ReachLocal: One Stop Digital Shop for Local Small Business

This video interview was originally posted on SMB Group Spotlight. 

Laurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe here with SMB Group’s SMB Spotlight. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Sharon Rowlands, the relatively new CEO of ReachLocal.  Sharon was brought into ReachLocal earlier this year to help transform the company.  Sharon, thanks for talking to me today.

Sharon: Absolute pleasure Laurie.

Laurie: Great.  Before we get started can you just tell me a little bit about who ReachLocal is and how you got started and what the company does?

Sharon: Sure, absolutely.  ReachLocal was founded over 10 years ago to really help local businesses with their digital marketing needs.  It was a time when advertising dollars were still mainly going to print and Yellow Pages. As the Internet became a stronger way in which consumers looked for services, ReachLocal was established to help local businesses tap into that.

Laurie: That’s kind of hard to believe thinking back now that only 10 years ago where we were using Yellow Pages and things like that.

Sharon: Absolutely.

Laurie: So dialing forward a bit what does ReachLocal stand for today, what’s the business about today?

Sharon: The business today is still about helping local businesses get more customers. Most local businesses are small, and we are still all about helping them get found online wherever consumers are searching.  What has changed is clearly the number of places consumers search has expanded. So local businesses now have to worry about being found on search engines, found on digital directories, found on social media. Then they need to be able to manage all that digital traffic in an effective way.

Laurie: I think it’s getting more and more pressurized because there are so many channels that you have to get out through, between social media and search, and if you’re a brick and mortar company you’re still doing things in the physical world.  How do you help small businesses get their arms around this, manage it and break through the noise when you have the big companies with big budgets and more resources?

Sharon: Right.  Well, I think it’s a couple of things but firstly really being a one-stop shop for them because it’s overwhelming to think you have to manage all these different online venues. So ReachLocal does it all for the small business in one place.

We have a really amazing technology platform that optimizes across all of the platforms and makes sure that we’re actually getting you the most leads for your money.  Then secondly what we do with our ReachEdge platform, similar to a marketing automation system, we help the local business manage those leads and provide analytics around what’s working and conversion.  We have great technology but we really believe the business wants help as well–so we also bring great service and expertise to make sure their campaigns are working for them.

Laurie: Can you tell me a little bit about what would be like for a typical small business, maybe a real estate company or a dental practice, what would you do for them start to finish?

Sharon: Let me give you a real life example. I just talked the other week with a relatively new client, six months, up in the Bay Area, a plumber.  He has 10 contractors on staff.  What we did for him was we set him with our ReachEdge platform which gives him a mobile optimized website which is really important because over 50% of searches are being done by mobile, and that’s just growing.

Laurie: And that’s all integrated into the platform?

Sharon: That’s all integrated into the platform.  We then run all his advertising campaigns across digital display and search engine.  We do retargeting campaigns for him. All of the lead intake, which is both phone and web forms, come into one place, get categorized, and alerts him to how he has to follow-up and then really tracks those leads through to conversion and getting new clients.  He can really see the ROI in what his digital marketing spend is doing for him.  His performance in terms of customer growth has been incredible in the last six months.

Laurie: I think a lot of times without that automation a lot of leads and people you bring into the database they just fall through the cracks, you don’t follow up because you’re overwhelmed trying to do plumbing or whatever your business is.

Sharon: Absolutely.  You’ve really hit something really, really important.  So much of the industry talks about lead generation.  You might get a great lead but unless you follow-up and convert it it’s still been a waste of your money.  Typically small businesses, because they’re so busy on their business actually lead conversion tends to get really neglected and one of the things we’re passionate about with ReachLocal is really helping clients convert effectively, not just get them leads.

Laurie: Do you also help them manage or improve their repeat business, referral business, are there elements to that once you have a customer.  It’s not just like a one shot deal, you’re bringing them into the fold so to speak?

Sharon: Right.  Well I think we really encourage our customers to use best practices in terms of email marketing and great content.  At the end of the day content really is foundational.  They can set up lead nurturing campaigns within ReachEdge platform.  Our primary focus really is getting them customers.

Laurie: Getting them new business, which in every one of our surveys, is the number one for small business.  What do you think makes ReachLocal really stand out?  There’s a lot of competitors that are pitching similar things, what do you think makes you different especially when it comes to the smaller company?

Sharon: Okay, I think a couple of things.  Number one I think we really are a one-stop digital shop for small business. That’s very important because it’s overwhelming for them to think about dealing with different partners for different aspects of what they need.  The fact that we can deliver the full spectrum is very important.

Secondly, I we bring ten years of expertise.  We have run millions of campaigns so we know what works.  That meld of great technology but with expertise I really think delivers a really great performance and at the end of the day that’s really what matters to our customers is they want to see the results.  They’re spending very important dollars so getting the performance and the results is key.

Laurie: Speaking of dollars the other thing that’s important to them is something they can afford.  A lot of times I talk to them and oh you know it’s really affordable and I ask for pricing and well it’s about $50,000 to get started!  What’s the deal with ReachLocal, how much are they in for?

