12 Important Small Business Trends in 2018

For a small business to thrive, it’s not enough to survive the present moment – you must plan for the future.

From hiring to marketing, to branding and technology … change is constant. If you don’t keep up, you can’t compete. John Hall, the CEO, and co-founder of Influence & Co. points out:

Like it or not, your industry is changing. Everything changes; it always has, and it always will. You can keep up with and be part of the changes, or you can overlook and ignore changes and let others pass you by.

This feels even more relevant as each year surrenders to the next. Technology evolves, employees change, and the business landscape is subtly different from year to year.

Many businesses already know this.

But if you’re working on a business plan and starting a new business, you should be aware of these trends.

We’ve curated a list of twelve important trends small businesses should keep on their radar. These are the opportunities your small business can’t afford to ignore.

1. Unpack the unboxing experience

As we tear away the gift wrap on a fresh new year, small businesses should be turning their thoughts to the “unboxing” process. More and more consumers are shopping online. If your business ships directly to customers, the delivery process offers a whole new way for your brand to interact with its audience.

Pentagram’s Natasha Jen observes:

What is becoming really important for these brands is the unboxing experience. Boxes were always part of packaging design, but until now there wasn’t an emphasis on the step-by-step unboxing journey…. So companies are adding a lot more inside the box to make the unboxing experience— — which lasts perhaps a minute — interesting.

The bar has already been raised. Hand-made crafting marketplace Etsy educates new vendors on how to create a unique unboxing experience. And, unboxing videos have become a common phenomenon on YouTube.

So, it’s time to start thinking about how you can make your unboxing process special. What does the outside of the box look like? What do you see as soon as the box is opened? How is the product wrapped? Is there a message or gift inside?

Treat each step of the unboxing process as a new opportunity to impress, surprise or delight the recipient. After all, psychology plays an important role in purchases. Don’t skip out on the chance to make a lasting impression by creating a unique, positive unboxing experience for your customers and understand modern packaging design trends.

Fortunately, although great product packaging design has traditionally been costly, it doesn’t have to be. For example, the 210,000 designers on crowdspring have helped thousands of businesses from all over the world with product packaging design (the design of the packaging itself) and package graphics (what customers see on the packaging), for a fraction of the cost of traditional product packaging design.

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2. Get your head in the cloud

Small businesses are set to embrace cloud-based solutions in the new year.  Over 90% of small businesses are already using some form of cloud storage or software. Logan Mallory of Jive Communications, Inc. opines,

It’s clear SMBs that close the digital gap will succeed. Every day, the distance between massive organizations (Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon) and SMBs increases. This is because large companies continue to develop their technologies, which increases the advantages available to them. SMBs that can get technology to do some of their heavy lifting will stand a better chance of success. One of the best ways to do this is to leverage the Cloud in as many areas as possible.

If you haven’t already done so, start climbing into the cloud via easy-entry options like Google Drive (to create, manage and share documents and spreadsheets) or Dropbox (to store and share large files). These services are convenient and reduce the need for costly physical storage space. For more options, take a look at the 8 Best Cloud Storage Solutions for Small Business.

3. Get over Twitter

For several years now, the reigning monarchs of the social media empire have been Facebook and Twitter. For small businesses with limited resources to devote to creating an expansive social media presence, these were the two platforms to target.

In 2018, you may want to consider dropping Twitter from your social media “To-Do” list unless Twitter performs especially well for your business.

While Facebook continues to thrive, Twitter has taken a downward turn. Deep Patel, author of A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success, mentions in an article for Entrepreneur:

Twitter has failed to grow followers significantly in 2017. In fact, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram all have more social media followers.

Patel also points out that Twitter’s advertising performance has dropped and now trails other social media platforms. With Twitter on the downtrend, it’s time to consider refocusing your energies elsewhere.

Maybe try Instagram?

4. Tell Instagram stories

Instagram Stories is the new kid on the social media block. The Stories allow Instagram users to create a single extended social media post that grows over the course of their day as they add in additional photos or videos. At the end of the day, the story automatically disappears; unless the user chooses to post it to their profile for people to enjoy beyond just a single day.

