“The only constant is change.” These days that couldn’t seem truer. With higher costs, rising concerns about health, higher mortgage rates, and a host of other challenges, businesses and consumers are caught between surviving through fight or flight. With instability as the new norm, many people are choosing flight, becoming part of what is becoming referred to as the “Great Cancellation.”

The Great Cancellation refers to a mass cancellation of services and memberships, things such as gym memberships, streaming services, and even contributions to pensions and life insurance policies.

What does that mean for your chamber?

If you’re not proving value on a regular basis, you’ll start seeing membership cancellations as well. Viewing a chamber membership as inherently worthwhile or something they should do for their business is not enough of a reason to drive someone to renew a memberships.

If people are walking away from health insurance premiums (which are legally required), it’s obvious that chambers must do a lot more than simply showing businesses that membership is a good thing for them. Instead, you must prove they can’t do business without you.

How to Bring More Value to Members

A few years ago, many chambers started altering the voice of their marketing initiatives and communications. They switched their tone from “thank you for your membership” to congratulating new members on their wise investment in their business. The idea was that members were not doing the chamber a favor by joining but doing themselves one because the businesses were now on the verge of something great.

Unfortunately, framing chamber membership as a good investment for a business is no longer enough. When people are letting life insurance policies lapse, you can’t expect them to see value in a business investment.

Or can you?

To bring more value to members, you must become invaluable. Membership must transcend from something “nice to have” into something they can’t live without. But what does that look like?

Advocacy

Most businesses can’t afford to advocate on their own. Lobbyists are expensive. Businesses may belong to industry associations that help them on a federal level, but it’s not likely those associations are working at the same grassroots level as the chamber which is well-situated to help at the municipal, local, state, and federal levels.

Chamber advocacy takes on two forms:

  • ​First, there’s assisting a business with a process or support (as in the case of helping to straighten out a zoning issue).
  • ​Second, there’s assisting and protecting businesses on a legislative front.

Both are valuable to companies, but local businesses often feel disconnected from the legislative front until there is a bill that impacts them directly. Unfortunately, in this case, advocating from a legislative angle is a defensive action.

However, the chamber can also help with offense by communicating with leaders about the needs of the local business community before legislation is introduced. By uniting and making known the power and needs of the business community, the chamber influences the legislative environment ahead of the legislative calendar.

Education

A strong educational system attracts new residents and businesses to a community. Good educational opportunities encourage people to raise families in your area. Plus, businesses want to relocate to a place with desirable education options. That way, employees will be satisfied with living there; businesses can find good employees because of the lure of the schools; and employees educated in that community will be skilled.

In addition to working with the city, county, and workforce development organizations to help improve the education in your area, the chamber can offer educational components to members. These benefits are appealing to businesses that are not able to create development programs of their own.

From lunch and learns to leadership programs, the chamber offers many educational development opportunities for its members. This can become an invaluable benefit because it’s costly for a business to do this independently.

A Sense of Community

Post-COVID, one of the most important things people realized was how lonely they were during the pandemic. They longed for a sense of community. Many people gave that up (willingly or otherwise) when they began working from home, school went online, and extracurricular activities were canceled. People lost the places they would’ve turned for support.

In a 2020 article in Forbes, author Tracy Brower, Ph.D., gave instructions on how to create community. Happily, a lot of it is something chambers can easily do.

It might also be the most powerful way to combat the Great Cancellation:

  • Create a larger sense of purpose.

    One way communities are strengthened is by ensuring there is a sense of purpose and that it’s communicated well. Whether it’s in your job role or a personal relationship, everyone wants to believe they’re part of something larger.

    When your chamber has a clearly defined sense of purpose, mission, vision, and strategic plan, your members and the larger community will know exactly what you do and what you aim to accomplish, helping them to get excited about your work. They want to understand the impact they are having and in what context.

    Brower wrote, “As members of community, people don’t just want to lay bricks, they want to build a cathedral.” Are you giving your members bricks or plans for a cathedral?
  • Nurture the sense of belonging.


    What is your chamber doing to allay these fears? How welcoming are you if a potential new member doesn’t know anyone at the chamber?
    Just as people want to feel like they are part of something larger working toward a wonderful end goal—something they believe in and would be hard-pressed to accomplish on their own—they also want to be part of a community where they feel a sense of kinship and connectedness.

    Sometimes people hesitate to join groups because they worry that the groups won’t be inclusive. They expect that there will be cliques or a that a well-established group will be hard to get connected with.

    This may be one of the things holding you back from recruiting new members. Most chambers have been around for years, and potential members may assume all the businesspeople know one another. They may be concerned that it will be a continuation of an unpleasant junior high experience instead of an open, welcoming place. Their fear of missing out may be replaced by a greater fear of not being included.
  • Build excitement.

    Everyone wants to be a part of a company or group that’s doing something exciting and innovative. We learned a valuable lesson about the importance of adapting and pivoting.

    Brower wrote, “The most effective communities support members who take risks, try new things and go out on limbs to create and innovate. Effective communities also embrace conflict and diversity—working through differences of opinion and making space for civil discourse and the learning that occurs from appreciating multiple points of view.

    The chamber needs to support the risk-takers. Part of that support is telling their story and ensuring that the community knows about the exciting things they are doing. Look for ways to support companies that are doing something new whether that’s recruiting new businesses and industries through an economic development initiative or helping existing companies navigate the challenges of permitting or leasing with the city so that the business may further its goals.

Redefine Connecting

Chambers used to be the networking organization. That has rapidly changed in some communities over the past several years. When COVID forced a lot of online networking, people were intrigued by the newness. A few years later and online meetings are becoming tiresome. However, many companies still haven’t returned to life in the office before the pandemic. Some never will. Because of that, many chambers lost their “captive audiences.”

No longer are people in offices awaiting the five o’clock release after which they’ll stop by the networking mixer on their way home. Now, when it’s five o’clock somewhere, people shut off their laptops and they’re already home. Motivating them to go back out again is not always feasible. So, what are you offering to make up for that lack of desire to attend events?

Community Improvement

When someone worries about paying the bills, the desire to be part of a strong community takes a back seat. However, there are many ideas people are passionate about these days that they simply don’t have the power or strength to do on their own.

Galvanizing topics include environmental stewardship and sustainability, fighting injustice and ensuring everyone is valued and represented in the community. Safety, reputable schools, and walkable roads also rank highly among “most-wanted” things in a community. These are all areas of concern that the chamber can help with.

Conclusion

With concerns about growing instability—and the sense of waiting “for the other shoe to drop”—many people are walking away from doing the things the way they always have. The “Great Cancellation” has them breaking conventions and doing things differently than what most people would expect them to. They’re letting memberships lapse and cutting down on long-term, far-horizon thinking.

Expecting someone to become a member just because they “know” it’s beneficial to join won’t get you far. You must become indispensable and offer something they can’t get elsewhere. As people see instability as the new normal, they’ll look for someone to show them the way. They’ll want a partner in their success. Make sure they know how you can help them.

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