There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a professional networking group. The organizations tend to be fairly similar in structure, so the process can be confusing if there are a number of them, or none at all, in your area.
If there is only one group functioning in your area and they have an opening, check them out first. While you might weigh the other factors and decide that it's best for you to start a chapter with a different group, you should see if the existing group has what you are looking for. Consider carefully the established reputation and the convenience of getting right to business before you make the decision, even if they seem slightly less than what you expected.
If there are multiple groups operating in your area
The main considerations are simple. The first of course : Do they have an opening for someone in your field ? This may narrow your choices quickly if you are in a field that is commonly represented in these organizations.
Some groups actually don't place limitations on membership based on one per field. Think carefully about this before you join. If you are in a field where there will likely be multiple members from your field, you will need extremely strong interpersonal skills to overcome the hurdle this could create without also creating stress between members. The discipline in groups that ignore this stricture is also usually lower than the more narrowly regulated groups.
After that the single most important consideration is how comfortable you feel with the members of the group and with the organizations policies and standards. Remember, you will be recommending these people to family, friends and business associates. Make sure they are a solid business group.
When you visit for the first time, observe the level of comfort the group members have with each other. Barring extremes in your own personality, this is pretty much what you can expect to develop in the way of relationships yourself.
Next, look at the groups marketing efforts. Do they promote the group in a positive way ? Do they have a regular emphasis on new members ? Do they stress loyalty within the organization ? These are all factors you should consider when you meet with them.
All of these things bear on the amount and the quality of the business you'll get from your participation with them. If they market the group well, you won't have to. Often in local independent groups you will be expected to market the organization as well as your own business. That means time.
Loyalty within the group is very important. Not only because of the business involved, but from the standpoint of credibility and trust. Would you recommend someone whose services you wouldn't use yourself ?
In many groups the emphasis on social interactions can be high. This is a debatable area, but it is certain that if you get into one of them, you will need to be on good terms to keep getting the referrals you should. Or at least not bad terms. It is far easier to maintain a relationship that is based on the personal factor of trust combined with business than one built on business alone.
Membership fees are something to consider, but they will in most cases be insignificant compared to the advantages of the contacts you'll make. If in doubt, ask some of the members how long they plan to continue as members. The longer the period, the better they feel about the return on the investment.
Fees will run from nothing to thousands of dollars, depending on the group. The majority will be from the middle to low end of that, but if the group doesn't charge something it will have a hard time doing the things that make it worth joining.
Available training is an important issue. Even if you are experienced in networking, it is a significant indicator of the likely success of an organization. Look carefully. If you're not experienced, does it make the process clearer for you ? If you are, does it match the things you feel are significant ? Does the organization stress the honest approach, or do they leave grey areas open ? Most of the organizations will stress honesty and helpfulness, as will a majority of local and regional networks.
Also, look closely at the groups 'style'. Is it a clearcut business format or a looser social style ? Neither is right or wrong. It is important that you feel comfortable with the style of the group if you are going to develop the kinds of relationships that will lead to the greatest benefit for yourself and the other members.
If you would like to be able to have the benefits of a professional networking group, and there are none in your area, you will want to consider starting a chapter of a national group yourself. This is a lot less difficult than it sounds, but it does take some work.
The first thing will be to decide what group. For that, all the above information is important, at least as far as you can determine it. Find out if any of the organizations have chapters in nearby cities. If so, ask to visit to check them out. Let them know you are considering starting a chapter in your own town.
Most groups will welcome this, as it helps them also. Especially if they have occasional meetings to network between chapters.
Consider the format, and whether you can operate effectively within it. This is especially important if you will be starting a chapter. Note also that it is much easier for a chatty social type to work within the framework of a structured organisation than for a person who likes formal arrangements to work in a looser social style. Make sure you are reasonably comfortable with the setting and style you will be expected to maintain.
Another serious consideration is whether or not the organization will allow chapter founders to also be members. Yes, it is possible to run into organizations that don't allow this. Watch for it.
A small issue for some would be the level of national media support provided by the group. What kind of attention do they get, if any, in the major press ? This is not going to affect most groups on a significant local level, but if you are in an area with a lot of people relocating it can affect the reruiting to a small degree.
As someone starting a chapter, you may be entitled to compensation from the umbrella organization for your efforts. This will usually be based on a percentage of the dues from group members and the number of people in the group. Know this up front, and consider this along with the amount of time that will be involved in startup.
You should also consider the requirements in terms of time if you need to do maintenance work and marketing of the chapter. While this is certainly going to be time well spent in the long run, you need to be aware of this up front, and plan accordingly.
As a chapter founder, you will also need to consider the issue of support from the corporate office. You'll need to see the type of program they have in place for new chapters, specifically the startup plan. This should be clear and detailed, with as many contingencies as you can foresee being covered.
Any questions you might have concerning ongoing procedures should be asked prior to starting the chapter. Issues of dispute resolution, concerns over potential conflicts of interest, or any other concerns should be addressed at this time.
One final consideration is the level of press coverage the group looks for. People will be comfortable with different levels of public exposure initially, and you should be aware of what is expected of you in this area as all others prior to taking the first steps.
Once you have made the decision on which group to go with, give it 100%. The initial effort is the greatest, and will have the most impact on your long term success and that of the group.
ProfNet is a professional networking group with over 30 chapters throughout the US and expanding to international markets.