Most people still join the chamber for one simple reason: to get more customers or clients. Getting more sales isn’t done through expensive advertising anymore. That’s simply not enough these days. People want to get to know, like, and trust the people they’re buying from. They are looking for networking event ideas from a participant’s point of view.
While that can be done through social media, in-person networking is still incredibly important when it comes to building relationships.
Aside from hosting chamber networking events, what can chambers do to ensure they’re helping their members with the most effective networking for gaining customers and community contacts?
In this article, you’ll learn:
- The 3 networking event ideas every chamber needs
- The difference between socializing and networking
- How Meetup and other groups are taking virtual meetings to reality and how the chamber can compete
That’s a lot to learn about networking so let’s get started.
3 Networking Event Ideas Every Chamber Needs to Use
Some people are natural networkers. They know how to make enjoyable small talk and listen to those they meet to make them feel special. They connect with people and look for ways they can help their new connections.
While some come by that naturally, it is possible to learn those skills as well. Beth Bridges, business networking speaker and the Networking Motivator, understands the challenges chambers face in providing valuable networking events for their members. As the (former) Membership and Marketing Director of the Clovis Chamber of Commerce, she attended (and hosted) thousands of networking events and learned a lot in a decade of networking with the chamber. She shared the insights she learned along the way with us recently.
In over 2,500 networking events she discovered several things. She put those discoveries into a list of three considerations that chamber events should take into account. Every chamber networking event should have these:
#1 Defined Purpose
Every networking event needs a specific purpose or goal. Not all networking is the same. For instance, is your chamber networking event designed to help people make new connections? Or is it more about deepening current relationships? Maybe it’s geared toward problem-solving or brainstorming for the participants.
All of these things might take place in your networking event, but knowing the primary purpose will help attendees know what to expect and it will focus your marketing and recruiting efforts.
#2 Specific Audience
Networking events shouldn’t be cattle calls. You need a clear audience for the event. Who should be attending? Anyone in the community? Anyone who works in a business? Business owners only? Large business owners only?
Chambers often try to make events open to everyone, resulting in no one being pleased. Even when some chambers specify an audience, it’s not niche enough. For example, “business owner only” groups. There’s a huge difference between the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, a sole proprietor consultant, and a person in a direct sales organization. Yet all three are “business owners.” Your CEOs are at a completely different level of need for their networking than an independent insurance salesperson.
Cater to those differences and be specific for each event. The more like-minded and similarly positioned people you can attract, the more valuable the networking will be for them. You want your chamber networking events to meet the needs of networkers, not the chamber.
#3 Defined leader(s)
It’s easy to know who’s in charge of a leads club, or who’s running the speed networking event, but where are the leaders when there’s a mixer or a luncheon? You may feel like it’s open, relaxed networking, but your participants (especially first-time attendees) want to know there’s someone they can be guided by or someone who knows what’s going on!
Sometimes it’s necessary to act as a connector in order to ensure no one is left out on the fringes or even stuck talking to someone the entire night. Going up to your newbies and asking them who they’d like to meet and then introducing them can make your networking event extremely valuable for those individuals.
If you are too busy to tend to these types of one-on-one introductions, delegate the responsibility. This task may need to be more than one person. In addition to chamber staff, your Ambassadors should be trained to act like and be treated as leaders for events such as these as well as ribbon cuttings, after hours, luncheons, etc.
These three suggestions from Beth Bridges can help you host much more valuable networking events. If your members get value from them they’ll continue to attend and tell others about them. On the other hand, if they keep seeing the same old faces of people who aren’t in their target market, you can assume they will tire quickly.
In addition to helping chambers execs host more valuable networking events, Beth wrote the book on the subject. If you’d like to know more about how you can make your networking events more effective and assist your members in cultivating their own essential networking skills, check out Networking on Purpose: A Five-part Success Plan to Build a Powerful and Profitable Business Network.
Now that you know how to make your networking events more worthwhile, let’s take a moment to explore a topic that most people don’t realize. When you say “networking” a lot of people think of handshakes and inauthenticity in trying to “land” clients.
That type of “used car salesman” approach doesn’t work anymore. Networking and socializing aren’t that removed from one another these days. They have a lot in common and only one difference.
The Difference Between Socializing and Networking
In today’s world, there are many similarities between networking and socializing. Both should:
- require you to be a good listener and networking “storyteller”
- provide a mutually beneficial element, i.e. a feeling that you both got something out of the exchange
- be enjoyable
The difference lies in one small thing:
With business networking, you’re not looking for meandering conversation or connecting with everyone at an event like you’re in a race to do so. As with marketing, you should have a targeted goal toward:
- whom you meet
- what you can offer them
- what you’re looking for
Always look for ways to help the other person before you expect anything from them.
Good networking events are targeted and helpful to everyone involved.
Simple concept, right?
But networking is changing with a lot of new networking groups….
The New Kids in Town: Meetup and Networking Groups
But is networking something chambers have cornered the market on? Hardly. These days there are a lot of upstarts both in-person and online. There are also hybrid networking groups that maintain both online and in-person components.
Groups like MeetUp offer opportunities to connect with people online and then at weekly or monthly meetings. They are organized by cities, hosted on the Meetup site and usually very specific in the type of interests in each group. Sometimes they take the form of coffeehouse meetings and other times there are meetups based around an activity like golf.
The benefit of these organizations is that they are very specific in the type of audience they attract and they are free or there’s a very low fee to participate. At first glance, that’s hard to compete with because your members must pay for dues.
However, the chamber offers a lot more when it comes to networking than you might realize at first glance.
Competing with Meetup and Other Networking Groups
There are plenty of cheaper options in professional networking outside of the chamber. Discounted price is not your unique value proposition, nor should it be. Instead, look for other ways you bring value that those Meetup groups cannot. These might include:
- More than networking. The chamber offers networking plus training, cash mobs, business-focused socials, etc. Meetups are just chances to meet.
- Business experience. Not only does chamber networking mean the potential of more clients or customers, there’s also a wealth of business experience and acumen with the members and staff. Networking is not always about sales. Sometimes it’s about education as well.
- No cost, no skin in the game. Meetups are very casual. There is no or little cost involved in attending. That means people have no “skin in the game.” They can come and go or fail to set up the next one. The chamber is a reputable organization with the history of being the voice of business for the community.
- Has a strong organization behind it. Anyone can start a Meetup. There’s no credential check. Plus, the Meetup could be entirely self-serving for the organizer. When people join a chamber networking event they know the organization that stands behind it.
- Access to quality business people. Meetups are comprised of anyone who has an interest in the group. A chamber networking event, especially one that follows Beth’s suggestions of defining a specific audience, gives you access to people who are who they say they are. For instance, a CEO Meetup might just be people who want to be CEOs someday. If the chamber sets the CEO networking event up correctly, only CEOs of a certain-size company would be invited. There’s an exclusivity of some chamber events that makes them a better use of time for most people.
Networking is an important offering for most chambers. But it’s only as effective as its event design. To make it worthwhile for most of your members, there are three components you want to incorporate. If you do so, there’s less of a chance that people will begin to value other community networking events over yours.