Why I Don’t Want to Come to Your Chamber Event – and How You Can Change That

Networking Group
ITU/Rowan Farrell

My circle of friends includes a lot of small business owners. People who own bars, print shops, jewelry businesses, motorcycle shops, yoga studios, food trucks, cideries, dinner clubs, podcasts, and organic farms. And they all have one thing in common.

They do not want to come to your chamber event.

I actually go to a lot of chamber and industry events—and I have benefitted tremendously from attending networking happy hours, gaining mentors and connections. But I’m an economic developer, and I’m used to the small talk, the dress code, and the business card exchange. My friends who are creative, entrepreneurial types are not interested in putting themselves in environments where the main activity is “networking” and the food options range from crudité and ranch to cheese and crackers, (typically without a gluten free or vegan option, excluding celery.) Faced with the choice of running marketing campaigns from their phone while they watch season 4 of Parks and Rec, or interacting with people they don’t know, they’re going to pick yoga pants and the couch over awkward conversations.

They also haven’t heard about your event. Your networking lunch may be posted on your website and Facebook page, but if this target audience is not already interacting with you on social media, then it’s not reaching small business owners outside of your members.

Why is this a problem? Why does the kombucha brewer need to know about and attend Chamber events? Because she represents your next generation of businesses, and if she is not accessing the services offered by your chamber and other aligned organizations, then your economic development ecosystem is failing.

Chambers are vital partners in economic development efforts. They are the access point for businesses in the region, and through their networks, businesses gain access to resources offered by the supportive organizations that can guide them to success, such as financing and mentorship opportunities.

Unfortunately, if a small business owner is looking at your chamber website, seeing a board and staff lacking diversity, holding events at the country club, she will not see your organization as a space where she fits. And when her business encounters a setback, without a network of support, you risk losing her business and all that comes with it—the owner, the employees, and the young people who would potentially be attracted to your community by the enticing things to eat, do, and see. Today, talent is the most important factor in retaining and attracting business, and chambers cannot stand to ignore a subset of small businesses just because they are unconventional or much younger than other members.

Another reason that your “Business After Hours” may not be attracting young people is that networking as an activity has lost its spark. With their purchasing decisions, Millennials have shown that they value authenticity, connection, and community – witness the success of outdoor brand Patagonia, whose products and branding advocate for ecological sustainability – and whose recent Pittsburgh store opening featured designs by a local print shop. With creative engagement with the community, Patagonia attracts young people with common goals and ideals to come together in their space, for events beyond shopping. Trading business cards and small talk does not provide engagement with a community or authentic connections.

Business networking events don’t really make sense to people running small, creative businesses. Talking to a bunch of random people at a business networking event is not an effective solution for growing your business when technologies like LinkedIn and Google exist, making it easy to research specific contacts, understand their expertise, and reach out for a coffee date. Finally, for young business owners, their time outside of work is limited, and they want to spend it having quality experiences.

So, what can you do?


Small BusinessEconomic development is a profession built on relationships. Stopping by the new businesses that are cropping up in your community and introducing yourself and your organization goes a long way. You might have to do a little bit of hunting – small businesses operating from their houses won’t have a storefront yet, but could be selling significant amounts of merchandise on Etsy or another online platform.

One way to get in touch with these producers is to keep up with farmers markets and maker fairs in your community. Maker fairs like Handmade Arcade feature hundreds of craft-based artists, makers, and producers; consider reaching out to the fair organizers to get an roster of local vendors whose booths you can visit.


Millennials have been programmed their whole lives. From Little League to dance lessons to student life activities in college, Millennials are really good at engaging in organized fun. Having an activity or event gives participants something to talk about and engage in together, creating an authentic connection. The description of Newaukee, a young professionals group in Milwaukee explains why programming is so essential to creating meaningful networking events for young people:

“…there had to be a way to socialize and explore the city with their peers that did not entail hauling a stack of business cards to a stuffy networking event. And they also believed in building genuine, long-lasting relationships – people need to meet on a common ground, doing something that they truly love together.”

