Why Size Matters: How Marketing Automation Vendors Define the SMB Market

This is the third post in a blog series discussing key marketing automation trends for SMBs. This series is excerpted from SMB Group’s December 2014 report, SMB Group Perspectives Report: Top Trends in Marketing Automation and How Vendors Are Helping SMBs to Capitalize on Themwhich provides detailed information and insights to help SMBs capitalize on these trends.

Before small and medium businesses evaluate different marketing solutions, its important to understand how vendors define and target the “SMB market,” which is actually a term that has many definitions, depending upon who you ask.

We at the SMB Group define small businesses as those with fewer than 100 employees, and medium businesses as those with 100-999 employees. Meanwhile, the U.S. Small Business Administration defines a small business as having 500 or fewer employees, and has no standard definition for medium businesses.

Among marketing automation and CRM vendors, several tend to view the SMB size range similarly to the SMB Group definition of up to 1,000 employees. But some rely more on revenues to define their SMB niche. In addition, vendors’ market focus varies significantly. For instance, Infusionsoft concentrates on very small, owner-operated business with less than 25 employees, while IBM focuses on what it defines as midmarket companies, those with 51 to 1,000 employees and at least one dedicated marketing professional.

Figure 1: How Technology Vendors Define and Represent Themselves in the SMB Market

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Source: SMB Group, 2014

This diversity reflects the very heterogeneous nature and requirements of what is actually a very fragmented SMB market. Small and medium businesses should scrutinize how vendors define and position themselves because different types of SMBs often require very different marketing, sales, solutions and services.

Vendors usually focus on a particular slice of the SMB market because it’s difficult to satisfy the diverse requirements of the broader market. In addition, SMBs should consider how big a footprint a given vendor has in the segment of the market the vendor is targeting—in terms of both the number and the percentage of its customers that are in that segment. Again, this is a good indicator of both vendor commitment to a given SMB segment and its ability to serve those types of SMBs.

For more information about the full report, SMB Group Perspectives Report: Top Trends in Marketing Automation and How Vendors Are Helping SMBs to Capitalize on Them, please contact Lisa Lincoln, Director, Client Services & Business Development: 508.734.5658 or lisa.lincoln70@smb-gr.com. 

 

SMB Adoption and Trends in Marketing Automation

This is the second post in a blog series discussing key marketing automation trends for SMBs. This series is excerpted from SMB Group’s December 2014 report, SMB Group Perspectives Report: Top Trends in Marketing Automation and How Vendors Are Helping SMBs to Capitalize on Themwhich provides detailed information and insights to help SMBs capitalize on these trends.

SMBs consistently cite factors that impact top and bottom line results as their key business challenges. Attracting new customers, growing revenue, improving cash flow, maintaining profitability and retaining customers are critical, ongoing concerns. So it’s no wonder that they are exploring how marketing automation can help them.

But when it comes to marketing solutions, many small and even medium businesses rely on point solutions such as SEO tools, paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, email newsletters and social media.

Increasingly, however, SMBs are turning to a more integrated marketing approach. SMB Group’s 2014 SMB Routes to Market Study shows that in 2014, 20% of small and 25% of medium businesses purchased/upgraded a marketing automation solution in the past 24 months. Meanwhile, 22% of small and 26% of medium businesses plan to purchase/upgrade a marketing automation solution in the next 12 months (Figure 1). Although some of these plans aren’t likely to result in actual purchases, the use and awareness of marketing automation are clearly growing among SMBs.

Furthermore, cloud already has become SMBs’ preferred deployment option for marketing automation, with the number of planned cloud deployments exceeding that of on-premises deployments.

Figure 1: SMB Marketing Automation Adoption and PlansSlide1

Simultaneously (Figure 2) SMBs are also using social sites to better engage with customers and prospects: 48% of small and 57% of medium businesses use at least two social sites.

Figure 2: SMB Use of Company-Managed Websites and Social Sites

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Mobile marketing capabilities are also quickly becoming a priority for many SMBs. Mobile marketing is becoming an increasingly important component of SMBs’ overall marketing strategy, with 56% of small and 60% of medium businesses agreeing or strongly agreeing that mobile marketing drives business growth (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Mobile Marketing as a Driver of Business GrowthSlide4

SMBs are incorporating mobile marketing into their businesses by using a two-pronged approach. First, they are increasingly providing employees with mobile-enabled solutions for CRM, marketing and advertising, and social media. Second, they are extending mobile functionality to their customers, partners and other constituents via mobile apps and mobile-friendly websites. Providing access to customer service, the ability to purchase goods and services, and the ability to check delivery status are leading areas (Figure 4). In addition, a substantial percentage of SMBs currently provide or plan to provide capabilities that enable customers to access marketing offers and to join and manage loyalty rewards programs.

Figure 4: Use of/Plans for Customer (External) Mobile Marketing SolutionsSlide6

In subsequent posts in this series, we examine how vendors (Act-On, HubSpot, Infusionsoft, IBM Silverpop, NetSuite, ReachLocal, Salesforce.com Pardot, SugarCRM) view the SMB market, and their strategies and plans to help SMBs integrate marketing across different channels and media.