Sharon: ReachEdge, which is if you like the marketing system and platform that gives you the website and all the marketing automation tools is $299 a month.  After that, what you choose to spend on search engine and display marketing is dependent upon where you are, how many leads you need to generate. Clearly your budget is going to relate to what type of performance you’re looking to get.

 Laurie: But $299 a month is the basic fee to be using the platform, taking advantage of all the automation?

Sharon: Absolutely, and get all of the reporting and conversion tools.

Laurie: Definitely something that most small businesses have in their wheelhouse in terms of affordability. So where can a company go to learn more about ReachLocal?

Sharon: Well you can find us on the web of course, at http://www.reachlocal.com. Or you can call us at 888-644-1321. And because we are a local business supporting local businesses we actually have a presence all over the world so we have over 20 offices across America.  Typically if you’re a small business and you need somebody to come and talk to you to really help strategize with you we have somebody locally.

Laurie: That’s great.  I’m here in your local New York office right now.  Sharon, this has been a great introduction to ReachLocal, thank you very much.  Thank you all tuning in to this SMB Spotlight.

Looking at the Big Picture for SMB Sales and Marketing: revenue + associates

Laurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group. Today I’m talking to Louis Gudema, president of revenue + associates, which helps companies generate more revenue through measureable sales and marketing improvements. So Louis, I’ve known you for a while and I’ve know that revenue + associates is a new company for you, what’s prompted you to start it? Louis-casual-200-pix-wide

Louis: I had a company before for a dozen years, a digital agency that I sold in 2009 that became one of the national leaders in our niche. Then I did business development for two other agencies for several years. What I saw was a need that wasn’t being addressed head on, which is corporate revenue generation. A lot of agencies and people splinter it and say we’re going to help you with your website, we’re going to help with search, or we’re going help with advertising or with sales training, or whatever it may be, social media, but they’re not looking at the whole picture. Those point solutions may not be what a company really needs, and there may be other places where the best revenue opportunities lie for them.

Laurie: Yes, I think that’s a problem all of us can relate to. We know there’s many solutions out there but we have to frame up the problem and make sure we’re getting the right solution in place for it. How do you go about solving for that because it’s pretty complex?

Louis: I look across what I call a sales and marketing audit. There’s currently over a thousand companies, for example, providing sales and marketing software and dozens of channels from things like social and search advertising to traditional things like print. So in a sales and marketing audit, I look across a company’s whole sales and marketing process, it’s a 100 plus point audit that looks at what technologies are they using, what is the strategy, internal operations, governance, budgets, how are they onboarding people and training people, do they have the staff, are there skills gaps? From that I identify the best short, mid, and long-term opportunities for the company and start working with them to drill down.

Laurie: Who are your services mainly designed for? Small, medium or larger companies, what’s the right size company for this approach?

Louis: It’s a company that really wants to grow revenue. I’ve seen surveys that three out of four small business owners don’t want to get any bigger. So I want to talk to the fourth one. I’m especially focused on mid-market companies with say 10 to 100 or 200 million in revenue. I’ve worked with companies like IBM and Philips Healthcare and Avid Technology and other very, very large companies and done millions of dollars of business with them but in terms of starting this new company and the particular approach, I’m especially focused on that mid-market.

Laurie: I know you recently published a report called Revenue Opportunities, what is that about and what did you find in there? revenue-opportunities-report-cover-190

Louis: What I did was I took a look at 196 mid-market companies in New England that were operating on a national level. Looking from the outside what could I see about how much they were adapting modern sales and marketing programs. This looks at things like did they have analytics on their website, were they doing search advertising, were they doing search engine optimization, did they have a mobile ready site? Nine different things that could be seen from the outside, and it wasn’t only because those nine things can be very valuable and generate a lot of revenue when used well.

I felt they were also an indicator of the maturity and depth of a company’s revenue generation program. What I found was that of these 200 companies that operate nationally, so they all should be really eager to do as much as they can to generate revenue because they’re in competitive national or global markets. In fact, the average among those companies was that they were using less than three of those nine important programs and the median was two. It was a very, very low adoption rate.

Laurie: Why do you think the adoption rate for these things that are so directly tied to revenue so low?

Louis: I think it’s a couple things. The real outlier at the top end were SaaS and venture-backed companies. These are new companies, they’re very data driven and they’re very comfortable with technology, and they’re part of a world, especially that venture-backed world that knows this whole modern and very effective way to really ramp up revenue quickly.

I also get into other industries, like manufacturing or medical devices or engineering or architecture. I looked across a lot of industries. Then adoption rates plummet a lot so I think you have a situation where a company that’s doing okay, and has traditional ways of generating business. They know how those work for them and there’s this massive number of new things flying at them and they don’t know what’s real, what’s not real, what’s important. They don’t know where to start. They may have even tried one or two things but sometimes if you dip your toe in the water you can’t learn to swim, sometimes you have to really go in and embrace something to get the results. For a number of reasons the adoption of these technologies has been very slow, nationally even, from studies I’ve seen.

