We’re showcasing 9 creative chamber programs and initiatives that go beyond traditional networking events. Here’s how you too can foster meaningful connections, facilitate member collaboration, and drive long-term member engagement.
Chambers have traditionally been seen as a networking group. Businesspeople expect to go to a chamber event with plenty of business cards in hand, shake a few hands, make some small talk, and follow up with a canned email a few days later telling everyone how much they enjoyed meeting them. Without being 100% clear who they’re sending the email to … until they receive a response.
For the unprepared, networking events can be a waste of time. However, for those who take the time to prep, there are a lot of opportunities.
Sadly, most people don’t follow that advice and networking events can feel forced and unappealing. Not to mention how difficult it is to free up time to attend them.
If you’ve noticed that your networking events are lacking the energy they once had, or if you simply want more member engagement, it might be time to rebrand your reputation as a networking organization and look for other ways to reach your audience.
Why Networking Events Can Be a Hard Sell These Days
First, if your networking events are doing just fine–attracting a crowd and building meaningful relationships for your members–skip this section. But if you’re noticing a drop off in your networking events, here’s why that might be:
- Work from home.
Employees have fought for this perk for a long time. Then along comes a global pandemic and many of us got the green light from our employers to work from home full time or in a hybrid home/office scenario.
Even after the pandemic has receded, many employers understand this is an employment perk people love. So those employers that can keep it in place, have. This is great for work/life balance and it cuts down on commutes.
But as we know from Newton’s First Law of Motion (a body at rest will stay at rest) and Metcalf’s First Law of Work From Home (a body in work from home will stay at home–in sweats), getting people to leave their home and do so in business casual regalia and war paint requires an extra special event.
- More activities.
There are a lot more post-5 PM demands on people these days. According to the US Census Bureau, between clubs, lessons, and sports, a great number of children are involved in more activities than they were 25 years ago. And who’s driving around our over-extended Gen Alpha (born 2010 to now)? Ding, ding. Your members — making it more difficult than ever to schedule events for them. And when they’re not playing free chauffeur, they likely just want a night off.
- Same old, same old.
There’s been a large push these days to try something new. From podcasts to blog posts, from thought leaders to celebrities, everyone is talking about new experiences. That works well as a tagline to get new members in the door to your networking events if they’ve never been there.
However, the term “mixer” doesn’t exactly inspire or bring to mind a new experience. Your members want fresh. Is that what they’re getting with your networking events?
- Introverts activated.
When Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking hit the newsstands about a decade ago, people began talking about introverts. And talking. Introverts claimed their power and embraced their dislike for small talk.
It became a rallying cry for many and they no longer felt the need or pressure to conform. Because of this, there was a quiet movement that took hold to help people have deeper, more meaningful conversations. There were webinars on it, board games published around deeper conversation topics, and a host of other things. One of the victims of the revolt against small talk was networking.
We’re not here to bash networking events. Business is built on relationships, visibility and trust. But while networking is incredibly important, it’s not an easy sell these days and it takes a lot more to get people excited about this type of exchange.
If you want increased member engagement, you want to go beyond networking.
Innovative Chamber Programs to Increase Member Engagement
So, if networking events are more difficult to promote or feel less important, what’s taking their place? Businesspeople say they still want relationship and partnership-building opportunities (which, hello, is also accomplished through “networking”) so your networking events need a fresh take. We also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Chambers are still great bridge builders and are in a position to help members make valuable connections. But you need to do it in a way that brings more excitement and freshness to the calendar.
Here are a 9 event ideas that build member engagement and are also fresh and trendy:
Masterminds or Referral Groups
One of the off-putting things about networking is the perception that most of the people an attendee meets won’t help their business. There’s a lot of small talk and sometimes too many people who are just looking to receive. Networking events aren’t about the harvest. They’re about planting seeds. Many people don’t want to invest the time which in turn wastes the time of those who are willing to build relationships. To that end, a mastermind or referral group can give those who are willing to be patient, build relationships and give as well as take, a better return on their time investment.
For those members who attend networking events with the hope of meeting someone who can help them guide their business or career, a formalized mentorship program can help them get what they want. There are many ways to structure these including creating a Junior Chamber/Chamber mentorship program of students and professionals, industry-specific mentorships, or retiree/workforce mentorships. You can have a women-led or veteran-led mentorship program too. Take a look at these examples of successful mentoring programs.
By providing a dedicated space and resources for startups to grow and thrive, a business incubator can foster entrepreneurship, create jobs, and stimulate innovation in the community in addition to increasing member engagement. It can also enhance your chamber’s reputation as a proactive and influential organization that actively promotes the success of local businesses.
Additionally, a business incubator can serve as a platform for you to engage with leaders in government and education as well as investors, and experienced entrepreneurs, fostering collaboration and partnerships for mutual benefit. The incubator can also be the hub for contests and other engaging activities.
Have you noticed the number of webinars, seminars, virtual conferences, online schools, and summits being promoted on social media? There’s a reason. They’re wildly popular, easy to attend (because they’re virtual), and bring a host of famous names and knowledge to attendees wherever they are. Some are free, some paid. You could create a similar event in your area. It builds a buzz and creates a ton of content.
Collaborative projects move the needle because they’re innovative and solve problems, bringing together leaders from the public and private sectors to improve the quality of life for your members and your community. What these projects look like varies depending on the needs of your community but here are a few ideas:
- Entrepreneurship Training Programs:
Partner with educators, industry experts, and experienced entrepreneurs to develop and deliver entrepreneurship training programs. These programs can provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to start and grow successful businesses, thereby promoting innovation and fostering a culture of entrepreneurship in your community.
- Innovation Labs.
Establish an innovation lab in collaboration with local businesses, research institutions, and government agencies to serve as a hub for research, development, and testing of innovative ideas, products, and technologies. By bringing together diverse stakeholders, your innovation lab could foster cross-sector collaboration and drive economic growth. It may also resemble a co-working space for start-ups, such as the Joplin Area Chamber NIC.
- Export Assistance Programs:
Collaborate with trade organizations, government agencies, and businesses to develop export assistance programs. This program could provide local businesses with resources, training, and support to expand their operations internationally, access new markets, and boost economic growth through international trade.
- Industry Clusters:
Facilitate the creation of industry clusters or networks of businesses, organizations, and institutions within a specific industry or sector. By promoting collaboration, knowledge sharing, and resource pooling among cluster members, you can foster innovation, competitiveness, and growth within the industry, leading to economic benefits for your community.
- Live/Play/Grow Initiative:
Market your community as the next “best place to _____” such as retire, invest, play, visit, live, etc. Work with government, tourism and hospitality professionals, public relations specialists, and more to help rebrand your area to create and foster economic growth for all.
If you’re ready to move beyond networking events and embrace programs or events that will boost community and member engagement consider these 9 events and initiatives. Through things like mastermind groups, business incubators, education opportunities, collaborations and more you can inspire and invigorate your members and community.