Every city has them– from Mayberry to New York City, but do chamber of commerces actually provide value to the majority of their members? Even as it approaches 2020, most chambers still operate as if they were in the former– offering primarily soft benefits that appeal to a limited audience. Today I’ll go through the most common benefits that most chambers offer and give an opinionated take on what type of companies are most likely to benefit from each offering.
The most visible benefit of being a chamber member comes in the form of being able to attend events held by the chamber that will be attended by other member businesses. If you’re a service provider or are in the B2B space, this presents a compelling opportunity to generate leads. Unfortunately, if your local organization doesn’t hold many events, or if attendance is low– there won’t be as many people to network with. Learning via workshops or from other members is going to be one of the better benefits of a well run chamber. It is important to view a calendar of events and possibly speak to other members prior to joining to see if there are ample opportunities to network, or 3-4 events per year with marginal attendance.
Evaluate the sponsors or “premium” members of potential chambers. These are going to be regional or national companies who donate 5-6+ figures per year to help advance their own business interests. Most chambers will have relationships with legislators at the city and possibly state or national levels. Lobbyists will typically push for regulations that are favorable for whoever is paying them– so in the case of a chamber lobbyists, it will be to help chamber members. Keep in mind, though, a small business paying $1,000 in annual dues will not receive the same attention as a charter member with significant donations each year.
As already mentioned in the networking section, small businesses may view chamber membership as an opportunity to network and potentially identify new customers. Larger members with B2B offerings may also offer educational sessions regarding the benefits of their products. The type of business will determine the value of a chamber membership. A B2C car insurance company will probably have limited-no opportunity to generate meaningful business– or most retail businesses in general. Most chambers do not have internal marketing resources to offer members aside from light graphic design work– but if there are members who offer said services, it is somewhat likely that the chamber will refer inquiries from members to other members offering said services. It is best to ask the standard policy regarding referrals. If there are 20 landscaping companies and 3 inquiries per year, don’t anticipate to generate any inbound leads this way.
Some chambers actively look for unique benefits to offer members. Some of the typical offerings include group rates for office supplies, pre-negotiated telecommunications discounts and other products/services frequently used by small businesses. Depending on how well developed a chamber’s discount program is, these savings may end up paying for membership dues through savings alone– in other cases it will be a discount that can easily be replicated just by shopping around. Many of the discounts will not be listed publicly, but you can inquire prior to joining about what types of programs they offer to use in your consideration about joining.
Around 10-15% of chambers will have someone (or a small department) dedicated to helping members perform market research. They may be able to provide top employers in the area, general household statistics, population trends, tax rates and zoning information, which is going to be a decent benefit given the cost of reports from most major research firms will be an order of magnitude higher than membership dues. Chambers should know their area, and providing insights about high traffic areas and people who live in their service footprint seems simple enough, but the majority of chambers do not currently offer any such data.
Some chambers pitch the value of being included on their website and/or newsletter to all of their members. This may sound good at first glance, but should be a very lowly weighted criteria. You may ask for how many monthly Unique Visitors their website receives, or how many people are on their mailing list, then do the math and calculate how many people in those audiences are going to be in-market for your offerings– this number is nearly always going to be minuscule. Having a link from the chamber to your website can help with Search Engine Optimization, but there are other considerations before joining a chamber solely for a backlink that may be nofollowed or noindexed.
Chamber membership provides slightly less visibility than a BBB membership. 99.9% of consumers will not explicitly seek out reviews from a chamber of commerce or BBB prior to making a purchase– only if they see a red flag will they investigate further. Chamber memberships and organizations like the Rotary Club or BBB were stronger signals as to the quality of a business, but with the shift to 21st century digital, user generated content such as reviews and feedback on platforms such as Google or even Yelp (setting aside their shakedown racket) will be much more accessible and higher utility to most consumers.
Typically, the top beneficiaries of a chamber of commerce are the people working for the chamber (in that it grows the reach and influence of the chamber, increasing the member base and revenues), then the larger organizations with budgets for their own lobbying efforts looking to supplement with more localized connections. Small businesses can benefit from a chamber membership if there is a well supported ecosystem in their local chamber (quality events with good attendance, chamber staff with experience and initiative and opportunities to learn and network), but otherwise dues are going to be better spent on some form of direct response marketing.