Laurie: These results you’re getting from these companies that are all in New England, do you think they represent the larger mid-market in the U.S.?

Louis: Actually, if anything, New England may be a little ahead of the national average because half of New England market is Massachusetts and Boston is a big part of that. There’s a lot of newer SaaS and venture-backed companies in Boston and Massachusetts. SiriusDecisions did a report that came out the same week as my report. They only looked at one of the nine factors, which was marketing automation and said just 16% of B2B companies nationally are using it. In my sample it was 28%. So it’s really low.

It’s not that I’m saying that these nine programs are the end all be all. As I said I’m really taking them at kind of a litmus test or thermometer to see how deep, how well built out are the revenue generation programs. There’s lots of other things like events and email newsletters and predictive analytics and lots of other things that companies can be using traditional and digital that may be the most effective for them, but these are the ones I could see.

Laurie: In the report it discusses the upside for the companies who do get more sophisticated in terms of how they generate revenue and what programs they put into place. If you aren’t doing some of this stuff right now where should you go to get started?

Louis: Well, there are several things. First, you need to adopt the mindset and recognize that this is an important area for revenue growth and something you need to invest in. You need to adopt a data-driven mindset and realize that your gut may not always be right and sometimes the data will take you someplace new. You also need to be willing to experiment and even fail because these things will not work 100% of the time and they take implementation and analyzing and optimization to get it right.

You have to invest in people and make sure they have the skills and that you’re adopting the right tools and that you know how to use them, and you have to find someone who can probably guide you through it. That thousand plus programs, those are in dozens of categories. Some of those categories are important to some companies and not others.

Once you’ve adopted a commitment to it and to budgeting and training and so on and so forth you’re going to have to take some time to figure out what are the right things for you and how to get them to all work together. That’s where the big payoff is, it’s not adopting one or two programs, but if you adopt a marketing automation program integrate it with your CRM and integrate it with your email marketing and other things so that everything starts working together.

Laurie: Louis, where can they go to learn more about the services that revenue + associates provides? Louis: Our website is revenue + associates,. I also have a blog.

Laurie: Can they get a copy of the report there?

Louis: Yes, you can get a copy of the report there, you can download it there. There’s actually a blog post which is specifically about an SMB action plan, some of the things for a company that is new to these more modern programs, where are some of the places that you can start.  

Laurie: Sounds great. Thanks again, Louis, for your time today, for joining me on SMB Spotlight. This really looks like something a lot of SMBs will want to look into because I think even if you don’t want to grow your business in terms of people, most businesses want to become more profitable and I think that all comes into play as well. So thank you again.

Louis:Thanks, Laurie.

VerticalResponse: Taking the Guesswork Out of Email Marketing and Social Media for Small Businesses

vrlogo-gradient_1000pxLaurie: Hi, this is Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group, and today I’m talking to Janine Popick, CEO at VerticalResponse. VerticalResponse helps small businesses grow with email and social marketing tools, and recently Vertical Response introduced a new version of their solution which is what I’m here to talk with Janine about today.

So Janine, before we get into what the new VerticalResponse solution is all about, can you just let us know a little background about the company and what you’ve been doing up until now.

Janine: Oh sure, and thanks for having me here, Laurie, this is great. I launched VerticalResponse back in 2001 really with the premise that there was a lot of email marketing solutions out there for big businesses but there’s not a lot of solutions for small businesses. We’re based in San Francisco, we’re still headquartered here today, but really those big companies have that expensive software to manage all of their marketing, especially their email marketing. It was the right time for us to launch a company and get those small businesses from sending email out of their Outlook to more professional looking emails and a more professional solution. Currently here we have about 105 current employees at VerticalResponse.

Laurie: Ok, and about how many customers do you have?

Janine: Well we have over a million businesses that have come to use us over the course of the last 13 years. We’ve got probably on any given month about 40 to 50,000 active customers that are in there using the system.

Laurie: Ok, thanks. That’s a great introduction too. So why are you introducing a new version of VerticalResponse now?

Janine: Well, over the course of years newer technology surfaces so that companies like VerticalResponse can build some really neat stuff for small businesses to use, easier to use technologies, and we really decided it’s time for us to do that. Our self-service platform really lets those small businesses connect with their customers using both email marketing and social media marketing.

Laurie: Right, I did get a look at it last time we spoke and it does look really easy to use, which is always a good thing for any of us.

Janine: Yeah, you know small businesses really want to get in there and get out and do what they do best which is running their business.

Laurie: Exactly. Who would benefit from this? Is it your existing customers, is it new customers? How will it help them?

Janine: Well definitely new customers and existing customers. It really solves lots of problems but two that come to mind are time and money. Right? So with VerticalResponse these customers can keep in touch with their customers through the email marketing and social media marketing without spending, like you said you thought, without spending a lot of time to learn a complicated technology. This new platform has lots of amazing features. We really focused on drag and drop designer and with that drag and drop come templates that are mobile friendly. We’re really over 50% of all consumers today are checking their email on their mobile phone or on their tablet, so we really put an emphasis on mobile friendly templates, but you can also post messages to Twitter and Facebook right from the same dashboard, so you don’t have to log in to all those different platforms to do your social media as well, it’s kind of like that nifty one-stop shop for email and social.

