7 Small Business Trends that Arrived Just in Time for 2021
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Every year for the last 20 or so, I’ve wrapped up the year with my predictions for trends in the coming year.
I’m usually spot on too. But that’s really more of a testament to the fact that trends tend to creep up on us rather than overwhelm us. So, they’re not that hard to spot if you’re paying attention.
Add to that that a trend has usually long since “tipped” in the main by the time it’s honestly something that small business owners need to heed. Think social media, mobile marketing, or heaven forbid AI.
Ah, but then 2020 happened, and anything that might have crept up on anyone pretty much arrived untethered and proud. Trends accelerated and became fact more than a trend – Zoom anyone? A new behavior that may have taken years to take hold is now instantly second nature.
It’s going to take a new level of insight to curate this year’s trends. The trick this year lies in the ability to spot the behavior that may emerge from the change, or the forced trends if you will. For example, is business travel is going to take a long time to recover? Are large conferences on hold for a while? Will people come to expect 15 virtual meetings even in the office?
So, what do we make of any of this?
I suspect you can count on many pundits simply regurgitating the already worn line about marketers using this moment to become more human. That business will be more about people and less about whatever it was about before COVID.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that a) doing the same thing you were doing in a different format is an innovation and b) that anything in your industry will look precisely the same again.
This year the friction around change went to zero because there was no choice. Expect some people to try and crawl back to what they knew and still others to re-evaluate and restart everything.
I think a lot of business soul searching has occurred, but let’s not oversimplify its result. Because we were forced to deal with change that we don’t fully understand, it has led to some introspection. But where we’ll land is, frankly, anyone’s guess and leads me to my first trend.
1) Paying attention becomes a survival mechanism
In 2021, as in most years, businesses will thrive and survive due to many factors, but next year those who best discover the shift of the moment will be more equipped to evolve with their customers.
2020 showed us just how fast everything could change and simultaneously how fast we can respond and then change and re-respond. This is the commercial version of present moment mindfulness, I suppose.
Don’t take anything for granted; something that feels like momentum may be a bandage for the moment’s feeling. Talk to your customers as much as you can, not because they can tell you what they want or need because they can tell you how they feel.
Expect fear to be feeling number one for most of the year. Tune your strategic thinking to finding ways to be the light in the dark.
2) Everything gets smaller
From a practical standpoint, we’ve already seen this. Conferences, meetings, gatherings of any sort contracted, and we will all need to relearn how to gather again, no matter how much we think we crave it.
Expect a push for less content, shorter videos, more intimate launches, mini-courses, 142-page books instead of the classic 284 pages.
This trend will be driven by people’s desire for something that feels more personal than the market’s design to get smaller.
Design, a true barometer of change, has already moved in this direction. Take note of the larger headline fonts, muted color splashes of retro illustrations, and more white space on web pages.
Smaller also means less complex, and you can expect that to play out in a large dollop of nostalgia. Visions of families riding around their neighborhoods on bikes during 2020 sparked an emotional desire for simplicity.
3) AI gets practical
Almost every trend article you encounter this year will talk about AI in some fashion. While I mention it here as a trend, I do so for some of the practical things it now brings rather than the futuristic promise of the technology it implies.
Without getting too techie about the workings, the mid-2020 roll-out of Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 or GPT-3 made AI a useful tool for many applications.
No longer confined to those pesky bots on website help desks, AI is now being embedded in our basic typing functions. Maybe you’ve noticed that the application keeps suggesting finishes to your sentences as you compose an email in Gmail.
This isn’t simply a feature added by Google; this is AI at work powering routine tasks.
This fall, I wrote my latest book, The Ultimate Marketing Engine (HarperCollins Leadership Sept 2021), entirely in Google Docs. I was amazed how often the suggested AI helped me write better or at least easier sentences from a simple suggested start.
AI applications can already write an article based on a handful of fed keywords. Now, is this award-winning prose? Well, no, but is that blog post you paid someone $15 to write near as good as AI – probably not. AI writers can get you 80% of the way there, and then you, the brilliant content strategist that you are, can spend your energy on making it sparkle and getting it read by others.
This will shake up the content creation, social posting, and freelance industries dramatically.
4) Talent investment is back in style
Most large businesses understand the competitive nature of attracting and retaining their best people. Therefore, they often invest heavily in recruiting and employee branding initiatives.
Small businesses rarely can afford outlandish perks to attract talent, but one trend that I think will grow in small business is talent development.
Even if revenue is down and budgets are tight, I predict that small business owners will see the wisdom of creating training and mentoring opportunities to level-up, develop, and, let’s face it, send a clear signal that their people are an important piece of their success.
This has always been an important topic, but I think we’ll see a return to a fundamental commitment to employee engagement around things like profit and skill development that will not be limited to big biz only.
If you have training for skills, mindset, and even personal development, small business is a great target market right now.
5) Video gets personal again
I said this last year, so that’s the again part.
Video will continue to grow as a content medium and act as a bridge to a couple of other trends. Most notably, the acts of paying attention and getting smaller.
I think video, think of it as asynchronous virtual content, will take another big leap and bounce from the Zoom screens we are in front of to the more personal 1 to 1 platforms for sales, technical support even as a form of commenting and collaborating.
6) UX and SEO get attached at the hip
A few years ago, it was fashionable to talk about the marriage of content and SEO. Now that content is basically online air; it’s sort of passe to talk about the concept as two.
But there’s a newish player making waves this year – UX or user experience. UX isn’t really new as a concept. I mean, navigation and content structure are UX. So is site speed and security. However, with its mobile-first point of view, Google is going to raise the SEO bar another notch next year.
Three words you better come to terms with for 2021 – core web vitals.
This isn’t a technical post, so you’re just going to have to research this one on your own but suffice it to say that sites that load slowly or don’t provide what Google thinks is a great mobile user experience are going to suffer in the SEO game.
The typical mum Google has gone as far as to publicly claim that in 2021 they plan to combine core web vitals with other ranking signals.
My go-to source for education on anything SEO related is my friend Brian Dean at BackLinko. You can find high-quality stuff here – especially when it comes to learning more about core web vitals.
You can see what Google thinks of your core web vitals right now in Google Search Console.
7) Coaching ranks swell
During 2020 some people found that corporate jobs weren’t so stable or fun anymore. Some were laid off and started that coaching or consulting business they had longed to start, while others took the pause as a moment to reconsider their life path in general.
My final prediction is that the number of people who decide to start coaching businesses and those who decide now is the time to get a coach will explode next year.
I think 2021 will be a year of recovery and personal development and, in some cases, one of changing priorities.
This crystal ball stuff is fun, but more than anything, stay curious this coming year, and you may indeed discover a new and exciting chapter in business and life because the only thing that I know for certain is that change is gonna keep coming.
You can also listen to my 2021 Small Business Trends podcast version here
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