by Jordan Lewis, Frontend Dev, Responsive Meetup co-organiser.
This year I cofounded a monthly 'meetup' in my home town of Melbourne, Australia, called Be Responsive Melbourne. Our goal was to create an inclusive meetup for people from all sectors and backgrounds interested in responsive web design and development. Since its launch seven months ago, we've had more than 380 attendees over six events. For first time organisers this has quite simply blown us away!
Along the way my co-organizers Zendy, Rick, Natasha and I have learned a great deal about running a meetup, challengingly this was mainly through trial and error. To save you having to do the same, here are some of our learnings.
Defining the Meetup
“I’m interested in starting a meetup, now what?”
A great place to start is to create your group on Meetup.com and put out an 'expression of interest' call for other organisers. A great thing about a Meetup.com group is that potential members can start joining even before you organise an event.
It’s important to first define your meetup and have a clear understanding of its mission statement. We defined ‘Be Responsive Melbourne’ by having a kick-off session for anyone to attend, and on the night we covered the following questions:
Who is the meetup aimed at?
Give examples of the types of people and professions that will be attending the event, this will give potential attendees the confidence that they can come.
What topics should be covered?
Niches can work well with meetups. We cover “responsive web design and development”, rather than being a Meetup about “the internet”.
What do we care about?
Defining what you care about will help shape the event.
What’s the tone?
A fun chat with friends, a serious technical group, a bit of a pitch-fest, and so on.
What will the format of the event be?
Will it be made up of presentations, lightning talks, group discussions or mainly socialising?
How often will the meetup run?
Not all meetups run monthly, there are many which run every 2 months or even just a few times a year. Choosing a date which works for everybody can be tricky. Make sure you do some research first to see when other similar meetups in your area are running and do your best to avoid the same nights.
Attend Other Meetups
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
You don’t need to be the one that makes the mistakes, learn from other meetups. Before we started our Meetup, we had attended multiple events run by different organisers. Being attendees elsewhere gave us a great perspective on what matters to attendees. We took away some clear do’s and don’ts. This is important because meetups rely heavily on word of mouth, so first impressions are everything. You don’t want to be known as the organisers that had that epic fail of an event.
Don’t Do It All On Your Own
Setting up a meetup on your own is a lot to take on, especially when you have a full time job, and I don't recommend it. We split up our tasks into organising the: venue, sponsors, food, drink, social media and of course the all important role of Master of Ceremonies. Having these clearly defined tasks means that we don’t have much overlap and each person can focus on their bit. Doing it this way also means that we are leveraging each other's strengths and/or providing development opportunities. And perhaps most importantly there's a bit of slack in the system, so the success of your entire meetup isn't down to one person.
Pick Your Sponsors Carefully
You’re spending a lot of your own time on the event, so it makes sense that you don’t want to be paying for everything with your own money as well. Sponsors are a great way to cover the cost of food, drinks and the venue. At ‘Be Responsive Melbourne’ we’re lucky that Envato sponsors the venue and we have some other great sponsors that take turns covering the food and drink.
Finding sponsors can be a difficult task in the early stages. We found word of mouth, social media and asking our own employers worked the best for us. Make it clear what the sponsor is giving you (money, food, venue) and what they will be getting in return (a logo on the website, a mention on the night, an opportunity to give a two minute talk). I’ve attended other meetups where sponsors take over events and where the night become a massive sales pitch. Setting expectations early on will prevent this from happening to you.
Meetups live and die on the quality of their presentations. Having too few might feel like the evening wasn’t worth turning up to, on the other hand too many can make the evening feel like it drags on and attendees may lose interest.
We're still learning and experimenting with our presentation structure. We usually have two twenty minutes talks with questions after each and then we hold group discussions at the end which gets everyone involved and sharing and has been very popular.
Organising speakers is always a challenge. Using your social media channels and putting a call-out on the night for future speakers works well, but there is nothing like directly approaching people you admire and asking them if they would be willing to give a presentation.
It may sound obvious but you need to make sure the talks are diverse and not covering the same topic over and over. Good communication upfront with the speakers will help avoid any awkward or off topic presentations.
Always do your best to get feedback from attendees about what they did and didn’t like and of course what topics they would like to hear presentations on at future Meetups. This feedback is invaluable for us and helps shape our future events.
Arranging a Venue
Organising and hosting a venue can be very stressful. Not all are free and you can find yourself running out of space very quickly as your meetup grows in popularity.
From my experience co-working spaces are very open to hosting community meetups for little or no cost. In Melbourne co-working spaces such as Inspire9 and the York Butter Factory are amazing at opening their doors to both new and long running meetups.
Similarly some companies will open their doors to a meetup as a form of sponsorship, which is how our arrangement with Envato works. You have to make sure the space fits what you're after. Luckily Envato's new office has both an auditorium and a great social space.
Another tip for finding a great venue is to look at where other local meetups host theirs. Get in contact with the venue or meetup organisers for more information. Other organisers have most likely done a lot of research to find a great venue and will be full of invaluable tips and information.
As a really practical tip, make sure you put up signs on the night to help attendees know they are at the right location.
Providing Food & Drink
Most meetups happen after work hours, so providing some food and drink is great way to please the attendees. We have pizza and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks available straight away and this gives everyone time to arrive and socialise before the presentations start. Many other meetups I have attended have a food break in between talks or even at the end (both work very well too).
At first it’s a wild guess as to how much food and drinks to provide, but after a few events you will get pretty good at knowing how much you need. This just means you need to be ready to overdo it a few times. It’s also important to provide vegetarian and non-alcoholic options to cater for all your attendees.
Right After the Meetup
Depending on the time your meetup finishes there is a good chance a small percentage of people will still want to carry on socialising and discussing the topics of the night. We usually mention in the intro that we are going to move to the pub next door afterwards. This has the additional benefit of getting everyone out of the venue quickly enough that you can clean up and then still join the post-meetup drinks. Treating your venue well will ensure you can continue to use it into the future.
As an organiser the post-meetup drinks is where I finally get to relax and have some great technical discussions.
Extend Your Meetup
By holding an event, you are creating a community that can thrive every day. Although you might be meeting once a month, you can connect 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through the powers of the internet. It can be as simple as keeping your Meetup.com page updated, or as complex as having a dedicated forum. Google groups, Twitter hashtags and blogs are all great ways of extending your meetup beyond the event! If you film the event, make it available online, or if you’re not ready to invest the time and money in video production, you can easily upload the presenters’ slides to SlideShare, or write an event summary as a blog post.
These discussions are great for your existing community and can also act as a way of marketing your meetup to a wider audience. Don’t try every social media channel and every service under the sun. Pick one and do it well. We focus on our Twitter profile and Meetup.com page at ‘Be Responsive Melbourne’.
Meetups can be a lot of work, but they're well worth it. As an organiser you get to enjoy the success of an event that is contributing back into the community. Through the ‘Be Responsive Melbourne’ meetups, I've met some amazing people who've taught me so much about my craft, and the experience of being part of the creation of this group has been extremely rewarding. I hope these tips will help you get on your way to producing successful meetups for whatever you feel passionate about. If you have more tips from organising meetups, please do share them in the comments.