A growing number of small businesses rely on technology to increase efficiency, manage expenses, grow profitability and improve performance.
According to SMB Group’s 2015 SMB Routes to Market Study (PDF), 29 percent of all small businesses view technology as helping them to improve outcomes significantly.
Keeping up with the fast pace of technological change can be difficult for the business owner already burdened with the many tasks required to keep his or her company afloat day in and day out.
To help, Small Business Trends compiled this list of nine technology categories that small businesses need to incorporate as principle applications in 2017.
They cross a broad range of functions, including mobile, marketing automation, business intelligence and social media. Some represent newer technologies while others are more established. Together, they encompass nearly everything a small business would need to gain a competitive edge in 2017 and beyond.
1. Massive Growth Makes Mobile a ‘Must-have’ Technology
Perhaps no technology has gained greater adoption or grown more quickly than mobile.
In 2016, more than six billion people worldwide used at least one mobile device, a number that is expected to increase to nearly seven billion by 2020.
Also significant, SimilarWeb’s State of Mobile Web US 2015 report found that approximately 56 percent of consumer traffic to the leading U.S. websites came from mobile devices.
That makes mobile a “must have” technology in 2017, and businesses should incorporate its use in at least four ways: Website design, apps, payment and use of all-in-one devices.
With more and more people accessing the web via mobile, small businesses can no longer avoid making a mobile-friendly version of their website available to consumers, for two reasons:
- Bing now rewards more mobile-friendly websites with an increase in ranking;
- Companies that lack a mobile version of their website could lose business as consumers opt for those that do.
(Note: Bing even offers a testing tool to help business owners determine whether or not their website is mobile-friendly.)
In his Small Business Trends article “Mobile App Strategies Boost Revenues for Small Business Owners,” Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University, wrote, “In an increasingly mobile world, having a well-developed and well-tested mobile app turns out to be a highly effective marketing strategy that gets results.”
In the past, mobile app development required someone with specialized skills. Nowadays, platforms such as Microsoft PowerApps allow non-technical users to create apps easily, so there is no excuse to do without this important technology.
The use of mobile payments is on the rise, thanks to apps such as Microsoft Wallet, so it makes sense to incorporate their use as an option. Also, companies like Microsoft partner Merchant Account Solutions have made mobile credit card readers readily available to small business users.
Another aspect of mobile technology moving forward has to do with what constitutes a mobile device versus its desktop counterpart. That line is blurring thanks to devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, a 3-in-1 desktop, laptop and mobile tablet. It also comes with pen and touch screen capability, a new innovation.
2. Marketing Automation Increases Efficiency
Marketing automation software has made it easier for small businesses to conduct marketing activities with greater efficiency, removing the need to hire dedicated marketing professionals.
Among its advantages are the ability to score leads, segment messages and set up processes that trigger specific responses based on actions taken by the customer.
Also, automation software links seamlessly with CRM platforms, bringing marketing and sales together, providing each with a 360-degree view of the customer or prospect.
CRM platforms such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 do much of the heavy lifting that previously would have been handled using manual processes.
3. Businesses are Heading to the Cloud (and Not Coming Back)
The use of on-premise software and hardware is going the way of the albatross with the availability of cloud-based solutions such as Microsoft Office 365, and for good reason. Cloud-based solutions offer greater scalability, security, efficiency and flexibility regarding access than their on-premise counterparts.
(Read the Small Business Trends article “Thinking About Migrating Your Business to the Cloud? Consider This Checklist First” to learn more about why moving to the cloud is a must for 2017.)
4. Collaboration Tools Bring Remote Workforce Together
The rise of the virtual workforce means that tools which facilitate collaboration will grow in popularity.
A 2015 survey conducted by Virgin Media Business predicted that 60 percent of office-based workers would regularly work from home by 2022.
Platforms such as Microsoft Teams make collaboration between disparate work groups more accessible and efficient. Teams establishes a virtual, chat-based workspace that allows team members to chat, call, save documents and collaborate in real-time, without restraint.
5. Chatbots Facilitate Customer Service, Other Uses
A significant shift is taking place in Internet communications due to the advent of chatbots, computer programs that use artificial intelligence to facilitate conversation with humans.
Companies large and small are beginning to latch on to the power of chatbots for customer service and other uses, such as finding products, providing shipping notifications, pinpointing business locations and more.
Internet communications pioneer Jeff Pulver declared in a blog post that 2017 will be the year of the chatbot and said they would be the “new interface for business to business, business to consumer, and consumer to business communications.”
Technologies like Microsoft’s Bot Framework let companies build and connect bots to interact with users not only on Facebook Messenger but also on websites, text/SMS, Skype, Office 365 mail, Teams and other services.
6. Business Intelligence Brings Better Decision-making
Business intelligence (BI) used to be the sole purview of enterprise corporations. However, the software-as-a-service revolution means that small businesses can now afford to tap into the treasure trove of information available with the click of a mouse too.
The capabilities BI provides to track, store, process and analyze data can lead to smarter decision-making regarding cutting expenses, finding new business growth opportunities and improving overall performance.
Platforms like Microsoft Sharepoint make garnering insights more affordable and make it easier to harness the power of big data and predictive analytics.
7. Email Remains Tried-and-True Marketing Technology
Email is a tried-and-true internet marketing technology in use since the 1990s. Despite predictions to the contrary, it continues to find favor as a cost-effective promotional medium for small businesses. In fact, email marketing was ranked as the best channel regarding return on investment — a trend that should not change in 2017.
What will change, however, is the approach. Marketers will do away with “batch and blast” for more targeted messaging that takes into account the unique needs of each customer.
Also, “mobile-first” will be the mantra in 2017 when it comes to designing email campaigns. With more people accessing email via mobile devices, messages have to ascribe to the limitations imposed by mobile devices with their small screens. Marketing solutions from Microsoft Dynamics 365 can also help develop email marketing campaigns to target specific customers.
8. Live Chat Provides Real-time Customer Service
In 2017, successful companies will shift their focus away from customer service to customer success — helping customers reach their goals as quickly as possible. They will do so online, using a variety of digital technologies that include text/SMS, social media, chat bots and live help. Platforms like Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Customer Service facilitate such omnichannel support.
One component, live help, has been in use for several years. The technology remains a familiar one. A widget resides in the lower-right-hand corner of the website with an agent on standby who can engage with customers in real-time at the moment of need, to answer questions, provide guidance and recommend products or resources tailored to the individual customer.
The integration of artificial intelligence (AI), a prevalent trend, will make live help smarter, transforming customer support into a self-service mechanism. AI will work seamlessly with customers and learn from them as the interaction progresses. It can also assist human agents by giving them time to address more complex issues that AI alone cannot solve.
9. Cyber Security Ranked Number One Challenge
As small business reliance on technology grows, the need to secure and protect sensitive information becomes even more critical. The SMB Group study referenced above found that small businesses rank cyber security as their number one challenge.
Meeting that challenge requires the use of holistic, end-to-end, rules-based solutions. Microsoft builds such comprehensive security into all its cloud-based products, to protect a company’s endpoints better, detect threats faster and respond to security breaches quicker. It prevents identity compromise, secures apps and data and safeguards infrastructure.
Print out this essential small business technology checklist to keep the most important considerations top-of-mind:
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At the time of this writing, Anita Campbell is participating in the Microsoft Small Business Ambassador program.