8 Trends Affecting Small Businesses Now

From marketing to staffing to cybersecurity, these phenomena are changing the small business landscape.
Today's small businesses know that social media marketing is crucial to success.(Photo: RawPixel.com/Shutterstock)

Bury your head in the day-to-day of running a business — which is all too easy to do — and you could miss some of the most important changes that are happening around you.

Here are a few of the ways in which the landscape is shifting when it comes to small business marketing, tech, staffing and funding. If you’re behind the times in an area that affects you, ask yourself if there’s a good reason.

Social media marketing is more essential than ever

The effectiveness of advertising has been in steady decline, said business planning expert Tim Berry. “We have 30-second skip and time shifting on television, radio substituted by music players, print media losing relevance and web advertising not getting clicks anymore.” Businesses are turning instead to content marketing and social media.

According to a research review from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the majority of millennials use social media to connect with brands — yet most firms still allocate a disproportionate percentage of marketing budgets to non-digital channels.

Facebook still dominates social media marketing — but Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are gaining on it in terms of traffic.

Paid posts, which typically promote consumer-friendly content, are on the rise. According to a study from the Content Marketing Institute, B2C marketers are allocating a larger proportion of their marketing budget to content marketing.

Finally, more businesses are using live video via tools like Periscope.

Email marketing isn’t dead yet

Small businesses still use email marketing because it still works. According to a 2016 survey of in-house marketers from Econsultancy, business owners believe email delivers a higher return on investment compared to other digital marketing channels.

Email is in fact the number one marketing tool used by small businesses according to a Wasp Barcode Technologies’ survey of more than 1,000 U.S. small businesses.

Mobile friendliness is mandatory

More than half of all emails — including the marketing emails you send as part of your customer acquisition and retention strategy — are now opened on a mobile device. So those emails had better be readily readable on a smartphone. And if users click from the email to your website from their smartphone, your site had better be mobile friendly or those users — and potential customers — might bail.

Earlier this year, Google started rewarding mobile-friendly websites with better search rankings. Yet according to a 2016 report from the Local Search Association, nearly half of small business owners’ websites are not mobile ready.

One of the biggest reasons of all to be mobile-ready: Consumers most often use smartphones when searching for location information online — the kind of information that leads to store visits and sales. According to Gary Sterling, writing for the Local Search Association in the 2016 report Mobile: Ready or Not, “[T]hese mobile consumers are often closer to a purchase decision than those on the desktop, because their needs are generally more immediate.”

Sterling notes, “SMBs (or enterprises) that aren’t mobile-ready are at immediate risk of losing visibility and sales to better-positioned competitors.”

Small business are hacking targets

Hackers are now focusing their efforts on small businesses, making cybersecurity efforts even more critical.

Phishing is an especially big problem for small businesses. According to Symantec’s 2016 Internet Security Threat Report, phishing campaigns targeted small businesses 43 percent of the time.

Training employees in cybersecurity best practices so they can learn to avoid falling victim to scams is paramount. Cyber insurance may also be a smart idea.

Wages are changing

On December 1, 2016, a new Department of Labor overtime rule takes effect. Most white-collar, salaried employees who earn $47,476 or less will be eligible for time-and-a-half pay if they work more than 40 hours a week.

This could cost you, so if you have employees in that salary range who often work overtime, it might be time to give them a raise. Other options: Track their hours carefully to make sure they don’t go over the 40 hour mark, or change from a salary to an hourly pay structure.

For restaurant owners, another trend that’s changing pay is the no-tipping policy. More restaurants are enacting them, especially with minimum wages about to increase in some states.

A tight labor market means workplace culture is key

In the Wasp Barcode Technologies’ survey, hiring new employees emerged as a top challenge, above increasing profit and growing revenue.

A tightening labor market means more competition for qualified workers. As a result, small business owners need to make sure they are attracting and retaining top talent. That includes appealing to millennials — who now make up more than half the workforce — with a meaningful, appealing workplace culture.

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report noted of millennials, “They seek greater purpose in their work. And they want greater flexibility in how that work is done.” The report found that work culture and employee engagement were among HR managers’ top concerns, and noted this point: “Without strong engagement and a positive, meaningful work environment, people will disengage and look elsewhere for work.”

Millennials also want job-specific training and career development opportunities according to a research report by the Society for Human Resource Management.

And they value social responsibility in the companies they work for (and patronize), according to a national survey by Aflac. Think you can’t afford the time and money to embrace social responsibility? There are cheap, easy ways.

Equity crowdfunding is now possible for small businesses

Small businesses have long been able to leverage rewards-based crowdfunding on sites like Kickstarter. But thanks to new regulations, now they also have access to equity crowdfunding, in which contributors receive equity in the business.

According to one set of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations, a company can now raise up to $1 million during a 12-month period through investments made by individual investors who go through an SEC-regulated intermediary called a funding portal. Examples of these funding portals include WeFunder and FlashFunders.

Under a second set of regulations, a company can raise up to $50 million during a 12-month period through investments made by individual investors through a broker-dealer on a platform like BankRoll.Ventures or SeedInvest.

Improving customer experience and retention is key

There are only so many ways to grow profits, and selling more product to existing customers is one of the easiest and cheapest. Yet consumers have more choices than ever. It’s no wonder, then, that improving customer experience and retention was small business owners’ top strategy to improve revenue growth in 2016 according to the Wasp Barcode Technologies report.

Talking to customers to find out what they want is critical.

“Too many business owners don’t realize that their customers’ expectations are changing faster than ever before,” said Jim Blasingame, creator and host of “The Small Business Advocate Show” and author of “The Age of the Customer.” “If you want to find out what your business should be doing tomorrow or next year, that information is inside the heads of your prospects and customers. Ask them.”

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