Calling all Chambers: Reinvent – Before it’s Too Late

Chambers of Commerce had a good twenty-five year run. After all, create a tiered membership structure with fees from around $300 to as high as $50,000 per year, multiply by a few hundred businesses, and you’re in business!

For that, the Chamber was tasked with providing educational programming and networking, sending out a newsletter, publishing a member directory, and organizing and participating in events while serving as the “voice” of business in the community.

But in the last five years or so, the climate has changed. Chambers have watched as membership numbers fell, revenues dropped, recruiting rates stagnated, and overall member satisfaction declined.

Chambers used to be such an integral part of the small business ecosystem.

What happened?

Simple: When you stagnate you fall behind… and eventually become obsolete. That’s what happened to Tower Records (Napster played their role in that too).

In essence, that’s what happened to Chambers.

Once, the only way to get connected with other business owners was through the chamber. Recent data shows that face-to-face networking is down 20% globally. Entrepreneurs just don’t have the time for networking events.
Then companies like LinkedIn (the Chamber’s version of Napster) disrupted conventional networking by offering it on a global scale – and for free. Then other ventures like BOSI, OnStartups and started providing networking and information access on a global scale.

    It was once a badge of honor to be a Chamber member. Ask most entrepreneurs today if they are a member of the Chamber; they will likely say no or they’ll say, “Yeah, but I don’t know why we still are.”
    It was a great place for B2B companies to generate new business. Today, because of a flawed business model, the Chamber is the place where lawyers, accountants, MLMers and financial planners all fight for the attention of the next new member.
    It was a place to collaborate. While a certain amount of collaboration does still take place among Chamber members, the savviest and most successful company owners don’t attend events anymore, so the overall membership no longer gets the best the community has to offer.
    It was a place to access great education and insight. The area where Chambers have fallen behind the most is education. Once the Chamber was the best place to gain insight and input. After all, the Chamber had the power to source top minds and deliver them to members. Calling today’s Chamber presenters sub-par is an overstatement. As numbers at Chamber events dropped, top speakers bowed out and went to greener pastures, leaving the stage to the remaining, below-average speakers. Plus Chambers are caught in the old-school paradigm of “sourcing local,” so they continue to put flavor of the month “experts” on stage – most of who cannot compete with the real experts… and wonder why only twelve people sign up for the next seminar.

Leading the charge in reinventing the Chamber to meet the needs of a new generation of entrepreneurs is the Durham Chamber led by ACCE rockstar Casey Steinbacher.

I had a chance to spend several phone sessions and one on-site day with Casey and her team as they were going through their reinvention process. Some things I noticed right off the bat were.

    Casey wasn’t stuck in an old-school, we’ve-always-done-it-one-way mindset. She was thinking outside the box. She was thinking big. Most importantly, she approached her strategic planning process with her customer (not her chamber) as the focus.
    She embraced change. It didn’t take long for Casey to find out that her hottest growing market was young tech-focused entrepreneurs (not law firms and multi-level marketers). These techies had their own language. They had their own culture. They didn’t see the value in attending business card exchanges. They wanted to plug into something exciting that would have global impact. Rather than shake her fist at this group, she engaged them in conversation. Those conversations led to huge breakthroughs in how she builds and delivers programming now.
    She was willing to re-program her staff. Having a full time person who plans events – events that get a whopping 12 people every time is not the best use of good talent. Casey recognized that and moved her staff to a “concierge” model. A model that builds client engagement while adding tremendous value to a chamber member.

I am sure there are a handful (and I’m being generous) of Chambers who are doing Casey-like re-engineering. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t spoken with a single Chamber President who hasn’t done a ton of strategic planning in the last 18 months. It’s just that most of them are just revisiting old habits and recycling outdated best practices.

But I’m encouraged by the few who are doing breakthrough things. That’s what the entrepreneurial eco-system needs right now. Breakthrough Chambers. Not a bunch of “give us your $350 and we’ll send you a newsletter and a few postcard invitations to boring events” Chambers.

