“They Laughed At Our Chamber

by Frank J. Kenny

They Aren’t Laughing Now!”

I remember our excitement and enthusiasm.

I also remember others’ skepticism, snickering, and even laughter.

Don't get your hopes up on trying to grow the chamber!We, the chamber’s new chairman of the board and I, believed our chamber had huge potential for growth. Many of the board members (and many in the community) didn’t think so.

They believed the chamber was weak, had always been weak, and would remain so.

More than once I was told, “Don’t get your hopes up. This chamber has always been small. We just aren’t that important.”

Despite the general negativity, even laughter, we retained our optimism and commitment to expanding the chamber so it could help the membership, and community, be more successful.

A Simple (But Risky) Idea

 

One day I was telling the chairman about an exciting new thing I read about called social media. I believed there might be something there for our chamber.

He had never heard of social media. It was completely new to him. I explained what it was and how it might fit nicely into our plans to expand the reach and engagement level of the chamber.

He asked some pointed questions, wanting to be sure we weren’t wasting time or being rash in trying “the latest thing.”

He wanted to know where we would get training on it and whom we could turn to for guidance.

I had to explain to him that we would be out in front on this, on the leading edge. I would attend upcoming chamber conferences and conventions, but those were a long way off. And who knew if they would even have sessions on something this cutting edge.

I told him we would have to self-educate. Learn through trial and error. The whole thing was chancy. It might not work. There were risks involved, such as giving our members a voice through our platforms.

We would have to “learn on the job.”

Let’s Try It and See What Happens

 

By the end of the conversation, the chairman of the board said, “Let’s try it. Do it.”

I got started right away, studying everything I could get my hands on. Practically none of it was chamber-specific.

I read what I could find about using social media to create awareness, increase engagement, grow the membership, and retain those new members. We consulted with thought leaders from inside and outside the chamber industry.

Before too long, the chamber had a blog, our own social media network through a third-party tool, and a presence on most of the major sites.

We didn’t know if we were doing it right but we were doing it.

Major Pushback!

 

Boy, did the skeptics and doubters come out of the woodwork!

Some of the board members hated that we were trying this new thing. They really scoffed at us. “You are wasting your time and our resources,” they said.

One board member whispered to me at a board meeting, “What, are we a media company now?”

Another board member pulled me aside at a luncheon to warn me that people were starting to notice that I was “playing around” too much on Facebook and that I needed to get back to doing real work.

I was “looking bad,” I was told.

I found out later that one of the most influential board members sought to have me fired because we were “diluting the chamber’s brand” by having an online presences beyond our website. I had become, to the skeptics, “a problem.”

Obviously, we all could have used some guidance but I had nothing I could give them. The training simply did not exist.

Exciting Early Results…

 

In just a few short months, we started to notice exciting results.

New faces were showing up at our events. Instead of same ol’ subdued luncheons, there was a new vibrancy. We had small-business owners and managers driving an hour, crossing the service areas of five other chambers, to attend our luncheons and mixers.

Month after month, more and more new faces came into our world … and they were joining.Grow Your Chamber

At first it was just three or four a month. Then it was six or eight. Pretty soon we had so many people in our funnel that we hired our organization’s first salesperson to handle the leads and onboarding.

The board and membership became more engaged and excited. We were the hot organization in the region. Practically everyone wanted to be associated with us, to be on the board, to sponsor our events.

As we grew, you could see the pride in the eyes of the board, membership, and staff.

Many of the new and existing members became online promoters for us, sharing our story with friends and colleagues. Soon, we were averaging more 12 new members a month, an astounding number for a chamber of our size (Remember, “We are a small chamber. We aren’t that important.”).

Within 18 months, we had doubled the membership of our 45-year-old organization. It was shocking, especially as this was during the recession. Nearly all of the chambers around us, and across the country, were declining. We grew and grew.

We went from the smallest chamber in our region to being tied with the largest.

Can you imagine how it all felt?

There was extra money in the bank, the events were shattering all records, and sponsors were lining up to be associated with us. The board was thrilled with the growth and new influence we enjoyed. The members were pleased with the new visibility and other benefits of membership. Our chamber team was elated.

‘Where Did You Get the Training?’

 

Chamber-industry people began to ask us a lot of questions.

They wanted to know how we did it. They asked questions like, “Who taught you all this stuff?” and, “Where did you learn how to use the technology to grow your chamber like this?” and, “Where did you get the training?”

 

Chamber questions and answers

We had to be honest. We admitted, “We had to learn the hard way. We made a lot of mistakes. We reinvented the wheel several times because there wasn’t a source of training that was specific to chambers. Sure, we attended the industry conferences, but they only came around every six months or so. We were moving too fast for that.

We needed expert advice and guidance on social media, board development, time management, etc. It was nowhere to be found short of the next conference or program (way down the road).”

Things Sure Are Different Now

Today, a significant amount of chamber-industry training and networking is delivered straight to your computer or mobile device. You can enjoy the teachings and participate in the discussions at your convenience. I really wish this resource had been available to me and my chamber team back in the day.

A couple of words of wisdom for those new to the chamber industry and to the veterans…

First, when those big, but scary, ideas come along, go for it. You have to be constantly innovating today. Don’t bet the farm but always be experimenting. Expect some level of push back. Listen to feedback but don’t let fear stop you.

Second, don’t wait for that next conference to discover what’s new and innovative. Go online. Do some searching and you will discover whole communities of chamber professionals sharing ideas and discussing results. You will also find a wealth of current training webinars, videos, and lessons online.

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