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Laurie: Right, and that’s very convenient. Also, if I remember correctly, once you create your email marketing campaign it will render across any of the mobile devices or somebody’s laptop or desktop without you having to do anything different to it. It’ll render correctly, right?

Janine: Absolutely. We really wanted to take all that guesswork out of it for our customers who are the small businesses.

Laurie: Yep, make it idiot-proof. How about for the customers using the original version that you have, are there any gotchas? Should they switch to the new version or is it something they need to kind of look at some trade-offs or what?

Janine: Well I think at the get-go they should look at the new version, especially if they have under a thousand contacts on their list, it’s free, the whole product is free. That’s one benefit for our current VerticalResponse customers. Over the course of the next two to three quarters, we’re going to be incorporating all of the features that most of the Vertical Response current customers are using into the new platform in an even better and easy-to-use way. As those features come available we’re going to be communicating to those customers that use and love those features that hey, they’re available in the new Vertical Response, come on over and start using them. So that’s pretty exciting for current VerticalResponse customers, I think.

Laurie: Yeah, definitely, so kind of get your feet wet now even if it’s not got every bell and whistle that you want, it will have it and you can learn it and be ready when it’s all available.

Janine: Exactly.

Laurie: So right now the new version is completely free or is it a freemium kind of model where there’s an up charge or how does that work?

Janine: Well it is a freemium model, it is completely free if you have a thousand or fewer customers. Once you go over the thousand contacts on your list it’s as little as nine bucks per month, depending on your list size that’s where it starts. It is completely free but as soon as you start growing and you might want some more bells and whistles, then we’ll ask you for a charge.

Laurie: Yes, sure, typical freemium model. What’s your URL, what’s the website address where they can learn more both about the new product and maybe the existing one too?

Janine: The website is www.verticalresponse.com, they can go, they can sign up right then and there and begin trying it out. It’s pretty easy, they get in there and just try it out and see if they like it.

Laurie: When did you put it up there for people to start trying?

Janine: On the 14th of March.

Laurie: Ok. Have you had a lot of hits or how’s it going with that?

Janine: We have actually. We have the most sign ups that we’ve had over the course of many years, which is just great to see. We think it’s catching on, we think people like it and it’s just going to keep growing, so we’re pretty excited about what we’re able to offer to our business customers.

Laurie: Ok, well that’s great, Janine. I really appreciate your time today and thank you for joining us to share the information and the news.

Janine: Thank you.

Discussing SMB Tech Trends: Part 1, Social Media Marketing and Technology As a Game Changer

Recently, I was 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 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. This, the first of a four-part series, summarizes our discussion of  “Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices” and “Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer.”

Kalynn:Welcome back to Act Local Marketing for Small Business, Laurie. I just want to let you know that the show you were on last year, discussing the 2013 SMB trends was the most downloaded interview that I have ever had on the podcast.

Laurie:Thanks, Kalynn and Happy New Year!

Kalynn: This is a perfect time of year for you to be on the show again because SMB Group recently published its 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends.  We won’t have time to go through all of them, and of course I’m more interested in the ones that are more relevant to marketing.

The first one I want to talk about is social media marketing. What you discovered might surprise a few people. Can you give some insight into that?

free social networkingLaurie: As you know, SMBs have been rapidly adopting social media as a marketing tool, whether building a presence on Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or some combination thereof. In fact, more than half of small businesses and two-thirds of medium businesses are using social media for marketing.

But, more SMBs are realizing that even though they don’t need to spend a lot of money to establish a social media presence, social has a voracious appetite for more and more content. There’s a lot of pressure to keep the content fresh because that’s what keeps people coming back. This is wearing on some businesses.

It’s also tough to keep up with changing social media preferences, for instance as millennials move from Facebook, for instance, to Snapchat or Instagram. So we predict that while social media marketing isn’t going away, it will stall a little as SMBs focus more on figuring out what really works and clicks with their target audiences.

Kalynn: Which makes a lot of sense. Google is a content monster; to get found you have to give it more and more content. But there has to be a happy balance between creating content and promoting your content. You need to promote your content more than once but you do have to find that balance.  All audiences will probably be different depending on what market you’re in, how often they’re willing to hear the message before they start to tune it out, and you do need fresh content.

Laurie: Absolutely, and at the end of the day it’s all about converting social connections that you’re making into customers and advocates. So the first step is to look at how you can repackage and reuse content in different ways to reach a wider audience.

I’ll give you an example. Today we’re talking about our 2014 top ten trends list. We initially published it in December and sent it to clients, prospects and press via email marketing, and got good traction with it.

As the new year started, we created individual tweets about each prediction, and that sparked more interest. Now I’m talking about it here on your show. It’s just not feasible for most of us to create fresh content every day, so it’s important to repackage it in different ways.