Newaukee hosts incredible events for their members, billed on their website as Signature Experiences, such as Tournavation, a crowd-sourced idea generation platform that focuses on solving important issues that face the city of Milwaukee, and The Launch, a curated networking program featuring an exhibition of hiring companies and potential recruits on a boat.

Social Media Ready

Photo Ready FoodI am not suggesting you join Snapchat, but I am suggesting your event be worthy of posting on social media. Food choices, drink selections and choice of venue contribute to the quality of the event and the attractiveness of images to be shared. It’s not just enough to have a hashtag – consider experiences that young people can engage with and share on social media, such as a custom backdrop, or providing a station to make signs about why they love their community.

Also – make sure your events are being shared with the young people you are trying to engage. Social media is great for this but working with local online communities, such as blogs or message boards, will put your event in front of new eyes. Don’t forget community bulletin boards at coffee shops or bars – if your event flier is posted alongside music and art shows, that’s a good sign.

Don’t Go It Alone

To get maximum turnout from young folks at your events, engage them in the planning process – and in your organization. Start with asking young people to get involved in planning your events – ask for help in where to have them, and how to promote them. As they become more involved, ask them to join your committees or boards, or help them to create their own, Chamber-supported organizations.

For example, the group Connecticut Young Professionals was started in 2013 by a young person who was new to the state and has grown to more than 1,400 people. They hold events such as a non-profit pitch nights. In an interview, founder Faris Virani explains how he tailors events and messaging to his membership:

Growing up in the digital age, millennials are used to getting information very efficiently, delivered quickly and with brevity. Our speakers realize that their job is almost to plant seeds, not necessarily convey all the information during your speech.

Create a Judgement Free Environment

Today’s young entrepreneurs are more likely to wear a hoodie, echoing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, than a French cuff shirt reminiscent of Gordon Gekko. If you expect young people to wear different clothing to your event than what they wear to work every day, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re changing the venue and the programming of events, you might also consider specifying a dress code on your marketing – with friendly wording such as “Come as you are,” or Dress Code: Casual.

Take these suggestions and look at where your Chamber organization or networking program has room for growth. A good first step is to visit that brand new local brewery, coffee shop, or café and introduce yourself the old-fashioned way. Those authentic connections will take you a long way in connecting with the new generation of business owners.

A Fourth Economy Work Product with Legs

131122-Transit-ReportOne of the regular questions asked of our firm is “what Fourth Economy projects or reports have been implemented?”  While we think all of them have added value and are implemented to some degree, one project stands out.  In 2009 Fourth Economy teamed with Clear View Strategies and URS Corporation to conduct a study on Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

The client was the Southwestern Planning Commission in Pennsylvania.  The product entitled Future Investment in TOD (or FIT) was a first of its kind report that not only documented the success factors for a TOD but also provided a predictive model for planners and economic developers to determine where and how a TOD development would have the greatest economic impact and success. Continue reading “A Fourth Economy Work Product with Legs”

Who’s on the Front Lines of your Economic Development?

130828-Front-LinesI’ve always been a huge believer that customer service is one of the most valuable pieces of brand development. Companies who have superior customer service are recognized as a stronger brand and tend to have better sales numbers than those without. Associations who put customer service first tend to have a greater number of members than those who do not. The fact of the matter is that sales are directly proportional to customer service. The same can be said for economic development.

So, how are you manning the front lines of your economic development efforts? 
Continue reading “Who’s on the Front Lines of your Economic Development?”

Let the (Social Media) Madness Begin…

We’ve let you down. It’s not for a lack of desire.

