User Groups: Why They Exist & How to Start Yours

Corporations, Community Strategy // User groups can help you deliver a great customer experience. If you’re interested in starting one at your own company, you’re in the right place. Don't miss the 8-question framework to document your user group strategy.

Annie Moncure
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User groups are once again becoming a central part of business’ customer relationship strategies. For many companies, user groups have long been a big part of building a stand-out customer experience. They’re a great way to get product feedback, support your users, and find enthusiastic advocates. If you’re interested in starting one at your own company, you’re in the right place.

In this post, we’ll cover:

Quick History Lesson: How User Groups Began

User groups weren’t originally company ventures. They sprang up organically – the customers’ answer to a problem. Today, that answer has evolved to benefit both users and businesses equally.

Before we get too far, what is a user group, technically?

User groups connect people to share strategies and best practices around a given product, often software. These users are usually from different companies or organizations. User groups are generally location-based (i.e. Marketo Users of Atlanta) or role-based (i.e. admin-level Salesforce users or customer success managers using ChurnZero). The user group isn’t always associated with an organization itself; it can be formed by the users independently of the organization.

The first user groups were launched in the 1950s when people using technology, like mainframe computers, formed loose clubs to support each other, spread best practices, and share ideas. From there, software and technology user groups grew in importance and numbers, becoming a major force behind the voice of customers for today’s software and technology companies.

With COVID-19, geographically based user groups are becoming less and less important. People are looking to connect via similarities in their industry and background, rather than by location. Many companies opt to move their user groups online because of the increased flexibility and the ability to connect at any time digitally.

The benefits of active user groups are undeniable. Learn how investing in user groups can help differentiate your business and improve business metrics – and the eight considerations to keep in mind before you start one.

3 Benefits of Starting a User Group

Many companies have found that investing in software user groups is a relatively low-cost way to deliver a great customer experience. Technology and software companies often choose to invest in customer user groups for three key reasons.

1. User Groups Enable Better Listening to Avoid Product & Marketing Misses

You can bet your executive team is looking at the year ahead and thinking, “What can we do to create more profitable products for our market?” A user group can inform that question. User groups give companies direct access to customers’ needs and conversations and create consistent feedback loops during the product development process.

With a user group, marketers and product managers can test concepts, positioning, and messages with customers throughout the product lifecycle. The result? Products and services that better solve the problems your customers are willing to pay to have solved.

Customers, especially B2B customers, are incredibly innovative and knowledgeable about their industries as well as the products they use. In a user group, customers like this often surprise and delight one another with innovative workarounds that solve their peers’ problems. They may even come up with new ways to use products that your company had not considered.

These solutions and ideas are invaluable additions to the support your customer support team provides. Workarounds and other ideas from user groups can also be implemented immediately, without additional product development or investment from your business, providing more value to your customers at no extra cost to your company.

While software user groups are creative in finding new ways to leverage your existing products, they can be even more helpful if you’re willing to dive into product development with them. Ask for user group members’ opinions on potential product improvements and new features so you can continue providing more value. Your user group’s input will likely help you build products with fewer support issues and more market relevance.

But here’s one big caveat. These user groups NEED to stay member-focused. Marketing/product teams should not use these groups to inundate users with questions. The most effective way to keep your user group engaged and thriving is to always help the users feel like the group is made for them, and not for the company. The company can benefit, of course, but the users need to feel like the organization is being thoughtful with what they ask and share with the group.

2. User Groups Help Customers Succeed

When your products are successfully used to meet business objectives, both executives and in-the-trenches users are happy. User groups exist to help customers find more success with a certain set of products or services. Without a user group, companies have limited insight into customer satisfaction and ultimately, customer retention.

User communities can signal alerts for when your customers are struggling, seeking specific information, or aren’t engaged. You want to see and address these concerns well before customers decide to end the relationship. A community gives your customer success managers new insight into each customer’s journey.

3. Thriving User Groups Differentiate Your Company & Help You Own the Conversation

Customer acquisition and retention suffer when buyers can’t see the difference between your product and other solutions in the market. When a prospect is deciding between two companies that have similar solutions, the company with the active user group has an advantage over the solution provider that is only offering a product.

Highlight the strength of your user group during the sales process to stand out from the competition. Software user groups are a relatively low-cost “feature” of your solution that helps your customers succeed. While competitors are always adding new features and services, the differentiation that a reliable user group delivers is difficult to replicate.

So if you’re bought in and ready to start your user group – what happens next?

Use the following 8-question framework to create your user group strategy.

Starting a User Group? 8 Questions to Consider

Despite the value in user groups and the experience people have with them – technology professionals are often members of user groups – there isn’t always a clear roadmap for starting one. You might be wondering:

  • How do you host a user group meeting without in-person events?
  • Even if you do host an event (virtual or in-person), how do you continue the conversation beyond that meeting?
  • Should your company run the user group or should it be independently run by your customers?

Part of the reason that people fail to get the green light for launching a user group is their ability to tie user group engagement to core business strategies. The other reason you might struggle to get executives excited about your user group plan is a lack of clarity about what user groups look like and what shape yours will take.

Communicating both the value of an active user group and the fact that you have a plan will help you get your senior management on board. Use this framework to help you with both of those items.

Question #1) What is the purpose of launching a user group?

Mature user groups offer users an array of opportunities to learn and engage. Narrow your fledgling user group’s focus on the areas where your customers and company will get the most value. To that end, sketch out the purpose of the initial version of your user group.

