This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.
Gathering friends, followers and “likers” online can only take you so far in the world of networking. Organizing a Meetup is a great way to move your virtual network to a tangible territory.
Quite simply, a Meetup is a planned event where like-minded people meet and typically chat over cocktails and listen to a guest speaker. Organizing one of these events is an excellent way to establish yourself or your business as a “go-to” person in your industry.
Yet it is easier said than done. Anyone who has ever tried to organize a dinner with just a small group of friends knows that preparation is the key to any successful event. Meetups require planning, and given that you want to make a good impression you should take your time to make sure everything goes smoothly.
1. Why Your Meetup?
First, consider why you want to organize a Meetup. Do your research and find out what groups are already meeting, and decided what your Meetup could bring to your industry. Sign up on Meetup’s
website and create a personal profile to see what the scene is like already. Search for terms that pertain to your field, and decide on what is missing so you can position your Meetup to satisfy that void.
Next, you need to craft a clear lead statement that explains exactly what your Meetup is about. Break it down so that people will understand what type of conversations you hope to develop.
2. Create a Meetup Group
Meetup’s services make it easy to get the group rolling. Create your group, and choose your location, the group’s name, headline and your lead statement describing what the group is all about. Pick a theme for your group’s page; you can choose from several templates or create your own.
The next step is important. Pick up to 15 topics that describe what your group is targeting. Picking the right keywords is how you’ll find the right members for your group. Meetup’s site offers some good suggestions and shows you how many groups already exist under each umbrella topic.
Then pick a pricing plan. Meetup is free to join, but if you want to actually start a group, pricing will run as low as $12 a month. With more than 6.5 million people signed up and over 60,000 groups formed it’s the simplest way to organize a group and reach out to the most people.
Now that you have created the group, you’re officially the “organizer.” 72 hours after you have created the group the site sends out an alert blast to everyone who has listed the topics or keywords you choose to categorize the group, and invites them to join.
If you have contacts who aren’t members of the site but that you know you’d want to attend, send off a personalized e-mail informing them of your new group. You can also tweet the link to your group’s page so your Twitter followers get the message as well.
3. Grow Membership
Don’t rush to create an event right away says Yuli Ziv, who organizes the Meetups for her group Fashion 2.0 and is the co-founder of My It Things and Style Coalition. Ziv’s group has more than 1,000 members, and she has organized 20 Meetups since 2008. She advises that you wait for the membership to grow before you announce your first event.
Once you decide to put a Meetup event on the calendar make sure you announce it and give yourself some time to promote the event so that people can RSVP.
Meetups don’t have to adhere to one format. Most include networking over cocktails and often feature a panel discussion or guest speak and Q and A session from the audience. If it’s you’re first event, you may want to try something more informal.
Julia Kaganskiy organizes the 1,300 member strong Arts, Culture and Technology group. A former social media strategist and community manager for an entertainment agency, and current Digital Learning department intern at the MoMA, Kaganskiy held her first meet up nearly two years ago as a way to meet people in the specific communities she wanted to work in.
For her first event, Kaganskiy says she ran more of relaxed gathering because she wanted to get a feeling for who would come out. “I wanted to see what fields people were in and find out what they were really interested in. I worked the room and got a sense of what kinds of questions people wanted to explore.”
Fourteen Meetups later, Kaganskiy now creates each event with a different theme or topic and invites top industry leaders as guest speakers. Sometimes she’ll invite a few speakers to speak for 30 minutes or she’ll invite four or five guests with a variety of viewpoints to each speak for 10 minutes. Either way, the goal is to get the conversation flowing.
Once you decide what you’ll be doing at the event, you need to tell people where to actually meet. Finding a venue to hold your event can be the most difficult part. Depending on where you live there may be more or less available space. The key is, and both Kaganskiy and Ziv agree, is to find somewhere for free.
“Find a bar on a Monday or Tuesday, and most places will be thrilled to have you. If it’s a low traffic area they’ll be more than happy to have you bring in 50 people for a couple of hours,” says Kaganskiy.
Once you have space set there is always the question of if you’ll have enough. In places like New York City, space is often an issue.
As Fashion 2.0 has grown in membership, Ziv says that they have outgrown the venues where past events have taken place. To avoid turning people away, Ziv suggests capping the number of people admitted if there is enough interest. “Some events are better in an intimate setting,” she says. “A big event doesn’t mean a great event. It could be 30 people and be just as relevant and interesting as one with 100.”
