The world of small business in the online space is full of rapid change and here-today-gone-tomorrow opportunities.
If you can stay ahead of the trends, you’re more likely to keep yourself focused, build stronger systems into your business, and be more intentional about what you’re creating. It’s not a race — but it is a call for minding what’s going on around you.
Here, I’ve gathered 10 trends for which I see momentum building quickly in the digital small business world. I’ve chosen them based on my observation of hundreds of business owners at CoCommercial — the social network for digital small businesses that I run, over 45 business owner interviews from the past year for my podcast, Profit. Power. Pursuit., and conversations with movers & shakers in this space.
I’m defining digital small business as any small business which is powered (in whole or in part) by digital tools like social media, websites, online learning, video conferencing, etc… This includes coaching, consulting, design, development, online education, wellness, maker businesses, and more.
I stayed away from trends toward specific marketing or sales techniques, technology, or product development and, instead, focused on the structural shifts that are happening in our marketplace. I’ve ordered the trends by how confident I am that we will see them hit the mainstream by the end of 2018 — from most confident to least confident (with the ones I’m least confident in being the ones I’m most hopeful will come about).
The overarching trend — the one that ties all of these trends together — is one that many digital small business owners echoed as I gathered their input:
The market — and necessarily the businesses operating in it — is maturing.
As the market matures, it creates growing pains. Some business owners will realize their all-but-get-rich-quick-style businesses were never built to withstand changing market currents. Some will be forced out of their comfort zone to become much stronger leaders, executives, and managers. Others will close up shop.
These trends reflect the areas maturing business owners will need to contemplate in their year-end review and planning.
The world of small business online has been a fairly opaque one.
You get someone to sign up for an enticing free gift. You generously provide them with mountains of free content. You take them on a meandering journey that inches them closer and closer to wanting to buy.
Then, pounce! Activate full-throttled sales plan.
There is actually a lot of good in this way of marketing. You create value before you ever ask for a sale. You educate, inspire, and entertain. You answer questions and explore new possibilities.
But we’re starting to see the market diverge into two camps: those who want everything for free and those who just want to know what you’re selling so they can cut to the chase and buy it.
I believe we’re likely to see sophisticated marketers using the best of launch marketing, affiliate marketing, and content marketing to both provide immense value for free and being very clear up front about what they’re selling. We saw glimmers of this over 2017 (i.e. Danielle LaPorte announced that she was promoting Marie Forleo’s B-School course at the beginning of the promotional period and offered her audience a way to opt-out of that promotion while remaining subscribed) but I expect it to really explode in 2018.
Transparency is not just a marketing trend, though. We’re likely to see much more transparency in branding in 2018, as well. Copywriter Hillary Weissputs it like this:
I feel like in some ways Martin Luther reincarnated has posted his grievances to the door of the Church of Marketing and people are nodding their heads.
I foresee a “reformation,” a step away from super opulent branding and shiny “saints” of industry and into more grassroots, in-the-trenches-with-you type of experiences. Less shiny, more transparency.
In order for transparent marketing to be in integrity, brands will have to get real, too.
Live video and the evolution of social platforms (like Instagram Stories) give brands a real opportunity to drop the pristine posts and share more of the behind-the-scenes.
The lack of transparency in this space has often come from an underlying belief that people don’t really want what’s being sold — and so a complicated dance is needed to woo them whether that’s with marketing, branding, or a sales conversation. As digital small business becomes more mainstream, founders need to get clear about the value they’re providing and be able to clearly communicate that to customers. If the customer doesn’t want to buy based on that value, the product is at fault — not the marketing.
Review: Does your potential customer actually know what you’re selling? Do they start paying attention with the intent to solve a problem (and buy your product)? How can your marketing and brand become more straightforward and transparent in 2018?
Customers are tired of one-size-fits-all solutions. They are actively looking for ways to customize what you’re offering to fit their unique needs.
While they might have valued price and conformity in the past, they are increasingly opting for more adaptable, higher-priced options.
Of course, personalization doesn’t need to be high-priced in 2018. It can be incredibly scaleable and accessible. One place I’m seeing this is in the rise of communities and membership sites. These products put the customer in the driver’s seat and allow them to adapt the experience to suit their needs. They take what they want and leave what they don’t need.
