It's a new year and with it comes a cautious view of the year's economic growth, regulatory changes across a variety of industries and continued development in the reliance on the Internet for personal and professional connection and communication. It's an uncertain time for many businesses, but especially susceptible to falling behind the curve are the many small businesses and mom and pop shops with already strained budgets and resources.
So how can small businesses go from struggling to thriving? In large part, it comes down to understanding the opportunities and trends that will present themselves in the coming year. Small business owners know it isn't a game, it's their livelihood. It's time to get serious about understanding and implementing plans to maximize business opportunities in each of the following areas:
•Going digital: It seems elementary that we live in an Internet-driven world but a recent Web.com survey found that only four out of 10 small businesses had a dedicated business website. That means six out of 10 small businesses are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to connect and engage with potential customers at the most basic online level -- through a simple business-focused website. In 2014, expect to see an increase in small business Internet presence, both at a basic website level and in social media channels. Small businesses are beginning to recognize the strong consumer demand for online interaction and will take strides to address this need. It's a no-brainer, and small businesses that don't have an online presence will be in danger of falling behind the growth curve.
•Local is where it's at: The percentage of online search queries focused on local businesses continues to accelerate, with an even greater growth in local search via mobile devices. It is imperative that small businesses stake their claim now on basic local channels, like Google Places, and populate those sites with the types of information consumers are most likely to search for -- products and services, hours of operation, contact phone number, physical address, etc. These basics to being found locally go a long way to ensure that a business leads the way in local search results. With the right search engine optimization (SEO) in place, a small business' information can easily appear highly ranked on local search results.
•It's time to partner up: A nephew or neighbor down the street designing and maintaining a business website as a favor to the owner is no longer enough. As a small business owner, focus should be on the business -- not IT and online marketing. To better increase business results this year, small business owners must look for a partner that understands their digital needs, provides resources to save time and helps achieve success online -- all within a tightly prescribed budget. By looking for an online marketing partner with a broad range of expertise, small business owners can focus on what should be their primary goal -- making the business successful.
•Mobile use on the increase: Today, nearly 30 percent of all web traffic is generated from a mobile device, whether a smartphone or tablet, and that number will most decidedly continue to grow as smartphone/tablet penetration increases, mobile devices become more powerful and mobile networks grow closer to delivering a home broadband experience. Consumers already demand a desktop experience when browsing on a mobile device or tablet, and mobile optimized websites will be the key ingredient to delivering on that demand. Websites with limited content and clunky navigation will be quickly passed over for a site -- and business -- that delivers a better experience.
•E-commerce will boom: E-commerce will be mass adopted by small businesses in 2014, but not just for physical goods. Service providers -- landscapers, tax professionals, plumbers, etc. -- will recognize the demand for electronic billing, invoicing and processing payments. E-commerce sales for 2013 are expected to be up 16 percent more than 2012 -- which will only continue to increase in 2014, according to eMarketer. To get ahead of the game and on par with big businesses, small businesses must deliver the same value-added services, and online shopping or electronic billing is a big step in the right direction.
•Paid marketing and social networking to generate awareness and drive sales: 2014 will see small businesses increase paid marketing efforts for both advertising and social networks. With its most recent changes, Facebook is driving towards a more pay-to-play model with their ads - meaning a paid campaign will get posts and pages more visibility. Since one-third of U.S. adults now get their news from Facebook (according to a Pew Research Center study), a strong presence on Facebook, and other social media channels such as Pinterest, Twitter, etc., is highly important to create and strengthen personal relationships with current and potential customers.
•Talk about TLDs: With the introduction of a significant number of new Top Level Domains (TLDs), small businesses now have a broader choice to make when registering or renewing domain names that can potentially add visibility and increase search results. As the portion of a URL to the right of the dot (.com, .org, .net), specialized TLDs, such as ".NYC," ".donuts" and ".library," will have a significant impact on where small businesses can be found on the web. It is an opportunity to cut through the clutter of the usual ".com," ".net" or ".org" domains and convey an immediate description of a business.
Getting serious about having an online presence, meeting customers' changing demands and maximizing the opportunities and shifts in the industry are what separate the successes from the failures. Big businesses have identified these areas and are able to implement digital efforts quickly, where small businesses have been slower to adopt, mainly because of budget and staffing limitations. Understanding how the trends outlined above affect your business is imperative to maximizing your success in 2014 and beyond.
What do you think this New Year will bring to your business? Please comment below.