When the pandemic first hit, businesses of all sizes scrambled to figure out how to both attract new customers in a virtual environment and create a digital shopping experience to meet their evolving expectations. Small businesses needed to understand who their target customers were and how the pandemic was affecting their behavior. This can be an extremely time-consuming and manual process for those without advanced marketing knowledge, or tools like automation and artificial intelligence (A.I.) to aid their analysis and decision making.

As pandemic-related challenges extend into a second year, the need to engage and retain customers remains vital for business leaders. However, small businesses are no longer at a disadvantage relative to their big-box competitors when it comes to activating on this charge. The barriers to using automation and A.I. have come down significantly in recent years, making it easier for them to efficiently understand what their customer wants, predict purchasing interests, and make decisions grounded in data.

How exactly can this technology help a small business market itself? There are a variety of benefits, from selling more online to finding new operational efficiencies that save time.

Make existing marketing campaigns more efficient

Email marketing is a tried-and-true way for small businesses to engage with customers online, and automation can help take things to the next level. Automating manual tasks, like sending product replenishment emails to customers or segmenting a list of subscribers, is a way you can gain back valuable time in your day.

These automation emails are easy to set up and low maintenance once they are configured--but they often drive immediate results. Brands that scale their use of automation can also improve these campaigns to maximize customer retention and generate more sales in less time.

The best example is a welcome email that's automatically sent to new customers or mailing list subscribers. Welcome emails are a crucial step in the customer journey, and they typically see the highest open rates (60 to 70 percent) of any marketing communication. These highly effective emails are educational in nature, highlighting the brand value, mission, and product superiority. Yet many small businesses don't take advantage of this touch point, as this could be a manual step. Automating this first greeting not only saves time, it also guarantees that the user enjoys a positive first experience with the brand.

Get past a first-name basis

While automation is a timesaver, A.I. technologies enhance the effectiveness of marketing campaigns. Customers in 2021 expect the brands they follow to understand what they're interested in and how best to communicate with them. That means getting to know who they are as individuals and providing them with content or product recommendations that are both helpful and interesting. Real personalization goes far beyond their first name in an email subject line. Fortunately, this is where modern marketing automation can help.

By continuously evaluating data about when and how subscribers engage with emails, A.I. can help you predict what content will resonate most with your target audience. That allows you to focus on giving customers more of what they want, which boosts engagement and creates loyalty. Understanding whether a specific customer prefers an email with a coupon, or if they are more likely to buy after seeing a social media ad, is a powerful piece of information that can help you convert online window-shoppers into long-term advocates.

As a bonus, communicating in this manner often improves metrics like email open and click rates as well because it addresses the root of the customer engagement challenge--which is providing the right content to the right people. Instead of guessing what will resonate with customers, you can use A.I. to take action on their real-world behavior.

Sell more in less time

The pandemic has shown us that customers are not only willing to buy online, they expect businesses to enable purchasing across devices and platforms. As a result, small businesses are searching for new ways to inject more e-commerce elements into their strategies. A.I. is uniquely suited to support those efforts because of its flexibility, analytics, and continued-learning capabilities. By leveraging A.I., small businesses have the potential to significantly optimize their sales and marketing funnel.

Not only can it simplify the daunting process of starting and managing an online store, it can also analyze enormous amounts of data from customers and recognize patterns in their behavior. This eliminates the guesswork that can weigh down a business and enables everything from better audience segmentation to product recommendations and higher email conversion rates. Win back customers who are at risk of leaving, target campaigns based on unique purchasing triggers, and evaluate in real time which tactics are driving results.

The future is now

After a trying year for small businesses, there's reason to be optimistic. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to evaluate which tactics are working and what is most important to customers. A.I. and automation may have seemed unattainable for small businesses in the past, but as costs drop and they become more user-friendly, it's become easier than ever to build connections and scale online accordingly.

Small businesses that take advantage of these powerful tools will find themselves in a position to not only grow their sales but forge meaningful relationships with existing customers as well. From automating email marketing functions to optimizing content and driving to a website or e-commerce store--A.I. is a valuable and accessible tool, and it's here to stay.

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