Gina Bianchini and the team at Mighty Networks have created a software platform that allows business owners is to create highly personalized experiences in the form of deep interest networks. At CoCommercial (built on Mighty Networks), our goal is to provide a steady stream of exclusive content, events, and conversations so that members can create a customized experience of the platform. As they do, their own realizations and questions bubble up in the form of member-generated content and conversations (their own posts) and they customize their experience even further.
Where do you go when you have a question about your business or an obstacle on the path to your goal? There’s a good…cocommercial.co
Online courses and workshops are becoming less about loads of content and more about what students can do with that content. Mastery and application is taking over for learning and understanding.
Review: How could you create a more personalized experience for your customers? What opportunities are there to guide a customized application or experience instead of forcing conformity?
3. High-touch Service
This might just be the year where founders figure out how to utilize the best of digital and the best of real human interactions. While there is a trend toward done-for-you or 1:1 services (more on that in a bit), High-touch Service doesn’t have to mean selling services or service packages.
Business coach Racheal Cook says, “I see a lot of people returning to in-person events and real conversations instead of just information products. People are overwhelmed by information — they want a real human to help them.”
You can sell an information product, SaaS app, or membership community and still provide a guide.
You can offer workshops and still provide a personalized experience. You can have an automated welcome sequence and still send personal follow-ups to new customers.
I believe 2018 will be the year where business owners are not just providing High-touch Service — but investing in it. That’s what we’ve done. We’re allocating more of our marketing budget to customer service and member experience so that our retention is higher and word of mouth marketing is stronger.
Similarly, Beautiful You Coaching Academy founder Julie Parker cites investing in her staff, Racheal cites taking the time for personalized welcome videos, copywriter Jamie Jensen cites going deeper and creating more intimate experiences. Each of these examples of High-touch Service require an investment of time, energy, and/or money. Budget for your own High-touch Service on your calendar or in your financial budget for 2018.
Review: How could you allocate a greater portion of your budget to High-touch Service? How can you provide a greater level of guidance while maintaining a light and lean approach? Where do you customers often get stuck and how could High-touch Service keep them moving forward?
With digital small business hitting the puberty stage, it’s time to turn gangly limbs and immature frames into mature, adult businesses. This will occur in a number of ways over 2018.
First, we’ll see more and more businesses eschewing the sort of “junk drawer business models” — willing to sell anything and be anything to accommodate their customers — they’ve been using and the insane marketing calendars they’ve been tied to. Content strategist Lacy Boggs says, “Less but better in allthings. By this I mean, launching less but doing more with what you do launch; writing fewer articles but making sure they really have an impact; running less advertising but getting super strategic with retargeting, etc…”
Instead, they’ll consolidate their offers into a core product and get crystal clear on the key value proposition they offer to their customers.
They’ll better define their boundaries and operate within them to improve their brands, positioning, and profitability. They’ll better understand why people buy and use that to their advantage to create more strategic — and less spray & pray — marketing.
Second, we’ll see more business owners and freelancers coming together in one consolidated company or offer. Charlie Gilkey believes we might even start to see small-scale “acquihires” — where one company buys another with the purpose of acquiring the talent as much as the technology or intellectual property.
I’ve seen this — and even participated in it! — as well in the small business space. There’s a huge opportunity to acquire the services of a subcontractor you work with frequently or a client who loves your mission and brings with them complementary skills. This allows for more hires on the value creation or delivery sides, not just on the administrative or financial sides, which frees you up to truly take the helm on your growing company.
Review: Where has your business gotten overly complicated or convoluted? How can you simplify to become more profitable in 2018? How could you strengthen your company by acquiring the skills of another business owner or freelancer?
Unfortunately, 2018 will be the year when a lot of small business owners try to burn it all down. Either they will close up shop or they’ll pivot away from something that’s working because the work becomes optimizing and tweaking instead of designing new things.
There’s growing worry in the digital small business world that the opportunity is over and it’s time to abandon ship.
Of course, this isn’t true.
Anywhere people gather, ask questions, and look for solutions there is an opportunity to do business. The cause of the distress is largely due to businesses being built with little to no foundation under them. They were able to capitalize on a trend or fad but, when faced with the prospect of creating more sustainable systems, they feel stuck and left behind.
Breanne Dyck, founder of MNIB Consulting, says, “those who have built a cash cow with no underlying business structures will be forced to either grow up and start acting like a real business, or face collapse.” Burning everything down is not the only recourse when things stop working the way you’re used to. You can also decide to create a more intentional, mature, and foundational business that can weather whatever storm it faces.
