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As a small business owner, you may not be at the forefront of developing technology as enterprise-level businesses often are, but tech still plays a vital role in the growth and efficiency of your business. Given how much things have changed in the past year, these small business technology trends are sure to be important in 2021.
While new infrastructure, like 5G, will continue to gain traction throughout the country, other trends – such as personalized marketing, software unification and cybersecurity – can also have a direct impact on small businesses.
We asked tech experts and small business owners what they thought the biggest technology-related changes for small businesses would be in the coming year. Here are 10 small business tech trends to watch for in 2021.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning have been hot tech topics for years. As these technologies are implemented into more solutions, small business owners will continue incorporating them into new and existing processes in 2021. That could mean a wide range of implementation scenarios, from voice assistants to personalized customer experiences.
Meredith Schmidt, executive vice president and general manager of small business and essentials at Salesforce, said that although artificial intelligence may sound like something only large enterprises use, it will start to become more widely adopted by small businesses.
"AI will help small businesses offer more personalized experiences to their customers by maximizing their time and automating manual tasks," Schmidt said.
Using tech solutions integrated with AI can help save businesses time. Salesforce found that 55% of small businesses cite insufficient time as a substantial challenge. As a result, AI is poised to make small business operations more efficient.
"If you are spending almost a quarter of your day on manual tasks, like inputting data, as our research showed, AI and automation can be a huge asset," Schmidt said.
The adoption of 5G technology – the fifth generation of cellular capability, which boasts significantly faster data transmission speeds than the more widely supported 4G – began in 2019. According to cell phone manufacturer Huawei, 5G promises faster speeds than 4G LTE, with little or no latency (delay in data transfer).
This advancement is a major step in the development of the internet of things (IoT), as 5G networks are more capable of supporting the influx of interconnected smart devices. While there is a lot of hype surrounding 5G, however, it's still in its early stages. [Read related article: How 5G Will Change Your Small Business]
One area that increased in importance in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic was the need for comprehensive human resources software and tech that will help small business owners keep track of their employees and their needs. Experts said they expect that trend to continue in 2021.
Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer of Hibob, said a lot of the focus on HR tech stems from the shift to remote work, though this technology is sure to continue to assist small businesses even in more normal times. [Need HR software for your business? Check out HR software for the best options.]
"The shift to remote work has changed businesses in terms of productivity, engagement, culture, two-way communication and employee development, and has highlighted the need for effective technology to help navigate these challenges," she said. "As such, centralized HR information systems have become mission critical."
By looking at HR tech as more than just a "system of record," Staples said, HR leaders are starting to understand that it can also help create a system of engagement.
"Many small businesses rely on Excel charts or antiquated HR systems to manage their people, but employees expect and deserve more, which is where centralized systems come into play," Staples said.
In response to lockdowns and other pandemic-related disruptions, major businesses have used mobile tech, online shopping and mobile scheduling to create a contactless shopping experience.
According to Staples, this high-tech approach to keeping people safe has spread to more than just curbside pickup, which has become a natural extension of existing tech such as mobile payments and terminals.
"Mobile payments used to be a nice-to-have that brought the convenience of avoiding long checkout lines to shoppers in crowded stores," she said. "But now, as a result of the pandemic, they're almost a baseline requirement for most retailers. Shopping and checking out with QR codes, and mobile terminals are now a daily occurrence in most retail locations."
With the vaccine not expected to reach critical mass in the U.S. until at least the spring, these tech-driven solutions will remain in 2021 and beyond. In fact, Staples said, people are becoming so used to this style of service that it wouldn't be surprising if it became the new norm.
"Many retailers are overhauling their in-store experiences to make them more reflective of our current – and probably future – reality," she said. "Even Walmart is overhauling 200 of their stores into airport-like experiences that emphasize convenience and touchless transactions."
As populations continue to shrink in urban areas, more people will be seeking remote work. And as more businesses embrace this new model and the potential savings that can stem from it, they will have to rely on technology to handle remote onboarding processes.
