When I was first laid off and trying to build up my professional network as a newly self-employed person, I had the bright idea to join a Meet Up group called “Small Business Owners & Entrepreneurs” that met once a month at a local restaurant to talk about business, marketing and growth.
So you can imagine my surprise when later that week I sat down to dinner with a handful of multi-level-marketing salespeople who were sure their product was the one I should start selling!
If you’re interested in joining a professional group to expand your network or ramp up your development, you’ll need to do some research in order to avoid making my mistake. Because whether you’re considering a free or paid membership to a professional group, it can be difficult to understand whether the benefits are really worth it, or if you’re walking into a scam.
Here are three questions you can ask yourself before joining a group to make sure it will deliver clear career benefits.
1. Is it a legitimate group or a scam?
The Internet is connecting people faster than ever before. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. But in the case of professional organizations, it can create a lot of confusion as you sort the legitimate professional groups that will reflect well on you from the overnight scams that just pad your resume.
To make sure the group you’re considering is a legitimate one that will deliver on its promises, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it have membership requirements?
The most in-demand groups often have membership requirements such as having a certain amount of experience in the field or a certain degree. For example, Licensed Members of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) must hold a valid license or certificate of registration as a professional engineer or the equivalent. If there are absolutely no requirements for membership besides paying the fee, that could be a sign it’s more likely to be a hobby group rather than a professional group.
- Does it explain membership fees?
High-priced memberships that don’t explain their fees are a big red flag. Look for details about how the association spends the membership money or what you get for it, such as a membership fee explanation or benefits page like this one from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM).
- Is it well-represented in my current network?
Social proof can be a good indicator that the professional organization you’re considering is a legitimate one, so take a look at your current connections and see which groups they’ve chosen to join.
For example, if you’re a teacher connected with other teachers, the odds are incredibly high that you know several people who are members of the National Education Association (NEA). If you’re considering a group and you can’t find anyone you know who is a member, contact a school or work mentor to ask their opinion — you never know what you might find out about how your industry perceives the organization.
2. Will I participate in the group?
It’s one thing to join a group because they host a wide variety of trendy and on-point events. It’s another thing entirely to join a group because you actually want to attend those events.
Before you spring for a group membership, consider the schedule of activities and whether or not you would really participate. Do you see yourself making time for events each month, quarter or year? Remember, this doesn’t just mean putting it on your calendar, but making all the other little arrangements to your schedule that it takes to prioritize going to a professional meeting in your personal time.
If you’re not sure, reach out to your local chapter head and ask if you can attend a session or two as a trial to make sure you’ll participate. If not, you might be better off pocketing your money and focusing on building your network solo.
3. Will it grow my network with authentic connections?
Finally and most importantly, consider whether or not being active in this group will give you the opportunity to make authentic connections with other people. Because as nice as it is to be invited to free online webinars or in-person presentations, the professional groups that can change your life are the ones that give you the opportunity to meet and engage with new people in your industry. They provide more than just free appetizers and company swag — they become the backdrop for forging new relationships based on common interests and goals over the course of your career.
Beyond providing plenty of opportunities to make new connections, also make sure the group will connect you with the specific people you want to meet, which will depend on your goals. For example, if you’re a freelancer, you could be looking for a professional organization that can connect you with fellow freelancers so you can build a support network and grow your business. Or you might be looking for an organization within your freelancing niche that can keep you up to date in your industry and make connections with new customers. These are two very different goals, and what’s right for you will depend on what kind of connections you’re looking to make.
Tell Us: Are you in any professional groups? How did you decide which group(s) to join?