Is Your Crowd the In-Crowd? So many professional associations, so little time. Here's how to find a group that can actually help you.
By Eileen Gunn

(Business 2.0) – Need the occasional unbiased ear to hear out a business notion? Will millions of ears do? According to the consulting firm Concept Marketing Group, which tracks associations nationwide, there are upwards of 35,000 professional groups in the United States. So whether you're a toy designer or a CTO, you can find peer advice on everything from properly pricing your services to winning over a new boss. But which group is right for you? These guidelines should make your decision easier.

SMALLER IS BETTER. You'll find associations that assemble members by the thousands and others that bring together just a few dozen. Lean toward the latter--meeting groups of 30 to 60 people will offer multiple perspectives and yet be intimate enough to develop bonds that can lead to additional clients or a new job.

KICK SOME TIRES. Because associations require the most precious of assets--your time--shop around. Most groups periodically hold nonmember events. Do the same 16 people always show up? A lack of changing faces "could signal that the group is too cliquish or struggling to get new members," says Andrea Nierenberg, a business development consultant and author of Nonstop Networking.

ONE PROBABLY WON'T DO. Joining more than a single group isn't uncommon or unwise, so long as the associations offer different insights into your work. For instance, a group for small-business owners will address vastly different topics than an association of software designers. "Have a group where everyone has the same profession and the jargon flies fast and furious," says Judy Rosemarin, who teaches career coaching at New York University. "But you should also join a group that attracts other kinds of professionals."

VALUE ISN'T ALWAYS WHAT IT APPEARS TO BE. If one association gets together weekly and costs $50 a year, and another meets monthly and costs $5,000, the better choice isn't necessarily the more-for-less option. The steeper fee of the latter keeps pushy freelancers and salespeople from showing up at meetings and buys you a dedicated group of peers who are eager to listen and voice some well-formed opinions. And that advice can be absolutely priceless. -- EILEEN GUNN