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?
Economic 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
I 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.