For more information about the full report, SMB Group Perspectives Report: Top Trends in Marketing Automation and How Vendors Are Helping SMBs to Capitalize on Them, please contact Lisa Lincoln, Director, Client Services & Business Development: 508.734.5658 or lisa.lincoln70@smb-gr.com. 

“Must-Consider” Marketing Trends for SMBs

This is the first post in a blog series discussing key marketing automation trends for SMBs. This series is excerpted from SMB Group’s December 2014 report, SMB Group Perspectives Report: Top Trends in Marketing Automation and How Vendors Are Helping SMBs to Capitalize on Themwhich provides detailed information and insights to help SMBs capitalize on these trends.

Choosing a marketing automation solution may be one of the most important decisions your business makes. As cloud, mobile, social, analytics and other technologies continue to transform the buyer’s journey, this choice is likely to become even more critical.

As the term “marketing automation” implies, small and medium businesses (SMBs) must automate tasks to scale their marketing campaigns in order to reach more prospects and customers, and to provide them with the right information at the right time in their buying journey. Although many small and even medium businesses rely on point solutions, more are turning to an integrated marketing approach. In 2014, 20% of small and 25% of medium businesses had purchased/upgraded to a marketing automation solution in the past 24 months. Meanwhile, 22% of small and 26% of medium businesses plan to purchase/upgrade a marketing automation solution in the next 12 months, as indicated in SMB Group’s 2014 SMB Routes to Market Study.

Figure 1: SMB Marketing Automation Adoption and Plans

Slide1

However, marketing requirements are changing rapidly. Today, buyers conduct much of their research and evaluation online across multiple channels. Because businesses need to be where their customers and prospects are, they must invest to build their digital footprint via websites, social media engagement, search, email marketing and mobile marketing. Simultaneously, they must continue to invest in traditional marketing activities.

SMB Group has identified several key trends that SMBs should consider when selecting a marketing automation solution, including:

  • Cloud computing: The cloud is quickly becoming the preferred deployment method for marketing automation because it relieves SMBs of IT deployment and management issues.
  • Mobile: Buyers are doing more research, shopping and buying on mobile devices, and SMBs must optimize the buying journey on these devices. At a basic level, this means, for instance, that email campaigns and websites need to be automatically rendered and optimized for devices from laptops to smartphones. But many more areas also need to be addressed. For instance, should an SMB develop mobile apps or mobile websites, or use text messaging to connect with customers—or all of the above?
  • Social: Social media has become the equivalent of digital word of mouth, and SMBs need solutions to help them observe, participate in and track the social networks that their prospects and customers use in order to engage and nurture relationships.
  • Content: Content feeds all marketing initiatives and is critical to establishing and sustaining customer relationships. But creating good content is often difficult and time-consuming. SMBs must be able to produce, distribute and repackage content more effectively so they get more value from it.
  • Omnichannel: As the buyer journey evolves to include more touch points, SMBs need to create and maintain a consistent look and feel across different channels as well as gain an integrated view of customer behavior.

Fortunately, many vendors offer solutions to help SMBs capitalize on these trends. But given so many choices, SMBs must carefully evaluate and compare all the options in order to get the best fit for their requirements. Key areas to investigate include:

  • How vendors define “SMB” and position their offerings: Most focus on a particular slice of the SMB market because it’s difficult to satisfy the diverse requirements across the broader SMB market.
  • How many and what percentage of the vendor’s customers are from the SMB segment the vendor targets
  • How well the solution maps to a company’s needs and constraints: Some vendors focus on providing very in-depth marketing automation capabilities, while others combine marketing with CRM in a pre-integrated suite.
  • Internal marketing resources and skills, and whether to take more of a do-it-yourself versus a do-it-for-me approach
  • Pricing, including whether a vendor offers annual, monthly and/or yearly contracts
  • Integration of different marketing and sales activities to gain a unified view of customer and prospects: This is a key driver for marketing automation.
  • CRM tools that need to be integrated: Pure-play marketing automation vendors usually integrate with multiple CRM solutions, while others provide a pre-integrated suite that includes marketing and CRM.
  • How to feed the marketing funnel: Marketing automation without compelling content is like a car without gas. Content nurtures the buyer through the sales funnel. Although you can’t really automate content creation, you can streamline it. Some vendors offer education and even services to help.
  • Tools, services and support programs to help you get the most from the platform, both in the near term and in the future as needs evolve

Vendors have designed their solutions for different types of SMB requirements; there is no one-size-fits-all. In subsequent posts in this series, we examine these requirements and vendor (Act-On, HubSpot, Infusionsoft, IBM Silverpop, NetSuite, ReachLocal, Salesforce.com Pardot, SugarCRM) strategies for SMBs in more detail.

For more information about the full report, SMB Group Perspectives Report: Top Trends in Marketing Automation and How Vendors Are Helping SMBs to Capitalize on Them, please contact Lisa Lincoln, Director, Client Services & Business Development: 508.734.5658 or lisa.lincoln70@smb-gr.com. 

