As someone who has been a member, presenter, officer and board member of various user groups, I've come up with some observations on what makes a great user group. I would never call myself an expert on the subject (I reserve that for @Victor_Chat), but I think this is some good advice.
DO encourage and participate in a SharePint
Yes, I'm actually listing this first. More of the connections and relationships happen here than when mingling before the group. Attendees get the opportunity to let loose and it's a great way to get to know people. If you have questions, this is where you get them answered. The Houston SharePoint Users Group (HSPUG) does this right. It's not uncommon to see 40+ people at one of our SharePints. We actually have sponsors for it. :)
Some of the smaller groups tend to have one or two people that do everything. Ask for help and you will likely get it. There are usually people willing to help out. People can help with everything from signing people in to ordering food. If you're a member and want to help out, don't be afraid to ask what you can do.
DO encourage new speakers
You don't need big name speakers to have a good user group. Encourage new speakers to present to the group. When I was at Tulsa, we encouraged new speakers at every session. It was usually pretty effective.
DO seek out officers from diverse backgrounds
It's great to have officers from different backgrounds. Employ a healthy mix of consultants and non-consultants. Do this even if the officers work for a competitor. It shows that you aren't trying to dominate the user group with your company.
DO encourage others to meet up outside of the user group
This is something Houston is playing around with. We live in a large city and are encouraging members to get together throughout the month at a local bar or restaurant. We're still judging the success on this as I think it's yet to establish it's rhythm yet.
DO post your topics early
This sounds easy in theory but now that I have been involved with a few groups, I know it's not. Ideally, you want to line up multiple speakers months in advance. It is great if you can have these posted to the web site, include them in your communications, and even announce the next topics during each meeting.
DO engage in social media
Some groups do this better than others. Although probably less than 10% of your user group is on twitter, it's still a good way to remind users about what is going on throughout the month.
DON'T be afraid to ask questions
As a member, don't be afraid to ask questions of the presenter, the officers, or other members. Chances are there are users there that face the same challenges as you.
DON'T use vendor spotlights in place of presentations
Although it's great to support your sponsors, your users are there to learn, not to be sold to. It's ok, to let a vendor spend two minutes before a presentation and say hey thanks for letting us sponsor. However, it should never be used as a replacement for finding a speaker. Your users don't like this and it will drive them away from the group. Most user groups allow the vendor to set up a table and buy beers afterwards. This is more effective for them than giving a full-blown sales presentation.
DON’T sell your member list
We have vendors asking for the contact info of our members all the time. The answer to that request always is unequivocally NO. It is absolutely unacceptable to sell your members out like that. They expect some you to have some degree of ethics and decorum and not to sell their information away. If you run an ISV, under no circumstances should you ever send out a marketing E-mail from your company using the user group’s E-mail list. I’ve seen this happen and it makes me sick.
DON'T use the user group to promote your business
I attended a user group once where the self-promotion was so bad it made me sick. The first words out of your mouth shouldn't be about your company. The best officers I have seen have never even mentioned where they work once in front of the group. Your members will only tolerate this for so long before they stop coming. I've seen this nearly destroy groups before. It's ok to talk about your company afterwards over a beer. However, it's unacceptable to spend 15 minutes before the meeting talking about your company. Plus, this severely cripples sponsorship opportunities. As someone promoting your own business, you would never allow a competitor to sponsor. Plus, your competitors aren’t going to want to sponsor a corrupt user group anyways. Just don’t do it.
I remember one time in Houston, where someone did a 10 minute case study on a solution they built. Some of the members felt it was a bit salesy and were about to run them out the door. In reality, I didn't think it was salesy at all. The presenters were developers not account managers. However, you always have to be careful when doing case studies because they can come off as a sales pitch if you’re not careful.
Make your sales the old-fashioned way by playing golf, buying beers, and going to expensive dinners.
I may have bragged a little bit about my user group, but hey, it’s pretty awesome. Seriously, if you’re ever in town the third Wednesday of the month, you should make a point to attend. :) Hopefully, you find some of this information helpful. What tips do you have for user groups? Leave a comment and let me know.