John McKown's Blog
10 Ways to Hack Your Chamber of Commerce for Results

About this Article

This is by far the most viewed blog post I have ever written. Probably because many others have noticed a change in the value they receive from their local chambers of commerce, like I did. Some people love their local chamber of commerce, some don't. I used to be a HUGE promoter of local chambers, but I am not any longer.  You may work for a chamber, or love your local chamber, and that is totally fine. I have already heard from chambers regarding this article and they are generally not happy that I am sharing these tips.  I do believe there is a value that chambers can provide for businesses that are new to an area, and also some legislative benefits as well. But for the most part, Internet technology and social media have removed many of a chamber's benefits. 

If, like me, you feel in your bones there has to be a better way of marketing your business locally, or perhaps you had a bad experience with a local chamber, then you will appreciate my tips and alternatives. In this article, I will explain how you can save your business time, money, and frustration in dealing with your local chamber of commerce so that you get the most out of what they have to offer, while limiting your exposure to them. I am sharing some of the secrets of how chambers work so that you can use them to make informed decisions and better your business.

In the end, I am not saying that you should or shouldn't be a member of chambers, but we warned - there ARE RISKS TO YOUR BUSINESS in working with a local chamber. 
That truth is the foundation of why I wrote this (now popular) article. It isn't that I have an axe to grind or sour grapes, it is just that I am finally free to talk about the chamber realities now that I no longer partner with them. 

My Background with Chambers
In the early 2000s, I built and hosted websites and produced local business events for over a dozen local chambers of commerce. It went on for over 15 years. I've attended COUNTLESS chamber mixers, tabletop mixers, trade shows, ribbon cuttings, business expos, holiday parties, golf outings, fundraisers, etc. I had some great experiences and business relationships from those experiences. Unfortunately, I have also had some very bad experiences with those chambers as well. Now that my company no longer targets chambers of commerce as a business vertical, I can finally share some secrets that will help you to learn from my experiences.

Why did I say "hack" the chamber?
The word "hack" isn't meant to be negative in this article. I define "hack" in this article as "using in ways that weren't originally intended, to better meet your needs". I am not a "hacker" or anything of the sort. I am a small businessman that has "been there, done that, and got the track suit" with chambers of commerce. Chambers naturally offer more benefits than just their member database - they hold events, they lobby local government, they help visitors and new businesses that enter the area (think ribbon cutting). Some chambers add tremendous value and are good for their local communities, most are not.

Almost by design, all chambers have the same inherent problems; ongoing funding due to dwindling membership, board elections and politics, employee turnover and payroll, executive director compensation, many conficts of interest, stakeholders motivations, member conflicts, etc. I don't envy the job of a chamber president one bit. That job is very demanding, and it forces a chamber president to please MANY masters. Chamber presidents (and their staff) burn out very quickly, and there is a lot of employee turnover in the chambers. The chamber presidents that last decades are sometimes the ones that are the most dangerous to work with because they enjoy their power, and this power can backfire on you and your business (like it did for me).

1. First know that chamber membership is not really necessary

You do not need to join a lot of chambers of commerce to market your business locally. In fact, you don't need to join ANY chamber of commerce to take advantage of some of the marketing benefits that they used to have a monopoly on. With the power of the web, you can gain access to most of the information that chambers of commerce used to be able to protect - namely their database of member information. Local marketing has changed forever with Facebook, Google, Meetup.com and other websites to gain exposure locally. You can (and should) hold your own mixers and events at your business or at a local meeting hall without the chamber's help. 

I believe that many small businesses are at a point (like me) where they have to look at all of the time, energy and money they spend with their chambers and other marketing groups (especially time) and decide if it is worth it. The value may not always be tangible, so that can be difficult. If you do stay with the chamber, make sure you get the best possible benefits for your business without paying too much, and without allowing the chamber to harm your business relationships.

2. Know that the list of members is where most of the value is

The holy grail of what a chamber of commerce can provide you is their member database. You can take a lesson from Facebook and Google in the sense that owning information and data about people and organizations can have a lot of value. However, like most legacy industries that have tried to hold onto a directory of data (think Realtors that used to have listing books), the chambers no longer have a stranglehold on this information.

