Starting an Office 365 User Group

Tags: Communities, Office 365, User Groups

When I moved away from Chicago, one of the things I had to leave was the Chicago Office 365 User Group.  While deeply saddened about this departure, I was excited to start my new opportunity in Phoenix with Catapult Systems.  I took on the role of SharePoint Local Practice Lead (LPL) for Catapult’s Phoenix office.  My responsibilities included billable consulting work, providing pre-sales technical support, and building the SharePoint business here in Phoenix to grow the practice.  Given my role at Catapult, community involvement is high on my personal list of priorities. 

Having been part of such a vibrant SharePoint community in Chicago, I wanted to see if the same was out here.  I found AZ SharePoint Pros, the local SharePoint user group and started attending.  I also went a few other groups I found out on Meetup.  Some are good, some are ok, and some aren’t worth going to; that’s just the way it is.  AZ SharePoint Pros is an awesome SharePoint user group with excellent and consistent attendance led and run by Eric Stoltze, Lester Sconyers, and Brenda Starr.  Even so, I needed more.  I needed more about SharePoint Online in Office 365.  Based on how things went in Chicago, I decided to start up the Phoenix Office 365 User Group.  Having made that decision, I discovered how many questions I really had about how to go about it.  I decided to reach out to the world and let the people who have already done it tell me what’s best.  It saved me a ton of time and effort and I’d like to share my learnings here.

Before You Begin

  1. Check for other similar groups

    1. Why create a new group if the one you want already exists?  Doing that can cause confusion amongst attendees and bad blood amongst your fellow organizers.  We’re all doing this in our free time and without pay, so play nicely.

  2. Start attending other groups

    1. Even if they have nothing to do with yours, go to some and talk to the speakers/organizers.  Let them know about the group you’re starting and ask them to help spread the word.  Of the 10 or so local community leaders I spoke to, zero refused to help.

  3. Connect with your local Microsoft contacts

    1. Assuming you’re working to create a user group based on some Microsoft technology, talk to the local Microsoft folks and get their buy-in and participation.

  4. Find a venue that meets the following criteria:

    1. Enough space for your targeted audience

    2. A projector

    3. Wireless Internet

    4. Free parking

    5. Neutral ground (unless you’re meeting at Microsoft, this is ideal)

  5. Pick a regular day of the week/time to meet

    1. Never Monday

    2. Never Friday

    3. Pick Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday

    4. You can’t always meet on a specific date because sometimes that’s a holiday.

    5. Most user groups in Phoenix meet on the 1st/2nd/3rd Wednesday of every month – sometimes those are holidays too, but they’re easier to manage.

    6. During business hours or after business hours?

      1. This usually depends on the venue, but I personally prefer after business hours because I’m actually working during business hours.

    7. Meet up to once per month, but no more.

  6. Name your group

    1. Be original and pick something that will have meaning for the foreseeable future.

    2. I called mine “Phoenix Office 365 User Group” because:

      1. Location matters when social media comes into play

      2. I wanted to call it out as Office 365 instead of SharePoint because Phoenix already has a SharePoint user group and an Office 365 group opens the door for a wider variety of attendees and speakers.

    3. I abbreviated mine as PHXO365UG.  Not great, I know.  However, it’s unique and short enough for Twitter (#PHXO365UG) and still maps to the group’s full name.

  7. Have Marketing create a logo for you

    1. I reached to the awesome Marketing team at Catapult and said something like “I want to start the Phoenix Office 365 User Group.  Can you create a logo in a few different sizes for me?”  After a couple of back-and-forth Q&A emails, I had two designs to choose from.  I picked one and requested it in various sizes for various websites and marketing platforms, and was off to the races.

Spread the Word

  1. Meetup

  2. LinkedIn

  3. Twitter

  4. Microsoft Technical Communities

  5. Write about it on your blog and/or a community blog. is a great example of a site that has many authors:  Perhaps you can find something similar to this that aligns with your group…if not, maybe you should be the one to start it.

Community Advice

Finally, here’s the advice I was given by various members of various communities.  I’ve left user names out on purpose.  These are direct quotes.  Some are short, some are long; typos are typos.

Advice #1

“One of my previous employers started a Cloud Computing User Group which ended up just being a venue for the company to deliver webinars and lunch and learns to customers. I think a true user group needs to be... started by the users. You can certainly facilitate it, but ask yourself some questions:

  1. What happens if a competing Office 365 provider wants to present? Is it an Office 365 user group or is it a Catapult Systems Cloud User group?

  2. How are you going to generate content? How much are you going to provide and who will provide the rest? Members? Vendors?

  3. How often are you going to meet? I know some that go monthly and some quarterly. I've run a user group before and monthly only lasts so long before you run out of content if you're responsible for creating it all on your own.

  4. Where are you going to meet? Do you have a neutral place to meet so that members don't feel like they're being sold by Catapult every time they attend a meeting? Maybe a member has a venue or you could use the local Microsoft office?

  5. Is there really demand for a local group? Do you have enough Office 365 admins or users to justify a group that meets regularly?

  6. Who is your audience? Admins or users? What do you do if consultants from competitors show up and potentially heckle you?

  7. How are you going to manage your presenters? They'll likely be vendors at least part of the time? How much are they allowed to pitch their product/service vs. presenting? 1 slide w/5 min or less pitch? No sales pitch at all, just a mention of employer?