We also see more SMBs integrating social media marketing with their marketing and sales applications to get more insight into what’s going on, how what they’re doing is working and to make the information more actionable from a sales and marketing perspective.

free chess image 2Kalynn: Your very first prediction was another one I wanted to talk about: technology as a game changer for SMBs.

Laurie:That’s our overarching theme because of what we’ve been seeing since we started doing our surveys 5 years ago.

SMBs split into some clearly defined segments. One segment is what we call Progressive SMBs, who share a few characteristics. They’re much more likely to view technology as a business enabler; they invest more in technology; and they are also more likely to be growing revenue than other SMBs.

This gap has been widening and we predict it continue to do so. Trends such as generational shifts, the sharing economy and new technology fueled services that you may not even think about as technology solutions are accelerating this and reshaping what it means to be an SMB.

Kalynn: You talk about the generational shifts; I talk a lot about this with my primary audience, baby boomers, age 50 and over. There’s a drastic difference in communication styles between boomers and 20-somethings and millennials…people don’t retire early as often as they used to…that means there are many technologies and ways people are communicating. And also many ways that a business needs to be able to converse with customers and prospects, and it can be overwhelming.

Laurie: It can, and that relates to social media too. I think everyone should be spending at least some time with social media just to keep a pulse on what’s going on. It’s really important.

But we also see how Progressive SMBs are increasingly capitalizing on technology, cultural and demographic shifts to create new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Just think about the businesses that have started up in the last few years and have been replaced in the last few years. I think the last Blockbuster finally closed. Now we’ve got Roku and we can stream everything whether it’s from Netflix or Hulu or whatever.  There’s also a shift in talent acquisition and management…with more use of outsourced services or Elance for contractors or freelancers instead of hiring salaried employees.

Or, in rethinking office space. Shared office space and shared IT infrastructure services are really growing in popularity. These are all ways to think about your business in a different light. And most often technology provides the fuel that businesses need to really get ahead.

Kalynn: Right, and in case people are not aware, Elance and oDesk, who recently merged, are websites where you can virtually hire temporary staffing, either for projects, or on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis.

They serve as middlemen, but protect you because they help with any disputes if things weren’t done well or not to your satisfaction. And they make it easier to track everything and for somebody not to get taken advantage of; either freelancer or the business owner.

Laurie: Yes, it’s basically a technology platform to help you manage the projects, execute the payments. The take care of all of the transaction stuff for you. People bid on the jobs, and you can see the ratings of each Elancer or oDesker, and you pick the bid you like.

At a higher level, we see that these more agile, Progressive SMBs taking advantage not just of technology per say but of solutions that are built on technology and also the sharing economy. Whether it’s shared workers, shared office space or shared IT infrastructure in the cloud or shared workers, you don’t have to own all your resources.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better not to.

Kalynn: Absolutely; there’s less headache often if you don’t own them.  And, you can adjust more quickly and scale up and scale down more quickly through projects, so it’s actually a really good thing.

In the second of this four-part series, I’ll recap Kalynn’s and my conversation about “Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars.” You can listen to the complete podcast here

Six Technology Resolutions for a Happier and Healthier SMB New Year

Happy New Year! While we often make personal New Year’s resolutions, I don’t think too many businesses make them. But you can start to change that in 2014 by resolving to make better use of technology to power your business, and create a more sustainable, competitive business.

With that in mind, here are a few resolutions that can help you work smarter, not harder, and enjoy a happier, healthier business in 2014.

iphone1. Manage your mobile investment. SMB Group research indicates 67% of SMBs view mobile solutions and services as “critical” to their businesses. SMBs are using mobile apps and solutions to help employees work more productively and efficiently, and to boost customer engagement and transactions. But while mobile apps are often easy to use, you also need to provision, support, and track and manage them on the back-end. Unfortunately, many SMBs are not yet using solutions to manage mobile devices and applications, and to protect valuable data from being lost or stolen. The good news is that vendors have taken notice and are offering cloud-based mobile management solutions specifically tailored to SMB requirements and constraints. Just a few to check out include: AirWatch Professional, Mobile Iron, Tangoe, and Dell Cloud Client Manager.

Social Business People Network  inside Speech Bubble2. Tune up your content marketing strategy. Many SMBs feel overwhelmed by the care and feeding that marketing requires these days. Back in the day, when marketing was a one-way street, businesses could get by with creating a marketing campaign and collateral that would see them through a quarter or even the year. But in the digital age, businesses are under pressure to create new content every week or even every day to keep customers coming back. If you don’t have one, put a plan in place for creating and scheduling content to keep everyone on track. When you create fresh content, think upfront about ways to recycle and reuse it. For instance, if you create a YouTube video, write a blog post about some aspect of it, and tweet out bite-size tidbits from the post. In addition, put a system in place to measure what networks and content click for your target customers. Depending on your business, free or low-cost tools such as HootSuite, SocialMention, Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, Google Analytics, Bit.ly and/or Buffer may fit the bill. Or, you may want to investigate marketing automation solutions, such as Infusionsoft and Hubspot, that integrate social more tightly with sales, marketing and content management applications to make your content investments more actionable.