As economic development professionals, we often talk about community engagement — whether that’s through public forums, surveys, client case studies, etc. However, there’s one community we always have on our minds — a community we hold near and dear to our hearts, that, at times, is neglected – our social community. You. And, again, as economic development professionals, we all know what happens when a community is neglected, and are working to change this. Beginning now. Continue reading “Let the (Social Media) Madness Begin…”

Translating Hashtag Activism into Sustainable Communities

Last week, New York Times columnist David Carr wrote about the possibilities and limits of hashtag activism. On one hand, the ability to like and tweet about important civic issues allows people to be “engaged” at a very superficial level; but on the other hand, after recent successes in drawing attention to issues such as Susan G. Komen’s policy change regarding Planned Parenthood, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the death of Trayvon Martin, there’s no denying the power of this new form of activism. Planners, local governments, and civic organizations are taking notice. New online and social media tools are emerging that allow citizens to learn about and get involved in what’s happening in their communities. This trend holds huge potential for the efforts of local planning and development organizations, which have caused serious social and economic damage in the past due to a failure to truly engage citizens. The use of online and social media tools allows for easier, more creative, and broader engagement. Of course, they are not a silver bullet – it’s still up to planners and public officials to use the feedback they gather through those tools. Continue reading “Translating Hashtag Activism into Sustainable Communities”

Numbers Behind the News: $100 Billion


Facebook has moved forward with an IPO that could be among the largest in the U.S. and at the least will dwarf Google’s 2004 IPO.  Facebook was launched only six months before Google’s August 2004 IPO.  The pessimistic outlook suggests that Facebook would hit a market value of $75 billion, which would make it the 35th largest company, but if it breaches the $100 billion barrier it could move ahead of Merck for the 25th spot.  Some analysts expected to see revenues around $4.3 billion and were disappointed in the  $3.71 billion sales figures released in the IPO.

Some other notable numbers from the IPO:

  • $1 billion profit (fails make the top 50)
  • 845 million users worldwide (would be the world’s 3rd largest if it were a nation)
  • 250 million photos are shared per day (a printed stack of these photos would more than 27 miles high)
  • $114 million spent on R&D (would be the 123rd largest research university in the U.S.)


Value Your View Shed

Admittedly, I am not a fan of billboards.  A few years back a friend from Scenic America pointed out that billboards are the only form of advertising that the target audience cannot turn off, turn the channel, turn the page or log off.  Opposition in many communities towards billboards is growing.  A documentary has been made highlighting this trend – it’s worth a look.

Trailer from This space available on Vimeo.
While the growing cases of billboard bashing may at first appear singular and unique, I think there is more to it.  I see it as representative of a larger trend of local stakeholders, residents and investors valuing their own community in a different way.  As more state and local leaders realize that the days of smokestack chasing as an economic development strategy are over, the more they are looking inward at the quality of their communities.  They are recognizing that amenities such as housing, parks, transportation options and yes, even view sheds are the primary criteria upon which their communities are being evaluated.

The rise in smaller firms and entrepreneurial start-ups as a key economic driver makes this trend even more important.  Those mega industrial opportunities that primarily sought large tracts of land or sites supported by rail and highways are becoming the exception rather than the rule.  Attention today is focused on a greater degree on infill opportunities, urban sites and mixed use development.

So, look around your own community and ask – how do we look?  Are we doing the best we can do to attract modern investment.  Or do we need to take on or support different approaches to drive modern economic development.  You may end up choosing not to advertise your community on that large billboard blocking the view of your mountain range.

5 Tips for Economic Development Websites


We spend a lot of time visiting community websites as part of our strategy and community assessment work. Here are a few helpful hints (offered in order of priority) we find incredibly useful.

  1. Contact information – Above all else, on the “contact us” or similar page, include the names of each staff person, their title, direct email and phone number. Contact information forms or “info@” emails don’t cut it. It costs time and delays the process.
  2. Maps – On the home page, clearly identify the name of your community, the state in which it is located and a map (Google maps work great).
  3. Info Links – Avoid repurposing your industry or demographic data in a marketing or promotional format. Find a valid data source (government preferred) and link directly to the relevant data set when possible.
  4. Reports – These are helpful. Comprehensive plans, strategic documents, cluster studies, workforce analyses – the more the merrier – Just make sure they are the most recent reports or indicate which report is the most recent.
  5. Social Media – It’s here to stay. Building online communities are just as important as building physical communities. By creating and promoting your community or organization online, you increase stakeholder and funder interest in what you are doing.

Live by these five points and your website will be liked and useful.

