I’ve learned that it’s easy to overestimate the expectations of Meetup attendees, but more specifically, the real success in a Meetup is in the connections made between the people who come.
RSVPs are really, really helpful but they can also be deceiving. For free RSVP events, you can generally expect 50% or less of the people who RSVP to attend. If you have more than that, you’re kicking ass.
Meetup.com itself can be even more deceiving, since they make it SOOOO easy for people to RSVP. I’ve learned to like Meetup for it’s ability to help new people discover us, but less so for the poor turnout ratio (and often, this weird side effect where it attracts people who are “Meetup Surfers”, who just hop from meetup to meetup even when they have no idea what the meetup is about. Some of them are very nice, and eager to learn. Others are…let’s say habitually distracting.
Do you need a talk? I say no.
I actively avoid talks at the Meetups I’ve organized over the years, because while they seem like they’d be a magnet for attendees, in practice they’re usually the most effort and least interactive part of a Meetup. We VERY regularly get remarks from people that our Meetups are more memorable because they don’t interrupt the conversations among the attendees for a talk.
In my experience, talks work best when they’re timely, topical…and short. When we DO have a talk, it’s because we know that it’s something people are chomping at the bit to learn more about, not just something they’d casually like hearing about. One awesome part about keeping talks SHORT is that it’s less prep work for the presenter. The other awesome part about a short talk is that it quickly turns the floor back over the the most important people in the room - the attendees - and you can encourage further discussion about the topic (or anything else that they want).
Do you need refreshments? I put refreshments in the “niceties” category. They can also be a great way to involve a sponsor who isn’t sure how to contribute. With that said, providing food DOES take care of a key objection. I remember learning this in college, when campus orgs would send out invites. If someone put an event during a meal AND said there was going to be food, my # of excuses to not go would shrink. “I gotta eat anyway…”
For me, timing is the deciding factor for whether or not food should be a consideration. Longer meetups are more likely to overlap a meal.
Another way to look at this is to make a meal the entire Meetup. I’ve had tons of success by removing the “topic” as the centerpiece of the Meetup and instead, just inviting a bunch of people from a given community to have a meal together. Even if they have to pay their own way (which I’ve done far more often than I’ve had the entire meal sponsored), people love having an opportunity to share a meal and talk about stuff they care about. Also, this reduces the actual work for you as an organizer, letting you focus on inviting people to attend: pick a place, set up RSVPs, and notify the place ahead of time.
Final twist on the “refreshments” angle: think about experimenting with pot luck dinners. This has been HUGE in a number of the communities that I work with. It’s even more participatory, and invites people to share something with the group. It can be helpful to assure people that they don’t need to cook, but can swing by a grocery store and pick up something prepared.
Venue choice: My #1 priority for venue choice is how easy the venue is to work with. I don’t want to spend my energy convincing them, I want them to be excited/happy to be working with us. This usually means my goal is to be a return guest.
The second priority, closely behind the former, is the perception of convenience. I say perception because no matter where you choose, people are going to complain for some reason . Finding places that FEEL convenient to get to (consider public transit, parking, etc) is different from choosing places that are actually easy to get to.
Get to know where your community is located in your region. In Philadelphia, for example, we knew that much of our creative community was located in three different neighborhoods: one to the north, one to the south, and one to the west. The challenge was that if we went to any one of these neighborhoods, people from the other neighborhoods wouldn’t come.
So instead, we started doing our Meetups in areas of the city that were relatively equi-distant to all of them, and relatively easy to get to from all three neighborhoods. That neighborhood was an otherwise unlikely place at the beginning, but has since become an emergent epicenter, so much so that the city supported us in an official naming of N. 3rd St to “N3rd Street”
What things are necessary for your group and why do you think they are necessary? To recap from my previous points, it’s probably less than YOU think. Start small, with as little overhead as possible.
I’ve noticed that a lot of Meetup organizers are tempted into adding lots of “Features” to their Meetup, for fear that without a given feature people won’t attend. This is a purely mental block and I’ve seen it kill a lot of Meetups and Meetup organizers. Remember why people attend Meetups: to meet other people. Put your focus on things that support that.
More importantly, remember that anything that DOESN’T help people meet each other has the potential to be a distraction from the core reason they’re there.
Aside #1: My friend Vanessa Gennarelli - who works for P2PU and helped design Mozilla’s recently decommissioned Badges platform - wrote an awesome post about designing community building events that I think y’all might like: http://dangerouslyawesome.com/2014/02/how-to-design-community-building-events-that-people-will-love-and-remember/
Aside #2: I bet that promotion of Meetups (and in general events) could be an entirely new thread. Anybody interested in something like that?