Using your user group. (computer user groups)
by Scott Leibs
Tickets to sporting events. Riverboat cruises. Even a tour of the Concorde. These are some of the perks corporate members of user groups can expect when they are wined and dined by hardware and software vendors. Unfortunately, as a home office worker, you can't expect a software company to reward you for your $100 purchase by flying you to Rio for a week. But a user group is still valuable. You can turn to it for help on any number of matters.
Most cities in the U.S. have at least one user group. And while these groups vary greatly in breadth and quality, you should find out what your local user groups have to offer, look into other user groups outside the immediate area, and, if your needs are too specialized for existing groups, consider starting your own.
User groups are like computers: You get out of them what you put in. Virtually all user groups encourage members to take the lead in determining what sorts of activities the group will undertake. The focus can be as straightforward as acquainting new computer owners with the intricacies of printer cables and DOS commands or as specific as helping members of a particular profession get the most from a specialized software package.
Consider the Boston Computer Society, the largest user group in the country, with over 27,000 members and over 50 special interest groups (SIGs). Boston Computer Society SIGs focus on everything from artificial intelligence to real estate to helping the blind and visually impaired use computers.
The Boston group leverages the power of its vast membership by holding over 1500 meetings and special events each year. These aren't restricted to Boston, either, but are held throughout New England. In addition to the regular meetings, some of these special events focus on training, displaying new equipment, and sharing information on technological advances.
Sales and Service
Such a busy schedule would be beyond the resources of most groups, but you can expect a core of services from virtually any group you join. These include a newsletter, usually monthly, that describes the group's activities. The newsletter may contain articles of interest on new products, how-to features, or classified ads for used equipment. Many groups also maintain electronic bulletin boards, which not only contain electronic copies of the publications produced by the user group but also allow users to download public domain software and communicate with each other.
Most user groups have libraries of shareware, available free to all members, and demo copies of software that, while not available to copy, can be borrowed for a trial run to help users decide whether to make a purchase.
Many user groups receive hardware groups not only let you get your hands on loan from vendors. Some also allow you take it home for a thorough shakedown. If you decide to buy something, group membership may include discount rates on purchases. At the very least, you can get together with other members and benefit from quantity discounts by purchasing paper, disks, and other supplies as a group.
The Birds's-Eye Lowdown
The primary purpose of most groups is to disseminate information. This can range from the nuts and bolts of hooking up peripherals to pointers on how to become a sophisticated user of a given software package. It can even include ambitious educational undertakings such as becoming proficient in all aspects of desktop publishing. To achieve this, user groups try to tap the expertise of their members. A home office worker not only can get training but can give it, too.
You are likely to find people at a user group who share specialized interests. The demographics of user groups are changing, according to Daniel Janal. Janal Communications, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, sells The Definitive PC User Group Directory to help vendors reach user groups. "These groups are becoming more focused on business users. There are far fewer students and hackers and technology enthusiasts than there used to be."
Vendors now feel much more comfortable dealing with user groups, according to Janal, and that reaps many benefits for members. For example, software companies not only supply groups with demo copies but may send representatives to speak at meetings about how to use the software to maximum advantage. Representatives may also brief the group on forthcoming products. Vendors sometimes foster good will by bringing along a few copies of their products to give away as door prizes.
Esprit de Corporation
Some companies take user groups seriously enough to devote staff resources reaching out to them. Apple Computer and Commodore take a strong interest in groups devoted to users of their machines. Elena Fernandez, user group coordinator at Lotus Development, spends much of her time on the road meeting with the 40 or so largest groups in the country. "Members of user groups are a great barometer of the PC world," she says. "They'll tell you right away how they feel about a product."
While Fernandez focuses her efforts on user groups of 500 or more members, smaller groups can also get direct involvement from Lotus. "We often get calls from smaller groups, and when we do, we can usually help them through a local sales office," Fernandez says.
Part of Lotus's interest in user groups, Fernandez says, stems from the fact that it views "user group members as educators of other PC users." To foster that relationship, Lotus recently began supplying user groups with disks containing technical information on its products. The company may also begin downloading current information to group's electronic bulletin boards.
On the Rise
If you're considering joining a user group, your aren't alone. Groups are forming virtually everywhere, and membership is on the rise. Consider the Northwest Arkansas Microcomputer Users Group, based in Springdale. The group's newsleter editor, Bill Shook says, "Every meeting we gain two to six new members." The group currently stands at about 90 members and plans to launch some SIGs in the near future.
Joining a group will provide you with access to hardware, software, and all kinds of technical help. But the real benefit is meeting new and interesting people with similar interests and concerns. The networking possibilities are only limited by the number of business cards you can afford to print up.
Shook says, "We encourage everyone to interface and get involved. It's not a place for advertising yourself - at least not openly - but it is a place to meet lots of people." That's good advice for anyone who's thinking of joining a community computer user group.
There are a number of ways to find the user groups in your area. One of the best is to visit or call your local computer dealer. Most user groups make it a habit to let computer retailers know of their existence. They may even post ads in the store. A number of computer publications also list user groups. If you live in a medium-sized or larger city, you may have a number of user groups to choose from. Shop around. One will almost certainly stand out as most likely to meet your needs.
Once you've found a group, the only way to know if it will be of value is to attend some meetings. Virtually all user groups will let you try them on for size before you pay annual dues (typically $25-$50). Ask questions, find out what SIGs the group has, and gauge the members' backgrounds and interests. Ask to see copies of the newsletter and other publications. If the user group has an electronic bulletin board, find out if as a nonmember you can dial in and see what's happening during club meetings.
A serious home office user might want to expand his or her reach by joining the user groups in larger cities. In addition to Boston's, there are very active groups in Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, and other major cities. Even a remote member can benefit from the publications and bulletin-board access. Many of these groups also sponsor special events at trade shows and other venues.
If all else fails, you could simply launch your own user group. According to Jerry Schneider, founder of the Association of PC User Groups in Washington, D.C., the process is fairly simple:
* Find a location (most groups meet in
schools or libraries.) * Advertise (computer retailers, other
user groups' publication, and simple
word of mouth work well). * See who shows up.
Once you have a membership, however small, Schneider says the key to succeeding is "to continually assess member needs and communicate goals." Make sure all members identify their needs up front. You may want to make it clear that , at least in the beginning, the group will focus on a specific goal, such as the equipment and educational needs of home office workers. This will prevent the paralysis that may set in when ten members want to pursue ten different goals.
Schneider also notes, "Information drives every group, and we encourage groups to set up arrangements with vendors because ultimately they are the source of most information.
If your group becomes large enough, vendors can help in ways that might not occur to you. Fernandez of Lotus says that in October 1990 her company launched a program in which it does direct-mail marketing that benefits both Lotus and the user group. "When we're going to be giving a presentation at a group, we sometimes pull the names of 10,000 or so customers living nearby and send them an announcement that we will be there. We may also take out ads." The potential for user groups to gain new members from such a presentation is enourmous.
Home Away from Home
Technical help, free software, business contacts, and even some relief from the isolation that sometimes plagues home office users-all this and more may be available, for a nominal price, at your local user group.