How to Increase the Quality of Your Networking Events
By Brandon Burton, in partnership with Chamber Chat Podcast
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Typical Chamber Networking
Chambers of Commerce have promoted networking opportunities as a key selling proposition to prospective members for decades. Many businesses are sold on the idea of networking events creating leads which will sustain their business.
What typically happens, and you can ask your members, is everyone comes for the happy hour drinks, and they bring their business cards, and they are super uncomfortable. They might stay for a little while with the hopes that the evening will take a turn for the better but ultimately end up leaving early. Oftentimes, they feel as if they were a target for other networkers to try to sell them the whole time. I know this is the case because I hear it from Chamber members everywhere I go. These members are so uncomfortable and disappointed with their lack of real connections made from these networking events that they stop attending all together. Once this happens, then one of the big outward facing benefits that your Chamber provides is no longer of value to these types of members.
As I meet with member businesses as I sell advertising for Chamber publications, I often joke that I feel like a bartender…everyone is very open to share their experiences with me (good or bad) about their Chamber. These discussions are very insightful and they have no idea that I host an industry wide podcast or that I write this blog, but their honesty is very revealing.
Your Impact is Much Greater than Networking
Before I go any deeper into increasing the quality of your networking events, I want to make mention that I am a big believer in the positive work that Chambers do to strengthen and develop their communities. I believe that networking is often done because this offering is the easiest to explain to a business owner the value that the Chamber can provide for their business. It is a starting point!
If you can create a high quality first experience for your members, then it will be much easier for them to understand your greater mission. You will be much more successful at having your members catch your Chamber’s vision and join in with your cause.
Has your Chamber participated in leadership trips? Think of the connectivity that is created with group travel. You want to try to stimulate these connections among your members too.
So, how do you create a great first experience with networking for your members?
It Starts with an Invitation
I recently read a book by Jon Levy called “You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Creating Influence”. In the book, Jon explains that for years he has hosted very exclusive dinner events. He invites people from all walks of life, who have never met each other to his home. His guests only use their first names as they converse with each other. They also prepare the meal, eat, and wash the dishes together. At the end of the evening as these groups of individuals have created and shared a meal with each other, and shared laughs and stories, they then go around the room and share their last name and who they are.
Jon has had Olympic athletes, scientists, authors, garbage collectors, doctors, celebrities, coaches, influencers, and some of the biggest names in society as guests of his dinner parties. Once the true identities are shared, shock fills the room as the other guests learn who they have been sharing their evening and experiences with.
Jon has created an alumni group of all of his past dinner guests and he still brings them together and has built a rather large following with one invitation and one dinner party at a time.
Marjorie Hinkley shared a great thought “There isn’t a person you wouldn’t love if you could read their whole story.” I think this quote resonates well with the idea of truly getting to know a person before casting judgments or trying to sell them your products or services.
Imagine Your Networking Event
I believe that Chamber networking events could be done much better with more intentionality. I will share a thought of how this might look…
- You could start by identifying a segment of your membership to focus on for a specific event. This could be those who are connected to the real estate industry, or hospitality, or tourism, or retail
- You look through your membership list and find some options for activities that this segment of members could participate in together. For example, painting at a board and brush member business or being taught by a chef at a local restaurant how to cook the perfect steak. You can and should get very creative with the event ideas
- Set some rules for the event to make it more into a game. It may seem counterintuitive, but one rule might be that you are not allowed to talk about your business for the first 30 minutes or hour. This will create some tension but it will also allow for the attendees to fully engage without the fear of becoming a target
- Create and send out physical invitations that create a little bit of mystery which will insight curiosity
- Assuming that the event goes well, you could solicit feedback and suggestions from your guests for future events for guests from other segments of your membership
- You could take this to another level by capturing some of these positive outcomes and testimonials that come as a result of your event to show how creative your Chamber is. This will show how much you really do care about being a convener of leaders and influencers in your community.
Consider Diversity in your Segmentations
As you look forward to future events, I would encourage you to think out of the box when it comes to the segments of your membership. With diversity, equity, and inclusion being top of mind for so many, it would do your Chamber well to purposely think about who is not being represented. Most Chambers do well with segmenting and focusing on women owned businesses and young entrepreneurs. You could host an event for veteran owned businesses or black owned businesses. The key is to get the right people into the right room, while creating an experience that builds relationships beyond the superficial business card exchange.
Nobody likes to be sold to, but everyone appreciates being noticed.
Stronger Relationships Create Greater Purpose
I have a theory that has me believe that if you can create a high-quality early impression for new Chamber members, they will be more willing to hear what else you have to offer to support their business. This in turn will lead to higher membership retention and overall growth and these business owners tell others how great your Chamber is and why they need to join.
Just today, I had a Chamber member who is also an ambassador tell me that she invited one of her business neighbors to the Chamber’s annual banquet. The neighbor told her that they were not Chamber members so she replied by saying “Well, then you need to join. It is the right thing to do.” This Chamber ambassador then confided in me that she was so disappointed that she didn’t have any better reason to give this other business to join the Chamber other than it is the right thing to do.
Flex Your Influencer Muscle
Many of your members may not be completely convinced about why they are a member of your organization or how long they will continue to be a member. Once you can give them a solid, compelling, great experience, they will never have to question what they get from your Chamber ever again. They will also become an advocate for your organization if you create a believer out of these members early on.
We all understand the great power that comes with a group of like minded individuals who get behind a cause. Before a person can fully support a cause and join a group, they need to have a strong enough why. Chamber networking events are the visible, outward facing membership offering that most people can relate with. Now we just need to use a powerful enough hook to help them catch the Chamber fever.
What creative networking events have you tried? I would love to hear what you are doing and what works. You can email me at email@example.com to tell me your stories.