Last year, 2017, was interesting, to say the least. We inaugurated a new president, withstood natural disasters and saw the rise of a new social movement. It was a big year for many reasons, and the business sector was no exception.
According to a Pepperdine University Private Capital Access Index (PCA) report, small businesses finished 2017 strong, predicting future growth in revenue for the end of the fourth quarter that showed a 6 percent increase over the same period in 2016.
Consumer confidence remained (and remains) high, though it took a dip in December, after reaching a 17-year high in November. The PCA report also revealed that 84 percent of owners of small and medium-sized businesses ($5 million to $100 million in revenue) expected their businesses to perform better in 2018. And that expectation figure was up from 72 percent the previous year.
So 2017 was overall a good year for business. But now that it's in the rearview mirror, it's time to look ahead and consider the steps we need to take in order to ensure the continued success of our businesses. Here are five trends poised to help drive success.
We've been hearing about AI technology for a while now. Though not new, AI's impact will be felt more and more in the way we do business. According to a PwC study, 72 percent of business leaders surveyed deemed AI a "business advantage." The same study revealed that executives were looking to AI to help with repetitive, menial tasks such as paperwork (82 percent), scheduling (79 percent) and time sheets (78 percent).
While companies like Google, Spotify, Microsoft, IBM and other tech giants are all in on the AI game, of course, some observers worry that that technology will make business processes less personalized. The reality, however, is that AI is capable of enriching human interaction by taking away mundane tasks and helping enhance customer content delivery, to a highly-personalized level.
Taking away those mundane tasks opens the door for the more creative, personalized items customers are demanding.
Live social media interactions
Like AI, social media is hardly a new concept. It's been around for more than a decade but how we use it to reach our customers has changed. According to Statista, the number of worldwide social media users is expected, by 2020, to reach 2.95 billion, or about a third of the Earth's population.
In terms of how we use social media, we've learned that it's not enough to just have multiple social media accounts to reach customers. We have to build a community and provide its members with live, interactive content that helps create long-term brand loyalty. And, here, visual content is more than 40 times more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content, according to HubSpot.
I personally have 637,000 followers on Twitter, 43,000 on Facebook. To engage them, I use as many visual images as I can. For my podcast, I typically give people a "sneak peek" of the interview I'm about to record. I also have people submit questions for my guests, to help make them feel like part of the action. I also post pictures of where I am; and since I travel a lot, that can be anywhere. Right now, I have a "debate" going on my Facebook page about something a bit mundane: whether to use a dish rack.
In short, your content need not always be serious. It can be something casual that gives your audience access to your daily life, something interactive in which people can chime in and engage with you and your brand.
More in-depth social learning
Social learning is the process of learning through peer social interaction. We learn something every time we observe others, ask questions or share knowledge resources. That's why social learning is experiencing a boom. In fact, 73 percent of organizations in one survey expected to increase their focus on social learning, according to a report from the Brandon Hall Group.
This can take place in a number of ways, through informal one-on-one encounters,or team members working together to solve a problem; through social software or expertise directories -- knowledge directories used to identify experts and areas of expertise. And that's just for starters. A Bloomfire study reported that 87 percent of employees surveyed believed that social knowledge was essential; only 37 percent felt the same about formal company training.
At my own company, I facilitate social learning with conferences, summits and webinars. The purpose is to use social platforms as a networking tool for C-suite executives and as a resource to discover the new trends in our industry. I have seen the positive results first-hand: Many members of our network have gone on to write books, become keynote speakers and launch their own podcasts.
This type of organic learning is what more companies will be investing in, in 2018.
Personalized interactive experiences
As mentioned above, providing personalized content is the best, most direct way to engage with customers and your audience in general. That's an important step. Another important step is to stop being polite and get up in people's faces -- without being creepy.
Today's consumers are pretty sophisticated; and, chances are, they've done their research before they purchase anything. They thoroughly vet companies by visiting their websites, reading online reviews and asking their peers' opinions on social media. So, whether yours is a brick and mortar or online store, you have to make your customer experience unique to the individual you're trying to target. By pushing hard for personalization and creating interactive experiences, you'll not only get the customer involved, but also reduce "cognitive overhead," which is defined as "how many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you're looking at."
Here's an example: A few years ago, the New York Times distributed over 1 million Google cardboard viewers/glasses to Sunday home delivery subscribers, in an effort to create a new experience for subscribers. As newspapers across the country are struggling, or even dying, they've experimented with new ways to get their message across. The virtual reality film, The Displaced, for example, told the story of 30 million children displaced by war. What better way to get up in people's faces?
Another example involves the outdoor retailer, Bass Pro Shops. Bass goes through great lengths to immerse customers in the life of an outdoorsman by taking them on an adventure while they browse the store. Fish tanks, taxidermied animals and campers are all on hand to create the illusion tha the customer is actually outdoors. And that makes people browse longer.
The result? More store traffic and more store time equals more sales. Today, Bass Pro stores attract more than 120 million visitors annually. Apparently, its message is resonating.
And, as an outdoorsman myself, I appreciate a brand that caters to my needs in a way that's personal, but not too "in your face."
I've said this before: Blockchain technology (best known for powering certain cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin) is here to stay; and more businesses, large and small, are embracing it. Many have been quick to dismiss Blockchain as just a bunch of tech nerds getting together and creating their own finance and record-keeping system, but it's much more than that.
Since the emergence of social media, many large companies have missed the boat. They wasted too much time before finally seeing social media as a vehicle to enhance their business and broadcast their message. Many refused to engage until they were forced to. But, eventually, missing out on the social media bandwagon created a certain FOMO, or fear of missing out, within these companies, and they are now refusing to repeat their mistake with the blockchain revolution.
As a result, businesses are going to great lengths to learn more about how this technology impacts their bottom line. They want to ensure they are the ones doing the disrupting, instead of being the ones being disrupted. Companies like Accenture and Deloitte have even established blockchain practice areas to build strategies aimed at improving the way we live and work.
What changes will you be implementing in order to ensure success in 2018?
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors