HP user group Connect looks online for growth

Chapters have spread to six continents, and social networking site is a key part of expansion

The board of directors of the HP user group Connect were able to look back at a year of accomplishment and ahead to one of further growth as they met here last month for their annual meeting.

In the past six months, Connect, an independent group for users of Hewlett-Packard technology that emerged in the spring of 2008 from the consolidation of three smaller groups , has added more than 1,000 new members, bringing total membership to over 50,000 worldwide. It now has some 35 chapters on six continents.

Much of that growth can be attributed to the success of a social networking site that was launched this past year and to the economic downturn, said Nina Buik, outgoing president of Connect.

"If there's a bright spot in the downturn, it is that it has had a positive effect on our membership numbers," Buik said. "People see user groups as a more cost-effective way to keep up to speed on technology."

The social network , conceived as a way to bolster communication between chapter meetings and events, has seen page views rise in the past few months from 28,000 to 48,000 per month, while the number of unique visitors accessing the site has gone from 5,000 to 8,800 per month.

"It combines the best of Facebook and LinkedIn, with Twitter capabilities," Buik said.

The site is organized by interest group, including Linux, storage and NonStop computing. It is further subdivided into subgroups, such as security and SOA. While members have responded positively to the opportunity for interaction that the site provides, it also serves to a certain extent as a recruiting tool. The site is open to all, requiring only that each user establish a log-on; membership is not a prerequisite.

"We hope that nonmembers who use the site will recognize the value of the group as they participate in the forums and join up," Buik said.

Besides the forums, the site offers Webcasts and the online delivery of educational materials. Subject matter experts, including HP engineers, are recruited to deliver information on various topics.

Connect's outreach and education efforts online will be one of the things that the group's new president, Chris Koppe, will be focusing on. "It's still early days for our site," Koppe said. He said that his other major areas of focus will be growth in chapters (especially in South America, he noted) and "organic growth" of membership and member services.

As she prepared to hand the reins of leadership over to Koppe, Buik announced to the board that she is kicking off a scholarship fund by donating $500 personally, and challenging other board members to do the same. Her interest is in getting more young people engaged in the technology that Connect focuses on.

The presidential scholarship will be awarded annually to a student pursuing a degree in information systems or other related technologies. The scholarship, open to higher education students worldwide, will be awarded in August 2010. Applications and rules for eligibility will be available on the Connect site starting on Feb. 15.

"For young people in school today, everything is Windows. We want to help them learn about things beyond that," Buik said. But beyond that, "older members benefit from exposure to young, creative minds, while younger members gain from having access to experienced professionals," she said.

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