Tips for Entrepreneurs Can Grow

As a small business owner, you may have dreams of your company becoming the next Amazon or Apple, or you might be content making a splash in your local community. Either way, you may wonder how you can make it against large companies that seem to have the people and resources to do the things you can’t do.

Just because your business is small, that doesn’t mean you can’t think big. Below are four ways you can grow your small business without a big budget.

Find your niche

Big businesses tend to appeal to wide, general customer bases. As a result, customers with more specific needs are left out, because there’s not enough profit potential for a big company to cater to those customers’ needs. However, a small but eager customer base can be perfect for a smaller business.

“Step No. 1 is to recognize that a larger business is not necessarily your competition. Ask yourself how you are different,” Joanne Chang, owner of and chef at Flour Bakery + Café and Myers + Chang in Boston, said in The Wall Street Journal.

Identifying and focusing on your niche also lets you work to your strengths and develop market expertise and loyalty.

“Many are afraid to eliminate part of a potential market,” James Clear, founder of Passive Panda, wrote in an American Express Open Forum blog post. “It can seem scary, but you need to focus on your core customer if you want a clear path to growth.”

Danielle McPhail, founder of eSpec Books, said she has seen this in the world of small-press publishing.

“When you diversify too much when you’re small, then you can’t maintain your market,” she said. “I’ve worked with a lot of small presses, and when I see them self-destruct is when they start making imprints to reach different markets and they don’t have the support structure to reach that different demographic.”

Put your efforts into innovating

One way to innovate an industry is to find a problem that most businesses are ignoring.

“Don’t be afraid to solve the hard problems that everyone else avoids,” wrote Clear. “There is a lot of money to be made when you’re the first person to fix something.”

“Because you have passion and because you can tap into agility, you have a perfect mix to better innovate,” Pam Moore, founder of Marketing Nutz, wrote in a blog post. “It doesn’t require an intense board meeting to kick off an idea for further research. You can simply plan it and do it.”

When you innovate, be sure to keep in mind your market and customer base. McPhail encouraged small business owners to diversify within their existing product or service scopes but warned against branching out into completely different demographics.

Plan for growth

If you think big, you have to anticipate expansion. That might mean having some general plans in place for taking on more employees, setting up checklists and procedures to ensure quality control, and investing in products and equipment that will grow with you.

Purchasing hardware and software that grows with you is especially important. “Continuously having to upgrade is going to cost you money in the long run. Implement for growth now, and it will save you time, money and headache down the road,” said Moore.

Clear noted that growth doesn’t always mean creating more products or hiring more people.

“Acquisitions can be a massive source of profit and a means to growth if you make a few key moves,” he said.

Clear recommended keeping a list of companies that fit your niche and have the characteristics you’re looking for so that any acquired business enhances your focus and mission.

Don’t do it all yourself

It takes an independent streak and a do-it-yourself attitude to start your own business, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything on your own. For example, partnering with a business that handles a specific task and sharing the profits lets you keep your focus on what you do best while getting a big project done.

Clear uses the example of tennis balls: If you have a high-end tennis ball, instead of trying to make yourself in the image of Wilson, which has its own manufacturing and distribution, you should find an existing ball manufacturer and offer to share the profits. This frees your time and money so you can concentrate on selling the balls to your specific market, he said.

Thanks to modern technology, you can even harness the power of the crowd to fund your business or specific products.

“What made [starting my publishing company] possible was crowdfunding. Because I’m very good at marketing, we can fund the project and be in the black from the beginning. After that, it’s pure profit,” said McPhail.

Your business may have started small, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Plan for growth and seek out help and partnerships. Then, you can expand to something larger, successfully and on your terms.

Know More About Private Healthcare Exchanges Help Your Business

When it comes to benefits packages, both employees and employers know that one size does not fit all. What is right for a younger, entry-level worker might not make sense for an empty nester with seniority. A flexible benefits package based on employees’ unique situations and income levels is essential to retaining top talent.

As open enrollment approaches, employees will be hitting the exchanges once more to select their health care packages and other benefits for the coming year. Here’s a look at how some employers are using private exchanges to give employees more options, as well as to better manage benefits-related expenses.

