I ran a large professional meetup group for two and a half years, with attendance consistently over 30—sometimes over 50 people–with regular meetings every month. Through the success of my group, I’ve had the opportunity to coach others on their groups, and of course, attend many meetups on a variety of topics. I’ve noticed several mistakes meetup groups make that limit the effectiveness of the group and are completely avoidable and fixable.
Mistake #1: Not having a very well-defined purpose
Many meetups seem to have been founded on the idea of simply getting like-minded people together and seeing what happens. While this may result in a moderately successful group, the lack of focus could be preventing larger success.
For example, at LOPSA-ETENN, my cofounder and I decided that the purpose was to build a local community of system administrators. Every decision we made, from the venue to the format, was compared against the purpose we defined. We shot down some really great and interesting ideas for the meetup group, simply because they didn’t fit with the stated purpose. For example, bringing in outside speakers and putting on training events did not help the goal of building local community, despite being very good ideas otherwise.
Think hard about what you want your meetup group to be about. Is your purpose to build local community? Educate attendees? Something else?
One practice I’ve found successful to help is to imagine what a successful meetup group is to you. Write down every detail, from the time you start planning the event to the time you’re cleaning up afterward. You will probably come across what you really want out of the group. This is your purpose.
Mistake #2: Choosing the wrong venue
The venue for a meetup is far more important than organizers usually realize. The venue helps set the tone, culture, and format of your meetup.
The best venue for your meetup depends on many factors, including your stated purpose: if you want to build local community, a restaurant or bar works well. If your purpose is to educate, a restaurant is a poor choice, but a meeting room at your local library is a great one. Strive to make the location central to your attendees, and easily accessibly (this is why company offices make poor choices for venues).
A company’s office is often the worst choice for a venue. It’s not neutral ground, and therefore can be intimidating or unwelcoming to attendees. A company’s office often has security constraints, making it feel unwelcoming to attendees.
Mistake #3: Using the wrong format
The meeting format should fully support the purpose of the meeting, and failure to align them results in a less-than-optimal experience for your attendees. For example, if the purpose of the meeting is to educate, then social time should be at a minimum, with most of the meeting time focused on the speaker. If the purpose is to build community, then the majority of the time should be focused on that. A hybrid model works well for many meetup groups: a multi-hour meetup time, with a speaker, but with the majority of the time focused on socializing. At LOPSA-ETENN, this was manifested as an hour social time before the speaker, an hour for the speaker, and another hour for socializing after the speaker.
I often see meetup groups with a hybrid format, a primary purpose of community, and a secondary purpose of education, but the format not matching the purposes. A common example is setting up the chairs in a lecture format (rows of chairs facing the speaker). When the room is set up this way, it means you’re stuck with the people on your left and right, and no ability to mingle, thus inhibiting socializing.
Mistake #4: Not taking an active leadership role
The organizer sets the culture and tone of the meeting. I once attended a meetup group where a world-renowned industry expert was speaking. The organizer introduced him, but the organizer had such low energy, I was immediately bored and looking at the clock. The excitement in the room was visibly drained, and the speaker struggled to recover the energy of the room. Don’t underestimate how large of an impact you, the organizer, have on the tone of the meetup.
The organizer’s job is to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome at the meetup. Introducing the speaker and making announcements is a secondary function.