 

The Cloud: Mother of Re-invention for IBM

ibm logoAs a 104-year old company, IBM has undergone many makeovers over the years to tack to the ever-changing winds of the technology industry and the market. 2015 ushered in what may prove to be one of it’s biggest transformations, when earlier this year, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty dramatically reorganized the company to better align with today’s cloud, mobile and analytics oriented technology landscape, and with the increasing consumerization of the business technology market.

This time, IBM’s restructuring puts software in the spotlight. IBM is replacing its former software, hardware and services silos with a more holistic approach designed to synchronize with customers’ growing preferences for cloud-based solutions. Research, Sales & Delivery, Systems, Global Technology Services, Cloud, Watson (IBM’s artificial intelligence and analytics), Security, Commerce and Analytics are now IBM’s main business units, with Mobility as an overlay to these groups. Meanwhile, IBM hardware and software channel teams will both report into IBM’s global Business Partner Group.

interconnect2015-800x160InterConnect 2015: Hybrid Cloud Takes Center Stage

In February, we had our first chance to see how these organizational shifts are coming to life. At IBM InterConnect, IBM rolled what had previously been three separate events for three different solutions groups (Pulse/Tivoli, Impact/WebSphere and Innovate/Rational) into one, reflecting the organizational changes. IBM took advantage of this opportunity begin to put its new story in perspective for an audience of over 21,000 customer, partner and influencer attendees.

IBM has cast it’s hybrid cloud strategy in the starring role of the next chapter of it’s story, with mobile, integration and business process, security, IoT and data, and the partner ecosystem in key supporting roles. Needless to say, IBM was trying to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but here are the key themes that it emphasized:

  1. The hybrid cloud is key to digital transformation. IBM wants to provide customers with an open, flexible cloud experience across public and private clouds. IBM highlighted the importance of portability, announcing Enterprise Containers, based on a partnership between IBM and Docker. The partnership will result in IBM solutions integrated with Docker Hub Enterprise (DHE) to help companies to more efficiently run and build applications that will run anywhere, from a developer’s laptop to the IBM Cloud or on-premises. IBM also introduced Virtual Machines and Containers are now integrated as core infrastructure options in Bluemix, its cloud development platform, and virtual machined (VMs) powered by OpenStack to help IT deliver consistent, scalable business services and integrated monitoring.
  2. IBM MobileFirst, to help companies build and manage the mobile apps. According to IBM, 85% of enterprises have a mobile app backlog. IBM is positioning its MobileFirst Platform v7, announced at the event, to help companies to catch up with the backlog, and to get more value from their mobile app investments. Enhancements include capabilities to enable more efficient development, secure integration, continuous delivery, as well as an improved UI. IBM has also added a new component, the MobileFirst Platform Cloudant Data Layer Local Edition, for web and mobile access.
  1. Integration at the heart of hybrid. IBM had an Integration Booth at the event, and introduced 5 new services designed to connect clouds, refine and sync data across applications and clouds. These included API Harmony, API Harmony, which uses Watson to help developers find the right IBM or a third-party API for integration requirements; and Secure Gateway, to securely connect APIs, existing data, and systems to Bluemix through a Passport service.
  2. A new way to think about security. Most surveys show that security concerns are still the key inhibitor to cloud adoption. To help address this, IBM is encouraging customers to take a more proactive, analytics-based security approach. The vendor announced over 70 new security products and enhancements, and highlighted two 2014 security acquisitions, Lighthouse Computer Services and Crossideas as evidence of its focus on beefing up cloud and mobile security offerings to help businesses better protect, detect and respond to threats.
  3. IoT and data as agents of business transformation. The Internet of Things (IoT) and big data are two of the hottest IT trends. These two trends are also tightly connected, as the billions of IoT objects and devices coming online are generating massive quantities of data, which must be tracked, analyzed and put to practical use. As IoT exponentially accelerates data volume, velocity and variety, companies will need high-powered analytics solutions to harness and generate insights from it. This trend is behind IBM’s newly formed Internet of Things division, and initiatives that IBM is now exploring to leverage Watson analytical capabilities in an IoT world.
  4. The ecosystem is vital to IBM’s cloud success. In order to fulfill on its goal of creating the “most successful cloud ecosystem and developer experience in the industry,” IBM is ramping up programs for developers, ISVs, entrepreneurs and colleges and universities. In addition to more traditional programs, IBM is targeting top local communities and cities for as event hubs for meetups, classes, hackathons, learnathons and other programs designed to build a next-generation partner ecosystem in the cloud. 

White Clouds in Blue SkyPerspective

The changes that IBM is making to its organization and to its solution and partner focus are major ones. In the past, IBM operated in a more siloed manner, with each business unit owning its own P&L, budget, headcount and control. Back in the day, when companies often pursued different buying journeys and sought out different vendors for hardware and software, this made sense.