What is a private benefits exchange?
Private exchanges are essentially marketplaces where employees can shop online for health insurance and other benefits, including dental, vision and life insurance. Employers first access the private exchange and choose from a variety of carriers the benefits they want to offer, as well as set their specified contribution levels for each offered product. Employees then access the exchange to peruse the products offered by their employer and select the ones that suit their lifestyles and financial needs.

“Think of these exchanges as a store, and each of the types of benefits are aisles,” Steven A. Nyce, director of the Willis Towers Watson Research and Innovation Center, told Business News Daily. “As an employer, you ‘own’ the store and have the ability to decide what products you want to include. So, say, one aisle is medical, [an employee] would have a number of products to choose from in that aisle.”

Depending on what products the employer has selected to offer, employees have their pick of the entire “store.” Those employees who need pet insurance can select it, while those who desire supplemental medical coverage, such as hospital indemnity, are able to as well. The aim is to give customizable control to the individual who is selecting the plan while also stabilizing costs to the employer.

“By facilitating a shift to a defined contribution … private exchanges offer the potential for cost stability to employers, while giving greater choice to employees, albeit with greater financial risk as well,” a 2014 report issued by The Kaiser Foundation reads. “Because the employer defines up front the amount paid to the employee, employers have greater control over how much they spend on health benefits.”

Health benefit costs are a huge consideration for employers. According to a 2015 report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, health care spending grew by $102 billion between 2012 and 2013. The rapidly increasing costs of health care in the U.S., coupled with employer obligations under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), means keeping health benefits expenses stable is a growing challenge.

How are employees using private benefits exchanges?

To better understand the emerging private exchange marketplace, the Private Exchange Research Council (PERC) partnered with private exchange Liazon to see how consumers were operating within that exchange, and found that employers are offering more products over time and employees are purchasing more as well.

The PERC report found that, on average, employers offer 14 products on their customized exchanges. Medical, dental and vision plans are the most commonly offered by employers: The average company’s benefits package on Liazon includes six medical plans, three dental products and four vision packages from which to choose. Many companies also offer life insurance, legal plans, identity protection, disability benefits and pet insurance.

From 2013 through 2015, employees on average increased the number of products they purchased for their individualized plan from 3.6 to 4.4. A number of factors could be responsible, Nyce said, from the growth of the exchanges to more comfortability among those who have participated in the exchanges for several years.

“We’re seeing an expansion of benefits and a blurring of the lines traditionally seen between retirement and health care, life insurance and disability,” Nyce said. “Those were traditionally in their own silos, but we’re seeing them come together now in a more holistic approach. It provides employees with a unique experience, and they can use [these benefits options] as a platform to grow to a broader set of benefits in the future.”

Know More About Email Marketing Success

Are you planning email marketing initiatives for the holiday season? Research shows that when done right, email campaigns can pay off mightily.

A past study from the Direct Marketing Association found email marketing has an average return on investment of $38 for every $1 spent. The numbers could easily go up, if businesses got more customers to actually open their emails: New research from GetResponse shows that email marketing messages are opened just 22 percent of the time by consumers.

“When used correctly, email is an essential tool in a salesperson’s arsenal to build these bonds that drive business growth,” JP Werlin, CEO and founder of sales and account management CRM provider PipelineDeals, said in a statement.

PipelineDeals believes that small business can improve their email marketing efforts by focusing on three key areas:

Time of day: Making sure your emails hit a reader’s inbox at the right time is critical to whether or not your message gets read. Unfortunately, there isn’t one magic time for everyone.

Research from PipelineDeals found that the timing window varies depending on the target audience of the email campaign. For example, software companies see better open rates in the afternoon, while businesses in the marketing and advertising industries have better open rates in the morning.

“Ignore the general wisdom of when you should send out email and actually start testing when you send out email messages,” the study’s authors wrote. “If you’re just getting started sending email, look for industry specific data.”

Template use: While email templates might make it easier to create your campaigns, they often don’t provide the results businesses are looking for. PipelineDeals found that emails sent using a template perform approximately 30 percent worse than those that aren’t based on a generic structure.

Businesses that do use templates should be sure to keep them fresh and current. Data shows campaigns using templates that are rarely updated perform worst of all.

PipelinesDeals suggests using a merge tag, which helps personalize email messages, when using templates.

