a meeting with a woman speaking in the center
PHOTO: Antenna

A few years ago, my friend Rich Schwerin invited me to a content strategy meetup he co-organized. The group met in Mountain View, Calif., a 35-minute drive from my home. After attending Rich’s meetup, I was inspired to start my own. I picked a different topic and, to cut down on that 35-minute drive, I hosted the meetup in my town.

Starting from humble beginnings, my meetup, the Bay Area Content Marketing Meetup, has grown to 400 members, representing companies such as Google, VMware, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Oracle and Opentext. We’ve been fortunate to have presenters from Flipboard, SiriusDecisions, Demandbase, Marketo and TOPO.

Here are lessons I learned in running this meetup.

Face-to-Face Is More Valuable Than Ever

It has never been easier to connect and engage online, thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, LinkedIn and more. There’s “Words with Friends” and massively multiplayer online games. There’s texting, messaging and FaceTime.

However, the ease and prevalence of online interactions make engaging face to face more meaningful than ever. At our meetups, attendees get uninterrupted quality time with like-minded marketers. We provide a chance to learn and a chance to network. Phones and tablets are used only to take notes.

Related Article: A Networking Strategy to Grow Your Peer Base

Use Built-in Audiences Where Possible

If you’re looking for potential customers online, you could start on Facebook, with its more than 2 billion active monthly users. You’ll need to get past Facebook’s algorithm, which is quite feasible in the right scenario.

Since Rich’s content strategy group used Meetup.com, I decided to use that platform for mine. According to a 2015 TechCrunch article, Meetup.com has more than 21 million members across more than 200,000 groups. Meetup.com provides a convenient way to publish the details of each meetup, and it enables local marketers to find my group, or to find the individual meetups I schedule.

About two-thirds of our members found us via Meetup.com, while one-third came from my own connections or via referrals from existing members.

Get the Branding Right

Initially, the marketing for our meetup was missing the mark. During our first year, our name was San Mateo B2B Bloggers. This name limited us in the following ways:

  1. It listed a specific town. What if you don’t live in San Mateo?
  2. Not everyone thinks of themselves as a blogger
  3. Not all bloggers associate with B2B

Carter Hostelley is a member and presenter in our group. One evening, I was talking to Carter about expanding the group, and he said, “Consider broadening the mission. Cover the entire Bay Area. Content marketers may not consider themselves ‘bloggers,’ but bloggers will associate with content marketing.”

A few days later, I changed the name of our meetup. Our expanded charter helps us attract more members and get more people to attend each meetup. Thanks, Carter!

Related Article: A Weekly Twitter Chat, Just for Marketers #ContentChat

Mix Up the Meeting Format

Our meetings are 90 minutes long. During the first 30 minutes, we serve pizza as attendees arrive and mingle. We then have a 60-minute presentation and a Q&A session before wrapping up for the evening. On the one hand, a consistent format is useful, so members know what to expect. But on the other hand, members do like it when we mix up the format.

Rosemary Brisco, a website and SEO consultant, ran a “Five Minute Website Makeover” workshop at one of our meetups. Members submitted their homepage URLs ahead of time, and Rosemary showed us how she’d improve the effectiveness of each one.

On another occasion, two expert panelists joined us and we had a session called “Your Most Pressing Marketing Questions, Answered.” Attendees could ask any question about marketing, and the expert duo provided answers. In addition, audience members were invited to supplement the experts’ answers with additional insights.

Give Members a Reason to Attend

In the beginning, each meetup was free to attend. While we attracted adequate numbers of RSVPs, our attendance rate was below 50 percent. While it was easy to click “Yes” on the Meetup.com listing, it was just as easy to forget about the meetup or find an excuse to stay home and avoid traffic.

I discussed the issue with a few of our regulars and we decided to charge $5 for each meetup. Paying that small expenditure in advance gave members an extra incentive to show up. While attendance rates improved, a stronger incentive for attending is to provide excellent speakers.

Our best-attended meetup was when two marketers from Flipboard came to talk about content curation.

Amazing Things Happen When People Come Together

My goal in starting the meetup was to give marketing professionals a chance to meet, connect and learn. While we’ve been successful on that front, there have been other outcomes I wasn’t necessarily anticipating.

I love to meet people and hear about their stories and their passions. There have been some attendees that I met once and never saw again; there are others who return on a regular basis. I have developed meaningful friendships. I’ve met potential business partners, collaborators and mentors. All of these people were in my backyard, but a meetup was required to bring us together.

Last year, two members attended our meetup for the first time. They were visiting from Kazakhstan, did a same-day search on Meetup.com, found us, and attended! Here’s a photo:

Dennis Shiao with two visitors from Kazakhstan

It’s humbling to think about the global connections a meetup can forge. It’s not often that I can meet people from Kazakhstan.

I’ve seen members find new jobs at our meetups. I’ve seen consultants find new clients. I’ve seen people come together to help one another or support a cause. I’ve seen the deep and meaningful interactions that are only possible when people meet face to face.

Let’s plan to meet up sometime.