On Organising Technical Community Events

SQL Relay was a great success. The UK SQL Server community managed to pack thirteen SQL Server User group events into one week, and they were on offer absolutely free, It gave everyone a great opportunity to get involved in the SQL community in their local area. Jonathan Allen lists the lessons that were learned by the organisers, so as to help anyone else who is planning this sort of community-based event.

We have a strong SQL community in the UK, but earlier this year the user group leaders agreed it would be good if we could encourage more people to join in. Chris Testa O’Neill and Tony Rogerson came up with the idea of SQL Relay when they were at the MVP Summit in Seattle earlier this year. After a lot of planning and organisation we kicked off the event – and this is what we learned from the whole experience…


Be clear about why you’re doing it

I guess the first thing to consider is the reason you want to do it. Are you trying to fill a gap in the calendar, bring the event to a new geographical area, repeat a previously successful event, or perhaps to try to do something new for your community?  If you aren’t clear as to why you’re doing it then you’ll have a big problem when you have to justify the reason for this event to a lot of people before it actually takes place. If you can’t give them an honest, enthusiastic and committed account then they’re likely to wish you well and politely walk away.

Don’t be too ambitious

If you’re just starting out then don’t aim too high. You are, after all, a technical professional, rather than an events manager and there are many things to learn. It’s easier to recover from setbacks on a small project. For example, if the catering lets you down on an event with a dozen attendees you could cover that by ordering out from a pizza restaurant at short notice. If you have 200 delegates then it’s a different scale of solution that’s required.

Do your financial plans first

Will you be charging the attendees? If so then they’ll have higher expectations. Some events charge a nominal fee for providing a lunch; others will charge a larger fee and, on top of providing lunch, they also have to make sure that delegates get value for money from the training that’s being offered. The way you tackle the financial side is clearly tied to the sort of event you are considering. SQL Relay was an evening-only event so it wasn’t necessary to provide a midday meal. We were also determined that there should be no cost to attendees, so we made the attendance of most user groups free, with costs being met by local arrangements with sponsors: The only major cost was the London evening.

Work out the best dates

When you’re starting a new event, it’s important to schedule it in a clear part of the calendar. You can expect a new event to have a poor turnout if it overlaps with a similar but established event. You need to be aware of events outside your own technical world – for example, is there a local sporting event that will overload public services like buses, trains or parking? Bear in mind not many people will be prepared to attend a conference between Christmas and New Year.

Make sure it stands out in some way

You may need to make your event stand out by giving it a unique selling point; something that attracts attendees, thereby easing sponsorship. SQL Relay was the only event, as far as I am aware, that was a
coordinated series of 15 meetings with a final national summit; GiveCamp has its charity association; PASS has developed its sub-brands of SQLSaturday and 24HOP (although these are US-only at the moment, I believe they’ll be spreading world-wide soon).

Locate a suitable venue

For SQL Relay this was pretty easy because the local user groups all have regular venues where they meet. It only required some coordination work to ensure that their meetings were all in the same week. We then looked to have the national meeting at Cardinal Place (Microsoft London HQ) and were lucky enough that they were able to accommodate us. If you’re looking to have a big event location such as this, you’ll probably need to secure that first, and then work your calendar from that point backwards to get the other events scheduled accordingly.

You need to estimate the numbers that might attend and then identify locations that can cope with an event of that size. Take a selection of venues and then work through all the reasons to use, or avoid, each one. Consider such factors as the transport services for attendees, facilities on site such as WiFi, local catering, accommodation, activities for times when the event isn’t running (i.e. overnight) and the total cost of hire including ‘extras’. If you’re planning a multi-day event, there should be plenty of places to visit near the venue; your delegates should have somewhere of interest for entertainment and for meals within walking distance. Many attendees will have travelled a long way and chosen to use public transport rather than to drive. Does the venue have the staff and capacity (not necessarily the same thing) to cope with the catering if it does its own; does it have staff to do the IT/AV setup or do you need to hire someone’s skills? If you have to bring any skills in to the venue from a third party, do they need to visit the venue before you decide on it?