Once you have established yourself as a group, Ziv suggests making a wait list if too many people RSVP to your event. “It can make people more excited. It means it’s a special event and people want to be a part of it. This way you can encourage people to RSVP early,” she says.
6. Day of the Meetup
For everything to run smoothly, it’s important that you do some last-minute preparation before your group meets. Call the venue to confirm, and make sure they have all the equipment you need (microphones, speakers, screens). If you’re bringing your own supplies, make sure the venue knows that ahead of time and confirm that you’ll be their early to set up.
If you’re in a private room at a bar or restaurant, try to make sure that the staff know who you are and that they’ll communicate to arriving guests where the event is being held.
On the day of, don’t forget your Sharpie pens, name tags, and the RSVP list. Have someone besides yourself man the door, so you can take care of last-minute needs. If you decide not to cap your admission number, make sure to have a sign-in sheet so you can get everyone’s contact information.
Initial Meetups tend to be low-key affairs, but once you’ve organized a few and keep gaining members, sponsorship is a great way to make your Meetup more professional and enjoyable, while taking the costs off your hands.
Getting sponsored can happen in different ways. Fashion 2.0 was lucky enough to find some of its sponsors within some of its own members according to Ziv. “We have executives in the group and it’s to their benefit to tell their companies about a relevant group with great people who they would want to reach out to.”
The benefits of being sponsored mean that Fashion 2.0 can afford a bigger venue and host events with an open bar, which definitely attracts people. “It really takes it to the next level and makes it a serious event. The fashion industry has high standards and people expect a big production,” she says.
Another way to find a sponsor is through Meetup’s website. Three years ago the website noticed that groups were starting to get sponsored by local businesses.
“Running groups were sponsored by the neighborhood running store, and we saw that there was an opportunity for big brands to come in and support these groups,” said Cindy Laning, the account manager for Meetup sponsors. Since organizers pay to use the site, Meetup is committed to supporting the success of each group, and found that groups grow, on average, 7% faster with a sponsor.
Laning explained that organizers have the option of whether or not they would be interested in sponsorship, and Meetup reaches out to groups who they think would benefit from working with, including dozens of top brands like Columbia Sports, Dove, Vitamin Water, Equinox, Blackberry, Huggies and Microsoft.
“The point is to get as many groups sponsored as possible. We reach out to the group and act as the middleman between them and the brand.”
According to Laning, Meetup has a 75% opt-in rate for sponsorship, which insures that brands are welcomed into the community. “We get qualitative feedback; brands come in and they recognize these communities by financing them or with other things. The groups are so grateful for that support, that when it comes time to make a purchase decision they are likely to use the brand that has been helping them out. It’s a pay it forward mentality.”
8. The Future
Once you’ve organized your first Meetup, start thinking about the next. Talk to people to find out what will keep bringing them back, and try to come up with innovative ideas that will place you where you want to be in your industry: a connected, relevant contributor.
“Running the Meetup was the single most important move I’ve made in my professional career thus far,” said Kaganskiy. “It positioned me at the center of this community that I was just making my way into. It allowed me to create my own networking opportunities. Because I’m creating a public service by organizing these events, I’ve gain a lot of respect.”
9. Keep Connected
The event may be over, but your work is far from done. Now that you’ve met all these new people, it’s your job to stay connected with them via your group’s Meetup page, but also through other social media platforms. Follow your members on Twitter and Facebook. Keep your community buzzing. Was there a controversial question that generated a lot of discussion? Tweet it after the event and keep people thinking about you so that they can’t wait for the next event. For example, John Hyland and Anthony Quintano of the NYC DSLR Meetup, keep up with their members via Twitter to keep conversation rolling before, during and after their Meetups.
At Fashion 2.0 there is a whole conversation on Twitter in addition to the event. Ziv says members all follow and support each other, and foster new discussions.
Kaganskiy uses her personal Twitter account to promote the group and says that following up with members on other networking sites really helps to cement the relationships. She reflects, “I was an outsider looking in. Now I have friends at every major museum in the city, and it is because I maintained those connections I made at the Meetups.”
Have you organized a Meetup in your community? Add your own tips on organizing a successful Meetup in the comments below.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, iofoto