men with puzzle pieces3. Integrate key workflows to get more bang for your software buck. The cloud has made it easy for businesses to add applications to address pain points on a piecemeal basis. But integration is often an afterthought. As a result, many SMBs end up with a hodge-podge of disconnected applications and workflows. People end up wasting time and making mistakes manually re-entering data into different systems, and getting accurate reports for decision-making can become a Herculean task. Things start falling through the cracks because the different applications and processes “don’t talk to each other.” This could be the year you do something about it! If you’re looking to upgrade core business apps, such as accounting, HR or CRM, consider pre-integrated suites from vendors with open application programming interfaces (APIs) and marketplaces. This makes it easier to snap in new, integrated functionality as needed. If moving to an integrated suite isn’t feasible, you can still get plenty of value just from the most repetitive workflows in your business. Many vendors (Informatica, Scribe, Actian (formerly Pervasive), Dell Boomi, Jitterbit and Mulesoft, just to name a few) offer integration solutions that enable you to connect, map fields, and integrate business processes between different applications.

Slide14. Go green to save green. You don’t need to be a tree hugger to get value from green technology. Most businesses waste not only environmental resources, but also money and time as well. Often, these resources could be invested in developing new products or services, or to hire and train employees.But its easy to be green. For instance, when you buy new products, look for vendors with green certifications from ENERGY STAR or EPEAT; use eco-friendly packaging to reduce packaging waste; and use recycled plastics in their products. Use “set it and forget” tools, such as smart power strips, to automatically turn off peripheral devices when you turn off the main device, and recycle old equipment so component materials don’t end up leaching into landfills. Moving up green curve, consider making the switch from paper-based marketing, forms and faxes to digital solutions for email marketing, invoicing, etc. Replace some of your travel with web conferencing and consider creating a telecommuting program (cloud-based collaboration solutions such as Google Apps for Business, Microsoft Office 365 and IBM Smart Cloud make this easier than ever) if you haven’t already done so. Finally, if your business suffers from server and storage sprawl, virtualized server and storage resources, consider solutions such as Dell PowerEdge VRTX, which take up less space, require less power to run, and help simplify maintenance.

baroquon_Add_Money5. Upgrade and integrate payments with accounting and financials. SMB Group research shows that many SMBs still spend a lot of time manually re-entering and reconciling payments back to their accounting and financial systems. This not only saps productivity, but also results in errors that end up taking even more time to correct. If you’re still doing this manually, its time to look at solutions that automatically integrate payments with accounting, cutting time and errors out of payment processing, such as those offered by Intuit and Sage. While you’re at it, investigate whether your business would benefit from being able to accept new payment methods. Chances are, you already take checks and credit cards, but getting set up to accept ACH, mobile payments, gift cards or PayPal may be able to help you attract more customers, gain new business, and enter new markets–or just get paid faster.

cloud6. Take to the cloud–but proceed with due diligence.  Cloud computing promises organizations a faster, easier and cheaper route to get the IT solutions they need to create and run their businesses. So it’s no wonder that SMBs are moving to the cloud. However, not all cloud vendors are created equal–and some have backtracked on the original cloud pledge. They have replaced monthly subscription pricing with annual contracts, tacked on fees for all but the most basic support, and created pricing and contracts that are about as clear as mud. Others fall short when it comes to taking security and privacy precautions. Seek out vendors that stay true to the original cloud promise as evidenced with transparent pricing, clear and flexible contracts, free trials and clearly documented virtual and physical (data center) security measures.

SMB Group Top 10 SMB Technology Trends For 2014

Here are SMB Group’s Top 10 SMB Technology Trends for 2014! A more detailed description of each follows below.

1.     Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer
2.     Cloud Adoption Accelerates, But SMBs Steer Clear of Dark Clouds
3.     Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars
4.     Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices
5.     SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light
6.     SMBs Prepare for the Insight Economy
7.     SMBs Integrate to Gain Higher Solution Value
8.     The Affordable Care Act Puts Workforce Management in the SMB Spotlight
9.     It’s Easy for SMBs to Go Green and Save Green
10.  Make Way for an SMB Influencer Shake-Up

