User Group Growth and COVID-19

I’m a lifelong learner and Linux user. I enjoy teaching as a way to learn things myself; this often leads me to volunteer positions with multiple local tech clubs. Most recently, I’ve become a director at the local UNIX user’s group.

MUUG provides Manitobans with a nearby open-source software mirror. Our $20/year membership fee helps offset the associated costs. The repo mirror and our monthly newsletter are both excellent services – but the main thing that members engage with is the community element of the in-person monthly meeting.

People come from every corner of the city, and from out of town – even from bordering North Dakota and Minnesota – to watch our presentations, eat some snacks, and network with fellow enthusiasts. We are a reasonably active club with some very bright and talented members – if you need to hash out a UNIX or Linux problem in or near Winnipeg, this is the place to come.

Due to COVID-19, we are unable to run our in-person meetups, and members were no longer getting the same value they once were. Membership renewals were starting to suffer; and without membership renewals, we can’t keep our repository servers running (not forever, anyway) – so how do we keep our members engaged in the middle of a global pandemic?

Our first step was to get a virtual meeting platform up and running. To that end, we installed our own Jitsi server with a gracious hosting donation from MERLIN; in fact, the first online presentation we offered was how to install your own Jitsi server. While I won’t say it’s been a perfect experience for every member, it has overall worked very well. We have seen record attendance numbers, as it is now easier to attend the meeting (after all, we do cater to people who like to hack on computers in their basements.)

The modern MUUG presentation, ca. 2021

This approach has been successful at engaging our existing members – but how do we attract new growth to offset members we have already lost? Historically, we have relied on word-of-mouth, people putting up posters in their workspace,, and a basic social media presence. As one of the millennials on the board, it was my sworn duty to suggest we try our hand at social media advertising.

The first step – which social networks do UNIX and Linux nerds like to use most? …we have no idea. While we agreed Twitter may be the platform with the most enthusiasts, the Twitter users among us admitted to hardly ever engaging with ads on the platform. We reasoned that Facebook is as good a platform as any to start with, as we already use it to list our events.

With board buy-in and fertile advertising ground – what are we going to advertise, exactly? We could promote our website in general – but I think most UNIX nerds in Manitoba have already seen that. To deliver the most engagement with prospective members, we elected to advertise our next monthly meeting. We usually have a presentation component as well – so we brainstormed a topical learning event that people care about: “Open source solutions for remote work”. Very apropos for 2021. I provided presentations on Jitsi and wireguard VPN, while my co-director Alberto provided a presentation on Nextcloud and Collabora.

The board settled on a $100 budget, and we opted to run the ad for 2 weeks prior to the meeting. We were able to target multiple relevant demographics, all within the geography of our choice:

  • Interests: System administrator, DevOps, Computer engineering, Network administrator, Mac OS or Linux,
  • Behaviours: Small business owners
  • Employers: Computer science
  • Job title: Unix Systems Administrator 
  • Industry: IT and Technical Services

What were the results?

  • Our ad reached just over 4000 individuals
  • 42 people replied as “going” or “interested”
  • In the period of the ad running and the event itself, we received 5 new membership applications

I don’t recall a better-attended meeting. We had over 35 people in attendance – that’s big for us! We had many newcomers from smaller cities, and we had some excellent discussions during our opening roundtable. People were enjoying themselves. That’s a success in itself.

Do 5 new members sound like a lot? It’s not a huge amount, but it covers our ad expense in the first year alone. Many members stay on for at least 2 years – so I’d call that a great first attempt! We are choosing to wait a few months before running new ad campaigns so that we can judge their efficacy in relative isolation. This helps us cut costs, and ideally, we can figure out which platform gets us the most engagement.

Thank you to Alberto, Brad, and the rest of the MUUG board and membership for working together to keep our humble club a lively one.