Tag Archives: Chester County Chamber

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 Entrepreneur.com 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. Meetup.com, 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.