Digital technology for today’s business environment

By Douglas Karlson

New digital technology, and the changes it has spurred in customer behavior and expectations, continues to transform the business landscape, providing big opportunities for savvy small and medium-sized businesses.

Feel lost in this shifting environment? Join the club. But the good news is that from customer relationship management (CRM) systems to internet bots, and inbound marketing platforms to cloud-based software, the tools are available to provide your business with both operational efficiency and a competitive advantage.

A new approach to marketing

Andrew Mahon, Marketing Fellow at Hubspot, a Cambridge-based developer of sales and marketing software that helps businesses manage social media marketing, content, web analytics and search engine optimization, observes that many of the old  marketing strategies no longer work.

“The big thing we’ve seen is there’s been an inversion as to who has the power. It’s all moved to the customer,” he says.

Whereas before, businesses would spend advertising dollars to reach out to customers, now businesses must make themselves easy to be found. By the time a customer talks to a salesperson or representative from a business, they’ve pretty much already made up their mind, he says.

“They’re two-thirds there, they’ve already made their decision, or at least narrowed it down,” says Mahon. “There’s a huge premium placed on convenience. People want to shop online without a salesperson.”

So if businesses don’t get a chance to talk to customers, how do they influence their decisions? According to Mahon, it’s by engaging with them and offering useful information during the research or shopping phase.

That process takes place online, not in person.  It’s called inbound marketing, and the key is designing your online presence so your business turns up in customer searches.

The power of engagement

That’s where the expertise of agencies like Mindfull Marketing + PR of Boston comes into play.

Creating engaging content is founder Christine Perkett’s specialty.  With experience focused on the tech industry, Perkett says it’s essential for her clients to use digital content to build awareness and credibility and establish a reputation for expertise and thought leadership.

To do that, businesses must publish content that’s useful to customers researching their product or service.

Perkett recommends thinking like a journalist and creating a PR plan every quarter. Identify your goals, and the purpose of your campaign. Is it to build general awareness, attract visitors to an event, or sell a product? Long form news might be in the form of a white paper or e-book, and short information can be in a blog post or social media post.

Create a simple content calendar identifying who’s writing it, when the deadline is, and what outside help might be needed.  Topics might include the opening of a new location or the launch of a new product or service.

Content marketing doesn’t have to be  one way street.  Mahon advises that as a business’ website builds a relationship with a customer by providing information, it can ask for something in return, such as a person’s name and e-mail address in exchange for sending a whitepaper.

That allows the business to build a relationship. Once an initial introduction is made, it becomes a question of figuring out how to deliver useful information to the potential customer. Businesses can then build trust and credibility, and find out more about the customer’s needs and timing before having a conversation about a sale.

According to Mahon, that’s good news for small business, because a customer doesn’t care how large a company is as long as it’s responsive to his or her thirst for information. “It’s a good time for small businesses,” he says.

“Don’t be afraid to show who you are and reveal your personality,” urges Perkett. Authenticity is critical, and whether B2C or B2B, people like behind the scenes peaks.  “At the end of the day people buy from people.”

Perkett emphasizes that it’s important to engage with customers rather than to just talk about yourself, which turns people off.  Customers also prefer to hear from their peers.  To facilitate that, her company created a business called Secret Boston which more than 2000 ambassadors, mostly people in the 20s and early 30s, who attend events and post about them on social media.

Search Engine Optimization

As your business creates useful content, it’s important to optimize your website so potential customers can find you. The goal, says Mahon, is for your business to appear on the first page of search results. And, of course, Mahon recommends that businesses design their websites to be “responsive.” That means they’ll display well no matter what platform they’re viewed on, laptop, tablet, or phone.

To optimize your website for good search results, Mahon recommends the usual tactics, such as using keywords in the title, adding meta data and links, and repeating key words. He stresses that Google’s search engine has become so sophisticated it can determine the searcher’s intent, and qualify the level of expertise of a website.  He recommends that websites have a pillar page with very strong case article, as long as 5,000 words, that demonstrates a business’ expertise and authenticity. It’s also advisable for that page to include a video, and possibly a bot.

It’s important to consider what your customers are searching for, and create your content accordingly. For example, says Mahon, a company that sells solar panels should design its website so it appears in searches for customers who ask Google “How to I lower my energy bill?”

From his Orleans-based marketing agency, Social Diner, Andrew Voirol is helping restaurants take search engine optimization to new levels. He uses database software that allows businesses to easily update their location, information and hours so the correct information turns up in customer searches, including on voice searches, which he says is vital. For example, when someone asks his or her phone, “where’s the best cheeseburger in Hyannis?”

Rather than focus solely on websites, Voirol says it’s important that customers first find you on Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, and Trip Advisor. A company’s website, he says, is the last stop. To be effective, he says it’s critical that accurate and consistent information is presented on all platforms, and his new technology helps business owners do that.

Help for the hospitality industry

Social Diner also helps its hospitality industry clients connect with customers through e-mail, social media, and geo-targeting.

For restaurants, Voitol advocates capturing email addresses through in-house Wi-Fi systems through which customers agree to be on a restaurant’s mailing list. With Wi-Fi captive portal programs like Zenreach, Voirol says restaurants can identify repeat customers and offer special deals.  “An email address is worth so much more than a social media ‘like,’” he says.

