Yesterday I commented on why I wasn’t re-upping on my local Chamber memberships this year.
Today, I’d like to offer up what I consider, in my humble opinion, to be what Chambers of Commerce have to do in order to stay relevant in today’s business environment.
I can actually sum it up in three words: More Meaningful Engagement.
But before I offer up concrete examples of how Chambers of Commerce can provide these improved avenues for engagement, let me restate the problem:
The days of simply joining a local Chamber to see and be seen are a thing of the past. The existing business environment is entirely too fluid to think that offering a window placard and a free ticket to a golf event is going to sway businesses to fork over several hundred – or thousand – dollars a year in order to be “current.”
Chambers have to offer a compelling argument on how they are helping local business succeed. And, at least for me, my local Chambers are not fulfilling that function.
More Meaningful Engagement
Chambers are now competing with other pay-for-networking organizations (like So-Social and Red Carpet Mondays) and with free networking events (TweetUps, Bar Camps, Meetup.com).
Offering big ball room events where there is a speaker, little room or time for physical mobility, and no formal channels for follow up ain’t working.
In order to facilitate meaningful networking, events should be offered in venues where intimate communication can take place among a manageable number of participants. Many chamber events seem to be designed to allow companies to bring along 5-10 people to a catered affair as a means for promoting the Chamber and not for the participants to offer anything in return. This is good if you work for one of these companies and are looking for a couple of hours to kill outside the office, but not entirely beneficial if you’re looking to do something that can bring business your way.
The format of a TweetUp is probably the most recognizable format for what I’m talking about, and it is tremendously effective for connecting to like minded people or with people who need what your company is selling.
Listen, Not Just Talk
Most Chamber functions are speaker-centered. That is, a speaker is touted, the audience shows up, and then leaves.
Why not offer events where Chamber members can tell their own business story in an extended format, where prolonged engagement can occur?
Chambers are supposedly filled with businesses looking to tell their stories, but rarely are afforded the chance to do so under the auspices of their respective member organizations.
A great model for this is the Bar Camp, where speakers volunteer to do short presentations in front of their peers. These events can be single day, and with a strict timeline in place can afford a great deal of information to be communicated in a short period of time to an interested group of motivated people.
Get to Know Your Members
In my five years as a member of one of the local Chambers, I’ve never been invited to visit the Chamber offices (aside from a mass mailing meet and greet) or out to lunch to discuss, one on one, what my business is doing or to talk about where I see my business fitting into the local business community by any staffer of the local Chamber. Not once.
If you don’t know me, there is no way to know how you can help me.
Make Your Organization Accessible and Accountable
Each Chamber should have a recognizable face in their respective communities, whether that be one or two high profile people, who are approachable and accountable for making things happen. Social Networking is a good – though not exclusive by any means – place to start.
In short, a local Chamber should have low-barrier to entry means of communication with staffers that are geared toward the way people work today, not the way that they worked in 1995. I would love to be able to quickly text a message to ask a question of the local Chamber. I would love to be able to tweet or DM a message to a Chamber Twitter account for a response from the community. Leaving a voice mail message or an email to be answered a few days later is simply not acceptable.
Make Your Brand “Business” and “Business” Your Brand
Some Chambers of Commerce think they “exist to exist.” That is to say, the events they provide seem to offer nothing more than a way to generate a revenue stream in order to stay in business, with the value of the content events being secondary to promoting and building business.
In fact, one of our local Chambers (the biggest one actually) has created an overarching parent agency and has subjugated several different programs that were “Chamber” programs as separate “business lines” within the parent organization… with the Chamber itself as one of the subjugated “lines of business.”
Something’s wrong here. Is the Chamber there to fund a larger parent organization – and in some cases, an individual – or is it there to promote business, and more specifically, MY business?
If the answer is the former, don’t be surprised when people vote with their feet.