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5 Trends That Will Shape Small Business in 2012

This post originally appeared on American Express OPENForum.

It’s time for my annual prediction of small-business trends.

No matter what business trends are reported in the media, small businesses will always adopt them more slowly and in ways that don’t follow the hype.

Small Business Trends

JasonLangheine via Flickr CC

Small-business owners don’t care what’s cool. They care about what’s practical and what seems obvious—and that’s not always what gets buzz. (I’ve been pretty much spot on with most of my predictions for small-business trends in 2011 and trends for 2010.)

Here are my predictions for 2012. Some of these might not seem as obvious as those in previous years. But, welcome to the odd world of small business.

Social networks evolve into markets

As social networks become more important in the lives of their users and the level of social behavior continues to evolve, they will become much more than outposts. These sites will move toward wholly functioning, self-contained marketplaces.

A growing number of people simply see the Internet as Facebook (and Facebook is OK with that). Other marketplaces such as Amazon, Etsy, Buy.com and eBay are moving toward socializing your product search and becoming decision engines.

This behavior signals the need for small-business marketers to view some outposts as destinations. Consider building a store on Facebook, Shoply, Amazon, Buy.com, Etsy and eBay.

Ramp up your participation in these markets and educate yourself about them. Stop looking at them simply as transaction enablers. These sites are growing into major cities and you need to claim and increase your holdings there before they become overcrowded.

Content becomes conversion

Most small-business owners have come to see content as strategy, rather than merely words to be produced. Blog posts, white papers and in-person and online seminars  create awareness, build trust, educate and illustrate core stories.

That much is now a given in marketing now, but content adoption, expectation and use will evolve next year. I believe you will see a lot of content, social media-driven and otherwise, that is designed to convert rather than to simply inform.

Expect free content to get better and paid content to be part of the logical path. Expect video sales letters and automated online seminars. You’ll see members-only content, ROI calculators and content-enhanced products becoming the norm.

Mobile powers local

Last year, I predicted that mobile would finally land for small business. We’ve talked about mobile as a marketing channel for years, but it seemed it wasn’t happening.

Finally, mobile has become an important medium. This is in part because of smart-phone adoption and in greater part because of the shift to mobile behavior. Every age demographic is using mobile devices to locate local businesses and those people intend to purchase.

Mobile websites, mobile offers, mobile payments and geo-location will become essential elements of the small-business local-marketing toolkit. Even Near Field data exchange, which had a science fiction ring just a few years ago, will be part of that picture.

Oh, and small-business owners will get over their fear of using SMS in smart ways.

Customer service goes community

The cable provider Comcast launched Comcast Cares, a social media push to repair a poor customer-service perception. It set the bar for how brands need to engage with their customers in the always-on, always-public world of social media.

As the toolset evolves with players like ZenDesk and Get Satisfaction, businesses of any size can provide incredibly high-tech support without losing high-touch service.

Small business will embrace the community in a peer service-provider model and start providing service in public-facing, brand-building ways. They will embrace tools that turn customer service into a shared community model, where customers help answer questions and evangelize the products and services.

Search moves to apps

My use of search-engine technology is slowly being replaced by the use of apps that provide me with answers relevant to my personal needs. My guess is that while you may not have taken note, you’re using search engines less and answer engines more.

This trend highlights the marketers’ need to go beyond SEO and PPC and move deeper into social networks, mobile marketing and app-based local marketplaces.

Apps inside social networks provide answers. Apps inside social-bookmark sites serve up interesting reading. Apps in content-curation tools like Storify provide relevant context for content. Apps on mobile devices, such as Yelp’s, help you find bars and restaurants. Apps using QR readers give you deeper information on companies and products. Apps are delivering sports scores, movie times, videos and images.

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