Entrepreneurship in Africa is on the rise.
In Ghana, tech startup Dropifi is helping companies manage and respond better to inquiries from existing and potential clients. In Nigeria, Bloovue, an ad network, is connecting companies with their customers no matter where they are. In South Africa, Motribe is enabling users, brands, agencies, and publishers to build and manage their own mobile social communities.
In South Africa, where I regularly meet with clients and partners, small and midsize businesses provide an estimated 11.6 million jobs. The government there has recognized the role smaller companies play in job creation by assisting startups through its SEDA (Small Enterprise Development Agency) Technology program. Since its inception in 2006, SEDA has aided 80 percent of startups in its program survive their first two years, the most difficult in establishing a foothold.
Smoothing the entrepreneurial path is the prolific growth of wireless technologies and social media. In South Africa, there were 1.1 million Twitter users in mid-2011 - a twentyfold surge in little more than a year, according to social media monitoring firm Fuseware. In examining 2012 social media trends, Bizcommunity.com (South Africa) sees Twitter reaching a tipping point there this year, thanks in part to the boom in smartphones.
Savvy African small and midsize businesses are taking advantage of the worldwide social media explosion to drive growth. Using social media is easy, direct, personal, and affordable. Also constant interaction with their customers helps companies build trust over the long term and elicit feedback to further strengthen their brands.
This need to elicit and respond to feedback leads to another 2012 trend that Bizcommunity predicts for South Africa: companies learning how to adapt to social business and develop networking skills to get closer to clients and customers.
The African Development Bank believes the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Africa could grow by 900 percent to $15 trillion by 2060. But this economic resurgence cannot continue without both budding entrepreneurs and seasoned veterans investing in skills, technology, and infrastructure. For example, many African midsize companies are consuming IT as a service, from managed service providers. Software-as-a-service technologies and cloud computing will enable African businesses to replace older technologies, cut IT costs, and boost productivity.
The key hurdles that companies in many parts of the vast and largely undeveloped continent must overcome, however, are bandwidth reliability and Internet connectivity. Many companies are extending their commitment to Africa by putting the right resources on the ground and engaging with local business ecosystems to help startups -- as well as the many small and midsize businesses expanding into Africa -- make smarter business decisions. For example, Bharti Airtel is providing affordable mobile services across multiple sub-Saharan countries, connecting more than 400,000 villages.
"All across Africa, people are discovering that there's an economy to be built," says Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School. "If business leaders jump in, there's a glorious future for Africa."
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IBM SmartCloud Foundation technologies enable organizations to easily build and rapidly scale private and hybrid clouds with unparalleled time to market, integration and management. Listen to Scott Hebner, IBM Vice President of Marketing, Cloud & Business Infrastructure Management describe why organizations are moving to the cloud and how IBM SmartCloud Foundation technology powers cloud adoption.
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Brand loyalty begins in our formative years. Think breakfast cereals, soft drinks, TV programming, movie franchises, music and clothing brands.
But in this era of short attention spans and exposure to myriad opinions from new social media sources, brand loyalty has become harder to sustain.
Before making a purchasing decision, customers today ask for unsolicited advice from their friends on Facebook, evaluate Tweets sent out on a particular product or service, and assess consumer blogs. This growing viral phenomenon of consumer feedback on social channels can build or break brands. The advent of social media has forever changed the meaning of a customer relationship, giving customers more influence and control over brands.
Clearly, the balance of power has shifted from organizations to customers, and chief marketing officers realize they need to change their marketing approaches and adopt new tools and skills to build or maintain brand loyalty.
This is even harder for marketing leaders of small and midsize businesses who are responsible for driving growth and efficiency, but often have limited funds to do so. IBM research shows that when confronted with the shift toward digital technologies and social media, midmarket marketing leaders believe that enhancing customer loyalty is their top priority, and they need to find new solutions.
At the same time they also have a great opportunity, since small businesses can become global brands instantly through social channels. They have to apply the right technologies to take advantage of these trends.
