User Groups Matter To Vendors: Here's Why

InformationWeek recently interviewed three vendor executives who spend their professional lives building and sustaining business-oriented user groups. Here's what we learned about this symbiotic relationship.

Curtis Franklin Jr., Senior Editor at Dark Reading

December 17, 2015

7 Min Read
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When the computer industry was young, user groups were formed around various technologies. SHARE was the first, bringing IBM mainframe users together in 1955. The Digital Equipment Computer User Society (DECUS) followed, for DEC users, in 1961. When microcomputers hit the scene, local groups like the Boston Computer Society and San Francisco's Homebrew Computer Club provided critical learning opportunities.

Over the years, user groups have evolved their focus to include a wide array of enterprise applications from the likes of Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP, among others. Such groups offer a sense of community and the ability to share information with professionals who understand the challenges that can accompany even the most modern enterprise technologies.

InformationWeek recently interviewed three people who spend their professional lives building and sustaining business-oriented user groups. Kendra Walsh is senior director of community and customer marketing at Citrix. David Planella is Ubuntu community manager for Canonical. Geoff Scott is CEO of Americas' SAP Users' Group (ASUG), the largest independent user group for SAP, which was formed in 1991 and now claims more than 100,000 members.

[Those were the days, my friends. Read 11 Things Computer Users Will Never Experience Again.]

These days, social media and other collaboration tools are making it easier than ever for technology user groups to communicate. "There are enabling technologies and community platforms that make it easier," Walsh said. "The users have a full-time day job, and a lot of the time they share with others [group members] is in their off-hours. Having an online space enables that."

Peer-to-peer support is an important aspect of user groups, and something that online platforms help facilitate. "Some business users might have a contract with Canonical [for support], but for those who don't, it's important to have the resources to get support," Planella said. "Support is an area where the communities are very active and important."

Scott agreed broadly with Planella's assessment of user goals. Though, in ASUG's case, he said users need to take things farther. "Over the 25 years [of ASUG's existence] the technology issues from the early time have been addressed," Scott said. "The thing people tell me over and over about ASUG is that they just want to talk to someone who shares their concerns and don't want to get marketed to." In the case of SAP, Scott said that the product's maturity has meant a shift in the user group's emphasis away from seeking assistance with routine technical matters to discussing how to use the software to address business needs.

Face-to-Face Matters

User groups are speaking to those business needs locally and globally. While online community technology fosters effective global user groups, there is considerable demand for face-to-face meetings, according to all three executives. "There's the need to meet face-to-face and have the personal connection to share information and build your network of other professionals," said Walsh.

Planella said that the Ubuntu world depends heavily on face-to-face meetings. "Ubucons are community-organized events that happen around the world," he said. "These are communities organizing talks, organizing ways that Ubuntu can be promoted, and some of these are very successful. At Paris Ubucon [Nov. 28-29], we had more than 1,700 attendees."

Scott agreed, saying, "The ability for people to come to a user community to ask questions and talk about common problems is more important than ever before." He pointed out that ASUG put on 17% more face-to-face events in 2015 than it did in 2014, with attendance up more than 10%. He said that ASUG has strengthened the staff assigned to helping local groups within the organization.

"One of the things we began early this year was around community advocates. [The ASUG staff] were traditionally fostering and administering things," he said. The staff went to users within individual technology groups to help build communities. "We went out to HR, IoT, UX, and Hana, and brought in people to help build the communities. They inspire people and bring in people to enter discussions."

Joining "The Tribe"

One important element of the user group experience is the sense of "joining a tribe." Walsh said she was surprised by the passion users put into such seemingly trivial matters as emblems and t-shirts. She described a steering committee meeting at which the name of the organization and the logo were put on the agenda. "One of our customers said that they didn't think they would care about it, but they did. They cared about being a member, the identity, and how it tied back to Citrix," she said.

Walsh went on to say that, at the annual Citrix Synergy conference, the user group gave out t-shirts -- more than 1,500 of them. She said board members had become very involved in precisely what those shirts would look like. "There is a tribal aspect," said Walsh. "It is a sense of community, a sense of family and belonging."

Scott described the tribal feel as an important factor, even among enterprise application users. "It's critical. The thing that's fun to watch is people coming back together and reconnecting year after year. You get these smiles on people and it feels like a family," he said. "They're trying to wrestle this complexity to the ground, and they're talking with others who are doing the same. We need more of the tribal feel."

Planella said that the family feeling is important for Ubuntu users, but the user group's administration is careful to manage the tribal aspects. "We support them in terms of identification. It's not just for them, it's for showing other communities that they're part of Ubuntu because they share the ideals," he said. "We don't refer to the groups as a tribe; our Ubuntu is part of a bigger open source community. We also make sure we don't train ourselves in Ubuntu only. We try to have good relationships with other open source communities. Mozilla, Firefox, LibreOffice and others are very important."

History is part of the reason for the expanded point of view, according to Planella. "There have been conflicts in the past, but it's because people are very passionate about their projects."

Benefits for Vendors

The benefits that administrators see in user group membership are obvious, but why do vendors support user groups? What's in it for the company? Canonical's support of the community is critical, said Planella, because the majority of its software development effort comes from that community, rather than from Canonical-employed programmers. "It's about collaboration, and there are many areas where people can contribute to Ubuntu," he said.

For example, Planella said, "One of the things we've been looking at are CoreApps, the apps that come installed on the Ubuntu phone. These applications have been developed entirely by the community, individuals working with Canonical engineers."

For Citrix, there are numerous benefits that come from the user group, according to Walsh. "From a Citrix point of view, this is an opportunity to hear from the users with a voice we may not hear in any other way," she said. In addition, there are some hard-dollar savings that can come from the user group. "Enabling users to help one another alleviates their need to go to Citrix for certain support," said Walsh. "It goes to having a happy, successful community of users giving input to Citrix and having success with Citrix."

According to Scott, the relationship between ASUG and SAP allows for information to flow back and forth in an open way. "It's the relationships that make the user group so critical. When I speak on behalf of our companies, it's much different than when I'm speaking one-to-one. It's the power of many, versus the power of one," he said. ASUG advocates for users, gaining information and sometimes pushing SAP to deliver features or products that might seem less critical to executives in Waldorf.

Ultimately, all three executives spoke of the importance of users coming together to share information and to advocate with a single voice for all the users of a product or platform. Scott summed it up best: "The tribe is more important than ever. SAP or Oracle can try to manufacture that, but I think it's the people coming together on their own that makes a difference. We need to band together -- we need solutions. It's a complex world."

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About the Author(s)

Curtis Franklin Jr.

Senior Editor at Dark Reading

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and other conferences.

Previously he was editor of Light Reading's Security Now and executive editor, technology, at InformationWeek where he was also executive producer of InformationWeek's online radio and podcast episodes.

Curtis has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He has contributed to a number of technology-industry publications including Enterprise Efficiency, ChannelWeb, Network Computing, InfoWorld, PCWorld, Dark Reading, and on subjects ranging from mobile enterprise computing to enterprise security and wireless networking.

Curtis is the author of thousands of articles, the co-author of five books, and has been a frequent speaker at computer and networking industry conferences across North America and Europe. His most popular book, The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Podcasting, with co-author George Colombo, was published by Que Books. His most recent book, Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, was released in April 2010. His next book, Securing the Cloud: Security Strategies for the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2018.

When he's not writing, Curtis is a painter, photographer, cook, and multi-instrumentalist musician. He is active in amateur radio (KG4GWA), scuba diving, stand-up paddleboarding, and is a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

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