At the DrupalCon Barcelona one of the panels I lead was about (Dis)Organizing Local User Group Events. I still haven't decided what to talk about at the upcoming Boston Drupalcon but I'm sure it will be Roxxorz. I've been
roped pursuaded into discussing SEO in Drupal and Userpoints. Personally, I think Prediction Markets are interesting enough to merit their own presentation (now to see about getting them ready to demo).
Now, that plug out of the way, what I really want to discuss is a problem that faces most Drupal User Groups.
Local User Group Two Hump Problem
About 2 years ago I started reaching out to folks in Denver to start the Denver/Boulder Drupal User Group (DBUG for short). From the first meeting it seemed clear: the skill levels were grouped around two distinct and competing centers:
Lots of people were still trying to figure out how to pronounce Drupal - we knew them from the second they showed up "Is this the drooo-PAWL meeting?" And then there was a nother group at the other end, the "Yeah, I just patched the form.inc so I could thrombulate the widgetizer." There were relatively few people in the middle or at either extreme.
I wanted to make sure that the meetings were useful to people and wanted to expand them. So, I always asked how people found the meetings, what time of day would be best, what subject matter people wanted to hear about, and a few other choice questions. One problem that we consistently had was that the interests in the meetings were divided between these two groups. The "newbies" just want some hand-holding as they experiment with installing modules and configuring CCK/Views. The people that have already jumped the suck threshold wanted to talk about more advanced things (instantiating the thrombulated widgetizers).
While everyone was nice, I'm pretty sure that lots of folks left meetings feeling like the topics were either way to introductory or way to over their heads (or both).
Gregory Heller remarked that the SEADUG has had some success splitting the meeting based on time. They start the meeting at 16:00 with a "drop in" feeling in a coffee shop. Folks are invited to finish out the work day and "talk shop". This provides a natural selection - "Drupal pros" can go because they'll still be doing work and talking about Drupal. Hobbyists can't explain why they have to leave work early for this meeting so they come later...and the real meeting starts at 18:00 where they discuss more broadly applicable topics from a more structured (and pre-announced) agenda. Having a pre-announced agenda is something that most folks at the Barcelona meeting agreed helped bring in more people and also set expectations for what topics would be covered. If you set expectations, it's harder for people to get upset that the content was inappropriate.
In Denver one tool we used was to start with every answering 5 questions - "Name? Interest & experience with Drupal? What you want to learn? What you want to teach? How you heard about the meeting?" These questions are useful for establishing some natural "mini-birds-of-a-feather" sessions. Some of my favorite meetings in Denver were the early ones where we had no agenda and so instead everyone sat there awkwardly for 5 minutes and then someone said "hey, new person I just met, I'm interested in learning about X which you just said you know well. Can you teach me?" Then 3 or 4 people would break apart and talk about that. It allowed for the group to cater to both skill levels. That didn't happen at every meeting though, and the awkwardness was sometimes really awkward. So, we went to the agenda style. In spite of encouraging it, we can never really get back the "BOF" style that worked so well except at the very end of the meeting when it's time to shut down.
I've also been to a few other 'software meetups' and find that they tend to be split at these same points, the local PHP Users group, the Linux Users and Enthusiasts group. It's a hard balance to make and I'm not sure what the best solution is. Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful. For more discussion on the topic and tips on how to start a group in your area, be sure to check out the Drupal Event Organization group.