However, cloud computing has significantly blurred these lines. In the cloud model, buyers more often seek a solution, not piece parts. IBM’s new structure and vision are designed to meet these new expectations and demands. In an ideal world, these changes will enable IBM to more easily bring its technology innovations (such as Watson, Bluemix, and joint open source solutions) to market, and take center stage among in the cloud and adjacent markets.

But, the world is not ideal. Although IBM may have more IP, patents and research fellows than the next few tech vendors combined, it faces significant obstacles in terms of competing with more nimble competitors. To help address this, IBM recently hired Kevin Eagan, longtime Microsoft executive, as Vice President and General Manger for IBM’s Digital Channel. Eagan takes on the daunting task of making IBM easier to do business with, and as such, will play a pivotal role in IBM’s future cloud fortunes.

IBM also faces substantial pricing and margin hurdles. Will the board of directors and stockholders be willing to cannibalize traditional, higher margin business to build higher volume, but lower margin cloud business? Finally, can Big Blue get 400,000 IBMers energized and organized for the new mission?

At Interconnect, IBM demonstrated that it understands the magnitude of change that cloud, mobile, big data and IoT have wrought, and articulated its strategy to get ahead of the curve and the competition. Only time will tell if IBM can meet the necessary and perhaps more formidable challenges to change its systems, business model and culture to make this vision a reality.

Discussing 2015 SMB Tech Trends, Part 1: Cloud is the New IT Infrastructure for SMBs

Recently, I had the pleasure of kicking off the new year as a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2015 Top Technology Trends for SMBs and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. The first of a five-part series, this post summarizes our discussion of “Cloud is the new IT infrastructure for SMBs.”

White Clouds in Blue SkyKalynn: Welcome, this is Kalynn Amadio and you are listening to ACT LOCAL Marketing for Small Business, and I want to introduce you to a previous guest of the show. I can tell you that Laurie’s previous podcasts were some of the most downloaded in this show’s history. Laurie, I’ll have to look up how many downloads you have altogether, I haven’t done that in a long time, it’s always fun.

Laurie: Hi Kalynn, great to talk to you again too.

Kalynn: I’ll tell you, I mentioned that the couple of other interviews you’ve done with me, because Laurie always looks into her crystal ball and tells us what is on the horizon, what can we be thinking about, and people must really like this Laurie because they download those two podcasts that have predictions more so than many of the other interviews that I’ve done over the years, so kudos to you.

Laurie: Thank you Kalynn, that’s great to hear. We try to put these technology trends into a language that us mere mortals that are not necessarily technologists can understand and relate to in terms of our businesses.

Kalynn: It’s important to have some smarty-pants people like you looking at all this stuff and making it understandable for the rest of us. Now you have a report that’s going to be coming out soon that are the small and medium SMB groups, Top Ten Small and Medium Business Technology Trends for 2015. We won’t have time to go through all ten of them but I have cherry picked half of them that I’m hoping that we will get through because several of them will impact local businesses, small businesses, a lot of the baby boomers that I deal with and marketing related things. The first one I want to ask you about is the cloud, right? A lot of businesses still get confused about what that means. I can’t tell how many times I’ve had to explain what the cloud actually is, but tell us about the cloud as the new IT infrastructure for small to mid-size businesses.

Laurie: Okay, fantastic. Our first prediction, as a matter of fact, is that cloud is the new infrastructure for SMBs.   What we’ve seen over the years, and believe it or not, this concept of cloud computing has been around since really the late 1990s, but it kind of got off to a rocky start for a lot of reasons that we don’t really need to go into in detail. Suffice it to say that maybe in the beginning the concept was a little ahead of its time in terms of the available technology and network bandwidth and things like that. We’ve basically seen cloud really take off in the last few years, especially since the recession. Interestingly what we’re finding is the cloud is definitely enabling a lot of smaller companies that no way no how could they have ever been able to implement a lot of different technology solutions on their own. The cloud is kind of leveling the playing field because they don’t have to have in-house technology expertise to deploy these solutions. We’re really seeing in our research more and more small businesses believe very strongly that technology solutions help them improve their business outcomes or run their businesses better. The cloud has really been a way for these guys to get those solutions that can really help them fulfill their business goals without having a lot of IT staff.

Kalynn: When you talk about cloud IT solutions, give us some household names.

Laurie: There are a million of them. You now have QuickBooks Online, Intuit QuickBooks Online, which has now I think probably 750 or 800,000 customers are running QuickBooks online. That’s something obviously kind of a household name for small businesses. Also vendors like Salesforce.com, InfusionSoft, or ReachLocal, which has a great marketing automation solution for local businesses. There are lots of them virtually in every solution category. Most of us are already using cloud-based email solutions for using Gmail or Office 365 or something like that. Really almost every single category of applications is now available in the cloud. What we see in our last survey that we did in 2014 earlier this year is that 92% of SMBs are now using at least one cloud business solution which is the kinds I just mentioned, like accounting, marketing and sales and things like that. 87%, almost as many, are using at least one cloud infrastructure solution. That could be for security, or backup, or file sharing like DropBox and Box.net, and things like that. We really see small and medium businesses it is already mainstream for them, but a lot of them are only using maybe one or two. I think as these businesses really see the benefits of automating parts of their businesses with technology and have a good experience with cloud solutions we’re going to see that cloud expansion rise even further. There really aren’t a lot of barriers to adopting a cloud-based solution.

