New Tech Offers Small Businesses Mobility, Targeting and Customization

news NewTechOffersNew devices and our expanding digital footprint show that technology is an ever-increasing part of our personal lives. But sophistication as consumers doesn’t always transfer to professional life and the gap can be costly.

In Michigan, understanding and applying business technologies is innately connected to economic growth. For small businesses, staying on top of the latest and greatest innovation can be daunting as technologies emerge and change more quickly than the weather.

“We automatically assume everyone has a website or has broadband,” says Mike Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan. “But we’re finding that sometimes it’s simply a challenge for small businesses to get online.”

Rogers knows the ins and outs of connectivity. As the senior correspondent for the Michigan Business Network and host of “This Week In Small Business Technology,” Rogers regularly starts the conversation about a business world that is increasingly tech-dependent.

“Technology is often a challenge for the small enterprise,” says Rogers. “The goal is to help businesses get connected and to see the benefits of the online world.”

Getting in the zone

In a continuing effort to improve Michigan’s economic vitality, Rogers has tapped organizations like Connect Michigan to gather information on how small businesses use and benefit from technology.

Connect Michigan’s 2013 Business Technology Survey sampled 800 random businesses, the majority with fewer than 50 employees.

Based on the findings, Connect Michigan estimates that more than 54,000 Michigan businesses — or 25 percent of businesses across the state — still do not use broadband technology. Another 39 percent of businesses, the survey shows, struggle to find employees with sufficient technology skills.

Those findings, Rogers says, underscore the three big tech trends or challenges he routinely notices: getting online, leveraging the opportunity of mobile technology and handling customer and employee privacy in a connected world.

“I’m an astronomy buff,” says Rogers. “To me, your business is in what we would call a ‘dark zone’ if you don’t have a minimum presence in the online world or if you’re not engaging through social media.”

On the plus side, the survey revealed that 33 percent of Michigan businesses earn revenue from online sales — or about $28 billion annually. And increasingly, business interactions are trending toward mobile technologies, with a majority of people having a laptop, tablet or smartphone within reach.

Today, nearly 75 percent of small business owners use a smartphone — up from 57 percent in 2010 — according to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Small Business Association. That same survey showed a marked increase in the use of laptops, from 67 percent in 2010 to nearly 85 percent today.

“We call it the great equalizer,” says Linda Daichendt, executive director and president of the Mobile Technology Association of Michigan. “Mobile now provides the ability for small businesses to be very competitive with larger businesses with larger budgets, simply because it allows you to market effectively at very low costs.”

Power through people

Justin Caine wields the power of mobile technology and social media by telling stories through web-based video.

As the co-owner of Lansing’s Good Fruit Video, Caine works with organizations to create high-quality information and communication pieces that can be uploaded to websites, sent via email, or posted via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

“The days of 30-second TV spots as your only option for getting your message out is gone,” says Caine. “Your website and social media networks are ripe with ways to tell and share your story.”

Caine agrees that keeping up with new technologies can be a struggle for businesses with limited resources. He advises his customers, which include small businesses, educational organizations and nonprofits, that it’s simply a matter of focusing on the forms of media, and technology will relay your message to the right audience.

“As a small business, that’s what we’ve done,” says Caine. “We focus on a few different things and we’ve found which ones work best for our business. We tell our customers the same thing: once you find what works for you, then go for it.”

Going mobile

While services like Caine’s can help create the message, organizations must be equipped with the basic know-how and bare essentials for getting the message out.

That message or service often has the most impact when delivered through mobile technology.

“Text messaging is by far the most cost effective with an average response rate of about 12 to 15 percent,” says MTAM’s Daichendt. “Another must-have is a mobile website. It’s inexpensive and provides customers the ability to find what they need when they’re on the go.”

Daichendt explained that a mobile site isn’t simply a replication of a company’s website but rather a site that is easy and quick to read on a mobile device. Standard content includes contact information and directions. And depending on the industry or business, the site might feature product descriptions or a menu, mobile payment or reservation options, and coupons.

Other mobile trends on the rise include the increased presence of Quick Response — or QR codes. This speckled form of barcodes can transport customers to a web site when scanned with a mobile app, and typically appears on printed materials, products or product displays or even occasional T-shirts.

Augmented reality will also gain prominence as people leverage the cameras and directional sensors within mobile computing devices to detect and preview locations of nearby businesses.

As electronic means for gathering, sharing and transmitting information advances, so too, do concerns about privacy. Some feel the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, with economic growth resulting from the aggregate data collected through mobile computing.

“The bottom line is privacy, as we knew it, is no longer available,” says Daichendt. “It is what it is. Mobile technologies present a limitless opportunity for businesses of all sizes. It’s something you should embrace and not be intimidated by. If you do, it will be lucrative for you.”

In the Know: Q&A with NuWave Technology Partners

In a world where technology can overshadow personal interaction, one high-tech provider puts people first in every business transaction.

Founded in 2005, NuWave Technology Partners builds their business on the philosophy that “it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.”

Co-Founder and Managing Partner Chad Paalman recently spoke with the Greater Lansing Business Monthly about NuWave’s expanding portfolio of IT services in the area of sensor technology. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

Q: What is NuWave known for?

A: We provide managed IT services to customers across Michigan that include data center and cloud solutions, networks, PCs and servers, voice-over IP telephone systems and more. We serve the business, health care and public sector markets, and we position ourselves as business partners who provide skills and resources to achieve profitable results.

Q: What’s this we’re hearing about sensor technology?

A: Sensor technology is a new direction. It’s exciting. And it’s a whole new area of opportunity that didn’t exist before.

Sensors basically measure things like weight, temperature, humidity, light, heat and motion, and transmit signals to readable displays or over a network for processing. When a customer asks me if something can be done with a sensor, my first response is to tell them that if something can be measured, then the sky’s the limit.

Q: What kind of sensor technology requests have you tackled recently?

A: A couple years ago, a customer asked if we could tag livestock so they would know the location and health of their animals at any one time on their 600-acre property. The sensors were tied into video cameras, and every animal had a unique identifier. We then built an app so the customer could track animals through their computer or mobile device.

We also worked with Capital Region International Airport to pave sensors into the runway. Those sensors measured temperature and humidity and other environmental factors. Maintenance crew could review information communicated through the sensors to determine the best type of salt or sand to use. Pilots on incoming flights could also access the information for current runway conditions.

Q: What do you see coming up for sensor technology?

A: The industry is wide open, with sensors being used for a variety of things. For instance, sensors in diapers can detect when a baby should be changed. Sensors in pills can signal when a person takes their medicine. And sensors in crops can signal when moisture or nitrogen content is high or low.

With sensors, a lot depends on what the customer asks for. Sensor technology is available now, and if something can be measured, chances are we can make it happen.

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