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Delaware tech groups eye Meetup alternatives after proposed RSVP fee

The popular event platform told group leaders that a fee change would require attendees to pay $2 when RSVPing. Turmoil in the tech world followed.

Delaware Super Meetup 2017. (Photo by Holly Quinn)

Open Data Delaware doesn’t charge for its events, from monthly Code & Coffees to workshops to panels like “Your Right to Know.” The organization has gotten the word out on Meetup.com, which cofounder Ryan Harrington credits for much of the group’s success in finding its 1,283 members.

“I can pretty easily attribute a lot of our growth to the fact that people use Meetup to go find tech events,” he told Technical.ly.

For fours years now, Open Data Delaware has paid Meetup about $180 a year for its account, which lists an average of two to three events a month. The people who attend Open Data Delaware’s meetups pay nothing.

When Harrington received the notice from Meetup saying that their biannual membership fee would be dropping by about 80%, his first reaction was: “What’s the catch?”

The catch, as you may have heard, is that Meetup has proposed a new fee model, where organizations pay less and attendees contribute more, in the form of a $2 fee when RSVPing for an event.

In the case of Open Data Delaware, that model isn’t worth saving a few dollars in yearly fees.

“All of our events have historically been free, and I’d say that’s true for the vast majority of technology-focused meetups,” Harrington said. “Especially because we’re getting a lot of people who are new to the space, exploring whether technology should be a career change for them. And so we’re never charging for an event. It’s just not happening.”

As he said to the Meetup user experience research team when they reached out to Open Data Delaware: “Two dollars is infinitely too expensive for an event that would normally be free, and infinitely too cheap for an event that you would normally pay for.”

But the idea of leaving Meetup, with its powerful branding — Technical.ly holds four Super Meetup events a year, bringing tech groups together in each of our markets — isn’t easy.

No one wants to be on a sinking ship. We're there because the people are there.

“What are they key things that we care about that would lead us to the next platform?” Harrington said. “To me, one of the biggest things is discoverability, and that’s one thing I love about Meetup — you’d just go in and say, this is my area, I’m willing to travel this far, these are my interests, and it would be like, here are the six groups you should look at. And I know that a lot of people found us that way.”

Delaware Tech Meetup (1,452 members), led by Ann Rajaram, is already moving away from the Meetup platform in response to the proposed changes.

“I am transitioning the folks on the Delaware Tech Meetup to move to LinkedIn Groups, and we’ll add free events to Eventbrite,” she said. “This would allow us to keep the meetup free of charge for attendees and the organizers.”

It’s not just the principle that these free events should be truly free, either: Delaware Libraries has a statewide policy that doesn’t allow groups to charge for events held at its locations, which affects both Delaware Tech Meetup and Open Data Delaware’s events.

“It would have been a logistics nightmare trying to find a [new] place to host, parking, etc.,” Rajaram said.

“We debated about a Facebook page, but that site is too noisy,” she said. “LinkedIn makes more sense from a networking perspective, to continue conversations beyond the meetup sessions. Eventbrite is nice from a local SEO perspective, since it shows up on Google searches when folks query events near them or for a particular date range.”

Eric Van Der Poel of Delaware DevOps (801 members) is considering shutting it down completely. After its three scheduled events this year all struggled with low RSVP numbers, he thinks there may be too many meetups competing for attendees.

“I still have an interest in presenting, organizing, and/or helping in our Delaware tech community meetups. I just think we might have too many groups and our audience might feel overwhelmed at all the different meetups,” Van Der Poel said, adding that he’s looking into options that don’t require a physical meeting location.

“I’ve been thinking about how can I work around the majority of Meetup problems and start running them on Google Hangouts or another remote presentation platform,” he said.

As for Open Data Delaware, if the policy changes — Meetup’s CEO, David Siegel, has released an open letter on Oct. 16 in response to backlash, saying that the fee change was for “a limited test to a few hundred groups in two U.S. states,” not an across the board policy change — it will remain on Meetup as long as feasible as part of the Code for America Meetup Pro Network, which would not be affected by the fees.

“Meetup Pro accounts for organizations that have meetups in multiple different locations are not going to be affected for now,” Harrington said. “But that’s potentially only a short-term solution.”

Ultimately, if more groups like Delaware Tech Meetup leave the platform, Open Data Delaware will do what’s best for the organization, Harrington says: “No one wants to be on a sinking ship. We’re there because the people are there.”

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