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5 Small Business Tech Trends

Rather than predict what next year might bring, let’s take a look at some of the biggest business technology trends of 2017, because next year’s trends will likely build on these by making them better and faster, or applying them to new challenges.

Read on for five technology trends your small business can take advantage of before year end.

Chatbots

If you have a website and social media accounts, chances are you regularly get messages and inquiries from customers. If you receive a lot of these messages and lack the time or employees to manage them, consider installing a chatbot, which is an application that uses artificial intelligence to quickly, easily, and efficiently communicate with customers online.

Chatbots scan a user’s message for keywords, and then quickly automate a reply from an existing database. Potential customers get a friendly, human-like response without you or an employee having to constantly monitor the channel, which helps save time and money.

With proper scripting and preparation, chatbots answer visitors’ basic questions like “When are you open,” “How much does X cost” or “Do you have any X,” etc. These questions and keywords can be easily scripted, and prepared answers will be delivered immediately when a visitor asks.

The global chatbot market is expected to reach $1.25 billion by 2025 and grow at an annual rate of nearly 25%, according to a report by Grand View Research, Inc. You’ve might have already experienced a chatbot—they’re common on many business’ apps and websites, and can be installed on any digital platform with messaging, including Facebook Messenger, apps, websites, text messages and SMS, emails, and more.

If you’re looking to get started for free or relatively low costs, check out ChattyPeople, MEOKAY, and Botsify. It’s simple to create new content as communication needs evolve, and it’s easy to have queries a chatbot can’t automatically answer get sent to an email so you or an employee can be alerted and respond manually.

Live Video

The use of live video, or interactive broadcasting, exploded last year and has only grown through 2017. If your small business uses social media, live streaming is a great (and free) way to create unique content, engage your followers and customers, and make your brand more accessible.

Businesses have been using the standard shoot-edit-post approach to video for years, but going live (while there are risks if not planned and done carefully), puts users front and center, regardless of where they are, for whatever it is your business might be sharing. The video can also live on your channels long after the live stream ends.

Why the shift to live? It’s what viewers—and consumers—want. Facebook (which introduced live streaming in early 2016) statistics show users watch live videos more than three times longer and comment 10 times more often than they do on regular videos.

Virtually anything your business does—including events, celebrations, contests, instructional videos, promotions, and sales—can be shared with a live stream for followers to see. Live video tends to be less polished and more relatable, which can help make your brand more authentic. Streaming an event from your store or business helps encourage engagement with your audience, too, as viewers have the ability to chat and ask questions in real time, and become ambassadors for your business by sharing the stream with their friends and followers.

Better Collaboration Tools (and a More Mobile Workforce)

Working remotely isn’t exactly a new trend, but with big advances in communication technology, it’s becoming easier and much more common.

While email is still the most popular form of communication for businesses, newer, evolving collaboration and communication tools like Google Hangouts, Skype for Business, and Slack, among others, are growing in popularity. Microsoft Teams, released late last year, is also expected to grow in popularity.

These tools and technology all make it easier for employees to stay in touch when working from home or a coffee shop, and as a result, trends show an increasingly mobile workforce. It’s only getting easier to call, chat, share documents, and collaborate in real-time, with virtually no restraint and little—if any—overhead cost. Businesses across many industries are embracing the idea that employees don’t need to work the same set hours in the same room.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of American workers doing some or all of their work at home rose from 19 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2016. In 2012, Gallup data showed 39% of employees worked remotely or spent at least some of their time working away from coworkers. In 2016, that number grew to 43%.

There are big potential benefits for small businesses, too, including savings through fewer real estate costs and overhead, less distractions and wasted time, increased productivity, and meeting the demands of a younger workforce that values flexibility and remote working options.

Influencer Marketing

While billboards, radio, and television advertisements have long been on the decline, there are new frontiers in online marketing that small businesses can take advantage of. One of the biggest to emerge in the last few years and expand dramatically in 2017 was influencer marketing.

With social media so heavily integrated into consumers’ lives, businesses and brands have turned to individuals and groups (also known, when paid, as influencers) to promote products to their online audiences.

Influencer marketing differs from traditional marketing by focusing on an influential, credible person who has an online following instead of focusing on customers as a whole. This can be effective at a much smaller, more targeted level than traditional advertising. Influencers are often bloggers or online personalities with a loyal, large, and industry- or theme-specific following, so a partnership can pay off for your business if they’re able to persuade their audience to consider your product or service.

You’ll need to disclose the fact you’re paying them to feature, try, or review your product or service, but it can work well if you’re trying to connect with niche, new, or younger markets. Especially with millennials, who tend to be less persuaded by traditional advertising, influencer marketing can be effective for brands to connect with them through a trusted source.

Scan the social media landscape in your area to see if any potential influencers have an audience aligned with your target market. Most will happily share data (reach, views, traffic, etc.) and details about their following and send you a proposal or pitch if you reach out. Another bonus? Many will accept compensation in more than just money, like free products or services.

Data Galore

With each passing year there’s a bigger focus on data—big data, website analytics, data security, data management, and more—and 2017 was no different.

Data is just a collection of facts and statistics, but with most—if not all—business processes now tracked in a digital format or through digital channels, the amount of information available to small business owners is staggering.

Every tech trend mentioned above and nearly every process a small business undertakes produces data that can be measured and analyzed to inform key business decisions. The importance of data can’t be underestimated, particularly when it comes to consumer behavior. Luckily, with the explosion of data come tools and methods to understand it, manage it, and keep it secure.

From cash flow and energy consumption to website analytics, manufacturing, and consumer habits, businesses have an opportunity to use data to make informed, strategic decisions that can save time and money and make their business more efficient and competitive.

The point of tracking and collecting data is to find opportunities, address challenges, respond to problems, and increase efficiency to save time and money and maximize profitability.

But how do you determine which data gives you insights to support these goals? A good place to start is by using a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Source: NFIB.com