The value of communities to the well-being and growth of businesses and organizations which serve them became crystal clear to me again today. (Not that it wasn’t already clear, but it’s important to revisit this sort of thing with real life examples as often as possible.)
I was chatting with a group of very experienced entrepreneurs about business organizations and networks when it struck me: In the B2B world, doing your part to ensure that your business community is healthy, informed, well connected and engaged is probably the most important thing you can do to foster the type of environment most suitable to create net new clients.
This has traditionally been the role of Chambers of Commerce, but we are starting to see that Social Media are giving rise to new types of business communities (Or as Seth might call them, business tribes.) This isn’t to say that the Chamber of Commerce model is dead or dying – far from it – but it is important to note that the dynamics of how and why business communities come to be are changing.
Ten years ago, Chambers of Commerce, professional organizations and country clubs were pretty much the only real viable option for businesses when it came to joining and leveraging premier business networks. Today, through the advent of Social Media, individuals and businesses have the ability to a) create their own business networks and communities, b) do so on their own terms, and c) do it all for free.
How can Chambers of Commerce remain healthy and relevant in this new age? Simple: Reconnect with the communities they serve. Shed the “business club” image, let the networking become landscape rather than focus, and engage their communities in a way that will truly elevate them. This is clearly a ‘leadership through service’ type of mission as opposed to a “build it and they will come” vision. Some organizations are already there, but many still haven’t made that transition.
Remember that thing about leadership in action being an irresistible draw? This is what organizations need to tap into. Don’t worry so much about membership growth, “relevance” and networking. Just get out there and make something happen. Act as the catalyst and the connector. Leverage networks to recruit volunteers, not members, and help them connect through projects they can really sink their teeth into. The self-serving rewards will come, but only if you don’t make them your focus.
In order for a Chamber of Commerce membership to make sense, a member business should have to commit to actually paying something forward (and I don’t mean annual membership dues). Ask yourself this: As a business owner, what can you give back to the business community? How can you help? How can you establish yourself as a unique resource? Do you have a skill? A bucket of knowledge or insight? A gift for teaching or motivating? Then put it to good use: Start something. Get a few of your fellow business owners together and start a program to bring hope and ideas to troubled public schools (those with high dropout rates). Tell kids about your success story. Let them know that owning a business isn’t something that is limited to “rich people.” Inspire them. Plant seeds. Lift them up. Mentor them if they ask you to. As a business community organizer, ask yourself how you can create these types of opportunities and actually generate results you and your partners in crime can be proud of. There’s a start.
Community leadership begins with a) being a catalyst for growth opportunities and b) acting as a connector. Some business organizations do so better than others, but the mere fact that many Chambers of Commerce no longer play that role in their communities tells me that something is missing in their focus. Perhaps some Chambers are suffering from an identity crisis. Perhaps they have served larger businesses too long, or haven’t focused enough on involving younger entrepreneurs and business owners. Perhaps they have pigeon-holed themselves and don’t know how to return to their small business roots. Sometimes, when companies and organizations have been doing the same thing in the same way with the same people for a very long time, they can lose touch with the world outside their four walls. It might not seem that way from within, but when most of the community you serve can’t tell you with clarity or certainty what your company or organization does for them, trust me: You aren’t connecting.
And if you’re only touching 10% of the businesses or potential customers in your community, you aren’t connecting either. It’s time to make a change.
First: Tactics and tools:
Digital networking: Any organization that is in the community building business must know how to wield social media tools like a marketing ninja. Period. This isn’t up for debate. It isn’t enough to have a website and a newsletter. If you don’t have active FaceBook and Linked-In groups, you’re already falling behind. (Emphasis on “active.” Just having a group and doing nothing with it = zero impact.) If you don’t have a community space (check out Ning.com for a simple platform), you’re also missing the boat. If you also aren’t leveraging Twitter – or haven’t yet invited some of your leaders to contribute to a community/Chamber blog or online publication – I have to ask… how exactly are you engaging with your business community?
Physical networking (yeah, the old fashioned kind): Organize, sponsor, host and manage events, but gear them to benefit non-members as much as members. Radical idea? Not really: Connecting your members is a great idea, but sooner or later, your network becomes an echo chamber. What you need to do is reach out, not pull in. As with most organization with hefty membership fees, there seems to be a wall that goes up between members and non-members once money is exchanged. Whether real or perceived, that wall doesn’t do anyone any good. Tear it down. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t continue to offer members-only events and perks, but in order to grow, you also have to increase your focus on true community involvement. That’s where the magic is. That’s where leadership happens. That’s where relevance is built.
Offer mentor programs and pair members with non-members. Partner with the best of the best in particular fields – accounting, law, HR, advertising, IT, professional services – and create mini conferences to help members and non-members alike come together and learn things they otherwise might not. Create a small business assistance program through which distressed small business owners can receive emergency advice from a group of experienced business leaders. Create groups for specific verticals and industries – retail, foodservice, law firms, freelancers, manufacturers, etc. The possibilities are endless. (And if you are already doing all of these things, go back to the digital networking section of this post and ask yourself how you can leverage social media to promote your events and activities. You probably aren’t doing enough there.
If you aren’t doing these things yet, or aren’t doing them well, you are being outpaced by much smaller, younger, savvier organizations, and your brain trust is being recruited away. Once the brain trust starts to go, so do relevance, value, and of course, membership.
These lessons are relevant to individual businesses as well: Stop thinking about your market as a giant phone book, and stop thinking of sales as “sales.” Become a connector. Become a facilitator. Reach out to people and companies in need, and offer to help. Make things happen. (You know… like bridge the gap between idea and execution?) Surround yourself with the best people and businesses and help them get even better at what they do. Use every means at your disposal to strengthen your neighborhood, your community, your industry, and help them all move forward. There’s your value.
It may seem silly to some, but the idea of “paying it forward” has its place in the business world, especially during tough economic times. Not just as an exercise on in good karma or for the sake of doing good deeds, but in strengthening the foundations of the community without whose support your business will fail. Just by connecting the right people, you can plant the seeds of a relationship that will keep one, two, perhaps three businesses afloat for another year – which may be all they need to get cooking again. Most of my clients come from referrals. Many of my friends’ clients are referrals as well. Without our network, without the constant drive to connect good people to other good people, without a taste for helping each other out, none of us would be as successful as we have been. Fact: Business is about relationships. Just like Social Media. Just like Word of Mouth marketing. Just like building strong brands. All of these things are interconnected.
Once you understand the vital connection that exists between you and your community, this kind of stuff becomes crystal clear.
If you haven’t done so already, click on Seth’s presentation (above) and take a few minutes to take it all in. Understanding Tribes, absorbing it, even, may be the most important thing you’ll do all year. It may even be the one thing that will save your business in this challenging economy.
If you haven’t joined your local Chamber of Commerce lately, perhaps you should. Only this time around, instead of asking what your Chamber can do for you, ask… well, you know.
Leadership starts with you. Bouncing back from the troubled economy starts with you. (If we’ve learned anything these last few weeks, it’s that it sure as hell won’t start with either Wall Street, Detroit or Washington.) It’s all in your hands now. Our hands. And you know what? That’s the best economic news I’ve heard all year!
Have a great Tuesday, everyone.