Some quick tips off the top of my head of what Chambers should seriously consider? Here goes…

  • Get out of the education/workshop/seminar business. You cannot compete with educationearth, itunesU, podcasts, YouTube, Bloggers and BOSI on delivering high-end programming to entrepreneurs.
  • Don’t make “networking/business card exchanges” your core value proposition to new members., Linkedin and BOSI allow members to connect on a local and global scale with great efficiency and better targeting – and for free.
  • Stop claiming to be the way local small business connects with buyers. Groupon, LivingSocial, Google and hundreds of other daily deal services do a far better job with great efficiency.
  • Instead, focus on being really excellent by:

  • Advocating for small business and startups: More than anything, entrepreneurs need a voice with local and state government. Becoming that voice and driving home the agenda of free enterprise should be your singular mission. The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce is a great example of a powerhouse in small business advocacy.
  • Connecting big business with small business: Help facilitate introductions and deals between large and small companies in your area. Chambers like Chester County, PA do a great job making important connections – for both parties.
  • Becoming the face of business to the community: Stop promising small business you can help them get new customers. (Most membership directors end up insinuating this, whether directly or indirectly, during the recruiting process). Instead become the voice of business to the community. Tell great entrepreneurial stories. Highlight local successes and build community pride.
  • Leveraging membership for fundraising: Entrepreneurs are extremely charitable. Chambers can partner with non-profits in the area to help them connect and raise funds through Chamber members. Chambers could create great connections between non-profits and members and in the process add tremendous value to the community.
  • There is so much more to be said on this topic – I could fill a whole seminar on it. But I just hope that more Chambers get wise to the changing times and do what they have to do to keep adding value to their marketplace.

    If not, they’ll be obsolete just like Tower Records.


    1. Tom Poorman on July 14, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      Great post. I could not agree more with your definition of the problem. Especially your observations related to events and networking. Ugh.

      The solutions – what a chamber actually does to be of service in today’s world – is less clear to me however.

      I need to learn more about the concierge model you refer to.

      Terms like “engage” “leveraging” and “connect” are vague to me.

    2. Joe on July 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm


      Good question about the concierge model. Pick one person (the most personable one) on your staff and appoint them as CEO Concierge (or something cool sounding like that).

      Take your membership directory and split it up in 4 parts. Each quarter have your CEO Concierge contact 1/4th of the group and ask them this simple question “What are you looking for/in need of in your business right now?”. Based on each member’s response (which is typically – “I need some capital”, “I need help with my marketing”, “I need an introduction to…”) give the CEO Concierge the authority to say, “Let me see what we can do to help you with that.”

      The Chamber typically has a robust rolodex that spans small business, big business, community leadership, government etc etc.

      The question for the CEO Concierge becomes – “How can I leverage my rolodex to help my member have a breakthrough?”

      The personal call followed up by some email/phone connections (or an honest “We couldn’t find a direct solution, but here are a couple of chamber members who may be able to help you further”) will have a massive impact on member satisfaction and success. They will become you fanatical fans because you were there when they needed you most.

      Eventually, you can offer that as a premium service (more $ Yeah!) but at first, you have to prove that your chamber can deliver this kind of value consistently to its membership.

      Entrepreneurs are so busy right now keeping up with economic stuff, regulatory stuff, competition and internal fires that a friendly call from the chamber offering to provide meaningful support would be a blast of fresh air.

      Hope that helps get some ideas percolating in your mind.


    3. Tom Poorman on July 22, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks Joe. I like that a lot. I just need to figure out how to get it done given the staffing levels we have. But I suppose there are fewer more important things…there are just a lot of drains on our time and we have less staff to do it with. So, we need to get creative…


    4. Joe on July 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm


      Happy to be of service. I don’t charge Chambers for my time so if there is anything I can do, just drop me an email. It could be that the concierge model isn’t even a fit for the culture of your chamber. We could brainstorm some ideas that may work better given your resource allocation etc.