On the other hand, some business owners have built great products, solid systems, and reliable revenue engines. Unfortunately, the next steps can be mind-numbing. Jennifer Kem, a marketing & brand strategist shared:
As a wise mentor has said to me: “Making money is boring. But that’s how you make money.” I’m seeing people abandon sales funnels because they “didn’t work” — when what they need to do is optimize it more and get it back to their core offers.
Denise Duffield-Thomas, founder of Lucky Bitch and a veteran of the internet marketing industry, echoed this sentiment, “I’m definitely seeing a lot of businesses throw the baby out with the bathwater, or ditch awesome programs because they are bored, or because their list is stagnant they think ‘everyone’ has seen it.”
I’d go so far to say that many entrepreneurs — not strictly limited to online small business — create problems for themselves to solve which can amount to sabotaging products, team relationships, sales systems, and marketing engines all in the name of having something new and exciting to work on.
So while Conflagration is definitely a trend for 2018, I hope that, as a community, we look to put out the fires as quickly as possible. There are more options than abandoning a great idea or your baby business. Just because things get more challenging and demand a more mature approach doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge opportunity for you to create value and reap the rewards.
Review: If you’re feeling the need to burn things down, what would make you excited about your business again? What’s your favorite part of running the business (as opposed delivering your product)? What do you find creatively fulfilling about growing your company? When are you most likely to self-sabotage on the way to success?
6. Done For You
One place Conflagration has been valuable, though, is with business owners burning down group programs and online courses they never really loved. They realized that the best results — and most valuable outcomes — for their clients came when there was a personal guide and a well-managed process rather than a half-hearted attempt for customers to do it themselves. These small business owners are opting to go back to the individualized work they love and build out scaleable systems and teams — rather than solutions designed to scale infinitely.
Back in September, I talked with Dr. Michelle Mazur, a speech coach and the founder of Communication Rebel, about her choice to stop offering group programs for her speech coaching services and instead focus on clients who were willing to pay more to work with her now and work with her individually. She said business has never been better!
Laura Roeder, who successfully self-funded social media scheduling startup MeetEdgar after running a profitable training company, predicted that even software companies would get into the Done For You game more often. She said, “we just piloted a complete ‘done for you’ set-up package for MeetEdgar and it was a huge success. People are willing to pay thousands for the entire solution instead of just a piece of it.” Even back in 2015, Nathan Barry’s ConvertKit got me to switch email marketing providers with a Done For You offer.
When you combine the Done For You trend, the Consolidation trend, and the Reorganization (next) trend, you get a big move towards forming specialized agencies that walk clients from start to finish through the messy journey of web design, branding, marketing, and other services. The rise of more sophisticated and mature agencies also benefits from the Personalization and High-touch Service trends, too.
Review: When has a DIY approach really worked for your customers and when has it left them stuck? Where could you or your team be most useful with some hands-on help?
As the digital small business industry begins to mature, more founders are going to be looking to make their own organizations more mature as well. Instead of allowing themselves to be the linchpin that desperately holds everything together, they’ll look to hire a team that can truly support them and be devoted to the mission of the company. I wrote about my own experience with this in my end-of-year review.
Look for more businesses investing in full-time teams or part-time employees.
They’ll still be hiring specialists and contractors but only to complete particular projects or get the team up to speed on a new initiative.
With this reorganization comes a real need to spend time on establishing company culture. Business strategist Charlie Gilkey says to look for “more discussion of culture, mission, and values as they apply to micro businesses.”
As more small business owners creep towards burnout, the discussion around culture is going to feel less corporate and much more enticing. They’ll be dialing in how they work, how things get done, and how the team works together at a whole new level.
Charlie said in a recent podcast interview with me, “Everyone on our team knows how we work. That’s just how we do things here. … Showing up in the morning and knowing how we do things takes a lot of the meta work out of the process.” While you might feel a negative knee jerk reaction to setting policies and crafting procedures, Charlie knows it makes things easier on everyone. Part of Reorganization in 2018 might be sitting down to get the business intentionally organized for the first time.
Review: How is your company culture defined and communicated to team members? Does everyone on your team know what the unique strengths of your company are? Are policies and procedures clearly defined for recurring tasks?
