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 do believe there is a place for them. But their role and value is changing.
If, like me, you feel in your bones there is a better way, or you had a bad experience with a local chamber, then you will appreciate the following tips and alternatives.
In this article, I will explain how you can save your business time, money, and frustration in dealing with your local chambers 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. I have already heard from chambers regarding this article and they are generally not happy that I am sharing these tips.
In the end, I am not saying that you should or shouldn't be a member of chambers, but we warned - there are risks in working with them and now with social media and web applications there are many alternatives to almost every service that they offer. That truth is the foundation of why I wrote this (now popular) article.
My Background with Chambers
I built and hosted websites and produced events for over a dozen local chambers of commerce for over 15 years. I've attended countless chamber mixers, ribbon cuttings, business expos, 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. By design, all chambers have inherent problems; ongoing funding, elections, payroll, conficts of interest, stakeholders, member conflicts, etc. I don't envy the job of a chamber president one bit. It is very demanding, and it forces them to please many masters. Chamber presidents (and their staff) burn out quickly, and there is a lot of turnover in the chambers. The ones that last years and years are sometimes the ones that are most dangerous to work with because they enoy their power, and this power can backfire on you (like it did for me).
1. First know that chamber membership is not really necessary
You don't 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. You can also market locally with Facebook, Google and other websites to gain exposure locally. 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 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), the chambers no longer have a stranglehold on this information. But you still want the list if you can get it. You want the member list for:
- Email marketing. You can use many different newsletter providers.
- Direct postal mail marketing. Less so nowadays, but valuable.
- Company Research - targeting specific industries or companies.
- Businessperson Research - finding the right contacts at local companies.
- Phone marketing - cold calling for sales appointments
- Event marketing - inviting members to YOUR event.
3. Ways to hack the member list
You WANT that chamber membership list. Especially the list of email accounts for the chamber members. 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:
- Chamber Website - most won't show the email address of their members, but some of them do. You should be able to take those listings and put them into a spreadsheet with a little bit of work. It is tedious, but necessary if you want to market to the lists.
- Printed Membership Directory - most chambers offer a printed membership directory for free. Mainly they use that membership directory as a way to drum up more money by selling ads in the books.They offer the directories for free to people that walk into the chamber office that are new to the area. You should be able to walk into your local chamber office and pick up one of the books right in their lobby. That book's directory can have lot of value.
- Event Registrations - Event registration websites like eventbrite.com will many times show a list of who is signed up for events. You can use those sites as another way to compile a list of members.
- Purchase mailing labels from the chamber - Usually you will have to be a member of the chamber to purchase mailing labels, but if you are already a member and you don't plan to renew your membership, you may be able to purchase mailing labels from the chamber for a very small fee before you quit the chamber. The chamber assumes you will use those to send out a one-time blast of direct mail, but you can photocopy the mailing labels and print them on sheets to use again and again. You can also use character recognition software to get the data from the labels and put it into a spreadsheet.
- Manually build your list - Using the printed directory of members or the list of members from the chamber website, you can then use LinkedIN, Google, Facebook, and Twitter to get the email addresses of each business. There are other websites like Spoke.com where you can get the information on partners in a company. Consider paying LinkedIn so that you can message prospects on your own.
- Scrape the Website - there are tools which are easy to find, that are free, that you can use to pull email addresses out of websites. This won't always work, but it is possible. There are programs like SiteSucker, Black Widow, and offline browsing tools that can extract the data in minutes. This won't work on most sites, but it is an option.
- Pay LinkedIn - That is right - LinkedIn. With some of the money that you pay to the chamber, you could get a paid version of LinkedIn to get information on businesses AND their employees in your area. This has a lot of value.
4. Debunking the chamber website SEO myth
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, 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.
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.
- Attend Mixers for Free - If this is your first time attending one of their mixers, you should call them and let them know that you are evaluating their membership, and you can get in for free.
- Be Selective About Mixer Location Selection - You really don't need to attend ALL of the mixers in your area that the chamber hosts because many are a waste of time. Pay close attention to WHERE the mixers will be. Some locations are downright awful, but the chamber has to spread the love to their members, so they have them all over the place. I have been to some nice ones, and some real stinkers. The location is a big part of it. If you are going to pay a one-time fee to attend a mixer, choose one of the mixers that will be at a popular location. Brewpubs, country clubs, and restaurants all draw a large crowd. I attended a mixer once at a location that did colon cleansing (true story). I could have stayed home that night.
- Mixers are Overrated - You will see the same people over and over and over again. This is one of the primary downsides of chamber membership, is that once the pond is fished, you won't get a lot of bites. If your goal is more socially oriented and you like to drink cocktails and eat finger food, then by all means join the chamber and go at it. But if you are a busy local professional like I was (before we focused on national work), these mixers have a limited appeal and they get tedious very quickly. If you are a chamber member already and you are a business owner, consider sending one of your staff in your place. It might be a good perk for them, and it will save you a lot of time.
- Host Your Own Mixer - If you already have a chamber membership and you are looking to get the most out of it, you might consider hosting one of these mixers to get people into your business. But it will cost you $500-$1000 to pay for everything, and that money could be spent in other ways. It also takes as much as 12 months notice to get on the schedule to host a mixer. So don't fret if this is not an option. You can spend your money in other ways. Since there is a backlog and you might have to wait a year, why not have an "open house" at your business, and invite customers and business partners. Be clear about the food and drink that will be there, and that you will have giveaways. That will get people in the door. If you spent a couple of hundred bucks on giveaways, you could draw a crowd. The chamber wouldn't need to be a part of any of it really. Use Facebook to market it.
- Host an INDEPENDENT Mixer! - Once you develop your own marketing list, have an "open house" at your business with food and beverages. Advertise a giveaway and use an email newsletter system to continually market your event for a month. Schedule it so that it does not confict with other local events. Monitor the local chamber calendars and find an opening. Make it happen!
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 for the exhibitors. And honestly, the chamber doesn't really care about that. I've helped to organize, plan, run, staff, and manage these events for 15 years. I ran my own event 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.
- Don't purchase a booth or tabletop - Save your money and attend instead for free. You will get the same benefits. If you are a B2B business (you sell to other businesses), then you really want to network with the exhibitors anyway.
- Bring a show of force - Instead of purchasing a booth, plan to attend the event with your staff. Swarm the show for one hour or more with 4+ staff members from your company. Showing up with 10 or more people will get you noticed.
- Show your brand - Have your employees all wear company shirts or name badges. Make sure that they hand out business cards and mingle. If you have company pens or giveaways, bring some in a small shoulder bag and hand them out.
- Market to the exhibitors - As a show promoter, this drove me nuts. But since I am not doing shows, this is a hot tip for you. Businesses that have booths are stuck there. You can walk up, ask them questions, hand them your card, and have a conversation. This can lead to more business for you and it is free. I called people that did this "Ninjas" because they would swoop into the show, carpet bomb the booths with business cards, and then leave. Looking back on it they were smart. You have to be pretty savvy so that you don't get booted by the promoter, but it is easy.
- Use your vehicles - Get there early, then park your wrapped vehicle near the entrance. Put business cards in your wiper blade.
- Get the exhibitor list - Usually there is a handout with the exhibitor list. If the exhibitors are spending money with a booth, perhaps they can spend money with you. This helps you find the better businesses in your area to market to.
- Wear a name badge, even as an attendee - You want people to know your name and your business name.
- Water - As simple as it sounds, bring your own water bottle. They charged $4 for a water bottle at a show that I hosted, and it made me look bad because people complained. Just don't even buy their food.
- Group Buys - So lets say you want to purchase a booth at the show, because you haven't learned all these lessons yet or you just don't believe me that they don't make money. That is fine. Here is a way to hack booth purchases. I had this happen to me as a promoter, and it really bugged me. Consider SHARING a booth with another company, and splitting the cost. Check the rules with the chamber to see if this is prevented. It usually isn't. That will cut the booth cost in half.
- Partner with an exhibitor for giveaways - yet another thing that drove me nuts as a promoter. I had people purchase booths, then they were doing giveaways at their booth for other companies (their customers). Very underhanded, but you could do this too. Scope out who is purchasing booths and see if they will allow you to do a giveaway from their booth. Give them a fish bowl for business cards, and a small gift. Boom - you have attendee data and you didn't even buy a booth. Offer to scan the cards and share the data with the booth owner.
- Host a party near the event - Typically the hotel has a bar or there is one near the event. Work directly with the hotel to rent that space and have your own after party. Staff it and require a hand stamp to get in. Give a business card, get a hand stamp.
- Be a speaker - it might be a longshot, since most chambers will only have their own members be speakers at their events, and that is one of the problems with chambers overall - the pool of people to market to and learn from is very limited. But, if you are lucky enough to come in as a speaker without being a member, awesome. And if you are a member, you should make sure that you get your time as a speaker at those 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.
- Client issues become MUCH bigger, even if they are not your fault - If anything goes wrong, they will tell THEIR ENTIRE MEMBERSHIP. This can make a small problem much, much worse for you if you are their vendor. This has happened to me. It would be better to work with the chamber from the outside, or to replace them altogether as a marketing resource than have them actually do harm to your business, which can very well happen.
- You are very replaceable - if you are a vendor to the chamber, chances are that there are other chamber members in your industry that resent the fact that their membership dues are being spent with you. Those competitors will go out of their way to compete with you, and go so far as to even offer free services to the chamber. Since chambers are strapped for cash, they will (and should) entertain all offers. Just don't take that personally, and don't over-invest in the relationship.
- Charge them retail - you should charge the chamber the same (if not more) than other clients. This is because the relationship will always be demanding. Avoid discounting anything with them, because this only lessens the perceived value of your services. You shouldn't be selling on price anyhow.
- Chamber relationships expire - One thing you have to keep in mind is that the board of directors for the chamber is re-elected each year or so. So each year, you are an election year away from losing the chamber as a client. Sometimes they like to spread work around to other members, and sometimes the new board members may have a relationship with one of your competitors. That is to be expected. The lesson here again is to not bank on this being a long-term relationship. The turnover with chamber of commerce staff is very, very high as well, which can also make the relationship stressful.
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:
- Follow their Twitter account
- Like their Facebook page - many chambers now use Facebook events.
- Signup for their email newsletters - you will typically get the same info as members.
10. Join other local marketing organizations instead
There has been a bunch of new organizations that have recently come to life to compete with chambers of commerce. This is a good thing! This means that you will have choices and new avenues to market to.
- Meetup.com is Your Friend! - Meetup.com is the number one new way to find groups to network and learn from. Spend time leveraging it.
- New types of chambers forming - I found that there are groups calling themselves "alternative chambers" starting up specifically to compete with local chambers.
- Consider joining a breakfast/lunch group - there is a national networking group called Business Networking International, or "BNI". I am not really a fan of how BNI runs their organization, because they run it like a typical multi-level marketing association. For BNI, it is all about getting new members and increasing the dues that they collect. They don't care if their members are MLM, home-based, whatever. For me that wasn't going to work because I focus on B2B. Ask around your area and see what networking groups other companies recommend. My bet is that you will find some really neat marketing opportunities there that would work better for you than the chamber.
- Join no local group at all - at the end of the day, you need to make sure that all of your local organization memberships are positive and profitable for your business. If you get a kick out of being an "honorary mayor" of a chamber, then you may want to step back and look at how you are spending your time marketing your business. If most of your business is in the room, maybe you want to be there participating and doing those things. But if your target client is not in that room, rethink everything.
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 smart about how you utilize them. And with the resources you now have online, most of the value is available in other ways. Please share your comments.