Choosing the Right Trade Association for Your Small Business

Want discounts, education opportunities and a bit of clout? A trade association might be the answer.
Trade associations help small business owners gain strength in numbers. (Photo: tsyhun/Shuttestock)

No man is an island, according to the poet John Donne. But as a small business owner, you might feel like one. Joining a trade association is one way to feel more connected — and derive strength in numbers.

Bill Gessert, director of new business development at association management firm Fernley & Fernley, said a good trade association can help businesses get in front of more potential customers, provide educational resources around best practices and industry trends, arrange for discounts on the products and services you need to run your business and even lobby regulators on issues that affect you.

Related: How Supporting Fellow SMBs Can Help You Grow Your Business

From broad organizations to niche groups, there are tons of associations to choose from. So how do you know which is the best fit for your small business? Gessert shared a few tips to help you choose.

Start with a search

Google Search

Using Google can be the best first step for finding trade associations. (Photo: Sirirat/Shutterstock)

The first step, said Gessert, is to find out what organizations are available in your industry or region. “A simple Google search of the industry your business is in should yield a listing of relevant trade associations,” he said. He also recommended exploring the Directory of Associations, which is lets you filter by location, size, type of association and industry category.

Also talk with other business owners in your industry about what associations they belong to, and ask for recommendations from your local chamber of commerce.

Identify your goals for membership

Goals Meeting

Assessing your goals is a great way to decide which trade association to join. (Photo:

Think about what you’d like to get out of a membership. This will help you start to narrow down the options.

According to Gessert, trade associations generally provide these services and benefits:

Networking opportunities with other business owners, vendors and potential customers
Advocacy and lobbying around regulations, policies and proposed legislation that may impact your industry
Increased purchasing power through buying groups and affinity programs that offer discounts to association members
Training and professional development programs to better position you and your business for success
Leadership opportunities that can help advance your career

For example, if you’re looking to boost your business’ reputation, look for an association that can give you a more elite status or provide certification programs that can position you ahead of your competition, Gessert said.

Another reason many people join trade associations is for better rates on the products and services they need to run their business, or perks such as discounted insurance policies. The National Association for the Self-Employed, for instance, includes a term life insurance policy with membership.Group dental, health and vision plans are also available for members.

Related: How to Make Sure Your Business Has the Insurance it Needs

Consider size and reach

The size and reach of an association will have an impact on the range of benefits and services available to members, Gessert said. “Some associations have a very narrow focus and may not provide a full range of benefits and services. Others may fall into the category of being generalists and spread themselves too thin to provide real value.”

While larger organizations may have more political clout and be able to provide a larger offering of services, they may not be able to help with particular pain points unique to your niche. On the flip side, a smaller trade association may not have access to as many benefits and programs as its larger counterparts.

Ask for referrals

Gessert said it’s wise to talk to current association members before joining. “Do a thorough analysis,” he said. “Connect with and ask current members what they are getting out of their membership. What do they like, and what do they wish was different?”

Cost Calculator

Before joining a trade association, it is important to evaluate if the costs are worth the benefits.

Analyze cost vs. reward

Association dues can vary widely, and some aren’t cheap. Weigh the cost against the potential rewards.

Membership dues for the National Retail Federation, for example, are based on annual revenue and start at $2,750 per year, while a small, local retailer can join the Georgia Retail Association for only $250 per year. It all comes back to what you want to get out of your association membership.

Related: Where to Allocate Your Small Business Marketing Dollars

Get the most from your membership

When you find the right association, “don’t just pay annual dues and hold membership. Get involved,” said Gessert. Attend the annual convention and trade shows, volunteer to serve on a committee or task force and contribute to the association’s journal or online publications.

You can get out of your membership only what you put in, Gessert noted, so “make your presence known and the value of your membership will exponentially increase.”

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