Editor's Note: It's the time of year when we like to look ahead to see what technologies will have the most effect on small business. That's a big, opinionated topic, so we'll take multiple looks at it throughout January. Drew Robb kicks off our prognostication on tech trends for 2015.
The technology trends most likely to affect the small business world in 2015 look remarkably similar to those of a year ago. Mobile, cloud, and software automation (particularly of marketing) remain dominant forces at work. But they are stronger, more pervasive, and more affordable—and thus more irresistible—than ever.
Let's take a quick look at what small business technology trends you can expect to draw your attention—and potentially your budget—and help your business prosper and grow in 2015.
Tech Trends to Watch in 2015
1. Abandon or Reduce On-Premises Technology
Over the last 15 years, the way small business operates has changed markedly. Offices host an often dizzying array of desktops, printers, monitors, servers, and network switches and other technology paraphernalia. But the cost of buying and maintaining all that hardware has severely dented the bottom line.
Maybe it isn’t worth hanging on to all of it. As IT equipment ages and pricey upgrades or service contract renewals loom, weigh the value proposition of moving some of that IT infrastructure to the cloud. Compare the cost of running some of those functions in the cloud to the time and budget required by retaining them in-house. You may well relieve some of the burden and expense.
For some small businesses, it will make sense to "get rid of as much on-premises technology as possible and rely on the cloud instead," said Greg Schulz, an analyst with Server and StorageIO Group. "Others will need to figure out which IT functions they can move to the cloud to reduce complexity and cost—and do so as a complement to their on-premises equipment and software."
2. Start New Projects in the Cloud
If you're happy with your current in-house technology, e.g., it works and provides value, consider using the cloud for new projects—perhaps for mobility, to analyze the customer database, or other IT functions.
"The cloud will continue to grow as the default platform to launch any new project, whether a hot new mobile or social app, or rebuilding a legacy internal system," said Greg Arnette, chief technology officer and founder of cloud-based email archiving vendor Sonian.
3. Increased Cloud Backup and Recovery
An obvious area of expense and internal resources is backup and disaster recovery. Mike Karp, an analyst at Ptak Associates, expects a sharp uptick in small businesses that look to the cloud for data backup, data recovery, data archiving, and disaster recovery. Companies that want to invest in such off-premises services, he said, should keep these two issues in mind: the cost of the service, and how rapidly the cloud provider can deliver your data when a recovery is necessary.
Karp also said that small businesses should not rely completely on the cloud to safeguard them in the event of a disaster.
"Any company sending data to the cloud would be wise to keep a local copy of the most recent backup" said Karp. "Keeping the most recent backup locally makes data recovery much faster than recovering from the cloud."
4. Sensible Data Archiving
Certain businesses have a legal requirement to keep every piece of data they generate or receive. And as the price of storage continues to plummet, it has become the norm to store everything and keep it for posterity.
But many SMBs don’t need to hold onto everything. They can actually delete large quantities of data and only retain vital business data, such as customer information and financial records. As more companies store data in the cloud, a growing trend involves lowering cloud costs by being highly selective about what data they keep.
"If data provides value to your business, then protect, store it, and treat it as a business asset," said Schulz. "But if there is no value, why are you keeping it?"
5. Mobile Technology is a Must
As younger workers enter the workforce, they demand the ability to run business applications via smartphones. Similarly, bosses and staff who own the latest tablets or smartphones want to use them at work. There is simply no point in fighting the mobile wave—resistance is futile.
"A growing majority of SMBs regard mobile solutions as essential business enablers with 60 percent saying mobile solutions are critical to business," said Laurie McCabe, an analyst with SMB Group. "Mobile solutions also account for a growing share of small business technology budgets when we compare findings over the past four years."
6. Automated Marketing
The primary reason most new small businesses fail in the first two years is generally attributed to a lack of marketing savvy. Companies that make it past that initial period must continue best-practice marketing to remain operational. But with bigger competitors using all sorts of sophisticated marketing technology to attract customers, it is time for many small business owners to up their game. Thanks to a plethora of cloud-based marketing applications, small business marketing costs are much more affordable.
Laurie McCabe says that choosing the right automated marketing tools may be one of the most important decisions a business makes.