Onboarding is an integral part of hiring new employees and getting them up to speed with their responsibilities and the company culture. Without the ability for people to connect in person, either because of the pandemic or their geographical location, companies will use software to do so, Staples said.
"Technology that ensures every step of the onboarding experience is planned and orchestrated professionally will help companies make sure their new team members feel welcome," she said, citing a Hibob study that found that a bad onboarding experience pushes nearly two-thirds of workers to seek a new job.
"Companies will invest more in technology that helps people understand the [organizational] charts of who's who in the company [and] familiarize themselves with the relevant connections they need to make outside of their immediate team and allows them to make connections with others with shared interests," Staples added.
In the modern workplace, more and more tech solutions are becoming popular for communication. Companies use Slack to connect teams, Outlook to send important documents, Salesforce to manage customers, Basecamp to plan projects and Google Drive to store company information, for example.
"Connecting software to work with other software is hard," said Roy Mann, CEO and co-founder of Monday.com. "There is going to be a breakthrough with integration platforms that will allow any software to connect well with any other software."
He predicts that in 2021, the connection will finally link multiple platforms and allow for seamless communication. For example, he said, customer information will change simultaneously across platforms if it's adjusted in just one, and this unification can save businesses time.
According to research from BullGuard, nearly 60% of small businesses think it's unlikely they will be targeted in a cyberattack. However, many small businesses have indeed been affected by cyberattacks and data breaches, so 2021 should be a year that small business owners start fighting back.
Jim Lippie, general manager of cloud computing for software company Kaseya, said small and midsize businesses (SMBs) should start viewing security through the lens of enterprise businesses.
"They will finally take security measures to heart," he said. "SMBs, like their large enterprise counterparts, will lock down on a comprehensive backup-and-disaster-recovery solution to keep protected, and also form new standardized blocking and tackling game plans to keep the business even more safe."
Automation has long been a buzzword in small business circles, but 2021 could be the year that it takes a seat at the head of the table. Omri Traub, CEO and founder of Popcart, believes business owners will spend 2021 seriously looking at automation as a way to save money and cover problem areas.
"With continued shortages of workers within select domains, automation investments will continue to increase," Traub said. "Examples for small business include online pricing automation to balance profitability and revenue growth, as well as inventory management systems to ensure the perfect amount of inventory is on hand."
Looking forward, Traub said he believes there will be a "new wave of companies" that will look to create these automated solutions. By providing that service, he said, numerous companies will leverage the cloud to help ensure that the push for more automation heats up.
Social media influencers and personalized marketing are becoming viable avenues for connecting with customers and showcasing products. Gone are the days of driving sales through traditional print advertising. Now, a business must have a dynamic marketing strategy, and in 2021, that will mean working with influencers.
"Consumers want more authenticity in their advertisements, often in the form of a recommendation from someone they trust, like an influencer," said Alex Shvarts, chief technology officer and director of business development for FundKite.
Personalized marketing can help you connect with your customers and develop a niche within your industry. Working with influencers means understanding your business's needs and doing your research on who's influential within the industry.
Small businesses will continue to adopt social media advertising in 2021. While influencers are considered social media advertisers, social media advertising also encompasses other areas, like pay-per-click marketing.
"As more businesses start micro, social advertising will continue to grow as a cost-effective and efficient way to target specific audiences," said Matt Rosenberg, former communications manager for Wix.com and current senior manager of media relations at Weber Shandwick. "The ability to create unique and differentiating content that engages customers through social media channels is paramount in today's growing digital landscape."
This trend is paying off: According to Rosenberg, three-quarters of U.S. consumers purchased a product they saw in a brand's social media post. If you're not already active on social, it's time to start showcasing your brand.
Key takeaway: Small business tech trends to watch for this year include artificial intelligence, the proliferation of 5G, comprehensive HR tech, tech-assisted shopping, remote onboarding, software unification, a focus on cybersecurity, a greater emphasis on automation, influencer marketing and social media advertising.
Additional reporting by Matt D'Angelo. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.
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