Getting sponsors for an event

With SQL Relay, we discussed what we could offer to potential sponsors once we had a good idea of the format of the event; such things as adverts on websites, mentions in blogs and photographs of prize awards at events. Once we were clear about this, it was simply a case of locating an email address to request the details of the person that would handle sponsorship of community events at companies that we felt are closely related to SQL Server.

Finding the right contact

Whereas some companies have a community section on their site, others require a few emails to locate the right person. Having got the right contact it’s simply a case of negotiating something suitable as their contribution for the publicity/business they will gain from their sponsorship. Obviously this needs to be done amicably and honestly – you need their sponsorship. It’s no good expecting enormous prizes, endless give-away items and financing of hundreds of pounds if you are only running an event where there will be a dozen people meeting about something so obscure there will be no interest in the wider community. You may also want to be able to approach these companies again in the future. Iif the event is going to be a regular gig then make friends with them as much as if you were trying to make a big sponsorship deal.

Getting a balance that’s fair to both sides won’t be too tricky, the person you’re dealing with does this as part of their job so will have a good idea of what they can offer and what they’d expect from you. Once the arrangement is agreed then make sure, absolutely sure, that you hold to your end of the agreement. If you offered 3 bulk emails, a website banner advert for 6 weeks and mentions in blogs then you’d better do all of that or not expect any response next time you go to that place with your cap in your hand asking “Please Sir, may I have some more?”.

It’s also worth considering how you mix sponsors, they will almost certainly ask for some idea of who else is sponsoring the event. You may not get head-to-head rivals wanting to both be involved if the event isn’t big enough. Save one of them for your next event.

Within the SQL Community, PASS negotiate with many sponsors and so it makes sense that the PASS Regional Mentors should be the main point of contact for working with sponsors. This means that the sponsors don’t have to field requests from hundreds of individuals and that the requests they get are to a certain extent pre-vetted.

Getting the funding

Funding can come from the sponsors as we’ve mentioned. There’s also the User Group Support Services (UGSS) website where you can register your group and, if accepted, you get access to a large network of resources – including a funding stream. These funding applications are assessed individually so you may or may not find that you event qualifies. Remember I said you need to be enthusiastic about your event? If you can’t write down a glowing description of what you are going to be doing and how it will benefit the community then don’t expect UGSS or any other sponsor to send you any money. If you’re successful, there are a couple of wrinkles for user groups based outside the USA. You have to have an Alert Pay account in order to register with UGSS and when you get any funds transferred to you, it’ll be in US Dollars. This means you have to pay an exchange fee to get it into a usable currency for your purposes. This is not a big problem, especially if exchange rates work in your favour, but it’s a process you should allow time for. Don’t ignore things that save you money, things that you can get for free that save you from spending your precious cash reserves. These are just as important. In the SQL Relay project we had several UG leaders who knew people with skills that we could use – graphic designers for the posters/banners for example would not have been a cheap service to hire in if we had not known someone who could do us a favour.

Marketing the events

Social networking

SQL UG leaders are pretty well hooked into Twitter so we comment about the events there and hope our DBA twitter friends are reading and re-tweeting to spread the word. A lot of us have quite well established blogs that we are using and cross referencing with each other and then there are the sponsors that are using their mail-outs to mention us too. Some of the marketing for the first time will only start to pay off when the event happens again as things like photos of prize-givings happen after the main advertising so can only be used to back reference the event or refer to it when the next one is being advertised.

Supporting organisations

PASS is supporting SQL Relay really well and giving us coverage in their communications and on their site too. We also got a lot of support from MSDN and their Flash emails contained meeting details in the lead up to the event. You will do well to consider where your audience are likely to be and target marketing in that area. For SQL Relay we had content on sponsor’s sites, we handed out paper flyers at SQL Bits, the event was talked about at local user group meetings and so on. We could have gone for something like online advertising if there was a feeling we wouldn’t have enough coverage too.