"Many vendors offer a solid, valuable approach for small businesses, but because they're designed for different types of SMB requirements; there is no one-size-fits-all solution," says McCabe. "Thoroughly research different solutions to determine which best suit your business. Develop a short list that includes solutions that offer the capabilities and services you need, as well as integration with other solutions your business requires."
McCabe cautions SMBs against blindly buying into the marketing hype that most vendors serve up. The best way to progress is to attend a webinar or an on-site event where you can ask questions, and take advantage of free trials. Ask for references from customers that are similar to your business, and talk to them to find out about their experiences in deploying, using and getting value from that product.
"Try to test-drive at least a couple of different solutions to get a better idea of the options, as well as which type will work well for your business," said McCabe.
7. Integrated Marketing
A study by Software Advice, a company that helps buyers find the right software, found that small businesses in the U.S. are realizing the importance of connecting with customers throughout the entire buying cycle. As a result, they're looking for integrated sales and marketing functions, typically provided within a Customer Relationship Marketing (CRM) suite.
Software Advice numbers show that 62 percent of small-business CRM buyers are still looking for basic contact management as provided in a standalone application for sales force automation (SFA). That’s no surprise. SFA is typically the first step for businesses to organize their customer data and track customer interactions across the sales funnel. As such, it’s long been the first thing small businesses look for when it comes time to adopt a real CRM technology strategy.
"However, we also found that 42 percent of small-business buyers in the U.S. were looking for an integrated suite of multiple CRM applications, as opposed to a single standalone solution for just sales force automation, just basic marketing automation, or just customer service," said Jay Ivey, an analyst with Software Advice. "That number has jumped from 7 percent in 2013."
Of U.S. buyers seeking an integrated suite, 88 percent want a combination of sales and marketing automation. Bottom line: more small businesses want fuller-featured CRM to better align marketing and sales. Further, 71 percent expressed a preference for cloud-based over on-premises CRM systems—up from 48 percent in 2013.
8. CRM: Skip the Social Bells and Whistles
Social technology has no doubt been a great benefit to some small businesses perhaps a blog that attracts new clientele or a Facebook page with thousands of followers. But many small business forays into the social scene bear little fruit. It just doesn’t make sense for them to integrate their CRM applications with social media channels.
"Rather than social functionality, we found that most buyers request basic CRM integration with popular email clients, such as Microsoft Outlook or Gmail (58 percent), or calendar apps, such as Google Calendar or Apple’s iCloud Calendar (36 percent)," said Ivey. "The ability to keep all professional calendars synchronized helps employees stay on top of follow-up reminders, tasks and meetings, regardless of whether they’re working within their CRM system or not."
9. Leveling the Playing Field
Whereas traditional software products were frequently categorized as "enterprise" or "small business," cloud software is becoming an equalizer as vendors settle on user-based pricing. Software that might have been accessible only to large enterprises in on-premises form due to pricing models is now available to companies of all sizes (a small business can buy a single Salesforce license, for example).
"Expect vendors to continue driving this trend, as it allows them to target functional areas within companies, regardless of their size," said Chris Neumann, CEO of data analysis vendor DataHero.
10. Increased Security Awareness
While cloud computing paves the way to greater functionality and lower costs, it can also open the doors to outside attack. Businesses of all sizes must pay more attention than ever to security. But don’t just take a technology centric approach.
Security Awareness Training is particularly important in a cloud-based world. It helps make staff aware of attack avenues such as various scams that entice employees to click on a link or to open a document that gives the bad guys an all-access pass to your company data.
"Even when an organization has published policies and has implemented many security procedures and technologies, it still needs to train its employees," said Stu Sjouwerman, CEO of security training firm KnowBe4.
Showing a few PowerPoint slides during a lunch-and-learn session isn't enough, says Sjouwerman. Instead, he suggests regular and repeated training followed by simulated attacks. Prior to the training, his organization sends fake emails to how many employees click on a link or open an attachment. After educating employees on the various tricks of the trade, Sjouwerman's company launches another fake attack. Over a few weeks, the number of employees messing up drops to near but not quite zero—thus the need to remain ever vigilant.
"The rule is: think before you click," says Sjouwerman.
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.
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