User group meetings are fundamentally places for people to meet each other. My user groups have rituals – we start off by asking a silly question of everyone as an ice breaker, we introduce our speakers with something personal, and we end every meeting with a trip to a local pub. This is the after-party, an essential part of the user group experience.
I’ve been to some conferences that don’t properly plan for the after party. I’m sure some of you have too. And it’s a bummer! You just spent 6-8 hours with a bunch of people, learning stuff — and now you want to go somewhere and really *talk* about it.
The same thing happens during user group meetings. People came there because they were interested in the topic – and the people that knew something about that topic, or maybe just interested in finding like-minded people.. and after the presentation and discussion is done, they want to connect directly with the other people that are there.
The best way to facilitate this is to have food, something to drink (and it doesn’t need to be alcoholic, but that *does* tend to help people loosen up), and an unstructured, social environment that helps people talk to each other. Pubs are set up for this (tables, some amount of comfortable ambient noise, booze and usually food), as are coffee houses. Even someone’s living room will do!
Just remember – a user group meeting is about getting people together to meet each other, not just to hear a great speaker, or even to learn a particular skill. My goal is always to enable conversation and connections between individuals, because that’s the community-glue that will keep a group together and thriving long after the original inspiration fades.