small business tips

My Personal Chamber of Commerce Exists Online

By Communications, Public Relations

Guest post by Ken Mueller of Inkling Media in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Ken is awfully chipper in the morning. Sometimes he works from his front porch. I owe him lots of pie.

Let me tell you a little story. Back in February I received what sounded like a rather urgent voicemail message, followed up immediately with an email. Someone affiliated with our main area Chamber of Commerce was trying to contact me about an upcoming workshop at which they wanted me to present. It seems a key person within a particular Chamber business group follows me on various social channels and likes what I have to say, so he recommended me to speak about Social Media to that group.

Now, I speak to a lot of local groups, including some of the smaller area Chambers. But I was surprised by the invite from our larger Chamber because, well, I’m not a member. And I’m not a member for two reasons: One, I really can’t afford it, and two, I’m just not a big fan of how they operate in terms of networking events and what not. It’s just not my thing. Plus they’ve always seemed like a rather “closed” sorta group, and I’m not a fan of that. However, most of my clients happen to be members, so I do have a connection.

But, here they were inviting me, so I thought that this might be the start of something new and exciting. I spoke to the woman who called me, and then began a flurry of emails over the course of the next 5 hours. They were in a rush and needed to lock things up. I sent them topics, a bio, and went back and forth on all the details and it was a done deal. I’d be speaking to the group the following month.

Well, within an hour of confirming, I got an email from another woman who had been CC’d on all of the emails:

Thanks so much for your willingness and input to serve as an expert for our forum.   One thing I do need to address with you…you are not currently a member of The Chamber and I work hard to ensure that our presenters are members.  Would you be interested in joining?  I would be happy to discuss the opportunity with you.  Please let me know when would be a good time to talk.

Well, there it was. A pitch to join. I responded immediately, and explained that financially, this just wasn’t an option for me. I’m a relatively new business, sole breadwinner, two kids in college, no insurance, etc.  It’s just not something I can afford.

Then came the response, which began with a pitch for how affordable membership was, including the cost to join, which, in my mind, was still not affordable. And this:

We do have several social media experts who are members, and honestly I feel the obligation to support our members as they support TheChamber and have invested in us.  I do hope that you will be able to join us too.  I think we both can bring tremendous value to each other and I would love to offer you the opportunity to present at this forum.  I do hope you understand my position.

Now, I fully understand their position, but they knew I wasn’t a member up front. Why pursue me so hotly with words of flattery if they were going to pull the rug out from under me? Were they inviting me to speak as a ploy to get a new member? I really don’t know. But I responded that if being a member was a condition for speaking, then I would have to withdraw. End of story. I spent a good six hours working to provide them with the information they HAD to have for their website and promotional material, only to be left waiting at the altar. I never even heard the following day, or ever, from the woman who originally contacted me to speak. I wasn’t a member, therefore I was the weakest link: goodbye!

Needless to say, my feelings on the whole Chamber of Commerce thing haven’t gotten any more warm and fuzzy. On top of that, one of my clients recently wrote an article for the Chamber magazine, in which he mentioned me, only to have that mention stripped out, again presumably because I’m not a member.

What I don’t like is the mentality that Chamber members should only do business with Chamber members. It’s not a written ruleIt smacks of the smoke filled backrooms of the old boys’ clubs of a bygone era.

My personal Chamber of Commerce exists online. I am networking 24/7 on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and it is how I’ve built my business. For me, this form of open networking is genuine, not contrived. People aren’t walking around with one hand reaching to shake yours, and the other to hand you a business card. The relationships are real, and the ROI is fantastic.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-Chamber. I’m just a bit uncomfortable with their closed nature and how they choose to do business.

In the meantime, if you want to do business with me, you know where to find me. Let’s become friends and build a relationship, and then perhaps we might find ways of working together. Isn’t that the way it should be?