The year was 2014, and in the big city of Houston, I could not find a digital marketing Meetup that was beyond the 101 level and was not trying to sell me something.
Where were all the technical marketing professionals meeting to share ideas and have a few drinks? I kept asking myself how it was possible that in the fourth largest city in the U.S., there was such a void in the marketplace.
Other cities in Texas, like Austin and Dallas, had thriving marketing membership groups where professionals gathered to learn from each other and listen to well-respected industry leaders offer the latest insight on digital marketing.
Why couldn’t Houston offer the same Meetup?
Well, I did something about it. I created SearchHOU, a monthly Meetup where digital marketing meets great people. We started as an SEO-focused group, then SearchHOU evolved into a dynamic Meetup encompassing all things digital marketing related.
SearchHOU Was Born
When we started, the launch wasn’t exactly off the charts. We had five people at our first meeting, and they had no idea what to expect. I even provided a few beers and drinks in an ice chest and – with great concern – they asked if they had to pay for it.
“No, man, just grab a drink and let’s talk,” I had to tell people.
The idea of professionals getting together in a casual, no strings attached social setting to talk marketing was so foreign that I wasn’t sure if people would actually understand what I was going for.
I did not want this to be perceived as a bait-and-switch event where people show up for an after-work business social and end up being talked into subscribing to a long-term software tool.
I also did not want this to be your typical professional networking event where people attend out of obligation, to impress their boss, or to check an item off their to-do list. Nothing against that, but there were already enough of those.
I wanted it to be the exact opposite – something where people attend because they actually want to be there and will benefit from spending one night out of the month talking shop with other professionals. To my great delight, the formula has worked.
Now in our third year, we host more than 50 people at our monthly Meetups. We now offer memberships, have an official Board of Directors, and have the resources to bring in national names to our local meetings.
A couple things to remember:
1. SearchHOU was more of a hobby the first few years. I did not start pushing it to become an official membership group until the beginning of 2017.
2. The Meetups are about quality! The core group of marketing professionals enjoy the hands-on environment discussing and interacting with industry leaders in a relaxed environment.
You cannot find these personable interactions with the best minds in digital marketing at big networking events. That’s what makes our group different and has allowed us to steadily grow.
The Path to Growth
So, how did we do it? We had to start somewhere and that place was at the bottom. Here’s is what I did to go from a steady 5 to a steady 50:
Step 1: Start Your Digital Marketing Group
The idea behind the monthly Meetups was simple: get people together to share actionable marketing ideas and learn from each other. The keyword here is actionable.
If you are asking people to attend another after-hours event, you need to make it worth their time. The motto at SearchHOU has always been “actionable ideas that you can take home and use the next day.”
So, take a look at your city. Small or large – it does not matter. If there are already monthly Meetups, ask these questions:
- What is the quality of the Meetups?
- Do the organizers meet consistently?
- Are people excited to go, or do they simply go out of obligation?
Find out what other gatherings are doing and figure out how to do it better. If you cannot easily find a Meetup group, there’s your opportunity to start a digital marketing group.
You could set your monthly meeting at a local coffee shop, the conference room of your colleague’s agency, or a friend’s art studio. There are any number of places where you can set the right tone for your group to get the ball rolling sharing ideas.
Step 2: Be Consistent With Your Group
In order to grow your group, you have to be consistent. If you say you are having a monthly Meetup, have a monthly Meetup. Don’t skip a month because you could not think of a topic or your scheduled speaker backed out at the last minute.
During our first few months, there were times when we were bumped from our original venue. So, we had to scramble at the last minute to find somewhere to meet. But, we still met!
Even if you have to meet in the parking lot of someone’s office, have that meeting. It will show people that you are serious about your commitment to the group. Luckily, we never had to meet in a parking lot!
For instance, there were times when I was traveling out of town for business or personal reasons around the time of the monthly Meetup. No matter what, I made sure I was back in Houston to meet with the group to maintain the integrity of the group.
Whatever it takes, make sure you have a meeting! It highlights the point that if you are going to commit to starting a group, be 100 percent invested. It might start out as a hobby like SearchHOU was for me, but because I planted the seeds of consistency early in the process, we were able to continue growing.
The other key aspect of consistency is ensuring that each Meetup meets a quality standard. Even if the meeting takes place in a parking lot, the quality should not be sacrificed.
You should always strive for quality discussions that give your group members actionable information they can apply to their job the following day.
The key is protecting your learning environment. To me, this meant not allowing the Meetup to become a venue for sales pitches!
No matter if it’s a local speaker or a big-name speaker, make sure the person knows this is not the place to hawk products and services to group members. The short-term benefit of booking a big name to attract more people is not worth the long-term trade-off of driving away core group members.
