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Small Business Center

Implement AI to Maximize Efficiency in Your Small Business

July 13, 2023

As a small business owner, staying competitive in today’s fast-paced world means finding innovative ways to streamline operations. That's where artificial intelligence comes in.

The term “AI” conjures images of science fiction robots for some, but at its core, AI “is the science of making machines smart,” said Marketing AI Institute chief content officer Mike Kaput. AI tools, which use vast amounts of existing data like texts, videos and codes – can produce original, tailored content. They also can use advanced algorithms and data analytics to make accurate predictions for tasks like inventory replacement management or determining what a particular customer is looking for in your e-mail newsletter. AI tools, at their best, can save you time and money and make your operations run more efficiently.

In the past, you needed a lot of data and really deep pockets to use AI effectively in your business. Today, said Kaput, “there are so many tools out there that small businesses can use for a relatively affordable amount of money, and you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to start using these tools.”

Below, Kaput shared with the ICSC Small Business Center ways AI can boost productivity and help your small business thrive, as well as the steps to start implementing it.

3 Use Cases for AI in Small Business

1. Automate mundane tasks.

Imagine a tireless employee who handles repetitive tasks without ever complaining. AI-powered automation tools, by analyzing your prior patterns and data, can take on mundane, repetitive tasks like invoicing or customer service inquiries. Think of the rising popularity of chatbots, for example, which respond to customer questions using a combination of preprogrammed scripts and machine learning algorithms. The best chatbots feel like conversations with actual humans. If you’re not sure, whether a task can be outsourced to an AI tool, Kaput advised that you think through these questions: Does the task use data in some way to produce an outcome? Are you repeating steps for a given task? If so, he said, “you probably have a use case for AI.”

2. Create content.

In a matter of minutes, AI models like ChatGPT can generate human-like text based on a prompt. When you provide content-generating AI tools with a specific detailed prompt like: “In fewer than 500 words, generate a blog that highlights the unique selling proposition of my brand, Silver Bullet Coffee,” it can generate content tailored to your specific small business. You can use content-generating AI for newsletters, blogs, website copy and social media posts, saving hours. However, note that the content might need some editing and customization to fit your needs. And AI tools cannot replace a human editor completely. As Kaput said, “No matter how good the content sounds, you absolutely have to have somebody still checking everything. It can get things wrong in very subtle ways.”

3. Create personalized and targeted marketing campaigns.

Marketing campaigns and e-mail newsletters work only if people see them, and as Kaput said, “humans aren’t very good at guessing what customers want.” Today’s AI tools can analyze large volumes of customer data — including demographics, preferences, behaviors and purchase history — to help you understand your audience better and, in turn, better target personalized marketing campaigns. AI tools also can use that customer data to segment your audience into distinct groups based on, for instance, buying behavior and interests. That allows you to tailor marketing messages to each group’s needs and achieve higher open rates. AI tools even can suggest the best time of the day to send an email or post on social media, based on when your customers are more likely to engage with them.

If you found any of these potential uses of AI appealing, the next question is how to start using AI effectively. Kaput offered these steps on how to get started.

6 Steps to Get Started

1. Learn what AI can and cannot do.

Block out an hour or two to research AI tools. “It doesn’t have to be as complicated as a lot of people online seem to make it sometimes,” Kaput said. “You just need to understand what AI is, what it can do for you and how you might start integrating it into your business.” For a general overview of AI and AI tools, The Marketing AI Institute offers a free live Intro to AI class, which Kaput said explains how AI can help you grow your business.

2. Make a list of everything you do.

“Write down all the tasks you’re responsible for on any given day, week, month, week or quarter,” Kaput said. Estimate how much time each of those tasks takes. It doesn’t have to be an exact time log, Kaput said. You just want to have a rough sense of how long each of your responsibilities takes.

3. See where your biggest pain points are in terms of time and effort.

Consider whether any those tasks are repetitive, data driven or predictive. If the answer is yes to any of them, Kaput said, “you should probably be considering looking into AI technologies and technologies that may be able to help you do these things quite a bit more efficiently.”

4. Research the available AI tools.

“There’s a lot of AI startups out there that are building great stuff and are doing everything by the book,” Kaput said, “but others are moving so fast they’re not always thinking about everything.” When talking to companies, question how they protect customer data, how easy the tools are to implement and whether they’ll integrate easily with your existing systems. “Really try to drill down into how much you are going to have to invest in terms of time and resources to get value out of them,” Kaput said.

5. Invest time in experimentation.

“So many of the tools out there are very easy to get started with but they still require a time commitment,” Kaput said. You need to spend time with AI technology, making sure you understand how best to use it. “You could buy the best tool in the world, but if you’re not using it the right way, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

6. Get started.

“A lot of people think they’re behind [on this], but they’re not,” Kaput said. “I would argue, though, that there’s no excuse not to explore it.” That’s because this technology is here to stay, and businesses both big and small are already seeing results with it. The danger lies in ignoring AI tools, Kaput said. Without taking the time to learn about them now, “it will be fundamentally impossible to compete in several years,” Kaput said. While you don’t have to transform overnight, “if you’re not exploring it at all, I guarantee you someone in your market and size will, making it very, very difficult to keep up.”

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

Small Business Center

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