Kalynn: Right, and it really saves you in your budget because you don’t have to maintain any of this infrastructure or these types of software yourself. They’re so helpful.

Laurie: It’s really helpful. One of the big sticking points for cloud is that while it reduces a lot of the technology barriers, it hasn’t helped a lot of small businesses in terms of reducing business expertise barriers. In other words, you may have a very successful business but you yourself may not be an accounting expert or a marketing expert, or whatever, but we’re starting to see especially in what I would call some of the newer cloud solutions more expertise built-in and more kinds of hand holding services provided, and a big emphasis on user experience, creating a user experience that makes it much easier for people that aren’t subject matter experts to understand how they can most effectively use the solution in their business for better marketing, accounting, or whatever.

You can listen to the complete podcast discussion here

SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2015

crystal ball

(Originally published on the SMB Group website and available here in .pdf format).

Here are SMB Group’s Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2015! A more detailed description of each follows below.

(Note: SMB Group is the source for all research data quoted unless otherwise indicated.)

  1. Cloud is the new IT infrastructure for SMBs.
  2. SMB IT staff and channel partners evolve into cloud managers.
  3. SMBs recalibrate IT strategy and spending for a mobile world.
  4. The Internet of Things (IoT) comes into focus.
  5. SMBs reinvent marketing for the new buyer journey.
  6. KPIs trump ROI and TCO as the new “show me” metric.
  7. Analytics gets SMB-friendly with “bring your own data” and freemium offerings.
  8. It’s time to reimagine work.
  9. SMBs place a premium on protection.
  10. SMBs opt for an incremental, integrated solutions approach.

