Top 10 Business Trends That Will Drive Success in 2018 (BTU 12/27/17)

By: Ian Altman

This year my annual list of business trends celebrates its fifth year.  As with previous years, my picks for 2018 represent bold and innovative moves that leading companies around the world are making to drive success.  Some of this years’ trends are in the fledgling phase, while others have already taken root.  These trends come from my own observations or conversations with colleagues and subject matter experts, as well as working closely with businesses of all shapes and sizes. Here are the top 10 Business Trends that are sure to drive success for you and your company in 2018.  We’ve captured all of the trends in an infographic at the end of the article.

1. Artificial Intelligence Drives Customer Experience

When you think of artificial intelligence (AI), you might think of dehumanizing interactions. Don’t confuse AI with primitive marketing automation.

As AI expert and leading keynote speaker Christopher Penn, VP of Marketing Technology for SHIFT Communications says, “There are three levels of machine learning: AI where machines perform tasks normally performed by humans; machine learning, where the machines learn on their own; and deep learning, where machine learning chains together for rich learning.”

Leading companies are embracing AI to perform repeatable, redundant tasks and to process large amounts of data not to avoid human interaction, but to enrich it.  AI is becoming the norm for many practical consumer experiences – these powerful examples use AI to evaluate GPS data:

  • Google Maps uses real-time customer data from our own phones
  • GPS Insight is able to help companies shorten the scheduling window for telecommunications companies. More importantly, they can allow municipalities to better deploy emergency responders and repair crews in a crisis like a hurricane.

Expect to see more highly-customized content delivery, automated to a consumer’s specific persona and lifestyle.

As Penn notes, “AI is not a futuristic concept. The tools and technologies are available, accessible, and not cost prohibitive.”

2. Communities Embrace Live Interactions Over Social Media

Your smartphone might make you think that people prefer social media vs. in-person interactions. However, top companies realize that building great communities engenders long-term brand loyalty. Nothing drives strong communities better than in-person and live interactions. Even live video engages better than recorded video. Just look at the popularity of Facebook Live.

Recently, I attended an event in Philadelphia with 75 fellow professional speakers. Though the group started as an online community, attendees spent our own money and time away from family to learn from and share with each other, in person.

Great community events like the B2B Forum from MarketingProfs sell-out in advance to attendees seeking high-value, face-to-face interactions that deliver community and social learning that far exceeds what’s possible with social media. You’d have an easier time attending an Ivy League university than getting invited to the annual Mastermind Talks geared toward CEOs and entrepreneurs.

Smart companies realize social media and technology do not replace the need for in-person interactions, social media can actually make in-person interactions more valuable. Since consumers are already connected in the virtual world, in-person relationships can be built at a rapid pace because you already feel as though you “know” the other person.

Expect to see leading companies that cut back on live events years ago, bring them back with enthusiasm.

3. Millennials Welcome Generation Z

According to analysts at Goldman Sachs, America’s youngest generation, “Gen-Z” (those born after 1998), are now entering their formative years and rising in influence. At nearly 70 million strong, the eldest of which are now entering college and/or the workforce, this group will soon outnumber their Millennial predecessors.

Millennials are not children anymore. In fact, the oldest of them are now 35. Millennials are increasingly taking leadership roles within organizations. In addition to managing their peers, Millennials will soon be managing Gen Z employees. Will Millennial managers complain about Gen Z as much as Baby Boomer managers complained about Millennials?  Only time will tell.

Gen Z is the first generation born with devices in hand and are radically different than Millennials. Smart companies and brands are working quickly to understand this next generation as an employee as well as consumer.

4. Wages And More On The Rise  

Dr. Mary Kelly, a PhD economist and leadership advisor, shared great insight about what to expect in the coming year’s economy.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, Human Resource managers should expect a 3% increase in wages across all sectors. In high demand jobs such as health care, elderly care, and physical therapy, expect wage increases to be higher.

We’ll also see wages likely increase in engineering, drone technology, and virtual reality. Wages have been stagnant for a few years, and with the unemployment rate at almost record low of 4.1% of the labor force, employers will feel pressure to adjust compensation to attract and retain quality workers.