You still want to try to get the member list if you can get it.
You want the member list for:

3. Hacking the chamber member list

The most valuable part of the member list is the list of email accounts for the chamber members. Once you have it, you can use it to market locally forever without paying the chamber again. 
For years, I had chambers that were customers of my web design business that refused to post their member list online. Obviously, that is very backwards-thinking, and most of them now have theme member lists online. Some of them that are still in the dark ages send mass fax blasts to their members even to this day, which is a joke. Now that I don't service that industry, I can share some tips with you. Here are ways that you can get the membership database:

4. Don't Pay to Market on the Chamber Website

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It is broad term that describes techniques that you can use to make your website come up higher in Google and other search engines. Things that you do to your website's content to make it come up higher is known as "On-Site SEO", and generating inbound links from other websites is known as "Off-Site SEO". Chambers like to tout the SEO benefit of their website to your website, but they generally charge a fee on top of the membership fee for you have a hyperlink on the chamber website.

 - NEVER EVER PAY A CHAMBER FOR A HYPERLINK - 

While this once had value, it hasn't had value in many years. Selling hyperlinks no longer has credibility for chambers, since the value of these links has dropped considerably. The value has dropped because Google has changed (quite dramatically) how they index websites and how they assign value to those hyperlinks (since about 2009). In a tight economy, where budgets are tight and many companies forego chamber memberships altogether, chambers are forced to do more with less resources, and they are always on the lookout for new ways to generate revenue. A popular way for them to generate revenue is by offering enhanced listings for your business on their website. This had some value in the 90's and early 2000s as Google would give a lot of weight to the inbound links to your website from the chamber's website (if the chamber's website was popular). This is no longer the case really, as Google has made changes in how it ranks websites. But that does not stop chambers from marketing their websites as a way to add SEO value to your website. Chambers should stop perpetrating this myth. If you do intend to join a local chamber, insist that a hyperlink on their website to your website be part of the package and that you never pay for it. If they refuse, rethink membership with them. You can generate a TON more traffic to your website without their website, by developing your own content strategy that will make you come up higher in Google on your own. And honestly, people will go to GOOGLE to find you before they go to the Chamber to find you.  Don't buy the hogwash that the chamber website is more powerful than Google. It isn't. Banner advertisements are equally a waste of your money. 

5. If you must join, join for only one year

Most local chamber of commerce memberships are inexpensive, but in many cases you can get all that you need from the first year's membership, then simply don't renew after that once you get what you need. Simple. Since the chamber is local, there isn't so much change in the member list that you need to be a member indefinitely.

6. Hacking the Chamber Mixer

Chambers typically have networking events that they call "mixers" every month. Members attend for free, and visitors can either attend for free for the first time, or pay a small fee.

7. Hacking the Chamber Trade Show

Chambers typically work closely with local event venues and hotels, and they use those relationships to have events where they can sell booths. This is a big moneymaker for the chamber, and it is totally 100% hackable by you. They call these events "Expos" or "Tabletop Mixers" and they have other titles for them as well.

Here is the cold, hard truth that the chambers don't want you to know -
these events don't generate a lot of money or leads for the exhibitors.

And honestly, the chamber doesn't really care about you making money from their trade show. They care about selling booths and making money ONLY. I've helped to organize, plan, run, staff, and manage these events for 15+ years. I ran my own evenst and I sold 120 booths and generated $35,000 for a four hour event. Trust me when I tell you that it is all about the money for the chamber.

OK, so here are some tactics that you can use to hack these events.

8. Avoid doing business with the chamber as a client!

A lot of business owners feel that if they can be a provider to the chamber of commerce, this will lead to a lot of referrals and new business for them. I have found in my own experience that this is not true. Here is why.

9. Join their lists to get member info and news for free

Even of you aren't a member, you can still tap into the happenings at the chamber. With social media, it is now possible to know everything they have going on without being a member. Here are some ideas:

10. Join other local marketing organizations instead

There has been a bunch of new organizations that have recently come to life to compete with local chambers of commerce.
This is a good thing! This means that you will have choices and new avenues to market to.

I hope that these tips will help you to better market your business. Chambers have the potential to bring a fair amount of value to your business, but you have to be very smart about how you utilize them. And with the resources you now have online, most of the value is available in other ways. 

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