Detailed SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2015

  1. Cloud is the new IT infrastructure for SMBs. SMBs increasingly view technology as a key business enabler. According to SMB Group research, 67% of small businesses (1–99 employees) and 81% of medium businesses (100–999 employees) say that technology solutions help them improve business outcomes or run the business better. However, most SMBs don’t have the resources necessary to keep pace with technology on their own. Just 19% of small businesses employ full-time dedicated IT staff. And while 86% of medium businesses have internal IT staff, they are typically IT generalists who lack expertise in newer technology areas such as mobile and analytics. As SMB requirements for fast, easy access to new social and mobile analytics solutions, more compute power and storage, and other services have been increasing, cloud adoption has boomed—with 92% of SMBs are now using at least one cloud business solution and 87% using at least one cloud infrastructure solution. In 2015, cloud solutions are poised for hockey stick growth as more SMB decision-makers turn to a cloud-first approach that not only supports existing business models, but also enables them to develop innovative new products, services and business models. Public cloud adoption will continue to significantly outpace that of private cloud, but more medium businesses in particular will consider a hybrid cloud approach, particularly in industries and applications where security and privacy are top concerns.
  2. SMB IT staff and channel partners evolve into cloud managers. As the cloud becomes mainstream, both internal SMB IT staff and external channel partner roles will evolve from implementation and break/fix support to become more proactive and strategic. SMBs will look for staff and channel partners that can work with line-of-business decision-makers to better align technology investments with business goals, select best-fit solutions and manage cloud service providers. Internal IT staff and channel partners will also need stronger integration expertise to help SMBs get more value from their technology investments. Channel partners will need to cultivate consultative selling and adjust staffing skill sets accordingly. SMB decision-makers will seek help to better understand and articulate new skill-set requirements, and to hire and/or contract for these needs. They will be hungry for thought leadership from SMB vendors, analysts and other influencers.
  3. SMBs recalibrate IT strategy and spending for a mobile world. A growing majority of SMBs now regard mobile solutions as essential business enablers, with 60% saying that mobile solutions are critical to their business. 86% of SMBs agree or strongly agree that mobile apps are a complement to traditional business applications, and 71% believe that mobile apps will replace some traditional solutions entirely. Mobile solutions also account for a growing share of SMBs’ technology budgets. SMB median spending on mobile technology and solutions as a percentage of total technology spending rose from roughly 12% in 2013 to 16% in 2014. Mobile service and device costs still account for the bulk of SMB mobile budgets, but SMB spending in other areas is rising as a percentage of mobile spend. On average, in 2014, SMBs spent 11% of their mobile dollars on apps, 9% on security, 11% on mobile management and 8% on consulting. Planned increased investment in mobile apps and more diverse mobile devices will necessitate a spike in mobile management adoption as well.
  4. The Internet of Things (IoT) comes into focus. IT vendors and prognosticators have been forecasting explosive growth for more intelligent and connected devices of all types. However, many IoT scenarios have been cast in a consumer light, such as smart watches and Tile (a locator for items such as keys and glasses), and the IoT vision has been fuzzy for many SMBs. In 2015, however, early but compelling use-case scenarios and solutions will emerge, leading more SMBs to the “aha” moments required to spark adoption. For instance, radio-frequency identification (RFID) has been used in logistics to track pallets and crates for some time, but mostly in closed-loop systems for high-value goods. IoT will help reduce RFID costs, making it more practical and appealing to retailers to use in order to help improve inventory accuracy, automate customer checkout and reduce theft. Beacons, which are indoor positioning systems that communicate directly with smart phones via Bluetooth, provide another compelling SMB use case. For example, a network of in-store beacons can identify the location of customers in a store and send them push notifications. Or, a trucking company could install beacons to monitor the state of its trucks, provide more timely maintenance, reduce vehicle downtime and decrease costs. Once SMBs understand use cases more clearly, IoT will hold great appeal because it is mostly invisible to end users, which negates adoption issues, and it provides real-time data for better decision-making and better business outcomes.
  5. SMBs reinvent marketing for the new buyer journey. The buyer journey is evolving rapidly and includes many more touch points than ever before. SMBs must transform their marketing approach to connect with more prospects and customers, and to provide them with the right information at the right time in the buying journey. Although many small and even medium businesses rely on point solutions, more will turn to an integrated marketing approach. In 2014, 20% of small businesses and 25% of medium businesses had purchased/upgraded to a marketing automation solution in the past 24 months. Meanwhile, 22% of small businesses and 26% of medium businesses plan to purchase/upgrade a marketing automation solution in the next 12 months. More SMBs will realize that choosing the right marketing automation solution is one of the most important technology decisions they will make, particularly as cloud, mobile, social, analytics and other technologies continue to transform the buying process.
  6. KPIs trump ROI and TCO as the new “show me” metric. Historically, vendors have tended to focus on proving solution value through return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis and metrics. But these assessments and metrics, while often beneficial, are frequently too vague and/or too dependent on nuanced measurements to be compelling for SMBs. In comparison, key performance indicators (KPIs) can provide SMBs with specific, actionable insights on business performance and what areas need improvement. With so many vendors fighting for SMB dollars, SMBs will increasingly seek out those that help them understand what KPIs are most relevant for their business and industry, and those that provide credible, specific metrics about how their solutions affect these KPIs.
  7. Analytics gets SMB-friendly with “bring your own data” and freemium offerings. Most SMBs don’t have data analysts on staff. These businesses often are intimidated by analytics solutions, which have traditionally been expensive, complex and difficult to use. But cloud computing, better user interfaces, visualization tools, improved algorithms and natural language capabilities as well as a growing number of freemium offerings designed for business decision-makers—not data scientists—are poised to change this. For instance, IBM’s Watson freemium offering allows users to bring in data from many sources, and it has capabilities that reduce data preparation and loading time, including a “fix it” button to repair data quality issues. Once data is plugged into Watson, users can query in natural language to analyze information. As more solutions designed for people with little or no data preparation and analytics skills emerge, analytics will become more consumable for SMBs.
  8. It’s time to reimagine work. Whether you prefer the hashtag #futureofwork, #newwaytowork, #reimaginework or something else, it’s clear that change is on the horizon. Processes, tools, attitudes and behaviors are shifting as mobile, social, cloud, analytics, IoT and other technology advances take hold in SMBs. Likewise, demographic shifts are reshaping the makeup of SMB workers as well as their expectations of what technology should do and how it should do it. For instance, millennials and digital natives are rising through the workforce ranks, while baby boomers are starting to retire or move to part-time work. Meanwhile, the ranks of temporary and contract workers continue to grow. The National Employment Law Project found that temporary help agencies, staffing agencies, professional employer organizations and employment placement agencies fill 2.5% of all jobs, up from 1.4% in 1990. In addition, easy-to-use consumer apps and devices have raised the bar for user experience in the business-to-business (B2B) world. This changing mix of resources, behavior, attitudes and requirements will lead more SMBs to seek better, easier and more affordable ways to access, evaluate, buy and get productive with technology solutions. Vendors that understand and plan for this evolution, provide clear solution value and make SMB customers feel that they are part of a strong ecosystem will have a decisive edge as this trend unfolds. Providing easy access and free trials, clear messaging, a delightful user experience, superior support and vibrant user communities will be key to tapping into this trend.
  9. SMBs place a premium on protection. SMBs are already using basic security and backup tools. However, our research shows that most use point solutions that only tackle part of the problem. The use of more comprehensive solutions to protect and manage data is still far from the norm. But greater reliance on technology, an increasing number of “moving parts” (traditional apps and infrastructure, cloud, social, mobile, etc.) and the need to manage data no matter where it resides necessitate better security, control and management capabilities. SMBs need only turn on the news to understand the financial, brand and legal ramifications of data breaches at large companies such as Sony Pictures, Home Depot and eBay. As awareness rises, SMBs will place a premium on more comprehensive solutions from vendors that offer proactive guidance, deeper expertise, stronger service-level agreements (SLAs) and 24/7 support for an always-on world.
  10. SMBs opt for an incremental, integrated solutions approach. New cloud, mobile and social solutions have made it easier for SMBs to access and use new applications, but they have offered little help with integration. Although 63% of SMBs have partially integrated some applications, 79% still rely on manual Excel file uploads or custom code for integration, which underscores the severity of the problem. SMBs typically lack the expertise and resources to manage the entire integration process, and they need solutions that both encompass and better integrate cloud, mobile, social, analytics, security and other technologies. However, SMBs don’t want—and can’t digest—monolithic solutions. Vendors need to accommodate SMB integration requirements with a LEGO-like approach that enables SMBs to acquire only what they need at a given point in time, and then to add on new capabilities (their own or those of partners) with as little friction as possible when new needs arise. Although integration remains one of the toughest technology nuts to crack, we see new hope. Open ecosystems, embedded integration capabilities and stronger APIs should help pave the way, as should toolsets designed to help non-technical users to configure integrations without coding if they understand business integration workflows and requirements. Built-in collaboration and social communities to help users crowdsource information, find experts and share and/or sell integrations will also be key to making SMB integration a reality.

