This posting was initially an email wrap-up for other MMUG
managers about the March Mingle
that the SDCFUG
recently put on in San Diego. As I wrote the email it slowly morphed into a how-to for putting on a one night event like this in your own town. I guess the current version is a little of both.
This is the second year we've thrown the March Mingle and this year 20 local technology groups participated with more than 200 people attending the event. We actually has more than 20 groups participating, but a couple of them didn't have time to properly promote it and asked to be left off the official list of groups.
All in all it was a GREAT success. The feedback was all very positive and several people suggested that we do it more than once a year. In reply, I suggested to those people that they just volunteered to run it. I have a feeling it will remain a once a year event.
We had so many door prizes that it took 40 minutes to give them all away. I didn't count them all, but someone told me that they counted 60 door prizes! We did get a picture of the door prize table
, as well as one of the Microsoft free swag table
. We had a third free swag table with even more stuff on it, but there's no photo evidence of it.
So, here's the how-to part. If anyone's interested in doing something similar in their city and wants some input from someone who's done it twice now, here's the "fitty cent" tour of what it took for us:
- One Website with a databased RSVP mechanism
- Five or so Sponsors (portions may vary)
- One cool fun place with private party space
- A buncha food
- A buncha door prizes
- A buncha participating user groups
First, toss your website
onto the WWW and bake at 350 for at least 2 months prior to the event. The website should have enough info to make someone interested in attending/sponsoring. If you have a list of user groups who you think will participate, list them. Use peer pressure to get more user groups to join up. If virtually all the groups in the city are going, then the few who you've not reached yet will feel left out and want to join in too.
Then, identify your venue and get an event contract started. In my case Dave and Busters
asked for a deposit before signing the contract. I avoided fronting any money by having my strongest sponsor call in their sponsor fee as the deposit for me. Just be sure you are prepared to cover the entire contract when you do this. Either be confident that you can find enough sponsors to pay for the event or be prepared to pay for the difference they don't handle. I set aside an amount of my own personal money in case of sponsor disaster (I didn't end up needing it).
Next, call around to people you know at companies big enough to have a full time Marketing, PR, or HR employee - this is the employee who will be the easiest to reach/pitch. These are people who are use to getting these sorts of calls, and often will already have money budgeted for these sorts of events.
Sometimes you can also find an employee who has a corp AMEX who has the authority to charge the $$ on it and skip the middleman. Sometimes the sponsor wants to pay by check. Try to sweet talk them into the corp AMEX route - if that doesn't work, send over guido.
To avoid dealing with corp / non-profit status and handing any of the money directly, have the sponsors pay the venue directly on the account you've set up with your contract. This way you avoid any tax liabilities and the sponsors feel better that you'll not run off with their money. Attempt to pay for the entire event using sponsor money. Plan ahead.
While all this is going on, contact all the user groups you can and get them to sign off on "participating". Make sure they know it's free to participate, and use peer pressure to get them to join in. In exchange for participating, ask them to send out a few emails promoting the event and put a mention up on their website about it. To make sure they send the right message to their members, email the group's head a template email that they can adjust and use. This helps ensure that the message is complete and accurate and also helps the group manager save time because they don't have
to write the message themselves. You also get a good consistency of messaging because most of the announcements will look similar.
Send a couple of reminder emails to the RSVP list just before the event (2-3 days). The people you are emailing are already interested, so you don't have to sell the event to them, just remind them about it. In this reminder email, I also encourage people to invite their peers and colleagues. The point of this being to create more buzz and "viral marketing".
I also joined all the user group lists I could and a sent out a reminder a couple of days before the event. By then they all knew about the event and my email wasn't frowned on by the lists. Just take care with the frequency you send the messages out, you don't want your emails viewed as spam.
Lastly - and this may differ from other events - about 40% of the RSVPs were in the last 2 days prior to the event. Alot of people wait till the last minute to make a decision, and alot of the last minute RSVPs will be for multiple people going to the event together. These are the people who say
"I'll go if you go" and are just waiting to make sure they will know someone there.
At the event:
I tried a few fun tricks at the event to get people talking to each other and enjoying themselves. They all seemed to work.
Nametags - People hate wearing dorky nametags. I overcame this a couple of ways. First, I got two attractive female volunteers to stand behind the sign-in table and write out the nametags. It may sound sexist, but let's face it, most geeks are men. Not all, but most. And most men will let a hot girl stick a nametag on them no matter what it says on it.
Also, the nametags didn't have names on them. This is an idea I actually got from a house party back in Atlanta. You find some nametags that have "Hello I'm" pre-printed at the top of them, and people have to complete the phrase. Some nametags I saw floating around during the event included "Hello I'm into Real Estate", "Hello I'm from Ohio", "Hello I'm a big geek", "Hello I'm Attractive", and mine said "Hello I'm In Charge". The point of the nametags was to get conversations going between people who didn't know each other, not to tell you what their name was.
I used one other conversation starter at the event. I got a couple of packets of small Avery labels (26 per sheet I think) and printed out a ton of stickers with names of technologies on them. They said things like WiFi, .NET, ColdFusion, Oracle, and I even made some that said Punchcards and Assembly (and a few people used them). Everyone stuck the stickers on themselves and it was like wearing the languages you speak on your shirt. You could walk around looking for someone who knew PHP, Java, and Flash, or whatever you wanted. Sounds dorky, but everyone loved it.
Giving out door prizes - As I mentioned above, we had a metric ton of door prizes. It took 40 minutes to give them all way, and in retrospect this was too long. So here's a lesson learned... If you have a buncha door prizes, just start calling out names and let people come pick something off the table. Don't draw names for specific prizes. It's faster, and if done right, can have a Price is Right "come on down" kinda zany fun feel to it.
Another key thing this year was having a designated camera person. In my case I handed my digital camera to someone during the event and asked them to go around and get as many pictures as they could. Put the photos up on the event website
after the event. People love looking at pictures. The marchmingle.com
site got 10 times more traffic on the day the pictures were posted on it than it did the day before the event (when most of the RSVPs were made).
Lastly - Volunteers. Volunteers are great, but don't count on any. People tend to volunteer their time easily, but since it's a job they are not being paid to do - don't count on this being a number one priority for them. There are certainly exceptions, but when you start planning an event you should be prepared to do everything yourself if need be. At any given time you may be required to do something you'd planned on having a volunteer do for you.
I am sure there's plenty of great advice out there on getting volunteers to follow through, take ownership, get excited, etc. That's all well and good - just be prepared to do anything and everything. The total time investment for me to run this event was about 60 hours of my own time. Make sure you have the time to devote to it...
Um - I think that's it. This turned out to be a long post. Hopefully it's a good one!