Six Lessons from Starting Three Online Meetups
Small meetups can have big results.
The pandemic brought us the age of Zoom and, with it, the opportunity to connect intimately across vast distances. Online video meetups online create opportunities for more diverse audiences from all over the world to collaborate. The small groups I put together have involved people from Iowa to Egypt, New York to Nigeria. The affinities that draw us together are interest in a particular topic and the cultural norms of the spawning community - more on that later.
I started my journey of organizing video meetups just this past April. Encouraged by a community initiative to "share," I looked around and saw many people asking questions about React.js development. I posted in that channel where people looked for help, asking if an hour working together as a group would be advantageous. I got good reaction emojis, so after running a scheduling poll, I started a recurring meeting. I added one on startup business concerns that same month. This group is by far the largest in signups.
I followed this shortly with a group of startup business enthusiasts - potential entrants, new startups, and more experienced entrepreneurs. Unlike a mastermind, the meeting remained open and went to topics that interested the group.
Most recently, I started a group focused on video and written content for mutual support.
While I have only been running these for fourteen weeks, a few actionable lessons have come out.
First, begin with the end in mind: have a mission. Starting a group like this is work. In addition to the mechanics, leadership and pulling people together takes both time and emotion. One needs a purpose to drive through that work. Ideally, the purpose involves the progress or betterment of the group itself.
For example, my mission with the React meetup is to get people to appreciate how much they know by teaching each other. The intent is to move people along the curve from thinking they are "junior" and receivers of wisdom to being "senior" colleagues. I call my session "group mentoring" because of this peer-to-peer mission.
Second, embrace tiny attendance. At the first React meeting, I had just a few faces on the screen. Small attendance is not just a beginning phenomenon. Over time, attendance fluctuates. I've had one that was essentially a one-on-one for an hour. It was one of my favorites. A tiny group can form a coherent discussion in which everyone contributes more or less evenly. Beyond that, you get a participant/lurker divide. Each requires different skills to manage, but both are fine. I am pretty happy to have groups small enough to brook discussion and keep it all on one page in the Zoom gallery view. If everyone can see each other, the field is more level.
Events require time from the participants. They are far more likely to participate when they are curious or have a problem at hand. Embrace this! Get them in, help them out, and they leave with a good feeling. Hopefully, this promotes the mission! I've had subsequent attendees who said they heard about the meetup from a previous one-timer.
Third, facilitate. I am at my best when I am keeping the conversation flowing.
My role is to keep the members talking. The mechanics of this job are different in small vs. large groups. In a small group, I talk more but ask questions of others to keep the conversation rotating around. My ideas and problems are the least interesting in the room - help others find their voice. "Can I get you to weigh in?" is a cue people on my meetups hear a lot from me.
In larger meetings - usually five or more - my job is to manage the stage and the clock. Raised hands is an excellent feature in Zoom - use it to track who is speaking next. The feature lines up people in the order they raised their hands, giving you as a moderator the tool to do first-in-first-out if you wish or violate that for inclusion. When a previously shy person raises their hand, I want to encourage that participation. I also want to make sure we cover multiple topics, so as we hit the end of a quarter-hour, I check in with the person who might have raised the issue and move to the next question. Clock management keeps variety in the conversation. I did not anticipate that the time limit would encourage follow-up outside the meeting too. It's such a great feeling to see people carrying on the mission outside of my time investment!
Fourth, automate. There's enough emotional work in the meeting, so allow the excellent tooling out there to help set things up. After some experimentation, I use Luma for managing signup, sending reminders, and gathering feedback. Luma supports paid communities, but outside of my experience - my meetups have been no-fee aside from time investment. I also use Slack's new scheduled send feature to pre-wire the "meeting is happening on Wednesday!" and "meeting this afternoon!". I set those up for all future meetings. Luma does not make these kinds of in-community promotions for me - yet. But I no longer have a reminder to send those messages - I wire it up weeks in advance and forget about it. As a side benefit, there is a joy to be had from seeing those posts go up and receive raised hands emojis from people looking forward to the meetup.
Fifth, make it regular. The automation is great for putting this on people's calendars. Again, tooling can make this easy: Luma can schedule an event series as quickly as one event. I do two events per month for each of the three groups I currently run. Most people sign up for the whole series, which lets them get reminders.
By making the meetup predictably periodic, it becomes a resource. Default consistency on the calendar makes it more shareable too. Members can see a friend or colleague having an issue and invite them to the meetup because they know it adds value and is in a timeframe where it might make a difference. When they see it coming, you give hope to both your potential joiners and returnees that the problem that seems so steep today might be just a little easier tomorrow.
Sixth, find a good place to start. If one should begin with the end in mind, we should end with the beginning. I have been privileged to participate in the Virtual Coffee community over the past six months. This community inspired me to try out these meetups through their online events and ongoing community initiatives. Conversations about particular issues and interest areas let me validate the market for these meetups and create a semi-public channel for continuing the discussion. This safe starting position might not be necessary for all, but it made my life much easier. Start where you have trust, and then support can be foundational to the culture of the community meetup you build.
The virtue of online platforms is how many micro-communities can form. There is so much value to be created in each other, and I look forward to discovering better techniques to elevate that greatness.
These remain early days for online meetups - and very early days for mine. I can't wait to see what happens next.