User groups find leverage in online tide

Many IT user groups blame the onslaught of free information over the Internet for the decline in membership numbers over the past seven years, but some have used online activities to boost their profile and reverse the trend.

Sydney's .Net users group has created a public blog which, according to member Jatin Valabjee, serves as a good marketing tool for new and existing members.

"After every meeting the presenter posts the code and other information to the blog and we have a lot of people posting," Valabjee said. "I don't know if the blog has boosted numbers but I'm pretty sure it has. It's a good marketing tool."

Although agreeing that the Internet's free information repository may have drawn away user group interest, particularly with the older groups, Valabjee said it can be useful to user groups as a way to take information a step further. "It's something members can take away with them and potentially promote to others," he said. "It also encourages existing users."

Valabjee believes people like to learn about best practices about topics they value.

"We carry more weight," he said in response to what can be obtained for free and thinks user groups need to "review value-adds" to remain relevant and increase member numbers.

Beginning as the Access user group 15 years ago, the .Net user group draws a crowd of between 100 and 200 people to its monthly meetings; both the membership to the group and the blog are free.

"We have close ties with Microsoft but are not sponsored by them," Valabjee said. "We use its premises for meetings and are involved in a lot of meetings with Microsoft, but we can say what we want."

When asked about the use of newer Web technologies such as video and audio streaming to conduct meetings, Valabjee said they may be an option for larger user groups but it costs a lot to set up. Microsoft itself does make use of video streaming, he added.

SAP user group chairman Carlo Terribile also conceded that today's groups compete with free information, but says the Internet can be leveraged to add value.

"The Internet is important to the way we run our group as we get presentations online," Terribile said. "We have an online chat facility and voice-recorded presentations and get up to 25 people listening for not a huge cost."

As for video, Terribile said it is expensive and is not convinced of the value it will deliver.

Other online benefits include providing members with access to the US SAP user group, which Terribile described as a "huge repository and good information resource".

"End users appreciate open and honest dialogue [so] provide members with an ROI angle," he said.

Internet speed beats user groups for info searches

When it comes to sourcing product information, IT managers are more inclined to go online than attend a user group meeting.

Billabong IT manager Adrian Seeto favours business partners over industry peers.

"Normally we go back to our business partners and review information with them, and if that fails, then we turn to the Internet for information; sometimes we have used things like blogging, and they can be useful to a point," Seeto said adding that the Internet shouldn't be blamed for the decline of user groups.

"They should be able to strike a balance so they complement each other," he added.

However, Brazin IT manager Jason Steiner said the Internet's ease of use has definitely contributed to falling user group numbers.

"People want information there and then and now prefer online forums," he said.

"We haven't really relied on user groups up until now, but we may do so in the future; it's just at the moment we have a huge disparity in our applications, which prevents us from turning to one group in particular."

ADA IT manager Andrew Weerasinghe says when it comes to intricate issues user groups can be really helpful.

"It's just that the Internet has helped to bring so much information out into the open, it's now much easier to simply go online for product information," he said.

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