When I created SearchHOU, my goal was to create a casual environment for professionals to hang out and have quality conversations. There is no pressure to try to be someone or impress other people, like at an impersonal networking event.
Because of the environment we created, learning flourishes because everyone is there for the purpose of sharing knowledge and sharpening skills by engaging with colleagues and respected leaders.
The moment your group members feel like they are being sold to, they will flee and never come back! Then your group will be in trouble.
Imagine each of your group members is going to submit a Yelp review about your Meetup. Have you earned their respect to be valued in the marketplace? Or, are they going to recommend trying the restaurant down the road after a bad experience?
You should focus on building a reputation as a consistent, quality Meetup. If you do your job correctly, group members will anticipate the next meeting, instead of feeling indifferent when the reminder pops up in their email.
Step 3: Cultivate Your Group
Now that you have started a worthy digital marketing Meetup and established a presence in your city, it’s time to cultivate your group.
SearchHOU started with five people walking around aimlessly wondering why I was offering them free drinks. Now, we have a consistent crowd of 50 quality people.
Cultivating your group means establishing what the culture of your group is and investing the necessary time and resources into the group to make it successful.
For us, this was expanding our offering, bringing in national speakers, and creating oversight.
As the group grew, we decided it was time to create a paid membership. Making the switch from free to paid was not easy, as some members left because of to the new structure.
This was discouraging at first, but it forced me to change my perspective. I was able to see that I was investing in members who wanted to grow professionally and I was distancing myself from attendees who did not see value in investing in themselves.
Creating a paid membership also allowed us to continue on our growth path. Because we were consistent and committed to quality meetings, group members trusted us to deliver even more quality if they paid for inclusion.
This is where we were able to deliver an unbelievable value to our group members. After tapping into the knowledge and insight of amazing speakers found locally in Houston, we expanded to regional and national speakers.
The value we provide to our members is bringing these nationally-recognized speakers to Houston instead of members having to book flights and travel to another location to hear these individuals.
Plus, the speaker is not confined to a talking head session at a marketing conference that is absent of personal interaction. Rather, our Meetup provides a platform for intimate interaction with industry leaders in a hands-on environment.
Group members can ask questions and obtain real-world learning they are able to immediately apply in their professional field. And, over time, the caliber of speakers has continued to grow, creating even more value for our members.
Now, we are able to turn the idea of filling a void in Houston into something bigger.
Not only have friendships been established through SearchHOU, there are also strong business relationships between group members. These relationships bring individuals (and companies) hundreds and even thousands of dollars per month. This is a nice byproduct of carefully cultivating our group.
Because we have been consistent, social, informative, and non-threatening, we have developed a good reputation both in Houston and nationally. This has allowed us to turn SearchHOU into an official 501(c)(3) non-profit with sponsors.
The money we make is invested back into the group and the local community. That way our group members never feel like they’re being sold to and our speakers do not need to sell in order to compensate their time. We always tell our speakers or other invited guests to stick to the material – actionable insights and learning opportunities.
If you commit to building up a respectable group, you will attract quality individuals and businesses that want to be part of what you are offering.
Get Started, Be Consistent & Cultivate
It may seem like a daunting task to start something from scratch in your city, but take it from me that it can be done. You just have to be willing to show up, roll your sleeves up, and put in a little time.
In the beginning, I was not sure if the idea for SearchHOU would take off, even in a big city like Houston. But, digital marketing professionals are out there. They just need to find a social place where they can be themselves and learn from other professionals.
Some Final Words of Wisdom
You have to be willing to push through difficult times if people do not show up, your meeting location changes at the last minute or a presentation does not go as well as you had planned.
Finally, here are the most important tips for a digital marketing Meetup, including some lessons that I learned the hard way:
- Consistency is key.
- Quality and actionable content is important.
- Plan your calendar in advance, allowing you to book high-quality speakers.
- Communicate regularly with group members through email campaigns and a members-only Facebook group.
- Don’t be afraid to charge for your Meetup. There is a perceived value when it costs something.
- Create a Board of Directors and surround yourself with people smarter than you.
- Always take care of your speakers. In our group, out-of-town speakers receive a gift that is local to Houston. We also cover their travel expenses.
- Always go the extra mile for your members and your speakers.
We have been blessed to not only have some of the brightest minds in the industry as members of our group, but have also been able to pull in speakers like Rae (Hoffman) and Sean Dolan, Brian LaFrance, David Vogelpoh, Damon Gochneaur and our very own Katy Katz to name a few.
To get to this point, I committed to cultivating an environment of sharing, learning and growing. When you start a Meetup, that will keep your members involved in the group and bring them back month after month.
Along the way, you might even be able to turn your idea into more than just a Meetup, like I did. Just find the need, grab a few cold ones, make some friends, and start sharing knowledge with digital marketing friends right there in your city.