Patel calls out this new platform as a growing force in social media, saying:

Over 200 million people use Instagram Stories each month, which is over 50 million more than those who use Snapchat — and Instagram Stories is just one year old! At this rate, nearly half of all Instagram users will be using Stories by the end of 2018.

Small businesses should embrace the momentum of this new platform.

If you want to reach Instagram’s 800 million users, learn to tell your own Instagram Stories. If you’re ready to learn, check out this article by Social Media Examiner and our own 5 Ways Your Business Can Improve Its Brand on Instagram.

5. Build a millennial-friendly work culture

The millennial generation is a force to be reckoned with.

If you’re serious about succeeding in 2018, you’re going to have to embrace the needs of the millennials who work for you.

As we’ve previously written, millennials have surpassed the baby boomers and are the country’s largest generation. They make up a majority of the voting population and American workforce.

But unlike earlier generations, millennials approach work a bit differently. A 2016 study by Fidelity Investments, for example, reveals that millennials (on average) would take a $7600 pay cut if it resulted in a better “quality of work life.”

Senior vice president of Fidelity Investments, Kristen Robinson, reflects:

Clearly, many young professionals are thinking about more than money and are willing to sacrifice a portion of their salary in exchange for a career move that more closely aligns with their values or passions or improves their work/life balance…

So, get on board with creating a culture that appeals to millennials. Here are some target areas to focus on:

  • Social responsibility
  • Work/life balance
  • Purpose-driven work
  • Embracing diversity

Christine Comaford’s article for Forbes, Got Millennials? Here’s the Culture They Need has some awesome tips for getting you started.

6. Hire remote talent

A 2016 Gallup poll shows that more than 40% of Americans now perform some aspect of their work from home. That number is only going to grow throughout 2018.

Employees have higher expectations of flexibility and work-life balance than ever before.

Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report reveals:

Employees are clear about their desire to have more control over when and how they work. More than half of employees (53%) say a role that allows them to have greater work-life balance is “very important” to them when considering whether to take a new job. Similar numbers of employees (51%) say they would change jobs for one that offered them flextime, and 37% would do the same for a job that offered them the ability to work where they want at least part of the time.

So, if you want to attract top-notch employees and maintain a competitive recruiting presence, be prepared to hire and manage a remote team of talented employees. Check out this article from Inc. Magazine for ideas on managing your remote employees and our own article on top small business apps for working remotely.

7. Step up your communication game

Our work lives are filled with communication mediums – email, text, instant message, video chat, and phone. We’re more plugged in than ever before. More than three-fourths of all Americans now own a smartphone.

But despite the seemingly endless means of communicating,  only about 33% of employees are actively engaged in their work.

The fact is that just because we have a smorgasbord of communication tools at our disposal doesn’t mean that we’re doing a good job of actually communicating. Cal Henderson, CTO, and co-founder of Slack shares,

We regularly hear from CEOs that the number one issue they’re focused on is improving communication within their organizations — helping their teams find information and identify key decision-makers, maintaining alignment as an organization and so on. It may not sound like the most exciting topic, but it’s fundamental to business and will continue to be a core focus for years to come…

Want to learn to be a better communicator? Start with this article from Forbes.

8. Create a safe work environment

Recent events have forced us to look at the darker side of male/female relations in the workplace. From Donald Trump’s notorious Access Hollywood conversation with Billy Bush and less-than-stellar exchange with French first lady Brigitte Macron to the devastating sexual harassment scandals rocking Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Matt Lauer), we’ve been reminded that many men still don’t seem to understand or observe appropriate, professional behavior.

Business communication specialist Rob Swystun observes,

With such a magnifying glass being put on men’s behavior in the workplace in the latter half of 2017, next year is going to see a lot of anti-sexual harassment training in workplaces, as well as anti-harassment policies being beefed up.

It’s time to make an effort to create a safe work environment free of harassment for all employees. Sexual harassment of any kind and racial, religious, or sexual discrimination have no place in your business.

Make 2018 the year to tackle these issues head-on and create a positive working environment for all of your employees. To get started, read Chron’s How to Create a Harassment-Free Workplace and The Guardian’s How to… create a workplace that works for women.

