Social media might have made it easier for us to find people’s contact details–and send messages to strangers that you want to connect with. But it is also chock full of noise and peddlers, which can make it difficult to establish genuine business relationships that are paramount to professional success. In fact, despite all the chatter, studies show that it has made us lonelier.
In this digital world, how do you go about making valuable connections? Here’s the thing–nothing beats talking to like-minded people in real life. Digital groups have their place, but joining a professional association allows you to form closer relationships and also take part in unique experiences that you just can’t have behind a screen. But as someone in the business of helping brands build innovative professional associations (and assisting current ones to adapt and remain relevant), I strongly suggest you do some due diligence and make sure that you pick one that’s right for you. Start by asking these three questions to ensure that you’re not just signing up to some stuffy, outdated networking group, and that you’ll actually get some genuine value by being part of the association.
What unique experiences does the organization offer?
You’ve probably been through this before. You’re in a crowded bar, elbow to elbow with other attendees. After about an hour of shouting conversations, you leave with little more than a buzz and a pocket full of crumpled-up business cards (that you find in your dryer’s lint filter weeks later). But many professional associations offer more than networking mixers. To get the most out of joining one, you want to join an association that helps its members forge meaningful relationships that last far beyond the event itself.
Baby Bathwater Institute, an organization for entrepreneurs, is one example of this. Members can choose to go on adventure trips (like skiing and snowboarding), or partake in low-key activities like panels and workshops. The 7:47 Club is another example–they are a New York City-based professional group where members attend invite-only dinners, and everyone participates in all the tasks that go into the event, from prepping and cooking the food, to setting the table, to cleaning up. When you introduce this kind of interaction in an event, people become more than just attendees. The shared tasks provide icebreakers for more in-depth conversations later on in the evening and allow participants to get to know one another on a different level.
What technology does the organization use to help their members make and maintain connections?
Many trade associations have struggled to keep up with the ever-changing technology landscape. Yet, even if their focus is on physical gatherings, in this day and age, a strong technology solution should be a priority. Now, more than ever, the most critical business challenges are happening in real time, and require real-time support. Monthly masterminds and forum-style meet-ups, while potentially useful, are no longer enough to support the fast-paced business world. As a member, you should look for associations that let you engage with other members and tap their expertise outside of scheduled meetings.
At the very least, look for organizations with a private (and active) social media group. Whatever platform it’s on, the extent to which the group’s members are engaged (or not) can offer you a glimpse into the organization’s staying power and the value that they bring to their members. If its members are getting a lot from the organization and their network, they’re more likely to engage. In addition, you can also determine whether your professional principles align with the members of that group.
Does the group have a committed community manager?
When evaluating a trade association, it’s worth nothing that the most important people probably don’t live in the association’s C-suite. Look out for community managers: Who has the responsibility of making everyone’s experience exceptional? Assess their expertise and commitment when it comes to bringing people together.
Some groups have a “community” department–and this is usually a sign that the association takes connecting members seriously. For example, at the Project Management Institute, having staff in dedicated community departments has allowed the nonprofit to do more than just connect their members with one another. For instance, PMI allows its members to post surveys and research links on its LinkedIn group, and that benefit helped shepherd at least one member through research that led to a doctoral degree.
This is why at The Community Company–the company I cofounded–we’ve worked really hard to make community management a way of work, rather than a job title of those who interact with our members on a day-to-day basis. Without that kind of focus, it would be difficult for any organization to serve its members. When you’re looking for a group to join, that’s the standard you should expect.
There are many benefits to joining a professional association, but at the end of the day, you’re still making a commitment. So make sure that you do your homework first before deciding on one. After all, that’s the only way to know whether it’s worth your time and money.
Ryan Paugh is the COO of The Community Company, an organization that builds community-driven programs for media companies and global brands. He is also the coauthor of Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter.