Is your local chamber of commerce outdated?

Walking into the San Jose, California Chamber of Commerce, one wonders what kind of local businesses are members. After all, San Jose is Central Silicon Valley and home to many of the world’s best-known companies.

When one takes a look at the list of members, what is striking is the absence of the heavy hitters. What is also striking is that of the tens of thousands of businesses in San Jose, only a very small percentage bothers to join the San Jose Chamber of Commerce.

In the old days, local K of C’s were places to advertise and promote your local business. Somehow, being a member and paying your $150 annual fee would put you among the local elite and increase your company’s credibility.

But as in the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, most local businesses are not members as well as “bigger and more important” local businesses.

But it’s not just San Jose. Go to any local C of C and chances are you’ll find the same thing. Why?

A general analysis shows that the concept of “local” has changed. Technology, and specifically search technology, has opened up the world to the local consumer with more than just local options.

In the old days, you did business with those you knew or knew locally; now the local consumer can do business with any company they find by searching the Internet.

“Buy Local” programs have simply become obsolete, as the concept of local has lost its meaning.

The inference once was that local consumers were looking for businesses and a good way to find reliable businesses was through the local Chamber of Commerce member list. This idea actually died in the 1970s and 1980s and wasn’t really a benefit to members in the year 2000.

In the past, a new business would join in the hope of gaining local exposure and perhaps getting some additional business. The badly maligned mixers would help fulfill this function.

New members were told to bring their “releases” and a stack of business cards and distribute them at the mixers. So, in effect, the meeting became a big exercise in “let’s sell ourselves,” as non-House members rarely attend meetings.

Local union ads were once another way the local Chamber could promote its members; through flyers, advertisements in local newspapers and magazines, and an occasional radio or television advertisement. As media has become more expensive, crowdsourced ads have gone by the wayside.

And like many organizations, local K of Cs have been hit hard financially by the recent economic downturn. As their cash flows have dwindled, the Chambers’ ability to recruit and retain good staff has also dwindled.

Hence all the ubiquitous job postings for camera executive directors. Part of the “executive package” is that the CEO must raise money to pay for herself.

This means that the CEO’s primary role is not to promote local businesses but to raise enough money to keep the Chamber afloat.

But to be fair, it’s not just the CEO’s fault; What can a group do locally to promote itself?

The biggest complaint today is that the House does little or nothing for its members, so it has become increasingly difficult to justify the time and the $150 fee. The first question a new prospect asks is ‘what’s in it for my business?’

If the expectation is increased business, as many new members expect, then the expectation turns to disappointment over time. That’s too bad.

Communities need a strong business community to thrive, and communities with a weak business community struggle.

The simple fact is that local K of C’s are delivering less and less value to their members. Unless local Chambers are able to redefine their mission and find ways to generate greater value, Chambers will simply go down the outdated path of newspaper advertising.

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