As we’ve seen in recent years, large organizations will see health care costs rise by more than 6% from 2017 to 2018. . At the same time, coverage is declining. Smart employers are looking at their health care plans now to minimize the financial increase while improving cost transparency to help drive down future costs.

Talented employees seek salary, benefits, flexibility, and autonomy. Smart companies know that flexibility and autonomy might beat out just pure compensation for many employees.

5. Social Learning Outperforms Remote Learning

As more professionals work remotely, companies have found creative ways to keep employees connected and develop their talents outside of the office. One way that has gained popularity among corporate training programs is social learning.

Social learning is the process of learning through peer social interaction. The most common example of traditional social learning is the chance encounter at the workplace water cooler. Two or more people run into each other, share ideas, and walk away knowing a little more in the process; this is social learning.

“Social learning can take place in informal one-on-one encounters, among teams in the course of real-time problem-solving, communities of practice, through social software, expertise directories, and more,” notes a Bloomberg study on social learning.

The study estimates 50% of companies already use social learning in some way, and two-thirds plan to use it in the future. It’s easy to understand why. Social-learning promotes autonomy and self-direction, increasing overall learner engagement. It can also be a welcome departure from online courses which can be lonely, isolated experiences that lack engagement. Learners do not feel the presence of other learners in the experience.

The most successful online learning programs include a digital community where participants can share their experience, ask questions of each other, and engage in social learning that goes beyond the course curriculum.

As companies adopt more social learning, so too will they adopt tools that support mentoring and coaching that leverages the internal expertise organically.

6. Live Streaming Video Content Gains Momentum

Whereas video itself has become a necessary component for successful businesses, customers are no longer content with impersonal, generic marketing. Customers demand real connections, with real people. Video is the most viewed content, and live video is the most effective way to engage with your audience.

According to Nick Losq, founder & chief creative officer at StarBeast “Video is the most easily digestible form of media in a landscape now dominated by smartphones. And when a business starts adding a “live” component, introducing real people, in real time, it has the power to connect with consumers in a personal and honest manner, allowing businesses to separate themselves from their competitors.  Live video has the ability to give many businesses a face AND a soul.”

Businesses stream live video to establish real-time human connections with their audiences. Whether it’s streaming a product launch, running B2B webinars, offering Q&A sessions or streaming product reviews, live videos are becoming an established part of a business marketing strategy.  Livestream research shows that 80% of audiences would rather watch live video from a brand than read a blog, and 82% prefer live video from a brand to social posts. And 73% of B2B organizations report positive ROI from video marketing.

Companies who plan for and dedicate resources to live stream videos will dominate their industries.

7. Serve Your Community Not Just Buyers

The notion of the buyer’s journey was used to describe the path that your potential customer would take when making a purchase. However, today’s customers are sophisticated, savvy consumers who do their research. They vet companies by scouring their websites, reading online reviews and putting feelers out to their social networks. By the time consumers reach a salesperson, they are fully acquainted with your company’s product features, options and prices. They have done their due diligence and narrowed down their options.

As a result, the old ‘buyer’s journey’ has given way to more realistic models that takes into account this new reality. The journey buyers and prospects take is no longer linear or even neat, it’s more unpredictable and fluid which poses a big challenge to marketers. As we enter 2018, we will continue to see these models get updated.

Analyst Jon Reed writes marketers also “should be thinking in terms of “buyer’s community” or “buyer’s network.”” Reed notes that “buyers aren’t always buying but they are always learning” and “we shouldn’t only be targeting buyers.”

“Today’s informed buyers get better at their jobs by building “trust networks” of experts inside and outside of their company,” Reed writes.

Therefore, it behooves marketers to be where their prospects — and their prospects’ friends — hang out. Leading wealth management firm, Glassman Wealth, holds events for travel safety and responsible philanthropy. Though his firm doesn’t sell those services or profit from them, Barry Glassman, the firm’s founder says, “We seek areas where our clients have questions, and we strive to provide the single-best resource available to address their inquiry. Our clients don’t have questions limited to investing. They have questions about life.”