Partner companies

With SQL Relay we’ve been pretty lucky, there isn’t an awful lot of that sort of organising. We were really saved by both Wrox and RedGate offering to post their give-away bundles direct to each User Group. If they hadn’t done that and I had ended up with a massive pile of stuff to distribute then I’d have had to allow for the extra time and expense of repackaging and posting. I did mention building up a friendly relationship with sponsors didn’t I? Right there is where it pays back, they’re happy to do you a favour if they’re getting a fair deal on the event. Recommendation by others that have done similar events is a great way to make sure you’re working with the right sort of people.

The special challenges of organising a series of events

Timing everything is pretty tricky, getting the marketing flyers and website updates scheduled, purchasing the promo items (for SQL Bits we had some UG Leaders dressed up in construction kit like hard-hats and fluorescent jackets to go with the “Constructing the Community” event theme) – all had to be done in good time for the event. The SQLBits event was running the week before SQL Relay so we were all dressed up there, making a big show of the SQL community (and possibly how deranged some of us are!) so that we could get the attention of as many people as possible. As I mentioned we’re all working full time so we’ve given a lot of evening and weekend time to this project. We’ve had weekly phone calls to share out and coordinate all activities that need doing.

It’s important to have a project leader who is passionate about the event and rigorous in delegating tasks and getting individuals to take on responsibilities. There must be regular meetings where key points are reviewed, new items introduced and completed tasks noted. A brief set of meeting notes with action points and time scales/deadlines makes it easy for the team members to have their weekly work in mind and give the
appropriate effort as necessary. It’s essential to keep in mind that sometimes emergencies will happen and they won’t be able to complete certain things. This is all voluntary, there is no compulsion to do this: the driving force is the desire to help fellow professionals. The project leader must switch tasks between team members to meet deadlines. We were very lucky to have Chris leading in this role with Tony and Martin in close formation supporting him. Tony is taking the lead for the next SQL Relay in 2012.

Managing the administration task

We’re lucky to have a central website – www.sqlserverfaq.com – to help with registrations for UG meetings. UG Leaders put up their meeting information as the details are finalised and then all advertising refers
potential attendees to the site to get full details and, hopefully, register. Some UGs also use sites like www.EventBrite.com to post their details and get people registered.

Sourcing the speakers

User Group Support Services (UGSS)  has a speakers list, as does PASS, so for us it isn’t too tricky to get in touch with many dedicated professionals who are willing to speak. Your group will know people who know people and if you pick the right sponsors then they may have a product evangelist who can come along and give a session that features their products, but as an option to solve a problem rather than presenting it as the only solution. If a sponsor can communicate with the audience in this way, then they are going to be helping you out in a lot of other ways under our fairness balance mentioned above. Having a captive audience to listen to their man is worth a lot more than a few key-rings and a t-shirt!

There’s also the common theme of being in the community (or becoming part of it) so you build up a list of contacts you can call on or ask for ideas for speakers. Getting the feelings of your audience may also be important so that you can pick a key-note speaker that will be popular.

Measuring success

Are the attendees smiling? If so then you’ve got it pretty well spot on. More seriously though, decide carefully beforehand, early in the planning, how you will get people’s opinions. If your event is going to be a recurring one, then you’ll make changes along the way, between events, and you’ll want to gauge opinion about those changes. If you’re using questionnaires to gauge success, you’ll need to have the same questionnaire that’s handed out at event #1 right through to event #99. If you change the questions, then you’ll not be able to compare the responses equally. Don’t make it long – consider when and where delegates are going to be completing the forms. Some events offer entry in a prize draw as an incentive to get this sort of form completed.

It’s important to have a post-event meeting to consider how it all went. Everyone involved will have had a different experience such as speaking to different attendees; sitting in a different part of the room or having different background skills. They’ll have a different point of view on how the planning and organising was executed, how the event actually ran and what they’d like to change, include or remove for the next time. Take time to gather these thoughts, and give them consideration and use your conclusions to build on your first event.

Good luck.