8. Pop-up Learning
Education has been a huge opportunity for digital small business for at least the last 5 years. Over that time, it’s become more and more slick, polished, and professional. In keeping with the trends of Transparency & Personalization, I believe we’ll see a trend toward “pop-up” education in 2018.
Education and training companies will necessarily become more attune to the in-the-moment needs of their customers and create new ways to accommodate their questions.
Think half-day workshops, live courses, and in-person events designed to quickly immerse the learner in a new subject and give them what they need to move forward.
Plus, instead of lecture-style courses, these learning opportunities will be heavily application-oriented. The curricula will be light and flexible to give students plenty of time to play and experiment with new concepts. These experiences will also be highly interactive — with students either engaging directly with the instructor in smaller groups (think 25 instead 2500) or engaging with each other in an intentional structure (think a mastermind group or class section).
Review: Where do you see an opportunity to help your customers without the expense of developing a full-blown product? What questions have they been coming to you with that you can answer quickly with a hands-on learning session?
The past year has been one where many of us realized just how segregated our social and professional circles were both online and offline. Further, we are starting to realize how much the shiny personal brands both men and women have used to get ahead in the digital small business space have tapped into patriarchal norms and conventional white/straight/cis-gendered beauty standards.
While I don’t believe any (or, at least, many) of these brands have intentionally created hostile environments for LGBTQ, minority, or feminist followers nor used structural racism, sexism, or gender norms to their advantage, the reality is that they have.
Luckily, the conversation around true Inclusion is starting to happen in this space and I’ll readily admit that I am no expert or saint on it. But I do believe that every step towards seeing the problem and taking action on it is a step in the right direction.
True Inclusion means, of course, that social media posts of support are not enough.
The privileged of the entrepreneurial class — speaking as a white, straight, cis-gendered small business owner — need to step up and step out of our comfortable social circles and seek out colleagues, interviewees, employees, and mastermind buddies who come from different backgrounds and who look differently than we do. Diversity is an asset, as Desiree Adaway, Ericka Hines, and Jessica Fish would say.
I feel confident that the conversation around Inclusion will continue into 2018 and beyond. But I’m hopeful that a real trend toward doing something about it starts, too. My personal goal is to continue to seek out minority voices and experiences to include in articles, in our community, and in the events we host. I also plan to make a strategy for finding more minority candidates the next time we’re hiring.
Review: Is your own professional network only full of people who look like you? Where do you go to seek out people with different experiences and backgrounds? Is your brand inclusive of different backgrounds? What’s your plan for making people from different backgrounds feel comfortable and valued in your community?
We’ve been bombarded with monthly income reports, inflated revenue numbers, and ludicrous status symbols for far too long. As digital small businesses mature in 2018, so will their owners’ understanding of the financial matters of their businesses.
Instead of blindly chasing revenue, they’ll get critical about what is profitableinstead. The trend toward Profitability will create even more momentum behind Consolidation, Done For You, High-touch Service, and Reorganization. It’ll probably lead to a fair amount of Conflagration, too.
Amanda M Steinberg, founder of DailyWorth and WorthFM, predicts more business owners will be looking for “less revenue, more margin.” Sure, you can spend $3 to make $4 but there are often far simpler, more profitable ways to make $4 if you’re willing to settle for less top line revenue and more in your personal bank account.
Digital small business has largely been a culture of vanity metrics — likes, followers, email subscribers, members, and revenue — while arguably much more important metrics like profit get the short shrift. The focus has been on whatever makes you look good, not on what means you have a healthy, sustainable, mature business. Brenda Wilkins, a leadership and business consultant, says, “This is my #1 concern with much of online business dialogue — too much talk about revenue, launch numbers, ‘$____figure business’ etc… and no talk about margin, profit, cost of goods sold, debt ratios, etc…”
As the market matures and business owners become more sophisticated, the profile of Profitability will rise. We’ll see less talk of vanity metrics and more talk about what makes a business really work. We’ll see less business owners trying to build platforms with flashy numbers and more concrete value propositions. And if we don’t? We won’t be around long.
Review: Where have you focused on metrics that don’t lead to long-term sustainability? What could change about your business to make it more profitable? Where are you expending more energy than necessary for the returns you’re getting?
Nothing about these trends is new.
The digital small business trends of 2018 reflect natural cycles in the market — a coming and going that all markets and industries experience in one way or another.
This should be heartening for many people. The biggest movement in the industry next year won’t be a particular tactic or formula but, instead, a return to sound business principles.