Umbraco community. What else could be better?