Savvy marketers will create corporate cultures that gain insight from social media and incorporate it into their strategies. Understanding and learning from customers' behavior by listening to them will help businesses turn insight into action. The key is predicting what consumers will want and then adapting marketing strategies to give them the right product when and where they want it and at a price they're willing to pay. And it doesn't stop there. Flawless customer service is key to building brand loyalty.
It's called smarter commerce, and it's a strategic approach that places the customer at the center of your business operations.
If midmarket marketing leaders are going to provide value to today's empowered customers, they need to embrace social business and advanced technologies such as analytics to understand and mine information on how individual customers are behaving and reacting to their brands.
Midsize retailer Lee Jeans is using analytics technology to quickly see who's visiting its Web site, which products they're interested in, and which ones they're buying. This allows the company to plan more effective campaigns. And with merchandising information such as sales and inventory margins at their fingertips, company execs can make faster decisions and then implement those decisions with a few key strokes. Actions that used to take a couple of days to accomplish are now taking a couple of hours.
Similarly, fashion house Elie Tahari is using real-time analytics to identify customer buying trends, increase customer loyalty, respond to demand, improve decision making and raise revenues. Elie Tahari's director of business applications says, "We needed a system that would quickly analyze information about what's happening on the selling floor and then share it with the right people while eliminating departmental silos." One of his business managers told him that after the analytics system went online, she was able to change her buying patterns for their retail stores to match what was selling on the floor.
The lesson for small and midsize chief marketing officers? Customer loyalty is no longer a given. Unless you can act quickly on what your customers are telling you and deliver direct value to them, you cannot grow your brand or business.
It used to be that only people fortunate enough to have ties to the wealthy or socially prominent were "well-connected."
Today, we're all well-connected, thanks to popular social media and delivery methods such as cloud and mobile computing. We can collaborate with anyone anywhere at any time.
Businesses, too, are better connected. Once viewed as a fad for students and teens, social networking has become an important way for businesses of any size to link employees, partners, and clients -- and even go global Through blogs, videos, online forums, Tweets, and Facebook likes, customers from India to Indianapolis are telling retailers what they want and how they want it. And, based on this instant feedback, companies of all sizes can target the right products and services to the right customers and avoid costly design errors.
A social framework is particularly important to small businesses. It can help them deepen customer relationships, generate new ideas faster, and enable a more effective workforce. In short, a social business embraces networks of people to create true business value and helps to level the playing field between them and larger organizations.
Concurrently, the burgeoning mobile workforce is expected to reach more than 1.19 billion by 2013; nearly 1 trillion Internet-connected devices will be in the market by 2012, generating 20 times more mobile data by 2015. Combining the explosion of mobile devices with new cloud delivery models and social networking's profound effect on society, we now have a perfect storm of industry trends -- the ideal time to move social networking from the hands of teens to businesses and for smaller businesses to gain a huge competitive advantage.
According to IBM's 2011 CIO Study, 55 percent of CIOs from smaller and midsize businesses plan to invest in collaboration and social networking to increase competitiveness over the next few years. In addition, 77 percent of these same CIOs are looking to change their internal collaboration processes over the next three to five years. Market research firm IDC estimates the market opportunity for social business software will grow by a factor of 2 billion by 2014.
Among small and midsize businesses, healthier budgets and stronger outlooks have helped companies shift their strategic mindsets from how to cut costs to how to connect with customers and how to innovate. Eighty-three percent of midmarket CIOs surveyed identified analytics as their top priority investment area, while there was a 50 percent increase in the number of midsize organizations that plan to invest in cloud computing, as compared with IBM's 2009 CIO Study.
Becoming social businesses is inevitable if companies want to become more innovative, efficient, and resilient. Organizations that take advantage of a social business culture have the potential to transform themselves and become leaders in their industries. Shouldn't your company be well-connected?
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Business owners are a hardy lot. It takes guts to get any business off the ground. And if you're still in business after the economic turbulence we've been experiencing the last few years, you're obviously made of strong stuff.
