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Over 400 participants in one year. Why our insanity is working for us.
[ Edited ]

Over 400 participants in one year. Why our insanity is working for us.  I’ll share much of that today.


We’ve heard the slogan “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”


Lets qualify this entire post. 

  • If you are happy with your group. 
  • If you feel that everything is ok. 
  • If your membership is strong and vibrant


Then you can stop reading.  Congrats you have it all figured out and we can save you the time on the rest of this stuff. 

Could you share some of your successes? 

I’m competitive but I’m not trying to win you over on our methods or process. 

If these things do not work for you, that is just ok. 


However, if you are curious about why your attendance is down, where your members are going, or should come from… I hope my experience can help.  And lets find ways to help each other.  


We are not crazy and we want to try different things.



A year ago I relaunched the Windy City SAS Users Group.  There was one member. Me. Today. I manage and lead 5 other local groups in the Chicago area and we have over 430 members.  In the last year we have had at least 2 events per month.  We now also include web-presentations each month.  And we show no signs of reaching a plateau in our membership joins.


Sound crazy? Maybe. 



Here is another crazy thing to consider.

We have done all this growth almost completely organically and with minimal expense and effort. 

(Well I’m sure Melissa and Kristen from SAS will disagree since I bug them now and then.  And especially early on when I tried to make sure my ‘events’ were not going to alienate SAS since they are/were different.)


I also did some calculations and we really have lots of room to grow. I expect that we should be at 600 members by summer of 2016.  If we are lucky and have a few good breaks in terms of marketing we could be at over 1,000 members participating in our varied events. Online and in person.


So how did I grow from one group to five groups.  With minimal effort and resources?

I’m going to expand on each of the following in separate posts but lets start with the basics.

  • Definition of a local group
  • What we do/don’t do. Our value proposition
  • Our Members/Our Friends
  • Our Events Draw Them In

The definition:

I feel that the term “Local User Group” as its associated to teams under sas.com – has to change – I wanted to have groups that lead that change.  The majority of these groups to me are working under a “We are a Regional Conference Annual Gathering group but call us –local- so we don’t upset our regional neighbor above” model.  Those to me are not “local groups”.


I led groups and participated as a UG leader (at the local and regional level) from about 1998 thru 2010. Was away from it for a few years (from 2011 thru 2013). Came back last year, 2014, and was shocked nothing had changed.  Well very little at the local level.  Some changes at the Regional side but this message is all about locals. 


My relaunch of the Chicago group was done around the message of: “I will do the opposite of just about every other local group SAS recognizes” and "Lets have fun not -work-". 


Don’t get me wrong we do lots of things that other locals do.  Like cooperate with SUG Support.  But fundamentally, we are very much aware that conferences, one day, half-days, annually, semi-annual – are NOT what we excel at.  That is for our regional leaders to do and for us to help promote and participate as attendees.  So this is a radical change or difference imho about how we define ourselves.  I wanted the groups I lead to lead the change.  


As for the "fun not work". The groups were started with the concept that the minute we needed to 'work' at producing an event we probably went too far.  Yes there is some work involved.  But most of the volunteers have been great to offer up help when and how they can.


And I’ll say this carefully, I’m not trying to stir a debate on this.  If your group doesn’t change, it doesn’t really impact my Chicago members or Chicago user community.  I totally support you staying the same.  We are helping users, near and far, maybe some who are probably your members.  I am happy that our group will be there to provide a web/virtual support for them and those members are likely the ones we see joining from very far away from Chicago. So... I guess keep up the good work?


What we do/don’t do:

Our activities complement our users and the learning needs they have which we can address.  We are NOT in the business to run conferences. That’s the regionals, that is SGF. We are NOT in the business of conducting ‘training’. That’s SAS Training. What we can do is educate and inform people on what SAS is, does, can do, and grow a community of users who share the same passion for all things “SAS”.


Those conferences are lots of work.  Too much if you ask me.  I am happy to promote, announce and publicize any event you have if you need help.  But I’m not going to try and orchestrate a one day conference with volunteers who have real jobs and careers.  That work is too hard.  They need to focus on being SAS Users.  And as a result, I have great volunteers who are taking different roles than you’d likely imagine for a conference.


Another plus.  We have now had local University leaders tell us that they will organize the event and all we have to do is provide the content.  That to me is a community coming together.  So if you notice I didn’t say the “group” wouldn’t have an annual conference.  I said that we don’t want to do the work.  I stated that conferences are NOT what we excel at.  But if one of our neighbors wants to do the event, and all we have to do is get on stage?  That works.


What have we done different?  Focused on building a community.


Our Members – Our Friends

I’m pretty excited about is how many of our members are very new to SAS and very new to the User Group concept.  Two reasons – we seem to have tapped into a stream of people who will likely continue to participate in our events because they are new to the industry and like what we do. Second, our colleagues who have been long time SAS users but disenfranchised over time by the lack of change are happily coming back.  Just not as quickly but I think that’s because we really haven’t marketed to them. Well not a real message via the marketing system SAS User Group support offers.  It hasnt come up yet.  Thats another reason why I see great growth in 2016 - wait till we actually market ourselves.


Our Events

At this point you have probably visited our site(s) and learned about how we do In Person networking (monthly) and how we have monthly web presentations.  How we have recently started doing in person Boot Camps to “Kick Peoples SAS Into Gear”. 


At SGF15 I was talking to a fellow LUG Leader.  I was asked where I came up with such motivation.  I asked “have you visited your competition… lately? At all?”.  The response was: “who is my competition?”. I shared another part of what I think is contributing to our success.  A keen understanding of our existing community OUTSIDE of SAS.  And knowing who our competition is and what they do.


Competition to the Local: Its any other technical user group in the area that has awesome membership when YOU DON’T.  Any other group that will draw your member away and leave that member with NO TIME to participate in your event.  That member will probably have no desire to find time to attend other events.


I visited the following other groups in my area (notice the comma in the number):

  1. the HTML5 group (over 2,200 members with monthly meetings and waiting lists to get a seat at events with at least 90 people).
  2. The JavaScripters group (3,300 members)
  3. The R Group (1,900 members)
  4. The Data Science Group (2,800 members)

And many other groups

Before I relaunched I asked myself “Why do they have such high numbers and we didn’t/don’t?”


Well I can assure you they DO NOT wait 6 months or more to meet.  Yes some groups have difficulty gathering.  But they do manage more frequent events than what our “Legacy SAS User Group” community is doing.  They do not charge.  Well some do.  But its not much.  All have technical presentations on a monthly if not near monthly basis.  What they have done is managed to build a community and do so in such a way that the events are part of the standard routine of the members.


So lets get back to the question(s)

  • Have you seen what your competition is and learned from what they do? 
  • Why do those competitors hold free or near free events?
  • Does that factor into your low attendance?

If you do not know these answers - but are curious - you have lots of work to do.


I hope this helps some of you as you construct your goals for 2016.  I can assure you that we will be very active and you will see some of that in various channels. I invite you to join us and participate in any of our events.  Or present to us and tell our users about your group.  We will focus on our local SAS Community and welcome anyone else from anywhere else.


For us in Chicago - The events we have – monthly. Free.  Web and in-person.  And for just about all the events – offer technical learning.  We are now entering the 2nd year and its pretty exciting.


So I’ll ask everyone here…


What are you doing that works?



Zeke Torres