Is Your Local Chamber of Commerce Obsolete?

Wandering into the San Jose, California Chamber of Commerce one wonders what sorts of local businesses are members. After all, San Jose is Silicon Valley Central and the home to many of the world’s best known companies.

As one glances at the list of members what is conspicuous is the absence of the heavy hitters. What is also conspicuous is that of the tens of thousands of businesses in San Jose only a very small percentage bothers to join the San Jose Chamber of Commerce.

In the old days local C of Cs were places to advertise and promote your local business. Somehow being a member and paying your $150 yearly fee would put you among the local elite and raise the credibility of your company.

But as in the San Jose Chamber of Commerce most local businesses are not members as well as the “bigger and more important” local businesses.

But it’s not just San Jose. Go to any local C of C and more than likely you will find the same thing. Why?

A big picture analysis shows that the concept of “local” has changed. Technology and specifically search technology has opened the world to the local consumer with more than just local options.

In the old days one did business with those that one knew or knew of locally; now the local consumer can do business with any company they find searching the Internet.

The “Buy Local” programs have simply become obsolete as the concept of local has lost its meaning.

The inference once was that local consumers were looking for businesses and a good way to find reliable businesses was through the local Chamber of Commerce member list. Actually this idea died in the 1970’s and 1980’s and was in reality not a member benefit by 2000.

In the past a new business would join hoping to gain local exposure and maybe get some extra business. The badly maligned Mixers would help serve this function.

New members were told to bring their “pitches” and stack of business cards and hand them out at the mixers. So in effect the mixer became a big “let’s sell to ourselves” exercise, as rarely do non-Chamber members attend the mixers.

Local collective ads were once another way the local Chamber could promote its members; through brochures, local newspaper and magazine ads, an occasional TV or radio spot. As mass media has gotten more expensive, the collective ads have gone by the wayside.

And like many organizations, the local C of Cs have been hit hard financially in the recent economic downturn. As their cash flows have diminished, the Chambers’ ability to hire and retain good staff had diminished as well.

Hence, all the ubiquitous job postings for Chamber Executive Directors. Part of the “executive package” is that the executive director must raise money to pay for herself.

This means that the primary function of the executive director is not promoting local business but raising enough money to keep the Chamber above water.

But in all fairness, it’s not just the executive director’s fault; what can a group do locally to promote themselves?

The biggest complaint today is that the Chamber does little or nothing for its members so it has become harder and harder to justify the time and $150 fee. The first question a new prospect asks is ‘what is in it for my business?’

If the expectation is increased business, as many new members hope, then the expectation turns to disappointment over time. That’s too bad.

Communities need a strong business community to thrive and communities with a weak business community have problems.

The simple fact is that the local C of Cs are delivering less and less value to their members. Unless the local Chambers are able to redefine their mission and find ways to bring greater value, the Chambers will simply go the obsolete route of newspaper advertising.