Strategic Thinking: Networking


Jason E. Ebey, IOM

In these early months in 2021, we are focusing on strategic thinking. That’s right – strategic thinking, not just strategic planning – though they go hand in hand. You have to be thinking strategically in order to do the important work of the planning for your chamber or organization. All strategic thinking involves questions. We encourage you to grab a notepad and do some thinking with us.

In our last blog post, we went into detail on why strategic thinking is important and how you can utilize it. Today, we are thinking about how we network with our members, especially now during these unusual COVID-19 times.

Networking is built into chamber life – into the life of any organization, really. Members of any organization attend networking events to expand their business contacts, to be seen as a vital component of the organization, and to build their own business. Networking is about building.

What are you building with your networking events? What do you want to build? Do the two answers come together with the actual attendance numbers and engagement of your members or clients?


What is the one event/program that most chambers have? AfterHours or a similar networking program. It doesn’t matter how your chamber does it. Are you thinking about it? Really thinking about it? Think about your networking programs and ask yourself these questions.

  • What is the real reason your chamber does networking in general?
  • Are you penetrating the percentage of your membership that you desire with this program?
  • Is your networking program segmented?

What is the real reason your chamber does networking in general? Are you penetrating the percentage of your membership that you desire for this program?

Are you trying to engage your members in your programming? Think about the results you want from your networking events. When you do a wrap-up evaluation after an event (you do those, right?), do you look to see if the results are in line with your goals?

If you do networking events to engage your members, are they attending? Whether virtually or in-person? Are you providing what you think is best or have you gotten input from your members?

Whether you recognize it or not, you are getting input from your members. If you have a monthly networking event and the same 20 people attend each month, you are not engaging your members unless your definition of and goal for engagement is to create a small club for certain members.

If you hold in-person events during the middle of the day, and your small business owners aren’t attending even if the programming and educational opportunities are geared toward them, they are telling you the timing isn’t right for them.

During Covid, we have seen many chambers having more engagement from a wider group of members because they are able to connect virtually and not leave the office. Even if your in-person event was only an hour, adding drive time to that could leave a member away from the office for an hour and a half to two hours. Virtual events have streamlined that process, allowing them to engage while also being available to answer a call or email or to respond to a client. These are things that should be included in our planning when it is possible for our events to be primarily in-person again.

Is your networking programming segmented?

Other than your Leadership or Young Professionals programming, do you have segmented events? Or do you simply have one AfterHours and assume it will fit the needs and desires of everyone in your membership.

If you aren’t presenting segmented programming, you are missing opportunities, both to engage your members, to attract a broader range of sponsors, and to charge for some events (we are seeing people willing to pay for viable content). As we have seen with more members engaging in virtual events, we are also seeing that they are specific about what content they engage with on a consistent basis.

Now, while it’s so easy to set up Zoom networking events, begin to think about how you can segment your offerings to best reach the greatest number of your members. Now is the time to experiment and see what works. Look at your membership and see how you could divide it into various networking events, provide those events, and watch who attends. Continue to carve away and hone the events until you are seeing growth in them – growth that mirrors your mission for the program and your goals.

Have you considered:

  • A book club
  • Entrepreneur groups
  • Sweat work groups

Remember that if you hold an event and the outcome doesn’t mirror your objectives, you need to look at the program and see what might have caused the disconnect. Was there a breaking news event in town that affected the group you were targeting? Try again next month and see if your engagement changes. Did people simply not attend? Did they begin the virtual event and then log out early? Reach out to a few members and ask why. Your members are constantly refining their business practices. They will appreciate that you are doing the same.

How Do I Get Rid of AfterHours

This is one of the questions we hear most. AfterHours is a traditional sacred cow of the chamber world. The best way to let AfterHours go is to create other networking opportunities that benefit both your members and the chamber more.

Cash Mobs are a great example of an event that provides both networking and a chance to support local businesses.

A little strategic thinking can help you navigate this process. Putting in the effort in the planning stages and watching how your members respond will allow you to create networking programs that are vibrant, engaging, and well-attended.

When you have programs like that, you will be able to monetize the events – get sponsorships and charge a fee for some of the events. There is no limit to what is possible.

Get ready, get set, go strategic think.

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