But even the toughest entrepreneurs can't do it alone. Corporate America has long offered a variety of programs and products designed to help entrepreneurs and small business owners. Some are substantive, others not so much. But in the last few weeks, I've talked to four corporate marketers who I believe are offering truly helpful programs or other assistance for business owners.
eBay Reaches Out to Brick-and-Mortar Businesses
Here's a startling statistic: As much buzz as there is about e-commerce, only 6 percent of retail sales occur online. In a step to enter the brick-and-mortar marketplace, last December eBay bought local shopping site Milo.com, and is now busy integrating Milo's technology into eBay.
David Ramadge, who heads local business development for eBay, came with the Milo purchase. He explains that currently, retailers using the top three point-of-sale (POS) systems (QuickBooks POS, Microsoft Dynamics RMS, and Retail Pro) can sign up for free at MiloFetch.com. The system then (in minutes) scans your inventory and creates a free Milo.com listing, allowing local customers to see what you've got in stock and how to get to your store. Within the next few months, he adds, Milo will enable local retailers to reach eBay's millions of customers.
The goal is to help local retailers raise their local profiles, and enable them to use online technology to increase offline sales. The system, says Ramadge, is "simple, silent, and seamless." (See more coverage of eBay on AllBusiness.com.)
IBM Offers $1 Billion in Financing
We all know technology drives productivity. But the economy has kept many of us from investing in new hardware and/or software, even though our businesses really need the boost new technology brings. To help, IBM just committed $1 billion in financing to "credit-qualified" small and midsize businesses over the next 18 months (See IBM Unveils $1B Small-Biz Technology Financing Program.)
Andy Monshaw, the general manager of IBM Midmarket Business, says IBM Business Partners, the resellers who actually work with small and midsize companies, told him that the tight credit market kept getting in the way of businesses investing in these new technologies.
So the tech giant ponied up a billion dollars and introduced a new set of software systems and services to help their customers invest in three crucial technologies: analytics, cloud computing, and security.
Intuit "Loves" Local Businesses
It's all too easy for corporate giants to lose touch with their customers. Ed Matlack, who's the social media and advocacy leader for small business at Intuit, says it's "hard to hear every voice out there." But Intuit's founder Scott Cook hasn't lost sight of the questions he started the company with: "How do we hear [small business owners]? How do we continue to innovate?"
One answer was to help local businesses promote themselves in their own communities, so Intuit launched a "Love a Local Business" campaign. Every month Intuit gives away $25,000 to a deserving local business; this month two businesses in two different cities will get an even bigger prize: $50,000. The community votes for the winners, a process that Matlack says helps local businesses raise their awareness on the local level.
Matlack is a former entrepreneur himself, so he understands the value of community, especially for small business owners who can feel isolated. I caught up with Matlack at the America's Small Business Development Center (ASBDC) Conference last week, where he was busy signing people up to join the Intuit Small Business Inner Circle. The idea behind the inner circle is to get input from small business advocates and evangelists about how Intuit can better serve its small business customers. And, yes, he talked me into joining. (See more from AllBusiness.com bloggers on Intuit.)
RatePoint Worries About Your Reputation
We all know consumers increasingly rely on social ratings and review sites before they consider doing business with any company -- including yours. So in addition to running your business, you now have to worry about your online reputation, and frankly who has the time?
You have to make time, says Keith Cooper, president and CEO of RatePoint (and a serial entrepreneur). "The only thing a business has is its reputation," Cooper says.
The importance of these new channels is staggering, considering none of them really existed a decade ago. According to Cooper:
The RatePoint system scans the Web for what people are saying about your company (and your competitors). And the company recently adopted a "freemium" business model to help more business owners assess, monitor, and improve their reputations: You can sign up for a free monthly report, or pay to get more in-depth services.
These four corporations offer very different tech solutions to help you grow your business. But really, what all four are doing is giving you more time to work on what's important to you. As Intuit's Matlack puts it, "Small business owners, by their very nature, are closer to their customers." One key to maintaining those relationships is to let technology work its magic.