As an example, Voirol cites a popular beachfront restaurant on the Cape that implemented a Wi-Fi campaign and captured 8,000 email address in five months.  That mailing list helps the restaurant offer incentives and information and ensures that they’ll be booked in the shoulder season.

In addition to capturing email addresses, Voirol recommends that restaurants use beacon technology or near field communication (NFC) to transmit messages to customers wirelessly.  ChowNow is one platform that allows restaurants to develop their own apps and send notifications to customers. Geo targeting or fencing can also be effective in directing ads to customers who are in range, he said.

Customer Relationship Management

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software is technology that helps companies manage their relationships and interactions with customers, and potential customers. Popular software packages are Salesforce, Infusionsoft, and Hubspot, which offers a variety of packages, including a basic package that’s free.

Given customer expectations, and a backlash against impersonal call centers and automated menus, effective and efficient CRM can give businesses a competitive advantage. Rather than forcing customers to transfer from one customer service representative to another and repeat information, a robust CRM platform allows a customer service agent to have complete access to a customer’s history.  “People expect a company to know about them,” says Mahon.

While such systems can be a challenge for a small business to implement, new technology, such as that offered by Hubspot, is more affordable.

The rise of bots

Customers also expect customer service to be available 24/7. That can be impossible for small businesses, but bots can help.  Bots are conversational automated robots that generate a dialogue with online customers to help give them information they’re looking for.

“We find bots very exciting now. The person feels they’re being listened to and taken care of even through they know it’s not a person,” says Mahon.

Increasing cloud-iness

Allen Falcon, CEO of Cumulus Global, a managed cloud solutions provider based in Westborough, Massachusetts, with offices in New York and Atlanta and about 900 customers and 34,000 end users, agrees when it comes to bots. He says bots are now available that use machine learning and artificial intelligence. He cites one client, a hair salon, that uses such a bot to make appointments, choose the right hairdresser, and analyze demand in order to adjust schedules.

Cumulus consults with small and mid-sized businesses to determine their needs and goals, and then design a package accordingly, using public cloud-based solutions. They make sure the platform is operating correctly and provide training.

According to Falcon, the cloud was originally seen as a cheaper way to do things, but it’s now viewed as a smart way to build an operating system. He estimates that about 15 percent of SMBs (small and medium-sized businesses) are 100 percent cloud-based, and that roughly 60 percent of SMBs have some cloud-based capability.  By 2020, he says, it’s predicted that more than half of all SMBs will be 100 percent cloud-based.

“Two years ago the questions was ‘should I go cloud or be on premises?’ Now it’s ‘what should be cloud and how should we do our cloud?’”

Cloud-based systems allow businesses to enhance their communications, collaboration, information analysis and sharing, as well as enable remote and mobile applications, process credit cards, manage and protect data, and meet comply with government regulations.

Falcon says that often when a company moves to the cloud its IT spending decreases by as much as 30 percent.  Sometimes the cost stays the same, but the efficiency increases greatly.

As an example, he cited a client that is a business management consultancy.  Prior to shifting to the cloud, the company took four to six days to send out a quote.  After moving to the cloud, collaboration became easier and faster, and quotes now go out in three to five hours. That’s because cloud-based software greatly increases the ability of employees to collaborate and to manage workflows.

In addition, with cloud-based computing, a company can stay current with software, scale up or down as needed and enjoy enterprise level capability regardless of size.  It’s generally more affordable than systems located on the business’ premises, and much cloud-based software is free.

“Our role it to help a company manage those decisions and make sure everything fits together.”

Cumulus will even provide hardware as needed, as a monthly service.

“You want to run your business, not your technology,” says Falcon. In other words, while technology is critical, a business owner should focus on his core business, and not have to be a computer coder.

Tools that help

Given the large number of tools available for businesses to manage their digital marketing, Perkett says it’s easy to be overwhelmed.  Her advice for businesses: don’t be guided by a fear of missing out. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by all the services and platforms. Step back and identify your business goals, consider your audience and timeframe, and then focus your financial and human resources.

While large businesses can afford platforms like Marketo, Salesforce, and Terminus, small businesses can use less expensive or free platforms and timesaving tools like Sprinkler, Hootsuite, Oktopost, Postcron and Buffer. There’s also Google Analytics, Website Grader, Canva, and Animoto, which makes cool videos fast.

If you need help optimizing your business’ website, you can turn to a content management system, such as that offered by Hubspot, where you can get started at a basic level for free.

Perkett says that small businesses can experiment with social media advertising on channels like LinkedIn and Facebook, which allow you to choose highly targeted audiences and set maximum budgets. She also like Facebook Experience, which allows you to showcase products, display special offers, and create simple video ads. On LinkedIn you can turns posts into sponsored posts.  It’s a good way to leverage content you’re already creating.

On the Cape, where we’re subjected to regular nor’easters and power outages, Voirol says it’s not a bad idea to have a cellular back-up internet connection.

But no matter what digital technology you choose, in the end, Perkett says it’s also important to unplug.  Don’t forget the value of actual conversation. Digital or online contact may be a good way to make an initial introduction, but it’s also important to meet face to face!