About SMB Group

SMB Group focuses exclusively on researching and analyzing the highly fragmented “SMB market”—which is composed of many smaller, more discrete markets. Within the SMB market, SMB Group’s areas of focus include: Emerging Technologies, Cloud Computing, Managed Services, Business and Marketing Applications, Collaboration and Social Media Solutions, IT Infrastructure Management and Services, and Green IT.

IBM Reimagines the Email Story With IBM Verse

email iconYou’ve got mail! It’s been a long time since most of us have experienced the surge of pleasurable anticipation that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan enjoyed in the 1998 classic, “You’ve Got Mail.”

Instead, if you’re like me and many others, opening your business inbox has become a soul-sucking experience that consumes too much time, distracts you from more important tasks, and leaves you feeling that in spite of all the time you spend in email, you probably missed something important. Yet with all of its flaws, you continue to use email because it has become a seemingly irreplaceable part of the business workflow.

You’ve Got Information Overload!

The feeling of information overload that many of us experience isn’t surprising. According to Osterman Research, most corporate decision makers and influencers view email as the single most important application they have deployed. The typical user spends two hours per day working in the corporate email system and sends or receives a median of 130 emails per day. Email is also the primary method for:

  • Sending an attachment for 94% of users.
  • Sharing files while on a call for 60% of users.
  • Managing a project for 56% of users.

Sadly, much of this time is wasted: According to a 2012 Grossman Group study, middle managers typically spend 100 hours a year on irrelevant email. Many frustrations arise from this sorry state of affairs, including some of my top aggravations:

  • That nagging feeling that I’ve missed something (especially in all of those crazy Google threads!).
  • Spending too much time catching up on email after work hours so I’m not swamped the next day. For better or worse, this is easier than ever because I can do it on my iPhone.
  • Spending too much time searching for that one, elusive email that I really need.
  • Toggling back and forth from my email to calendar to find open time for meetings.
  • Getting back to what I was supposed to be working on after be email distractions.

But, despite these problems—and the emergence of newer digital communications methods (social networking, activity streams, text messages, IM, etc.) touted as email replacements—email is still very much alive and well. While newer methods are making some headway (and in fact, reducing email use in our personal lives), email remains the top form of business communication. In fact, 52% of those surveyed by Osterman Research indicated that their use of email had actually increased over the previous 12 months, while for 44%, use remained the same. Use declined for only 3% of respondents.

Towards A More Intelligent Inbox

To be fair, email has evolved since the first email with an @ sign was sent (reputedly in 1972, by Ray Tomlinson, an ARPANET contractor and Internet pioneer). Commercial developers got in the game, and developed folders to organize email, offline synchronization, standards and protocols, web interfaces, search capabilities, spam filters, ways to pre-sort emails into different buckets and more to make email more user-friendly and usable.

Although these improvements have helped somewhat, the original paradigm of looking at a big long list of stuff—emails, files and folders—remains. We’ve gained more ways to slice and dice our inbox, but it’s still served up to us in pretty much the same way as it has always been, in rows of information.

Newer social and collaborative tools, from activity streams to file sharing apps have been developed to make communication and collaboration easier, and to reduce and/or replace email. But while they are a great fit for certain tasks and activities, they haven’t displaced email to any great extent. Email volumes continue to multiple, and email overload continues to plague us.

You’ve Got Focus!

But what would happen if you began with the premise that email isn’t likely to go away? And that since people spend a lot of time in email, it should be a place where people like working and can be more productive, and that easily integrates with newer social and collaborative tools, instead of competing with them? In other words, how can you have an inbox that works for you, instead of the other way around?

This is the premise that IBM team has zeroed in on with IBM Verse. Verse is designed to help people focus on, find and act on the most important things in their inbox in a more intuitive and integrated fashion. Big Blue has invested $100 million to design the solution, which combines its cloud, analytics, social and security platforms.

