People in the computer industry--and those of us who make a living by commenting on it--often forget that the rest of the world doesn't share our enthusiasm for new toys, much less our knowledge of what's going on in the world of tech. I'm reminded of this every time I ask my father, a philosophy professor, if he's read my blog lately. "Your what?" he always says.
Yet I've made a habit of exhorting people who use computers to master them, especially people in business. Technology is a tool, after all, and in my opinion, we humans should remain in charge of the tools, and that unfortunately requires some study. When we don't keep up with technology, at best we become less competitive than other people in our business. And that's pretty bad. (At worst, the Cylons take over and nuke our planet.)
And since I'm giving a speech in a few weeks to a group that sells technology and services to people working with small businesses, I thought I'd take this opportunity to run through the emerging technologies and tech trends that everyone in a small business should know about. The first of these are rather obvious, but I'll try to increase the surprise factor as I go through the list.
First of all, I'm going to assume that the people getting my message don't need to be convinced of the value of being connected to the Net and having a Web site. That's the baseline--today, this is as essential as having a telephone. Beyond that there are two critical issues that every small business needs to address: search engine optimization and online markets.
People spend time and effort crafting advertising messages and arranging store windows, and it is just as critical to edit a Web site so that people can find it. This is a bit of a black art, but there are some handy tools (my favorite is Overture's Keyword Selector), as well as countless consultants who claim to have the keys to getting sites highly ranked on Google and the other engines.
The other important thing people in small business need to do is get their products or services off of their own sites and onto other online markets. You can sell goods on eBay; you can sell services on industry-specific sites. The more places your business product is available, the more you are likely to sell.
Moving up the chain of surprise, as it were, I recommend that all small businesspeople educate themselves about blogs--both reading and posting them. A blog is a public diary. There are blogs for almost every conceivable interest group and business angle, plus there are good tools for monitoring the "blogosphere" to track the zeitgeist of every subindustry (I recommend Technorati). These tools can keep you better informed about what's happening in your industry than any professional trade journal can.
Likewise, writing a business blog is a great way to do two things: First, it helps you keep in touch with your most fanatical and loyal customers. Second, writing down regular thoughts about your business is a great exercise in business meditation. If you're running a business, you certainly learn something every day. Write it down.
Related to blogs is a familiarity with RSS (Really Simple Syndication) newsfeeds. I'm a fan of using RSS to consume blogs, but more important for small business, I believe, is making sure that the blog you are writing is available as an RSS feed (all the blogging tools I know of publish to RSS, fortunately). Here's why this is important: Millions of people today are using RSS to get their news, customized to fit their tastes. Most don't know it--but anybody who uses My Yahoo's news feature is consuming data via RSS. Add your blog to the mix, and there's a possibility that you might get your small business's most current message onto the personal home pages of your most loyal customers.
I also recommend that small businesses investigate using VoIP for their phone service--and not for the cost savings, although those can add up nicely--but rather because many VoIP plans let you set up phone numbers in area codes where you have no physical presence. If you're based in Tucson but want to establish a business presence in Milwaukee, with a VoIP plan, you can get a Milwaukee phone number that rings at your desk in Arizona or anywhere else.
Last on my list is the recommendation that small businesses embrace emerging technologies. This is a tough pitch to make, because most small businesses don't have the free time or the money required to blaze a trail in technology. However, just as people often like patronizing businesses in their neighborhood, technology-forward customers also like working with businesses that live in their same technological world. Case in point: I almost dumped my dentist because his front office wouldn't communicate appointment information with me by e-mail.
So if you want to attract and retain as customers those people who are ahead of the curve in technology, consider looking into these tools:
First, add some community functionality to your Web site. A few vendors make message-board software that you can install on your server (such as FuseTalk), or your Web host might support this already. But the main point here is to give your customers a place to talk with you and with others about your products or services. There's a good chance that your customers will end up helping each other to use your product. Think of it as free customer support.
Go mobile by creating a cell phone-friendly version of your Web site. Almost all sites created today are too big and too fancy to display well on a cell phone or a smart phone. But why lock your customers out from your site when they are on the road? Create a special, mobile version for them (CNET.com's mobile edition, by the way, is m.cnet.com).
Finally, get with the program: Put some video content on your site. Nearly anybody can create Web-friendly video these days by recording it on a digital camera. Video content is compelling, and it's much less expensive to create today than it ever has been.
Obviously, none of these ideas can turn a bad product or service into a guaranteed moneymaker. But if you use these tools, there will be a much better chance that potential customers will find your business and that existing customers will remain loyal to it.
I must have missed something. What other emerging technologies make sense for the small business? Talk back to me.