Social Media Blackout is a Failure of Power


As of this exact moment, I’d like to welcome back the students of Harrisburg University, who are now allowed to read blog and social media posts, such as this one.


Last week, Harrisburg University flipped the switch and turned the lights out on their students…at least when it comes to social media. The University turned off all access to social media sites to encourage a “healthy balance of social media” use. The University first conducted this experiment last year, where they determined that five percent of their student body spends between 15-20 hours on social media sites in the course of a week.

Such a stunt is off the mark.

While I can understand and appreciate the value of such awareness campaigns, and I am sure, naturally, people classified their time “offline” as productive, I tend to believe that actions like these send the wrong message to students. By treating social media as an evil, which takes grasp of our time and our lives, the University is spinning social media in a bad light. It’s the job of the University to prepare students for the outside world. I, as a member of this outside world, can ensure the University, that there’s social media out here…and it’s a lot more than chatting with friends, planning keggers and helping raise barns on Farmville.

Social media is a valuable and proven learning tool. Online communication and collaboration is growing. Think I’m wrong? Look at what Indonesia universities are doing to support digital media. Did you notice the part that said “everything in Indonesia is on a rise, especially the number of start-ups within the country”… attributed to social media. Seems like the creativity and collaboration that social media offers is being rewarded.

And this blackout goes for the campus faculty and admiration as well. The official University Twitter account has been inactive for a week, as well. That can’t be good for recruitment.

Eric Darr, the University’s provost, suggested that his hope for the blackout is that students will experience life. And today, after a week, they finally will. There’s a lot going on here in the outside world…sorry you’ve missed it this past week, Harrisburg University.



Do We Need the FTC for Social Media Transparency?

The following is a post from our team’s former blog: Economic Architecture, active from October 2009 – September 2010. While we have elected to re-share this information, some details and links may be a bit outdated. While it’s still a good read, you’ve been warned.  🙂

An article released yesterday by the Pittsburgh Business Times disclosed a number of local businesses who are adopting corporate policies relative to social media efforts and online activities. With the FTC including “new media” as part of their application of the FTCA as of December 1 in an ongoing effort to push corporate transparency coupled with Bayer Corporation‘s Twitter news feed and social media policy launching shortly after the birth of 2010, the relevancy of this topic is, again, forced to the headlines.

In the article, Bryan Iams, head of strategic and external communications for Bayer, keeps their social media policy very simple, stating:

“It’s not as if there are brand new guides or instructions to employees, but this is another vehicle that, if they are representing the company, they need to be mindful of what proper behavior is.”

Simple enough. I wonder if this is corporate shtick or if the employees feel the same way. Without actually reading the 13 pages of guidelines, it’s hard to understand the severity of these new policies. But, with this quote, it appears that Bayer has established guidelines for social media and online use when representing the Bayer corporate entity. Seems fair. Kudos to any company or organization using social media and understanding enough about it to further monitor their online reputation and enforce policy to keep their name clean. Less headaches that way (pun intended).

In the same article, Richard Cleland, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission’s division of advertising, states that the FTC’s new media guides for companies are simply restating old advertising policies and applying them to social media:

“What we are doing is applying the same rules that apply to advertising and media to advertising in the word-of-mouth and social media area. Those rules relate to truth in advertising and transparency, and that simply because this is a novel format, that doesn’t mean different rules apply.”

Again, this seems reasonable. Disclosing endorsements, corporate connections and the like are a reasonable way to keep things, dare I say, transparent. You can see evidence of this transparency all over social media. In fact, it’s what keeps it alive.

Developing your online marketing strategy requires a presence of community. Without community, the social network would fail. The community relies on a foundation of trust. Without trust, the community would fail and the network would fail. If your online presence exists merely to hock your wares…people are going to see through your scheming and your community will be a community of one.

However, if you are a trusted and contributing member of a community, people will find value in what you say, what you do and what you share. From this aspect, the FTC guidelines are really only a safety net. Chances are that most companies and individuals who do not disclose their endorsements, connections and partners will be discovered quickly and called out by those valued members contributing to online communities.

FTC…I don’t think we need it for this. Do you?