“More personalized emails will always perform better, so consider using merge tags in the subject lines to enhance open rates,” the study’s authors wrote.

Subject lines: When it comes to subject lines, the shorter the better. The best performing email campaigns are those with subject lines with less than 40 characters. The PipelineDeals research found that subject lines with between 40 and 70 characters resulted in a strong decline in success rates.

“This makes sense given trends towards viewing email on mobile and the fact that most mobile email browsers restrict your view to roughly 40 characters,” the study’s authors wrote.

In addition to the tips from PipelineDeals, email marketing service provider StreamSend believes there are several strategies businesses can implement to get the most out of their email campaigns:

– Measure it: Take advantage of tools that show who read what and where and who didn’t as a way to best determine when to build on successful efforts or fix lagging results.
– Use video: Adding videos to emails increases return on investment and monthly revenue by 40 percent. Additionally, click-through rates increase by as much as three times when marketers include a video in an email.
– Go mobile: Mobile devices offer marketers a way to reach customers wherever and whenever they want. However, this makes creating a solid campaign more critical than ever, since the email will often be judged with just one glance.
– RSS feeds: Businesses with regular RSS updates ― syndicated live Web feeds ― can more effectively connect with their audiences and attract new followers. Sharing RSS content allows organizations to multiply their number of readers, which helps draw in more customers in the long run.
– Add social: Emails that include social-sharing buttons have a click-through rate 158 percent higher than emails that don’t. Adding social media to an email strategy can produce large campaign results.
– Bottom line: When creating email campaigns, ensure they align with your overall business goals so you can best guide content and strategies.

The PipelineDeals research was based on an analysis of more than 30,000 campaigns from small and mid-size businesses that took place over the last seven months.

Learn More About Effective Marketing Needs

Most small businesses rely heavily on marketing strategies to retain current customers and attract new ones. However, the digital realm, including social media, is changing rapidly, and marketers must adapt their strategies quickly if they want to continue to reach their customers.

The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) named story-driven content, video, native advertising and influencer advertising as some of the top upcoming marketing trends to watch in 2017. Business News Daily spoke with some marketing experts to discuss the trends for digital marketing in the coming year.

Story-driven content

Heartwarming and captivating stories help connect consumers to a specific product or service. The goal of story-driven content is to tap into consumers’ emotions and make them feel something remarkable toward your brand. This strategy is particularly relevant to the millennial generation, which happens to be the largest target consumer demographic right now, according to Pew Research Center.

Strategic communication expert Supriya Venkatesan said stories are a major part of the future of marketing.

“The most effective content will be story-driven and match millennial values of doing social good — which is a relatively modern marketing trend,” she said. “Platforms like Upworthy and campaigns like Dove Beauty are a huge success because they recognize that millennials crave authentic transparency and goodness.”

However, a company’s reputation can be jeopardized quickly if it relays the wrong value or message to its customers. For instance, Kirsten Clodfelter, co-founder of Rise Marketing, cited a 2014 incident when DiGiorno accidentally used a domestic violence hashtag to sell pizza.

“Businesses need to challenge themselves with really thinking about how to meaningfully engage using different social media channels in a way that’s more significant than just using the latest hashtag or putting emojis in their post,” she added.

Video content

Author and copywriter Brit McGinnis believes the future of marketing will be all about customization and understanding the complexities of a company’s audience.

“Everything will be customized to find smaller numbers of more devoted customers,” she said. This means methodologies will require less empirical analysis and more qualitative understanding of targeted consumers.

One way to capture an audience, for instance, is to create video content. According to HubSpot, videos often drive higher audience engagement online than other types of content, such as text and photos.

“Video marketing is a critical tool for businesses right now, whether you’re looking at creating short, shareable content for social media or thinking about something more targeted, like recruitment strategy,” Clodfelter said. She added that videos should also serve a culturally relevant purpose.

Native advertising

Native advertising is a unique type of marketing that matches the tone of the platform on which it appears. Many enterprises are investing in the native promotion of their content, CMI said.

“The concept of native advertising in the internet sphere is only a few years old, so it’s going through many iterations — from simple blog-type posts, to video content, to promoted tweets and posts on all the major social media platforms,” Venkatesan explained. “The future of native advertising is similar to the future of content marketing — it needs to be visually driven and compelling enough to grab the attention span of the modern consumer, which is getting shorter and shorter.”

