Strength in numbers

You just shelled out $150 for an association membership – now what do you do with it? Many small business owners join associations simply because they feel that it’s something they should do in order to promote their business. Unfortunately, once they join, many members never use the benefits available to them.

Joining an association can give you the opportunity to participate in benefits programs, attend exclusive conferences and networking events, and take advantage of member-to-member discounts. In addition, associations also offer their members a feeling of community and access to expert knowledge about their business and their industry – two benefits that are particularly helpful for small businesses.

Drawing on their considerable experience, Lisa Doucet, co-manager of Woozles Children’s Bookstore and president of the Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (AIBA), Tanya Priske, executive director for the Centre for Women in Business (CWB) and Melanie MacDonald, communications officer for CWB were able to offer a wealth of advice on how small businesses can make the most of their money and take full advantage of their memberships.

Quality vs. quantity

It doesn’t matter how many benefits they offer, those perks won’t be useful unless you’ve chosen the right association for your small business. Once you’ve found an organization that interests you, Priske and MacDonald recommend making sure that you do your homework. Begin by reading the offerings on the association’s website, then follow up by making a personal connection with the association by calling or visiting. This extra step is important, not only to ensure a good fit and common goals with the organization, but it also goes a long way in making sure that the benefits offered on the website are truly available to the members. “Choose an organization that practices what they preach,” says MacDonald.

Some associations will also let you join a discounted program, giving members the opportunity to ensure a good fit before committing to full membership fees. The Centre for Women in Business offers an “Emerge Membership” for $50, which provides access to free webinars on business management as well as the member’s rate to attend functions.

Network, network, network

Participating in events and networking with other members is the most important way to make the most of your membership. Make sure to attend networking events, annual general meetings (AGMs), and conferences. Not only will these events give you the opportunity to make important business connections with people who share a common interest, but they also provide a sense of community. This is a particularly important benefit for small businesses. Since so many small businesses are home-based or operate with only one or two employees, small business owners are particularly prone to feeling isolated in their work. Developing relationships with the other businesses and people in your industry gives you the opportunity to reach out to and collaborate with others. Doucet points out that AGMs also offer the opportunity to share best practices with other members: “More heads are better than one, so sometimes just being together in a group allows you to come up with ideas that you would never have come up with on your own.”

Priske says to make sure that you keep an open mind. Anyone you meet, whether it’s at a conference, a networking event or a meeting could represent an opportunity. The person that you sit next to at lunch could mean a future sale, a referral, a source of information or even collaboration. She recommends having an “elevator speech” prepared: a quick, engaging introduction that you can use to start a conversation.

A more untraditional way to network is to create goodwill by referring clients to other businesses in your association. “I know the phone numbers of other independent booksellers off by heart and I talk to them regularly,” Doucet explains. “We call Bookmark all the time to say ‘I’ve got a customer who’s looking for this. Do you have anything?’ Supporting each other has become more vital every day.” Not only are you keeping the clients local by doing this, but chances are the next time that other business has a client looking for something that they can’t provide, they’ll send them your way.

Stay in touch

Make sure you communicate regularly with your association. This is especially easy in our technologically advanced culture – it’s as simple as following your association on Twitter, emailing a suggestion or question, or making a quick phone call to talk about member benefits.

Asking their members’ opinions through social media, emails and newsletters are just a few of the ways that Priske and MacDonald keep the offerings at the Centre for Women in Business relevant and make sure that their members are aware of all events and opportunities.

Doucet recounts a time when a member called the night before the AIBA AGM, asking to add a marketing topic to the agenda. The resulting discussion was so ueful and enthusiastically received that they’ve made a marketing discussion a permanent addition to their agenda.

Finally, read the documentation that your association sends out to you. Make sure that you know what’s happening within your association and what opportunities are available to you. You can’t take advantage of events unless you know about them.

There are many ways to make sure that you take advantage of what your association has to offer, and each organization is different. But no matter what industry you’re in, if you choose the right association for your business, take advantage of networking opportunities and give honest feedback, you’ll find that your membership will pay for itself many times over.

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