How do you get businesses to join the chamber or business association?

Business people want to know why they ought to pay dues to a business association that doesn’t appear to help them directly. The association wants to know why businesses that don’t pay should reap any benefits.

When an association helps produce events, advertises, puts up signs, produces brochures or maps, all the businesses profit from the betterment of the town whether they are members or not. So businesses might think, why bother paying?

Should associations go so far as to kick non-paying businesses off their brochure or out of the business listings? No. No one benefits from excluding them. Pushing business owners away will not make them more likely to join. Why add more conflict or strife to your community? Most small towns have enough strife.

Instead, do the things that make being a member so incredibly attractive that no one can resist. Printed brochures and a town-wide website just don’t cut it any more. You’re going to have to do the things that businesses truly value right now.

What benefits can a business association offer to members that are worth joining up for? Here are some specific ideas that go way beyond the old traditional benefits. 

  • Bringing together businesses and locals in new ways, like TweetFolk Tours
  • Providing a group presence on social networks, one that multiplies the reach of the businesses, like online champions
  • Providing training and support that isn’t available from another source in town
  • Bringing in outside resources to address the key problems faced by businesses in your town
  • Conducting useful research that no one business could do on their own
  • Bringing back useful information from regional events and networks
  • Convening the conversations and addressing the issues that no one else is willing to address

Reader Cecil Carter said he appreciates two things from a local business association, “(1) best practices information and (2) since most of us operate alone with no staff…it’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off of instead of just a mirror.”

Reader Amber said, “This is a sore subject for me! You have to have a GOOD Chamber to get people to want to join. Our CofC does not offer a fraction of the great ideas you have listed. I have asked about what benefits it provides the members and the only thing that was presented was that they include them on the Chamber website. I asked why there were no seminars/speakers/literature, etc. on how to increase business, how to keep your customers coming back and absolutely no camaraderie, whatsoever. All I got in return was a not so nice smile and a nod. Our Historic town and businesses keep their doors closed on Saturdays! It’s maddening! Being a newer member of our community, I have learned that they aren’t too keen on any ‘new’ ideas. It’s a shame because where I came from, I saw the benefits of the efforts of that Chamber.”

Reader Jason Camis said, “I tell our members that membership is a two-pronged approach. The first is tangible, as in what can we do for their business directly. It might not happen every day or every month, but it will happen. It could be a qualified referral, some new leads, a discount on some program or service (ex. constant contact or bulk mailing), marketing support, one-on-one training, etc. The list goes on. The second prong is the overall good. Most business associations, chambers, etc. exist to create a favorable business climate in each community. This is done in many ways, often behind the scenes, from advocating to city officials to monitoring political activity to promoting the community to new residents. Both prongs are important and will at times trump the other. The key is asking businesses the question (or some variation) – ‘When thinking about your business, What keeps you up at night?’ – odds are the association works to alleviate in some way 99% of the problems that exist, we just don’t communicate it well. And that’s the key!”

I’m hoping that this conversation will help people to make their local chambers and associations better at serving their needs. This is critical because today, business people can form their own replacement groups and associations easier than ever before. A chamber or association that doesn’t meet the needs of today will find itself really struggling to keep members.

No matter what you do or how great you are, you will still have businesses who ride on the benefits of the association. Don’t push them away. Draw them in by providing more valuable services and by better communicating the value you provide.

  1. Provide more valuable services.
  2. Better communicate the value you provide.

Those of you who are in the business of being an association or belong to a great one will have a lot more ideas on this. I’d really like to hear them. If you are reading this in your email, just hit reply. 
Keep shaping the future of your town, 

PS – More opinions on the subject of the rural innovation landscape this week. 

  • Well known tech writer Robert Scoble published a good look at two small cities that have spent decades investing in tech and education:  “Here’s how small-town America is primed to beat Silicon Valley in innovation.” 
  • Deb Brown’s town of Webster City, Iowa, got featured by a national reporter with the usual theme of “poor little town that lost a factory.” Deb had a Response to the New York Times, with this memorable bit: “[The reporter] did say ‘The town has not shriveled up, which is amazing.’ I just wonder why he thinks that is so amazing. We are not quitters. One factory leaving doesn’t stop a town like Webster City.”  
  • CEO, Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, is a program for junior/senior high school students, many in rural areas. I love how well it connects education to business in the community. Thanks to Jack Schultz for the link.