9. Embrace experiential marketing

As the world grows wearier of traditional advertising (and savvier), marketers are forced to create more authentic interactions to establish engagement, build awareness and increase loyalty. In 2018, expect to see more small businesses engaging in experiential  – or experienced – marketing.

A perfect example of the concept was employed this past summer by one of Japan’s oldest and most respected companies – Nintendo. Nintendo’s Summer of Play tour traveled the world, encouraging fans to play new Nintendo games on the brand’s newest console, the Switch. The event allowed potential customers to experience and enjoy the games firsthand.

Nintendo is not alone. Companies like Absolut, Jaguar, and Mastercard claim that experiential marketing creates “direct connections and more meaningful relationships with consumers.” And IMGLive president, Bryan Icenhower, points out:

Experiential is a uniquely fast and effective way to build brand awareness through one-to-one connections with consumers. It engages all five senses, sparking emotions that form lasting memories which have been shown to drive brand loyalty.

Small businesses should start thinking about what sort of events they might hold to give their customers experiences worth remembering.

10. Welcome our new robot leaders

It’s easy to make jokes about AI’s new role in our lives. But, it’s impossible to ignore that artificial intelligence technologies are gaining momentum in the workplace. For instance, Business Insider reported in 2016 that 80% of businesses want to utilize chatbots by 2020.

Chatbots are one of the most useful AI tools for small businesses. As we’ve pointed out in a previous article:

We’re seeing an increasing number of companies, from small businesses to big enterprises, deploying chatbots as part of their marketing, lead generation, or customer service strategies.

According to Meredith Wood of Fundera, chatbots can save companies money and solve problems quickly. She goes on to point out:

Most notably, chatbots gather data, giving companies unique insights into clients. Small business owners can use such information to customize products or services.

Artificial intelligence technologies like chatbots offer powerful support for your business and customers. Don’t get left behind. You can learn more in How Businesses Can Use Chatbots to Increase Profits.

11. Storytelling as branding

It’s important to offer a strong product or service and to provide a positive customer service experience. But, in today’s business landscape, that’s not always enough. How you market your brand can be a make-or-break factor.

Leading into 2018, storytelling will continue to be essential for your brand. Scott Galloway, the founder of L2 and Professor of Marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, asserts that:

…the core competency in building value now is not operations, not data — it’s storytelling. It’s painting a really compelling vision for markets, then making progress against it every day. You can’t be an effective CEO today without being an effective communicator and storyteller.

Be prepared to tell your brand’s story and tell it everywhere. In fact, storytelling is the secret to great content marketing.

Self-promotion is vital to your small business success. Capture your audience’s attention and loyalty by sharing an authentic branding promise and a story that resonates.

12. Create a consistent online and offline customer experience

Many small businesses operate both on and offline. But, the time has passed when the two could co-exist separately.

Small businesses that want to compete must have an online presence. Consumers expect their online and offline experiences with your brand to be consistent and seamless.

From online coupons that can be scanned at retail locations, to in-store returns of online purchases, to online promotions only made available to the attendees of certain brick-and-mortar events, there are many ways for the online-offline experience of your brand to merge. Not to mention the importance of creating a consistent brand voice online and off.

Blaze Pizza is doing an excellent job of merging its digital and physical customer experience. They motivate customers to their restaurants with special event emails delivered to their inboxes. The visual branding and tone are consistent both in-store and online.

Meredith Wood recommends using IoT (internet of things) technologies to interact with and keep tabs on their customers anywhere. Tablets, smartphones, netbooks and laptops, and even portable video game devices allow you to interact with customers anywhere and everywhere. She concludes:

In 2018, you’ll see more companies attempting to merge online and offline to create an omnichannel experience. That means adopting the right technologies and employing the right marketing tactics to meet your customers’ needs.

Plan for your best

With any luck, you’ve already been looking ahead to your 2018 business strategy for some time now. But, even if you’re a little late to get started, it’s far better to start late than never to start.

You know best what your small business needs.

We hope that the 12 trends we discussed above – and our suggestions for further reading – have helped you focus your efforts on key areas you may not have already considered.

Whatever you do, for the sake of your business, don’t walk into 2018 blind. Start looking forward now to plan the best path forward.

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