When the economy went south starting in 2008, leadership at the Independent Oracle Users Group started looking for ways to generate more revenue. At a time when many associations were struggling to make profits or even stay the course, IOUG charged ahead with three new initiatives designed to boost income: a virtual extension of the annual meeting, live road shows, and a webinar series. The result? A 20 percent boost in annual revenues and year-round content for members beyond the annual meeting.

IOUG is a nonprofit association whose approximately 20,000 members are users of Oracle technology—predominantly information technology professionals, database administrators, developers, technical managers, and other computer specialists from a variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, colleges and universities, and government agencies.

“The 12-member IOUG board of directors has a strategic plan in which growth and diversification of revenues is one of the primary objectives,” explains Carol McGury, executive director at IOUG and senior vice president, education and learning services unit, SmithBucklin, Chicago. SmithBucklin manages several technology user groups, including IOUG, which it has managed since 1993.

Step 1: Virtual Extension
The first step was to create a virtual extension of the annual meeting. In 2008, when the economy first took a downturn, “we were hit pretty significantly because technology was one of the highest impacted sectors,” says McGury. The group hadn’t yet seen a decline in attendance, but leadership anticipated one based on the direction the economy was taking. It wanted to establish a virtual extension of the annual meeting to reach more members and diversify the revenue stream. “We went back to some of the large Fortune 500 companies that had said they could send only two people instead of five to our live event and asked if some would attend a virtual event instead.” If the companies said yes, IOUG leaders asked what types of topics they would like to have access to. “So we would tailor the program based on that feedback,” she adds.

IOUG streamed live audio from the annual meeting, along with each presentation’s PowerPoint slides, to the virtual audience. Attendees could also submit questions to the speakers. The group streamed about 40 different sessions over the course of the three-day conference with selections based on feedback from the companies and members. Access to the live virtual conference was less expensive than the registration fee for the physical event because it offered access to just a portion of the total sessions and because IOUG leaders understood that the virtual extension couldn’t match the face-to-face experience. Yet, for those who couldn’t attend due to budget, travel, or time constraints, virtual access to select, high-quality education and information appeared to be a worthwhile investment. In addition, the content was captured and archived and accessible to attendees all year on the Web.

“Since the virtual component was launched in 2008, IOUG has seen a steady increase in the number of licenses sold,” says McGury. Some attendees purchase individual licenses (like a registration fee), but companies can buy licenses and let multiple people get together in one room to attend the meeting. Last year, IOUG sold more than 200 licenses to attend the virtual sessions, which means at least 200 paid to attend, but the likelihood is that more than that viewed the content. Meanwhile, physical attendance at the annual meeting, which usually attracts about 1,000 IOUG members, has not suffered. Last year, the user group saw a 10 percent increase in attendance at its face-to-face annual meeting, Collaborate, held in Orlando. (IOUG co-locates with two other user groups at Collaborate, which attracts about 5,000 in total attendance.)

“IOUG sees a net annual profit of $20,000 from the virtual extension,” says McGury. “A key is to keep it simple and affordable.” IOUG doesn¹t offer video streaming or virtual trade shows, so it’s a low-cost model that focuses on delivering what members want. Members value the opportunity to sit and listen to a technical presentation, says McGury. And while there is no video of the presenter, the virtual audience can view the slide presentations and submit questions. “We don’t see the value in delivering the video component because the majority of the value is in the presentation itself and in the audio and the Q&A.”

Step 2: Road Shows
Following the success of the virtual extension, IOUG looked for additional opportunities to serve members and generate revenue. It identified five technical growth areas within the Oracle universe—MySQL (a database management system), DBA (database administrators), security, performance engineering, and business intelligence—and looked for ways to bring education to members in those areas. In conversations with Oracle, the association came up with an idea for a road show.

“We¹re calling it the Rock Stars of IOUG,” says McGury, with the tagline of “Rock Your Performance Engineering.” The association partnered with the vendor, Oracle, to develop a 20-city tour, bringing education on the subject to mostly first-tier cities in the U.S.—New York, Chicago, and San Francisco—as well as cities in Europe. The one-day sessions are all led by IOUG “rock stars,” three well-known Oracle educators in the field.

Step 3: Webinar Series
To round out its growth areas, IOUG launched a webinar series. For each topic, there is a series of three free webinars. The content is recorded and archived and available on demand for use by those who couldn¹t attend. IOUG has already done four series and plans to do another three this year into next year. Attendance at each webinar is about 100. Since people generally don¹t like to pay for webinars, the revenues come from sponsorships, says McGury. So far, the webinars have not generated profits, but they have provided value to members. Over time, as the webinar program becomes more established, IOUG officials hope to increase sponsorship levels.

“These initiatives don’t cost a lot of money to do,” says McGury. “It’s pretty low risk, there’s a low point of entry, but it’s really driving the value.” When tallying up the net impact of these three initiatives, IOUG has realized a 20 percent increase in annual revenues. “Obviously that’s good, but the bigger value is the year-round engagement and having more touch points with the community. Technology changes quickly, so we need to bring the community together more frequently, more than just at the annual event, to keep up with the changes.”