  • Is the goal of your user group to build stronger bonds with customers by hosting periodic in-person meetings?
  • Are you trying to keep customers more informed about your products and services?
  • Is your company looking to your user group to aggregate the voice of your customer and provide ongoing market data and product feedback to validate ideas and prioritization of new features?

Deciding on the primary activities that your software user group will participate in is the foundation for your community’s roadmap.

Question #2) How will your user group meet?

Meeting in person hasn’t been possible for many this year, and it isn’t always feasible for your customers (even when there’s no pandemic).

Building an online community to support your user group to meet can be an effective solution. Your users can connect whenever they want in a digital space, extending the conversation much past an event. Plus, you can easily add in in-person or hybrid events when the time comes by directing users to follow up in the community or even building a dedicated event community. One benefit is even your users who can’t attend in-person events will be able to participate digitally.

When conversations happen online in your user group community, your employees can take part or observe the conversations to get product feedback, help customers with questions, or get insights into their needs and the industry.

One important aspect of building an online user group community will be to develop a strong online community engagement strategy.

Question #3): What will your user group’s events look like?

When events make sense again, here are some considerations for your user group events:

Depending on the size and maturity of your user group, you’ll need to determine if you’ll host one user group conference in your primary country or if you’ll also produce smaller conferences for states or regions. You may want to even grow an international conference program to address users in areas such as Asia, Europe, and Australia, depending on where your customer base is situated.

While people participate in user groups to get the latest info about your product, the biggest member benefit is the opportunity to network with, learn from, and share ideas with other users.

How will you make that a central part of your user group? Will you provide opportunities for peer-to-peer engagement through in-person events? Or will you give user group members a way to stay connected with each other throughout the year online?

Question #4) Who will run your user group?

Next, think through whether your user group will be a company-run user group or an independent user group. Decisions made about the user group in company-run user groups are made by employees of the company, while independent user groups are autonomous separate companies (usually nonprofit membership organizations, like associations).

Both are popular models. However, we advocate for maintaining your user group, especially if your group principally meets online. Why? One big reason: The data. Getting to know your customers and your industry through your community is invaluable. Participating and learning from the conversations your customers have online every day can transform your company, helping you create better products, hone your marketing, and beat your competitors.

Again, though, you want the users to feel a sense of ownership for the community. They can help you moderate, create content, post discussions and questions, and feel like it’s their space. You can host the online community platform and manage the community, but work to make your user group community a user-centric environment.

Question #5) Will your user group have chapters and sub-groups?

Will your user group have state chapters or sub-communities? It usually only makes sense to create a chapter or special interest group (SIG) structure if people use your product in different industries, roles, and geographic regions.

Managing chapters and other groups adds responsibility and governance to managing your user group. However, you want the value of participating in your user group to be as relevant to your customers as possible. If hosting separate discussions, resource libraries, and events for different chapters or SIGs would make the benefits of membership more valuable, this model may be right for your user group.

If you opt for this model, choose an online community platform that will help you create separate, organized community areas for your different user groups.

Question #6) What will your user group’s volunteer leadership opportunities look like?

Independent user groups are usually run by a volunteer board, while your business makes most of the decisions for a company-run user group. However, by nature, even a company-run user group has a volunteer leadership structure.

  • Will your user group have a governing board?
  • Who will be on the board – customers, partners, members of your company?
  • How long will board members serve?

Beyond the board, many user groups rely on committees to manage projects ranging from planning your user group’s conference to producing content and resources for your user group.

Question #7) What are your users’ expectations?

What will users expect from your user group? Think of this question in terms of communication, access to other users, and what they will get out of participating.

It will be difficult to answer this question without doing user research, so we recommend doing some customer interviews. Check out these sample interview questions:

  • How did you decide to become a customer of [org]?
  • How do you use our products/services?
  • Are there features/services you use all the time? How?
  • Tell me about a challenge you’re experiencing as a customer of [org].
  • If we started a user group, what would you expect it would be like?
  • What would you hope to get from the user group?
  • What kinds of problems would connecting with other users help you solve?

Question #8) What are your company’s expectations for the user group?

When you launch a user group, think through how you’ll align your user group with your leadership team’s priorities. For instance, what goals and measurements will you use to communicate the user group’s success? What would your company hope to get from a user group? Interview key department leaders to understand how a user group could help them.

Sample interview questions:

  • Tell me about the main objectives of your role.
  • Tell me about a challenge you’re experiencing in your role.
  • What technology tools are you using to get these jobs done now?
  • What’s the final result you’re trying to achieve?
  • If we started a user group to connect our customers, what would you hope to get out of it?
  • What kinds of problems would connecting our customers in this way help you solve?

Ready to Start Your User Group?

User groups help your business make your customers successful, while gaining invaluable customer insight. Your customers, in turn, get to build a network that they can use to be more successful with your products and services.

With basic guidance on the framework for the decisions you have to make, you’ll set your company on the course toward creating a sustainable user group community that delivers ongoing value to both your users and your company.

Annie Moncure

Senior Community Manager

Annie is a senior community manager at Higher Logic. In a previous life, she worked in non-profit database solutions and fundraising software. Outside of work, you will find her trying out the latest coffee shop, hiking on a nice day or planning her next trip (favorite places she has been so far include Peru and Croatia)!

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