Initially announced at IBM’s 2014 Connect conference (under the codename Mail Next), IBM Verse replaces those deadly rows and folders with a fresh, visual mental map to help you make sense of your inbox more quickly and easily (Figure 1). With one look at the IBM Verse dashboard, you can:

  • See what replies and tasks you owe others.
  • View meetings and free time.
  • Identify what’s most important in your inbox.
  • View your activity stream.
  • Move over a face to see that person’s emails, chats, invites and more all in one place.

Figure 1: IBM Verse Screenshot

Mail Next screen shot (9)

Source: IBM

From there, you can drill down to different layers to manage things, take action and stay on top of priorities (Figure 2). For instance, you can:

  •  Pull up and attach links to files and manage version control.
  • “Unlock” emails and turn them into social posts to share with a community.
  • Use team analytics to create social graphs to see how active different people are in a thread.
  • Create rules to sort, filter, mute and hide messages.

Focus on Experience, Not Features

IBM Design Thinking, IBM’s design framework for delivering great user experience to users. Is also taking a different approach to designing IBM Verse. Instead of testing the user interface after some (too often) wonky developers come up with it, product management, development and design all work together equally from the beginning.

Using tools such as IBM Digital Analytics (formerly Coremetrics) and other technologies from its portfolio, IBM can continually personalize and prioritize email and social activities for users and improve search. Over time, according to IBM, Watson will provide much of the analytics behind IBM Verse, with the goal of providing users with more insights and less overload from their email.

Coming Soon…

IBM Verse will debut as a cloud service (but IBM is prepping an on-premises version as well). Key sponsor and design advisory users have been reviewing, testing and helping co-create the solution since August. The solution will officially premiere in November as one of just eight IBM “Signature Moments,” putting IBM Verse on par with the IBM-Apple deal. After that, IBM Verse will enter beta mode, with general availability slated for March 2015.

IBM will provide Notes Domino users with a preview and transition to IBM Verse. Notes Domino users will be able to use IBM Verse in combinations with Notes Domino and with IBM Connections.

IBM will also offer a standalone Verse solution of Verse in a freemium model, to compete against Google Gmail and Microsoft Office 365. As an SMB analyst, the standalone version is of most interest to me as this is the first freemium IBM has offered. The freemium model will provide entrée to an app that almost every business needs, and has the potential to generate viral adoption for an IBM product—another first for IBM.

Will IBM Verse Measure Up At the Box Office?

But it’s not a slam-dunk. IBM Verse should provide Notes Domino users a more compelling case to stay the course instead of defecting to Microsoft, Google or other cloud-based mail alternatives. However, most Notes Domino users have a lot of applications, many internally developed, running on the platform. IBM Verse will need to be able to run, expose and interface with these apps to make the transition truly easy.

Meanwhile, as alluring as the IBM Verse demo and interface is, gaining traction outside of the Notes Domino installed base will be extremely challenging. For starters, many companies, especially small and medium businesses (SMBs), are already using cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. SMB Group research indicates that 49% of small (1-99 employees) and 40% of medium (100-999 employees) already use cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. Furthermore, the preference for cloud among SMBs planning to purchase or upgrade collaboration solutions is strong (Figure 2).

Figure 2: SMB Adoption and Plans for Email and Collaboration Solutions

Slide1

Source: SMB Group 2014 SMB Routes to Market Study 

In addition, IBM will need to make a strong case to business decision-makers and end-users, as well as to IT. IBM will not only need to create broad-based awareness for the solution, but convey why and how it’s different from other email solutions, and how it directly benefits users—aka “what’s in it for me” to move the needle.

And, while IBM Verse isn’t exactly a new category, it’s a very new approach that goes beyond traditional email. Users will need to develop a new mental map—and IBM will need to help them do so. Going to market with a freemium model will help, but it won’t be enough. In addition, IBM will need to:

  • Deeply internalize sponsor and beta user feedback, not only to influence solution development and design, but also to ensure that IBM Verse messaging, positioning and marketing reflects the user voice and experience.
  • Heavily socialize the IBM Verse concept across events, social media, communities, influencer groups, etc.
  • Maximize conversion of users that try IBM Verse to users that buy, or in the case of the freemium, stick with IBM Verse and make it their corporate mail system. It’s easy to get people to download free apps, but tough to get them to test them and tougher still to displace an existing solution with a new one.

As a solution, I believe that IBM Verse is launching with the right stuff, including.

  • As a cloud first solution, IBM Verse can tap into the growing number of companies that opt to start with or move to the cloud.
  • IBM’s design thinking team aligns with where users are today: helping people get more done, more quickly with fewer menus, mouse clicks and a more visual representation.
  • “Personal analytics” taps into user concerns about information overload, and the desire to manage email more intelligently.

But, only time will tell if IBM’s elevation of IBM Verse to Signature Moment status—and the marketing power attendant with this—will be enough to ensure that IBM Verse will become the blockbuster hit that IBM is hoping for.

This post was sponsored by IBM.

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