2014 Top 10 SMB Technology Trends in Detail

  1. Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer. Technology continues to fuel changes in what, where, and how SMB (small and medium businesses, with 1 to 999 employees) work gets done. Back in 2011, SMB Group identified the “Progressive” SMB segment. Progressive SMBs invest more in technology-based solutions, view technology as a business enabler, and are much more likely to expect revenue growth than other SMBs. This gap continues to widen as we enter 2014, and is further fueled by generational shifts–including the rise of millennials in the workforce and older exiles from the corporate world. Progressive SMBs are blending technology and business savvy to reshape business models, carve out new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Their adoption of cloud, mobile, social and analytics will soar as they strive for both growth and agility. They will also increasingly turn to technology-fueled services—from Elance and oDesk for staffing, to shared office space and IT infrastructure services—in pursuit of these goals. As they forge ahead, they will not only continue to outpace peers, but reshape what it means to be an SMB.
  2. Cloud Adoption Accelerates, But SMBs Steer Clear of Dark Clouds. SMBs have bought into the cloud promise: a faster, easier, cheaper and less risky route to get the IT solutions they need to create and run their businesses. SMB Group research shows SMB use of cloud business and infrastructure applications poised to grow to from 33% to 44% over the coming year. However, some cloud vendors—threatened by Wall Street and high churn rates—have backtracked on their original faster, easier, cheaper cloud pledge. They have replaced monthly subscription pricing with annual contracts, tacked on added fees for all but the most basic support, and created pricing models that are almost as confusing as those of the traditional software behemoths they once berated. As SMBs push further into the cloud, they will favor vendors that stay true to the original cloud promise, and steer clear of dark clouds.
  3. Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars. SMBs have been adopting mobile solutions at a fast and furious pace. SMB Group research indicates 67% of SMBs now view mobile solutions and services as “critical” to their businesses. 83% have already deployed mobile apps to help improve employee productivity; 55% are using mobile apps for specific business functions, such as CRM or order entry. 49% of SMBs are building mobile-friendly websites, and/or deploying mobile apps to engage and transact with customers. However, mobile management has failed to keep pace with this explosion, and with SMBs’ increasing business reliance on mobile solutions. Concerns about security, manageability, provisioning and cost will make mobile management a top priority for more SMBs. They will be looking for easy-to-deploy, cost-effective mobile device and application management platforms and solutions to reduce management headaches and get more value from their mobile investments.
  4.  Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices.  Many SMBs now “get” that they need a social media presence. SMB Group research reveals that more than half of small businesses and more than two-thirds of medium businesses use social media for marketing purposes. Some have invested tremendous amounts of energy to create content to feed the voracious social media beast. But the ever-increasing pressure to create fresh content, keep up with changes in users’ social network preferences, and uncertainty about the return on social investments is taking its toll. In 2014, SMBs will focus more on what networks and content really click for their target audiences, and put more time into figuring out how to convert social connections into customers. Some will integrate social more tightly with sales, marketing and content management applications, and use analytics to develop more actionable social metrics. Marketing innovators will explore new opportunities, such as online mobile advertising powered by geolocation. Others will redirect some of their efforts back to marketing basics–including surveys, competitive analysis, email marketing and attending more conferences and events.
  5. SMBs View Payment Systems in a New Light. SMB Group research shows that although checks and credit cards are still the top forms of payment SMBs accept, there’s no question that new payment methods are growing in use and importance. 27% of small businesses and 43% of medium businesses already equip employees with mobile payment processing solutions, and about one-quarter of SMBs intend to add this capability over the coming year. Meanwhile, mobile wallets and gift cards, PayPal and even Dwolla—a payment network that allows any business or person to send, request and accept money for very low fees—will continue to provide additional payment options for consumers. More SMBs will recognize that having the capability to accept and process a broader range of payment methods can help them attract more customers, gain new business, and even enter new markets. SMBs will also seek ways to cut time and errors out of payment processing with payment solutions that integrate with accounting and ERP, such as those offered by Intuit and Sage.
  6. SMBs Prepare for the Insight Economy.  It’s been hard for many SMBs to relate to the “big data” story that most vendors have been pitching. SMB Group research reveals that only about 18% of small, and about 57% of medium businesses utilize business intelligence and analytics solutions. However, SMBs understand the value of getting the information they need, when they need it—especially as they try to compete with new, nimble born-on-the-Web startups that view data as the new business capital. In 2014, SMB-focused vendors will retool the big data story for the little guy, focusing less on zettabytes, speeds and feeds, and more on how their solutions enable and empower better insights and decision-making. Business solutions vendors will embed better and more accessible analytics and reporting tools within their solutions. Cloud-based, visualization and scenario-driven business intelligence and analytics solutions will also help SMBs take a more data-driven approach to running their businesses.
  7. SMBs Integrate to Gain Higher Solution Value. While the cloud has made it easy for businesses to add a lot of new applications, integration has often been an afterthought. As a result, many SMBs are struggling to make sense of disconnected information silos, and IT is under pressure to integrate cloud-to-on-premises solutions, as well as cloud-to-cloud solutions. In 2013, integration moved up from the #4 to the #1 technology challenge for medium businesses. In 2014, we expect that integration will be a higher priority even among small businesses. After all, it doesn’t take too many disconnected applications to feel the pain of productivity drains, errors, and a lack of solid data to support decision-making. Fortunately, technology vendors of all stripes are emphasizing the importance of a unified, reliable data store as the foundation for solid analytics and reporting. Business solution vendors are increasingly offering SMBs pre-integrated suites, opening up their application programming interfaces (APIs), and creating marketplaces to make it easy to find integrated partner apps. This makes it easier for SMBs to start small, with just one or two applications, and then snap in added functionality as needed. Finally, vendors that specialize in integration solutions, such as Informatica, Scribe and Dell Boomi (just to name a few), are making their solutions more accessible to SMBs. Integration still isn’t sexy, but the improved productivity, time savings, error reduction and decision-making benefits that it enables are.
  8. The Affordable Care Act Puts Workforce Management in the SMB Spotlight. Revenue growth, attracting new customers and increasing profitability are perennial goals for SMBs.  To help achieve these goals, they have been steadily moving ahead to automate and integrate sales, marketing and other customer-facing solutions. Although improving employee productivity has also been a top goal, SMB adoption of automated, integrated workforce management solutions has lagged behind other areas. Many SMBs continue to limp along with a patchwork of disconnected solutions and manual tracking to manage components such as time and attendance, payroll, scheduling, HR and benefits.  But with the Affordable Care Act set to take effect on January 1, 2015 for organizations with more than 50 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, that situation is about to change. Worried about uncertainty, costs and regulatory risks, SMBs will look for better solutions to calculate employee eligibility and benefits, and to develop proactive strategies to manage ACA compliance and costs. This will drive a significant uptick of interest in, and adoption of automated, integrated workforce management solutions.
  9. It’s Easy for SMBs to Go Green and Save Green. The push for greener IT solutions isn’t new, but in 2014, we’re moving into a perfect green storm. Due to a rash of hurricanes, tornadoes and extreme weather, the sustainability of Mother Earth is taking center stage. According to a recent Harris Poll, over 74% of American adults believe in the global warming theory, and over 73% of U.S. citizens approve of the Kyoto agreement requiring countries to limit carbon monoxide and greenhouse gas emissions. IT vendors are prepared to capitalize on this opportunity with new, energy-saving products. From Dell’s Dell PowerEdge VRTX applications and storage server, which runs on standard 100V-240V AC power and doesn’t require any specialized cooling, to IBM’s patent for a “green” button that helps cloud providers “greenify” their businesses and lets customers choose whether or not to tap clean energy to run offsite servers, it’s easier than ever for SMBs to be green and save green.
  10. Make Way for an SMB Influencer Shake-Up. SMB Group research shows that in-house IT still plays a key role in all phases of the technology solution decision-making process. But now, enabled by the cloud and the swipe of a credit card, business decision-makers are much more involved: in small businesses, 69% of owners/presidents help evaluate potential solutions, and 81% help make the final decision. In medium businesses, departmental and line-of-business executives are the most likely personnel to identify the need for new solutions. This is changing the influencer landscape. Business decision-makers aren’t as likely to turn to traditional technology guidance sources as IT decision-makers. And many of us—especially millennials—are growing skeptical of traditional media sources that increasingly push paid “native content” in the guise of news. So who will the new influencers be? Accountants and other professional advisors (for line-of-business or industry) that the SMBs have an established relationship with will become more powerful influencers. Digital word-of-mouth, references, trade associations and non-technical groups and organizations will play an increasingly important role in shaping technology purchase decisions among both business and IT professionals. Finally, technology vendors that provide unbiased education—and can clearly demonstrate how business benefits from their solutions—will have a decided advantage over those that don’t.

