Businesses looking to grow may join networking websites such as LinkedIn, start a fan page on social media or connect with like-minded owners and customers through other digital gathering places.
But join a chamber of commerce? As the digital world provides business owners new ways to network, some believe chambers must embrace the new capabilities or risk extinction.
"Local chambers are on the precipice of irrelevancy," says Orlando-based Davina Frederick, CEO of D. Frederick Media & Marketing, and co-creator of Chamber Concourse, a new virtual chamber of commerce product. "No longer do people have the time or interest to take at least two hours out of a busy day and travel some place for an overpriced, rubber chicken and limp salad luncheon and a boring speaker."
Chamber leaders in Hillsborough County recognize the changing dynamics brought on by the Internet, social media and mobile technology, but they also insist face-to-face communications remains invaluable.
"I don't know that social media and other interactive relations can ever replace handshakes, looking in the eyes, and discussing common business and community goals," said Carrollwood Area Business Association Rob Cunningham, noting his group recently hosted a sold-out golf tournament. "It all comes down to four things: know, like, trust, remember. Ultimately, you can't replace what CABA does, nor the other business organizations in the Tampa Bay area that continue to do well."
Frederick, however, said it's not an either or situation. She said digital paths can help overcome impediments chamber members encounter. Some find they're too busy to attend meetings, or can't convey the services they provide in a 30-second speech. Others grow frustrated when members choose to do business with someone else.
The service her group plans to offer is a virtual chamber of commerce where members can use videos, podcasts and other tools to connect with prospects much in the same way they connect with friends on Facebook.
"Chambers of commerce are supposed to be leaders in the business community — lobbyists for business interests," Frederick said. "Yet, few are embracing technology as a way of enhancing the member experience. Even fewer still actually lead the way. If they can figure it out, they'll recover. If they can't, they'll be relegated to the history books."
Leaders we spoke to say they are embracing digital opportunities. The Riverview Chamber of Commerce, which boasts 570 members, will mark its 50th anniversary next year. But executive director Tanya Doran says there's nothing "old-fashioned" about the way it serves its base. The organization teaches its members how to use search engine optimization techniques on their own business websites to help improve their visibility in relevant Google searches.
"You have to layer digital and social media," Doran adds. "Some industries do great with social (media) and some don't. You have to look at the trends, know what works for your competitors, and find out what they are doing and aren't doing."
But Doran also stressed the role of chambers in providing a sense of community through gatherings.
South Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kelly Flannery concurred, noting her members enjoy a relief from an inundation of emails, text messages and social media posts.
"At the end of the day, people crave a connection with other people," Flannery said. "No matter how popular social networking sites become, people still need live interaction with other people. That is why we spend Thanksgiving dinner with others around a table and not in a virtual group like Facebook."
Still, the South Tampa Chamber blends live networking and social media for its 500-plus members.
Jerry Custin, president and CEO of the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, calls digital technology a dual-edged sword.
"We use it with our website, and we are on social media, too," he says, speaking of the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce's online presence. "There is a lot of power there, and a lot of danger, too. You don't know the people or the credibility of it."
Irene Hurst, University of South Florida Muma College of Business director of MBA and Executive MBA programs at the University of South Florida Muma College of Business, also said chambers remain relevant, pointing to the fact she won't accept people as friends without first meeting them in a social setting.
"If online networking platforms are so important, why are planes still full of business people?"
But USF Muma College of Business dean Moez Limayem thinks that successful business networking organizations must use digital technology within the context of the group's mission.
"Business groups must ask members what they are looking for. They must offer an added value."