For example, websites and online publications like BuzzFeed and The Atlantic utilize native advertising amid nonsponsored content on their websites.

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing uses specific people, typically those with audiences numbering in the thousands or even millions, to sell products on social media.

“Influencer marketing is absolutely the future, because it monetizes the trust of consumers,” McGinnis said.

This method of marketing has a high return on investment, with advertisers seeing an average of $6.85 in earned media for every $1.00 spent on influencer marketing programs, according to a 2014 AdWeek report. Similarly to native advertising, ads using influencers can be disguised easily. Nonetheless, they can also be marked as sponsored content on social networking platforms.

As with more traditional advertising, some companies have even recruited celebrities to promote their brands, products and services. However, businesses should be careful to choose an influencer who aligns well with their brand and values, Venkatesan said.

“Social media stars will continue to rise, and their celebrity status will be used to promote products,” Venkatesan said. “But many of these stars can’t simply be bought and want to have a relationship with the brand. So again, story and matching of values need to occur.”

Regardless of which areas of focus marketers pursue, experts agree that businesses need to be prepared to adapt to new trends and be on the lookout for new ones.

“I think marketing has already begun to change and will continue to, because with new technologies and ideas, lines continue to be blurred,” said Geneva Gamblin, a record-label publicity assistant. “We’re always looking to the next thing, and I think that marketers need to feel the same.”

Let’s Learn About Interactive Voice Response Solutions for Small Businesses

Most small businesses don’t have the luxury of hiring employees whose sole responsibility is to answer phones all day. Whether it’s to route calls to the proper person or department or answer simple questions, handling customer calls can be a large undertaking for a business. To help keep employees focused on their own work — and not talking on the phone all day — many small businesses are turning to interactive voice response (IVR) systems.

By automating the call process, IVR systems allow customers to serve themselves. IVR technology uses touch-tone or speech-recognition programs to answer customer questions, handle their requests or point them in the right direction. This is all done without the need for the customer to speak directly with an employee. Here are 12 IVR solutions for small businesses.

1. inContact

inContact’s IVR software lets customers choose the type of help they want, such as self-service or speaking with an agent. The software supports both automated speech recognition and text-to-speech, and features automatic callback for customers who can’t wait to speak with a representative. inContact’s IVR solution also integrates with popular CRM software and can pull data from popular CRMs like Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Oracle RightNow. In addition, the software is easy to update. Businesses with multiple locations can also serve each one with just one IVR application. www.incontact.com

2. SmartAction

SmartAction combines traditional IVR services with artificial intelligence. SmartAction says its Intelligent Voice Automation (IVA) recognizes speech, understands callers’ meaning and intent, and remembers the evolving context of each conversation. SmartAction’s IVA responds with personalized, context-relevant and accurate answers, according to the company. While most speech IVR solutions use application-specific programs or scripts, only IVA uses an “AGI Brain” that reasons and learns from experience, the company says. SmartAction’s IVA integrates with any customer database, website, PBX phone system or call agent support software. When SmartAction’s IVA can’t complete a complicated conversation, it captures and provides all relevant call information to live agents. The IVA is also PCI-certified, so businesses can accept payments over the phone. www.smartaction.com

Plum Group’s Plum Voice offers both hosted IVR and on-site IVR. In hosted IVR, the IVR system resides in the cloud, and the responsibility for the maintenance and management of telecommunications and servers falls on the vendor. On-site IVR, on the other hand, integrates with a business’s existing telephone systems. Plum Voice offers both inbound and outbound IVR options. The company’s outbound IVR allows businesses to target their messages to each type of call. Plum Voice offers a 100 percent uptime guarantee. www.plumvoice.com

4. Agile Networks

Agile Networks offers a suite of unified communications applications, including IVR systems. The company provides both inbound and outbound IVR systems. Agile Networks’ inbound IVR technology allows businesses to create menu trees by phone for activities such as banking, getting an account status, checking on a bill, getting the location of a store or offering a directory of employees and departments. The company’s outbound IVR systems can call customers with appointment reminders or notifications, provide order statuses, notify customers when a payment is overdue and conduct telemarketing campaigns. www.agile-networks.com