About SMB GROUP

SMB Group focuses exclusively on researching and analyzing the highly fragmented “SMB market”—which is comprised of many smaller, more discrete markets. Within the SMB market, SMB Group 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.

Social Media 101: A Guide for Small Businesses

Originally published on October 1, 2013 on QBSBDC.com as the second of four blog posts in a series designed to help small businesses, and those that serve them, be successful.

Nearly 80% of active U.S. internet users visit social networks and blogs, according to the SMB Group’s 2012 SMB Social Business Study. This explains why social media marketing is commonplace and effective for most large companies.  At the same time, only 28% of small businesses using social tools identify themselves as applying social in a ‘planned, strategic way.’

Small businesses that use social media in a strategic way are more likely to be satisfied with results than those using it in an ad hoc way. Social media can give a small business the boost it needs to advance to the next level. In fact, 42% of small businesses using social media reported an increase in leads or traffic to their website.

What does it mean to be a strategic user of social media? Here are five best practices worth exploring: 

Step 1: Scope out the competition

Spend a little time on the most popular social media networks and check out how your competitors use those sites. Where do they post? What do they write about? How often do they post? Next, set up your own accounts and start experimenting.

Step 2: Explore customers’ use of social media

Discover how often your customers visit social media sites, what information and experiences they seek, what tools they prefer and what kinds of information they share. 

Step 3: Research what people are saying about you

As you become more familiar with social media, look at how people engage with your company online, including positioning, credibility and following on social networks.

Step 4: Ramp up gradually

Start slowly and then maintain a steady pace. If you begin by posting frequently and then peter out to nothing, your fans could lose interest.  

Step 5: Have a game plan and chart progress

Create a series of posts to cover at least three months of social media activity. Think in terms of upcoming holidays, seasonality, your own promotional calendar, and other time-linked events. This will help keep the content fresh and relevant to your audience.

Of course, you should update your scheduled posts if there is a newsworthy event, showing you are in tune with what is going on. Always respond promptly to social media messages about your business to demonstrate that you are listening to customers and engaged.

 

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