What I’ve learned about running a regular professional meetup as a hobby

Organizing a regular event for peers and friends as a volunteer has become far more widespread with the power of the web, social media and services like Meetup.com for connecting like-minded professionals. It can be rewarding and relevant for both your personal and professional interests. This is what I’ve learned by doing just that.

For the last three years, I’ve led the organization of the Philadelphia chapter of the Online News Association, an international group that organizes a popular trade conference (coming up next month) on changing digital media trends. I was a supportive actor in the group’s local revival in summer 2011 and took the lead when Daniel Victor left the city a few months later.

For my day-job, I organize lots of events, which has surely informed my strategy with ONA, but I’m focusing here on my volunteer work, not professional events organization.

Here are some big pieces of advice:

  • Know why you organize your event — For our group, the goal is to help connect reporters, editors, bloggers and others involved in online reporting. For me, it’s a way to keep up with my industry friends, and I’m also motivated because there are often times when the event intersects with my day job covering the tech scene — when data, civic hacking and transparency efforts come up. It’s also worth saying that though I really do dig the national ONA organization (and their kickass staff), my priority is local. I think ONA makes out pretty well — for the price of covering our $75 annual Meetup.com fees (and, save some brand awareness, not much else), we’re building a group of Philly industry  experts who know their brand — so I’d continue the work whether or not ONA had a local initiative. Without enough focus and motivation, the thing will flop.
  • Set expectations of consistency that you can meet — Since launching in June 2011, we’ve had 39 meetups: exactly one for every month we’ve been in existence. Some were more programmed than others (see below) but we added value, tried different things and so steadily grew members and regular attendees. I think we set a level of quality that is a brand promise that ensures people will keep coming out. Find this insanely detailed spreadsheet about our events here.
  • Grow partners, friends, coorganizers and community — I rely on a network of other meetup and event organizers, regular attendees, some coorganizers and our active community of attendees. When smart people keep coming out each month, others come back. The people who come out are the driving force of making the thing grow.
  • Deliver good content — Maybe for your network, that is just a happy hour, which does have value. For us, we’ve wanted to do more than that, by pushing our industry perspective and varying the programmed content. With variety comes regular attendance  — rather than attendees skipping out when each month is the same. (That said, others love a consistent model — look at the Tech Meetup demo phenomenon)
  • Build an annual calendar — It gets really easy when there are calendar regularities. During the three summer months (June, July and August), when people are on vacation, we mostly just do happy hours with a conversation theme (though we had a couple exceptions this year). Every April, our official ONA event is a push to the Barcamp NewsInnovation and we’ll make every December a push to the Pen and Pencil Club’s Philadelphia News Awards, both of which, full disclosure, I also co-organize. That means to keep monthly, we just shoot for seven programmed events (January to March, May and then September to November), since the other five are already booked. With a few partnered events, mentioned below, we’re only doing the heavy lifting on 2-3 events.
  • Figure out how to approach and sponsorship and why — I have felt uncomfortable seeking sponsorship dollars in cash to cover time and incidentals, something I do for my full-time day job. Instead, I organize ONA as a volunteer and so though we’ve added real value to companies — for recruiting, brand-building and the like — I’ve mostly pushed for sponsors to cover beer and food. There have been times when I’ve wanted to push for more, if only to make clear there is real value here that should be paid for but we don’t have a bank account or a regular, consistent way to define or sell this. That works for us, but it’s something to think about.
  • Make sure there is a single leader — Many disagree with me, but I’m a big believer that at any given time, something that will last needs a single person who is responsible for bringing things together. I like to believe there are people who would take over organizing this group, and I’m blessed with coorganizers, but I know that if we bring our members to a bad event or fail to stay consistent, it’s ultimately my responsibility. Make sure there is a single person who feels the most guilty for a group’s failure, otherwise, it’ll waver over time.

Here are the four primary event-types that make up our annual calendar: (Find this insanely detailed spreadsheet about our events here.)

  1. Our Programmed or co-programmed events — This is when we conceive of or partner slotting in speakers, sponsors, locations and program focus. It’s the most work and often the best attended, most-liked events. I love these but given the time constraint, I try to limit these to quarterly at most. I will add that it helps to make a couple of your programmed events annual — like each fall we have attendees of the national ONA conference come back and share what they learned. (Example) 13 of 39 events
  2. Events we cross-list and help promote — When a partner group or one-off event that fits our mission, focus and standards reaches out, it is easy for us to agree to cross-list it in our meetup and help deliver a reliable audience. An added benefit of growing a strong, active community is that people seek us out for that, and when you only list strong, relevant events, your members appreciate this too. I often hear appreciation for helping members discovery additional relevant events. It makes our group stronger. (Example) 12/39
  3. Anchor community events we defer to — Even though your community’s biggest anchor events might not need your meetup’s audience push, it helps build that sense of identity when you defer your volunteer meetup to something bigger. At work for Philly Tech Week and Baltimore Innovation Week, we ask meetup groups to push to a specific event during the week. It helps us get some more attendees, surely, but we are more interested in the awareness growth. Similarly for ONA, we push to the aforementioned BCNI conference in April and the new year-end News Awards because it helps put them as community anchor events. (Example) 4/39
  4. Happy hours or other social meetups — For us, as I mentioned, we mostly do these in the summer, but they’re well-liked, when they’re infrequent. It gets out a different group and people come just to meet, gossip and connect. We vary the locations — often finding the cooler, newer places or, in the case of summer, places that are great for outside drinking. We also usually give a topic for people to talk about — for the reporter set, these are things like an upcoming election, a trend in our industry like sponsored content or the like. (Example) 10/39

I’m proud of what we’ve built with ONA Philly. Of more than 20 U.S. local chapters, only NYC, DC and San Francisco have more members and we’re at least as likely, if not more, than them. Our programming, engagement and membership exceeds chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Boston, among other peer cities. No doubt that comes with a strong community and a regular event series can help make that happen.

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