Are you interested in joining or establishing a community or event related to Access? I would like to share some background, methods, and tips to help you do that. But first, a little about me: I'm the organizer of the two biggest Access conferences in the world. I have founded several Access User Groups in Germany, Austria, and Italy – both local with offline meetings and international with online character. I have helped other user groups get started and have visited and spoken at many user groups and Access events in various countries. Also important: I’ve had my share of failures and mistakes. Not everything I’ve tried has worked and not in every location.
Access is in a difficult position in all parts of the world: its basic technologies are aging, its public image is questionable, rumors of its death repeatedly stoke fears, and many IT departments aren’t keen on supporting it. And these problems were only made worse by the years when Microsoft concentrated on Access Web Apps and deprecated a lot of features from the desktop version of Access.
But these times are over! The desktop version has Microsoft’s full support again, and the product’s indisputable strengths as a RAD tool and database development platform have allowed it to maintain a solid position in the market. In the last few years the Access Team has implemented many new features and continues to work actively on the product. So there is good news: we can tell the world that the product lives and evolves. This is a great moment to start new community initiatives for Access!
I strongly believe that a product’s ecosystem – communities, user groups, events, media, image, PR etc. – is of equal importance for the persistence and position of a development platform to the product’s actual feature set and policies – and that's the reason for this article.
There are plenty of existing Access user groups around. However, many of them are not very active due to the problems I mentioned above. Nevertheless, you may be able to simply join and play an active role in – or even revive – such a user group if you put in some effort. Sometimes existing groups can at least be a good starting place to find and collect a few interested people for a new effort.
Tip 2: As a start, do a serious web search about existing user groups in your region or language. Do the same for websites about Access that originate in your region.
If you have to start from scratch, I would even suggest noting every colleague's name and e-mail/web address from your region you come across in real life, in your research, in technical forums about Access, or in social media like LinkedIn or XING.
To start a new user group, nothing is more valuable than a long list of names and addresses. The more you have, the better your chance of success. Only a fraction will be interested and take an active part in whatever you try to start. Don't be frustrated. It’s always like that.
Tip 3: One systematic method for collecting contact information for interested parties is to set up an informational web page where you paint a picture of who you are, what others might gain by participating, etc., and let people leave their contact e-mail addresses. This doesn’t have to be a new webspace. A dedicated landing page at an existing website can even be more trustworthy, especially if there is other real world and Access-related content already there.
You should use a normal website – not a "rich" platform where people have to be a member or log in – in order to convince the broadest possible range of strangers to take the first step. It’s important to make leaving their contact information a low/no barrier thing.
Of course, you need to advertise the page wherever you can, and keep advertising it for some months: you never know who reads it, when, and where. Once you gather a few (or hopefully many) contact addresses, there should be a physical, offline meeting where interests and plans to proceed are discussed.
Tip 4: Generally a website with information about your user group is an important thing also in the long run. Again, don't rely on platforms that need some sort of membership and login. Use a plain simple website or blogging platform. Publish announcements and dates there, along with reports and pictures about previous group activities.
Tip 5: Advertise your planned user group or activities in the right places. There is the new Microsoft Tech Community Forum for Access which is explicitly dedicated to support community initiatives. There are the Microsoft community and MSDN forums for Access, and also third-party platforms, the biggest being Utter Access. Get the word out also via LinkedIn and Facebook etc. and of course use every available Access related platform in your language or region as dead as it may seem. You never know who still reads it.
Tip 6: Implement a fixed rhythm for your user group meetings, like every first Tuesday of the month or such. There may not be a lot of people at every meeting, especially in the beginning, but frequency, predictability and reliability are essential to let a user group grow in the long run.
Tip 7: Get interesting content or possibly speakers for every meeting. It doesn't have to be some sensational two hour presentation, but think about a motto, some use case examples, and some ways to get attendees to take an active role. (See also tip 9+10.)
Tip 8: Offline user groups are absolutely preferable, as they provide the richest experience, contacts etc. However if you are too isolated, or if you don’t have success in implementing a real world user group, then there is an alternative: on the virtual Access user groups platform, you can either join an existing group or create and lead a virtual group for your region or language.
There are several existing events for Access users and especially developers. These conferences have important functions. Not only to be up-to-date about the product but also as meeting places to exchange information, for professional developers to know the markets and rates, be self-confident as Access developer, learn new skills, integrate modern SW development methods in the Access work etc.
Some existing events:
The German Access development conference AEK is the biggest with 200+ attendees every autumn.
If you want to set up your own Access event, it doesn't have to be an international conference. It is enriching and motivating for the group to hold an annual bigger meeting of your regional user group where you also possibly invite external speakers.
Tip 9: The Microsoft Tech Community provides a special Community Leadership Kit written by Jono Bacon, a community leader expert. This document contains useful information on how to establish and maintain offline user groups and in particular how to organize events.
Not everything in the kit will fit your purpose – Access is a special animal regarding sponsors, and there are lot of cultural differences in the world. Still, the document is a valuable resource, especially if you are starting from scratch.
The Access Tech Community is the central place to engage with the Microsoft Access product group and the Access MVPs. We love to support ideas and efforts for the product and its users. This could be a user group, an event, a website, a blog or other media initiative – or whatever ideas you have. We can provide you with information, tips, organizational help, links, speakers, and more. Tell us what you plan and where we can help!