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8 Mobile Trends For Small Businesses To Watch In 2012

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A small business can get overwhelmed trying to figure out which social networks or new types of communication should be added to their communication toolbox. First it was Facebook. Then Twitter. Now, things like Foursquare, Instagram and Pinterest are all the rage.

As a business owner myself, I try to take a two-pronged approach, focusing on tools that help us: 1) Improve communication with customers and partners; 2) Grow the business by reaching current or prospective users/customers in a new, better way.

And, that's exactly why small businesses can't ignore mobile opportunities. Over the holidays, the number of tablet/e-reader owners doubled. Very soon, people will access the Internet on their phones more frequently than on their PCs. So what trends do you need to be paying attention to - and acting on - in 2012? Here are eight trends that I foresee impacting small businesses.

1. Explosive Tablet Growth

In 2011, the tablet market experienced explosive growth, thanks to the iPad 2, Kindle Fire, the now-defunct HP Touchpad and a dozen other tablet PCs. Tablet adoption has dwarfed prior technology shifts. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if tablet ownership doubles in 2012.

How will this impact your company?
The acceleration of tablet adoption will significantly increase many aspects of business, including content consumption, customer touch points and mobile commerce. Just look at all the apps, publications, websites, social media and other digital content that's readily available with the swipe of a finger. How will you leverage mobile opportunities to cut through the noise and foster more productive relationships with customers and prospects?

2. Mobile Search Explosion

While tablets support our "always on, always connected" way of life, nothing feeds the beast quite like mobile phones. Smartphones help us navigate the day in ways we never could have imagined. Beyond apps, consumers are now searching the web from their phones. In fact, Google sees 4 billion local searches each month, with 61% of those resulting in a purchase. Did you know 55% of consumers report using their mobile device to buy a local service or product?

How will this impact your company? Think about your sales funnel. Every business is a little different, but this much is becoming clear: At some point in that sales cycle, people are turning to the Internet for more information. It's mission-critical for your company to understand the basics of local, mobile search optimization and put these skills to work. By ignoring mobile search, you're willingly sacrificing business to the competitors. And in this hyper-competitive economic climate, that's just not smart business.

3. Mobile Marketing Becomes a Must

Initially, I wasn't so sure about mobile marketing. But, then reality set in. Mobile marketing isn't an option. Ecommerce and online properties are leading the way as early adapters, but we'll see more "bricks and mortar" and traditional businesses take the leap of faith.

How will this impact your company? Start with the low-hanging fruit. For example, optimize your website for mobile viewing, monitor your reputation on Yelp and Angie's List, and leverage customer-acquisition tools like Foursquare and Zaarly.

4. The App Debate Continues

Do you need a mobile app? Or should you invest in a mobile website? Your guess is as good as mine. While "experts" want to declare one or the other's demise, the truth is that no one knows which will prevail. Instead, we may end up in a world of apps, mobile-optimized sites, even apps that incorporate mobile websites (yes, I'm looking at you Facebook). Apps continue to offer superior performance to mobile sites on the whole, but technology is catching up to enable a much better experience on the mobile web.

How will this impact your company? You know your business and your consumer best, so I can't in good conscience tell you if you should opt for a mobile app or a website. But, that's not the point. Consumers are longing for a better mobile experience - and it's your job to deliver. Think about this: Usability Science puts the mobile user experience on par with web usability circa 1999. No wonder customers want more!

5. Less "Black Box." More "Data-Driven."

Mobile advertising and mobile SEO are in their infancy, which means tracking results and outcomes is also relatively primitive. As I've spoken with business owners, agencies and brand marketers who are exploring mobile ad opportunities, I've come to realize that they're (understandably!) confused, which makes it hard to justify ROI. However, the mobile sector knows that the data must improve before businesses will invest major dollars in mobile campaigns.

How will this impact your company? We won't get all the answers in 2012, but expect ad networks to begin to provide more accurate statistics. By opening the proverbial kimono, you'll be better equipped to make data-driven decisions - ensuring you're maximizing your marketing resources.

6. The Maturation of Mobile Payments

Doesn't it feel like we've been predicting mobile payments since Michael Douglas sported an early cell phone in Wall Street? People longed for the days when we could pay through our phones, eliminating the need for wallets and credit cards. While mobile payments are increasing, we're not quite there yet. In 2011, Paypal facilitated $4 billion in mobile payments, up from $750 million in 2010; however, that represents a small fraction of the entire Paypal transaction volume. We're still a long way away from mobile payment ubiquity.

How will this impact your company? You may not need to start accepting mobile payments yet, but it needs to be on your radar. Expect mobile payments to increase -- and customers to begin asking for mobile options - thanks in part to continued pressure from major players like Amex, Visa, Intuit and Google. Plus, startups like Square and Dwolla are forcing the issue. But, don't leave your wallet home quite yet.

7. More Watching... on Mobile

Newsflash: People like to watch video. (If you spend any time on YouTube, you already know that's true!) In fact, YouTube is the second largest search engine, behind only the behemoth, Google. And, we don't mind watching video on our phones' tiny screens. As Hulu, Netflix and YouTube apps continue to provide quality mobile content at low cost, consumers will become even more used to watching video on the go.

How will this impact your company?
There's an entire part of our population who turns to YouTube to search (like how many of us automatically start looking on Google). We're all vying for customers' attention. Don't lose out just because you weren't willing to create a few videos. As you begin to develop a content strategy for sites like Facebook, Twitter or a blog, give equal attention to YouTube. (And, in certain industries, give even more attention to video than those other channels!) Not quite ready to start producing videos? That's ok. Instead, look at mobile video advertising opportunities.

8. Facebook + Mobile Advertising

What would an article about 2012 trends be without mentioning Facebook? This year will be huge for the dominant social network, thanks to the impending IPO and the "unlocking" of the mobile platform for advertising. In the not too distant future, we'll have a captivated 300-million-person audience, ready to receive targeted mobile ads.

How will this impact your company? Facebook hasn't yet revealed how they're going to inject advertising into the mobile experience, but this much is certain: If you've built a loyal Facebook following - or hope to do so - Facebook is about to give you access to 300 million people on their phones. That's a number - and a major shift - that you can't ignore.

Bo Fishback is CEO and founder of Zaarly, a real-time mobile marketplace that provides tools to help small businesses generate leads and interact with customers on their phones. For more information or to sign up for free mobile alerts, visit www.zaarly.com/business.