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7 5 Trends That Will Shape Small Business in 2012

This post originally appeared on American Express OPENForum.

It’s time for my annual prediction of small-business trends.

No matter what business trends are reported in the media, small businesses will always adopt them more slowly and in ways that don’t follow the hype.

Small Business Trends

JasonLangheine via Flickr CC

Small-business owners don’t care what’s cool. They care about what’s practical and what seems obvious—and that’s not always what gets buzz. (I’ve been pretty much spot on with most of my predictions for small-business trends in 2011 and trends for 2010.)

Here are my predictions for 2012. Some of these might not seem as obvious as those in previous years. But, welcome to the odd world of small business.

Social networks evolve into markets

As social networks become more important in the lives of their users and the level of social behavior continues to evolve, they will become much more than outposts. These sites will move toward wholly functioning, self-contained marketplaces.

A growing number of people simply see the Internet as Facebook (and Facebook is OK with that). Other marketplaces such as Amazon, Etsy, Buy.com and eBay are moving toward socializing your product search and becoming decision engines.

This behavior signals the need for small-business marketers to view some outposts as destinations. Consider building a store on Facebook, Shoply, Amazon, Buy.com, Etsy and eBay.

Ramp up your participation in these markets and educate yourself about them. Stop looking at them simply as transaction enablers. These sites are growing into major cities and you need to claim and increase your holdings there before they become overcrowded.

Content becomes conversion

Most small-business owners have come to see content as strategy, rather than merely words to be produced. Blog posts, white papers and in-person and online seminars  create awareness, build trust, educate and illustrate core stories.

That much is now a given in marketing now, but content adoption, expectation and use will evolve next year. I believe you will see a lot of content, social media-driven and otherwise, that is designed to convert rather than to simply inform.

Expect free content to get better and paid content to be part of the logical path. Expect video sales letters and automated online seminars. You’ll see members-only content, ROI calculators and content-enhanced products becoming the norm.

Mobile powers local

Last year, I predicted that mobile would finally land for small business. We’ve talked about mobile as a marketing channel for years, but it seemed it wasn’t happening.

Finally, mobile has become an important medium. This is in part because of smart-phone adoption and in greater part because of the shift to mobile behavior. Every age demographic is using mobile devices to locate local businesses and those people intend to purchase.

Mobile websites, mobile offers, mobile payments and geo-location will become essential elements of the small-business local-marketing toolkit. Even Near Field data exchange, which had a science fiction ring just a few years ago, will be part of that picture.

Oh, and small-business owners will get over their fear of using SMS in smart ways.

Customer service goes community

The cable provider Comcast launched Comcast Cares, a social media push to repair a poor customer-service perception. It set the bar for how brands need to engage with their customers in the always-on, always-public world of social media.

As the toolset evolves with players like ZenDesk and Get Satisfaction, businesses of any size can provide incredibly high-tech support without losing high-touch service.

Small business will embrace the community in a peer service-provider model and start providing service in public-facing, brand-building ways. They will embrace tools that turn customer service into a shared community model, where customers help answer questions and evangelize the products and services.

Search moves to apps

My use of search-engine technology is slowly being replaced by the use of apps that provide me with answers relevant to my personal needs. My guess is that while you may not have taken note, you’re using search engines less and answer engines more.

This trend highlights the marketers’ need to go beyond SEO and PPC and move deeper into social networks, mobile marketing and app-based local marketplaces.

Apps inside social networks provide answers. Apps inside social-bookmark sites serve up interesting reading. Apps in content-curation tools like Storify provide relevant context for content. Apps on mobile devices, such as Yelp’s, help you find bars and restaurants. Apps using QR readers give you deeper information on companies and products. Apps are delivering sports scores, movie times, videos and images.

10 Did Google Just Create the Click to Schedule Ad Unit

The GMail blog team announced what looks like a much needed enhancement to Google Calendar this week called appointment slots.

This functionality allows anyone to create a public showing calendar offering up times when appointments are available. The idea is that people can visit your calendar and schedule a haircut or consulting session any time day or night.

Services such Tungle, Doodle and TimeBridge were created in some ways to fill this obvious gap. (Although they offer much functionality for, say team scheduling, you do have to wonder how hard this will hit them.)

Once the service is rolled out to all users you’ll see an extra link with the schedule box pops open that allows you to schedule blocks of time that are open for appointments. Choosing this function essentially creates another calendar and since every Google Calendar has its own personal appointments sign up page; you can embed it on your website or give the URL directly to friends and clients. You can find the URL for your appointment page at the top of the set-up page, which you can access via the Edit details link.

Google Appointment slots

Right now, one major limitation appears to be the both the owner of the calendar and those scheduling an appointment must use Google Calendar – not such a big deal for internal teams, but likely a deal killer for a hair salon.

However, think about the implications of Google creating a “Click to Schedule” function for AdWords units, Places Pages, and Review Pages like those in HotPot. For many industries this could be a game changing kind of social action and another big revenue generator for Google.

From a local business standpoint it gives Google another lever into the transaction while adding functionality for both buyer and seller.

24 5 Ways to Make Your Website Scream Local

local floristSearch engines have become one of the primary ways that people find products and services right in their hometown. This growing reality significantly increases the need for small local business owners to master this thing called local search.

There are many ways to make your website pages much more localized. This is one of the underlying elements that tell the search engines that yours is indeed a local business.

There are a number of things that website owners can do offsite, such as social media participation, that help them come up when people look for local goods and services, but the first step is to make sure that the content on your own site is local focused.

Below are five ways to make your website more local friendly.

Geo content

Simply adding geographic content to your web pages is one of the fist steps. This can include your physical address, directions with street and town names, maps, suburb names and names of communities or neighborhoods where you do work..

It’s also a great idea to do keyword research with local terms to find the best phrases to localized phrases to add to your pages. Google Keyword Tool or Wordtracker

Geo meta tags are also something worth investigating. Google continues to ignore them Bing has admitted they do use them to help determine business location. These tags go in the head section of a page and list the latitude and longitude of a business as well as city, state and country.

The tags for my business are:
meta name=”geo.region” content=”US-MO” /
meta name=”geo.placename” content=”Kansas City” /
meta name=”geo.position” content=”39.040409;-94.598657″ /
meta name=”ICBM” content=”39.040409, -94.598657″ /

Here’s a great Geo Meta Tag tool that will create these for your business address

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35 Local as Differentiator

local-burgerSeveral years ago, Hilary Brown decided to open a burger joint in Lawrence, KS. She readily admits that folks around town questioned whether the world, or for that matter Lawrence, needed another place to get a hamburger. After all, this is a college and fast food is plentiful.

Brown tells that to her doubters she enthusiastically replied, “what I’m creating is the next generation of burger joints.” Local Burger, as her restaurant is called, takes into consideration where food comes from as well as the environment, unnatural additives, and sustainable agriculture. All of the creative dishes served at Local Burger are prepared from foods grown or raised no more than 200 miles away (some less than 5). In addition, most products are organic and gluten free, including local wine and beer.

The restaurant is billed as The World’s Most Local Burger and the menu even features a chart displaying products purchased from local farmers and suppliers and the distance to each. It also happens to be one of the few places around where you can get elk, buffalo, pork, turkey and tofu burgers.

Using local as a way to differentiate an otherwise commodity type business and then backing it up with every brand element and process is a powerful way to fight chains and the need to compete solely on price. Brown’s strategy and business model have landed her on the pages of Gourmet, Bon Appétit, Outside and on the Sundance Channel. You can follow Local Burger on twitter.

In our current economic environment, local has a nice feel to it as well.

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