5. Five9

Five9’s IVR systems are cloud based, so businesses don’t need any additional hardware to use it. Features include a visual script designer with drag-and-drop visual tools that enables businesses to create automated call-processing scripts from start to finish; speech-recognition technology that analyzes calls to create a more natural customer experience; recorded prompts from a library of audio recordings that allows businesses to play messages or instructional voice prompts; and a text-to-speech builder with a variety of voice characters to provide customers with information such as account balances. Five9’s IVR also includes call variable reporting, which allows businesses to view the IVR path for each call to see how their system can be improved. www.five9.com

6. Telzio

Telzio offers a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone system, including IVR functionality, for small businesses. Telzio’s IVR menus provide automated greetings with menu options. Businesses can set up custom IVR menus to direct callers to the right place and record custom greetings to provide important information — like business hours, company directories and any other instructions — to their callers. In addition, businesses can automatically forward a call to an operator if a caller doesn’t respond to the IVR prompts, as well as repeat instructions up to 10 times if callers need time to make a selection. www.telzio.com

7. Synclio

With Synclio’s small business IVR, you can program your phone system to answer routine questions, as well as route calls to the appropriate person or department. Businesses can provide callers with basic information, such as business hours or driving directions, or establish prerecorded prompts that callers can select from by using their telephone keypads or through spoken commands. Additionally, businesses can program their IVR to provide detailed account information. www.synclio.com

8. IVR Lab

IVR Lab’s IVR system can provide callers with information extracted from local or remote databases, such as account information, telephone banking or bill pay. The company’s systems also have the functionality to transfer calls to a live agent or other extension. IVR Lab’s IVR systems work with a wide variety of database systems, including MSSQL, MySQL, Access, Foxpro, Oracle and CSV. Overall, the company’s systems are fully customizable to each client’s particular needs. The IVR Lab systems work with both dedicated telephone lines and VoIP. IVR Lab also provides outbound IVR services. www.ivr-lab.com

9. XO Communications

XO Communications’ IVR system is cloud based and builds upon a business’s existing infrastructure. The company’s inbound and outbound systems allow businesses to complete transactions over the phone, notify customers of relevant changes in services or programs, gather feedback and gauge performance via customer satisfaction surveys, update customers in business interruption situations, and ensure accurate information for product and service warranties by verifying purchase details and information. The company’s IVR services can also transfer, record and monitor calls. XO Communications’ systems can be managed via its Web-based platform. www.xo.com

10. CenturyLink

CenturyLink offers a hosted and network-based IVR service. The company’s network-based system, EZ Route, provides contact-center functionality that lets businesses answer calls, provide messages and announcements, and support call routing to live agents or other IVR applications through a menu-based interface. The system allows you to develop a voice menu and routing scheme via a Web-based interface. The interface also lets you record your own announcements over the phone or upload professionally recorded audio files. When using CenturyLink’s hosted IVR service, calls are answered via a touch-tone or speech-recognition menu. The information request is then routed via a secure network to the appropriate Web application server for a response. CenturyLink’s ready-to-use applications include store locators, financial status, account updates and PIN resets. The system, which supports text-to-speech applications, can also route callers to a live agent if the system can’t handle the customer’s request. www.centurylink.com

11. NewVoiceMedia

NewVoiceMedia’s IVR is a cloud-based and self-service solution. The system allows businesses to change their IVR menus to reflect the ever-changing behavior of their customers without the need for IT assistance. NewVoiceMedia’s inbound IVR services can give caller information related to specific events or stores based on a keypad input. A number of different options can be used to answer the most common queries, such as opening times, ticket prices, location details and latest news. In addition, NewVoiceMedia’s IVR solutions are all Level 1 PCI-DSS compliant, offering high levels of security to organizations collecting information or taking card payments over the telephone. www.newvoicemedia.com

12. Interactive Intelligence

Among the tasks Interactive Intelligence’s IVR can perform include banking by phone, prescription refills by phone, feedback surveys, outbound notifications, appointment reminders and catalog purchases. The company’s services support multilingual options, including Spanish and other languages. Interactive Intelligence’s system also provides internal services for employees, such as benefits enrollment, time and attendance reports, shift scheduling and work-order assignments.