Ever feel like an ant crawling through a landscape of giant big-box competitors? If so, consider this: The average anthill packs plenty of collective power, and when its residents gather in large numbers, they can send even the largest beast running.
Trade associations can give small businesses similar leverage, affording them access to innovative business practices and winning business strategies. These industry-specific groups can also give independent operations more political clout, which may be helpful whenever proposed local, state, or federal legislation threatens to harm small businesses.
Here are five ways to boost your business by joining a trade association.
1. Tap into knowledge. Odds are that someone, somewhere, in the industry has already discovered the solution to a vexing problem in your particular niche. Workshops, meet-and-greets, newsletters, blogs, and forums create opportunities to share those best practices and fresh ideas. Small merchants can also reap benefits from joining state or regional retail associations. Additionally, by networking, small-business owners may spot emerging trends, which could impact their bottom lines.
2. Enhance your reputation. Trade associations sort out bad apples through self-regulation, which bolsters the reputations of all their members [PDF]. Professional organizations often award credentials and certifications, too, which can help to build consumer confidence in your products or services. The Organic Trade Association, which assures that organic growers and handlers adhere to the law, is one example.
3. Make personal connections. By participating in a trade association’s regional chapters, small businesses can gain access to potential new customers in their area. Note that some small-business owners choose to join a group whose members are decision-makers in their target markets vs. their peers. For example, a social media professional may get ideas and best practices by participating in a marketing association but generate new business by hobnobbing with members of an automotive trade group. (To this end, carefully choose which trade shows you attend, too.)
4. Increase your purchasing power. Trade associations often arrange for members to receive discounts on certain products and services. These perks may include the option to enroll in group health insurance. For example, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts began enrolling its members in a group-purchasing cooperative for health insurance in February 2012. The program offers some 4,000 small businesses a half-dozen health plans that are far less expensive than what they’ve been paying on their own.
5. Gain political clout and expertise. Trade associations bring competitors together, turning one small voice into a persuasive, collective shout [PDF]. This can be particularly helpful when independent businesses need to mobilize quickly, such as when facing proposed political initiatives that threaten the industry. For example, signage is regulated at the local level, but sign shops that are members of national signage associations may have access to legal experts who are familiar with nationwide regulation. Their insight and advice is often crucial when proposed local ordinances arise.
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