Business people at a trade convention
Trade groups offer so many different benefits, so finding the right one can be a challenge. With the right strategies, you can find one that will meet your business objectives. — Getty Images/ sanjeri

Trade groups can be a great resource for entrepreneurs and merchants at every stage of growing a business. The mentorship opportunities, networking and access to education and training that trade groups offer can be a big boost toward reaching your goals.

Because trade groups offer so many different benefits, finding the right one for your needs can be a little challenging. Here are some steps to take to evaluate different trade groups and find one that will help you achieve your business objectives.

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Understand your objective

Trade groups and industry associations are formed for a variety of reasons. Starting your search with a specific goal in mind will help you narrow down which groups are worth exploring and which ones won’t meet your needs.

Trade groups usually serve one or more of the following functions:

  • Collaboration. Especially useful for highly regulated industries, these types of trade groups bring together stakeholders to collaborate on items such as product specifications, terminology, codes and standards, labeling or other similar outcomes.
  • Advocacy. These groups are devoted to lobbying, PR efforts or advertising on behalf of the entire sector. These groups can influence state and federal legislators to create a favorable business environment for the entire industry.
  • Education. Some trade groups believe in providing education, development and training opportunities to their members. These groups may host conferences, provide online training, offer mentorship opportunities or have advanced certifications that can boost your company’s reputation.

Most trade associations also offer informal or ancillary benefits, such as networking, exchanging ideas with like-minded business owners, and an affiliation that adds credibility to your small business. Once you’ve narrowed down your focus to one of these main goals, it’s time to vet your options.

Most trade associations also offer informal or ancillary benefits, such as networking, exchanging ideas with like-minded business owners, and an affiliation that adds credibility to your small business.

Find groups in your industry

There are thousands of trade groups out there. Historically, the best option for vetting trade groups was to find active associations in your area. Today, however, many trade groups host online events and conferences, which increases the number of trade groups you may consider joining.

Start by building a list of potential groups that seem like they meet your interest. Look for local and national organizations; there are pros and cons to each. Here are a few resources to help you find groups in your industry.

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce. With many local chapters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advocates for business owners in Washington D.C. and provides research, special events and other resources.
  • Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). One of the oldest trade associations (established in 1987), EO has over 12,000 members who volunteer to provide guidance to entrepreneurs who are running or starting an enterprise.
  • Special interest trade groups. If you’re a minority business owner, look into a special interest trade group that serves your unique population. The Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), NAVOBA (for veteran-owned businesses), the National Hispanic Business Group, or the Minority Chamber of Commerce are all good places to start.

[Read more: 10 Resources for Minority-Owned Businesses]

Look for organizations that are not only for small businesses, but also specific to your sector. For instance, restaurant owners can take part in the National Restaurant Association, farmers can join the Farm Foundation, etc.

Narrow down your list

Once you’ve pulled together a list of likely candidates, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Here are some questions that can help you vet groups on your list and zero in on the right trade group for your business.

  • What are the membership fees? Membership fees are often charged on a sliding scale, with different tiers of benefits. On average, however, expect to be charged around $200 to access member benefits of a trade group.
  • How active is the group? Check out the group’s events calendar, look at its social media channels and speak to current members to see how active the group really is.
  • What benefits do you receive? Beyond the broader goals mentioned above, research what your membership fees actually will net in terms of discounts, access to trade events or networking opportunities.
  • Who are the leaders? Some trade organizations list prestigious leaders on their board or executive team. These influencers can be useful if your goal is to join a group with advocacy power.

Ultimately, the benefit you receive from a trade group is proportional to the effort you put in. If you’re active in engaging with the group’s events, networking with other members, and joining advocacy efforts, your business will gain new ways to thrive.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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