Does that help somewhat? If there's really demand, I'd suggest you kick off the group and get it moving for the first couple meetings... preferably somewhere neutral. Then put together a board of members to own the ongoing organization of the group. At that point you just become another member and vendor, but one that is well connected in the group. People will smell a rat if the group is just always Catapult presenting... it would really just be an extension of the sales organization. And interest will wane quickly if people just see one sales presentation after another.”

Advice #2

“@Eric, use the tools in I do, works a treat.”

Advice #3

“Hi Eric, I started an Office 365 user group in my area to great success! It launched a couple of months ago, however most of the member dont engage online much with a linked in group or meetup. One way i have tackled this is to deploy a yammer network for the group as they seem to be more intrigued with that then interested in a linkedin group. I would still suggest setting up a free linkedin group and inviting people to it as a way to advertise your user group.

Microsoft has a lot of material out there on Office 365 especially if your ogranization is a partner. I tend to utilize those during the meeting and normally the way i work it is that i speak on 1 to 2 topics during the 1.5 hr meeting. I usually leave the last 30-45 min for open disscussion and Q&A.

As far as hosting your meeting, try the microsoft office in your area (if there is one). Its FREE usually to book a meeting there and has all the technology you will need to do a visual presentations.”

Advice #4

“@Eric -- Our user group is general IT ( but we have done a lot of online meetings covering Office 365 using the 25 user Office 365 account available to members of Microsoft Technical Communities, aka MSTC ( Depending on where you are located there is a Microsoft evangelist for each part of the US. Contact the evangelist for your area and they will make sure that you are accepted at MSTC if you qualify.

I found that virtual meetings work well for Office 365 presentations and allows for other presenters via LYNC (once you get your group's subscription)”

Advice #5

“I would recommend a bunch of stuff

  • Immerse yourself with the local MS guys; sales, TAM’s etc. – make sure they know to promote your group when they are at clients – it’s a value add for Catapult AND MS.

  • Get on twitter and advertise your events all the time

  • Same with any Catapult blogs you have

  • Get a web site – we use wordpress and use that for

    • Content storage

    • Topics to cover etc

  • Every single sales call you/sales do – promote the HELL out of your group

  • Try and get third party vendors to sponsor your events –

    • Pay for pizza

    • After session drinks (HH)

    • Maybe monthly giveaways

      • We have given away an XBOX ONE last year at Christmas

  • Try and get your community to participate – I have gotten several of my clients to present sessions  - this is a GREAT way to build camaraderie

  • I ask all the DUMB questions users are afraid to ask – this helps stimulate additional questions J

Advice #6

“I get third party venders to cover pizza and soda and maybe a HH after.  

Any vendor involvement is minimal even if they donate. 

I also mandate NO POWERPOINTS – (again MY issue) as I do not want salesy fluff at the user group. So if  a vendor does present they bring their TECH guy.”

Advice #7

I’ve helped support the Austin SPUG for the past couple of years. While it was far from a new group by the time I joined, we have seen a recent surge in attendance. Here are some observations that may help:

  1. This is probably obvious but the #1 driver in attendance is the speaker/session topic. It’s nice and fun to have an MVP fly in or do a virtual session, but there were definitely times that a local, less famous speaker with a more relevant topic drew a bigger crowd than an MVP with a worse topic

  2. One of the changes we made that seemed to have a huge impact on attendance is offering more 101-level sessions. For a long time all of our sessions were either bleeding edge (“new search features of 2013”) or fairly specific (ex. Case study of a 2007 to 2013 migration). While these were interesting to the people who lived and breathed SharePoint on a daily basis, it turned out there was a huge demand for people who were just starting out and wanted to know the basics (ex. “How to use Document Sets”, “Document Libraries: From Soup to Nuts”)

  3. Sponsorship is a huge pain in the ass. In the Austin SPUG, we have had both the pleasure and unfortunate precedent of having a sponsored meal at all of our meetings. I wouldn’t even say that it’s as much of a draw as it is a perk, but people have now come to expect it. As such there is almost always a late scramble right before any meeting to try to secure a corporate sponsor to pay for the meals. If there’s any way you can get around this (BYO, collecting dues, crowdfunding) I would recommend it.

  4. People do love free swag though. If you have a Microsoft contact there that can provide you with free marketing stuff, even if it’s old (t-shirts, books, bags, etc.), it’s a great way to get people to stick around after the meeting.”

Advice #8

“+1 for the rock star. When I first started out, the DFW SMUG had only about 10-12 people attending per meeting. Then we had Wally Mead come and do a full day session. We had around 40 people show up for that. After that our attendance has been steady around 25-30 per meeting.

I haven’t had much trouble finding sponsors. In fact I’ve had people reaching out to me to ask to sponsor. It works really well if you can coordinate with the other user groups to all have the same sponsor. Last month we were able to schedule the DFW and San Antonio meeting a day apart. This allowed Blue Stripe fly in for our DFW meeting and then head to SA the next day.

Another thing that I have been trying to incorporate is, having more speakers who are slightly outside of our area. For example, we primarily focus on System Center. However, we have had presenters on SSRS, PowerShell, and Azure to name a few. People really seem to enjoy these.

One idea I am thinking about trying out here, is to reach out to the local colleges. College students, especially those close to graduating, are always looking for networking opportunities. If we reach out to them now, then over a few years, we can really grow our membership and participation as they enter the work force.”