Savvy companies realize that the best thing they can do is to serve their community, irrespective of whether or not someone is in a buying cycle. When you deliver consistent value, you engender trust. Then, when they are actually on a buyer’s journey, you are already a trusted resource for them.

8. Marketing Drives Results With A Focus On Problems

Marketers used to espouse the features and benefits of offerings. However, B2B customers have learned to ignore features/benefits. In fact, your ideal client may not even realize that they could benefit from your product or service. Top performing companies focus on the problems you solve, and the anticipated results you deliver.

I have run thousands of CEOs and executives through an exercise on how they make and approve decisions. When approving purchasing decisions, executives consistently ask “What problem does this solve for us?” “Why do we need it?” and “What is the likely outcome or result if we make the investment?”

Put another way, the client might not care about your solution if they don’t realize the problem you solve for them. Companies like E Group  and Catapult New Business have seen explosive growth by focusing sharply on the challenges they help their clients overcome instead of focusing on the products and services they offer. This shifts the focus where it should be – to the customer.

Expect to see companies shift their marketing messages to the problems they solve instead of their features. Measure and be accountable for success to outpace your competition.

9. Subject Matter Experts Open Doors

I noted in my 2017 Trends article that subject matter experts (SMEs) are the new rainmakers. As technology continues to expand and disrupt industries, companies and clients rely more and more on SMEs to educate, guide and advise. Whereas your client can get information about your company’s products and services on your website, they can’t figure out how your solution might fit their needs.

SMEs provide a valuable resource to discuss industry trends, share best-practices, and delve into detailed discussions about how one solution might perform better than another. Whereas traditional sales professionals have noticed increased challenges in getting in front of customers, SMEs are welcomed into the room with open arms.

This leads smart companies to take two critical steps:  1) Provide training and support to SMEs to help them navigate complex sales environments; and 2) Develop expertise in their sales organizations to build industry or application expertise within traditional salespeople focused on customer results vs. product sales.

With SMEs, businesses must place a premium on proper lead qualification and narrow focus on the right opportunities to make efficient use of scarce, yet highly effective resources. SMEs won’t tolerate wasting time pursuing bad opportunities. And they don’t want to waste time on paperwork or administrative duties that will take time away from serving their clients.

Top companies will continue to put SMEs in a position to open doors and entice interest.Forward thinkers will plant seeds for their sales teams to develop subject matter expertise in specific industries.

10. Blockchain Embraced By Big Players

If you had invested $1,000 dollars in Bitcoin back in 2008, you’d have more than $40,000,000 today. Bitcoin is based on the blockchain protocol.

Blockchain originated in the technology space, which explains slow adoption rooted in its techno-babble jargon. To better understand the technology, checkout WTF is The Blockchain?

Marketing and business strategist Clay Hebert sees a familiar story playing out differently this time compared to how many companies were late to the party when social media emerged.

“In the mid-to-late 2000’s, big companies missed the social media train. They couldn’t see how Twitter or Facebook would immediately impact their business, so they were slow to adopt these technologies. They don’t want to play catch-up again.”

As Hebert suggests to, we’re already starting to see wider understanding and adoption in blockchain technology from companies big and small. For example:

  • Large consulting firms like Accenture and Deloitte are building out entire blockchain practice areas and developing key alliances in the space.
  • IBM recently forged a blockchain collaboration with Nestlé, Walmart, Costco and others to improve global food supply chain safety.
  • Some realtors have begun to differentiate themselves by accepting Bitcoin for real estate transactions (CNBC).

The hurdles won’t be overcome overnight. Similar to the Internet itself and social media, blockchain will enable new digital transactions that will disrupt traditional businesses like document authentication and title searches.

Smart companies will build skills around blockchain technology to ensure they are the ones doing the disrupting rather than the ones being disrupted.

It’s Your Turn

That’s my take on the 2018 trends that will drive business success. You might have ones that you plan to put into place right away, and you likely have ones that you think should have been on the list. We started with a list almost twice as long as what you see here, and had to make some tough choices.

Source: Forbes, December 2017

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