AI

In a survey two years ago, about a third of small and midsize businesses told online marketing specialist Constant Contact that they were aware of how AI tools could be used in their operations.

Fast forward to 2023; 74% of owners of small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) want to use AI and marketing automation technologies in their business, and 55% are more interested in the idea today than they were six months ago.

The sharply rising interest among smaller businesses in using AI tools for their marketing and other needs shouldn’t be surprising, given the accelerated innovation around generative AI like OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot and other machine learning technologies, according to Russ Morton, chief product officer at Constant Contact.

“The recent breakthroughs in natural language processing have changed the way we interact with AI, and now anyone can have intelligent dialogue with an algorithm,” Morton told Techstrong.ai. “That’s game-changing innovation. What’s interesting though is how quickly SMBs have reacted. … That tells me they are excited about its capabilities; they understand the value and they want to start leveraging it to drive better business outcomes.”

The shift will quicken even more as SMBs become more familiar with what AI technologies can do for them, he said.

The numbers coming out of Constant Contact’s recent Small Business Now report show a rapidly growing interest in AI tools. The company and research firm Ascend2 surveyed 486 small business decision makers in the United States to get a better understanding of where SMBs were with AI.

Saving Time and Money

The gist of the report was that AI and automation can give SMB owners and executives an extra hour in their week by saving them time and money on their most daunting and time-consuming tasks, including attracting new customers (60% say it is a top challenge), hiring and retaining staff (17% say they spend more time on this than any other initiative), marketing to a target audience (39%), and converting leads to sales (35%).

“With regard to hiring, AI probably isn’t going to take over that process any time soon, but it can be the extra marketing team member many small businesses need — and that might enable them to accomplish more work without needing to hire more help,” Constant Contact PR manager Michael Wood wrote in a blog post.

Small businesses are starting to work toward that. According to the 20-page report, 26% of those surveyed said they are already investing in AI and automation, primarily in such areas as attracting and keeping customers and driving more sales, Morton said.

AI Use Cases

The report found that the top AI use cases are social media (52%), generative content creation (44%), and email marketing (41%).

“More than half of SMBs currently using AI are leveraging it to create content for social media and email marketing campaigns, which speaks to their belief that email and social are good acquisition channels,” he said. “The beauty of AI is that is allows those SMBs to deliver high-quality, personalized messages to customers in the channels where they are most likely to engage. And it does all this in seconds instead of hours.”

The survey found that 91% of SMBs using AI and automation said the technologies were making their businesses more successful and 60% said they were saving time and making their operations more efficient. In addition, 33% of these businesses estimated they’ve saved more than 40 minutes a week using these tools in their marketing efforts and 28% expected to save more than $5,000 in the coming year by using them.

“Larger SMBs have been able to grow their business faster and compete with bigger companies as a result of using AI, while smaller companies are saving time and working more efficiently,” the report’s authors wrote.

More Education is Needed

That said, while small businesses are signaling strong interest in the technologies – with some already applying them – there is a lot of educating that still needs to be done, according to the report. About 80% said they have only a beginner or intermediate understanding of how AI and automation can help their businesses, with the top concerns ranging from data security to possible high costs to the expected learning curve.

There are other concerns that are making some SMBs either hesitant or unlikely to move ahead with AI anytime soon, including 26% who don’t believe it will help their operations and 12% who say it’s unethical to use AI or automation.

“Up until recently, AI tools have only been available to larger companies with big marketing teams and even bigger budgets,” Morton said. “Many small businesses feel very green when it comes to understanding exactly where and how AI and automation can help them. There’s some natural hesitation and curiosity that comes with that, and we’re seeing those businesses look to trusted service providers for assistance.”

He pointed to the advances in efficiency and time savings among small businesses already using AI and automation as proof points of how the technologies can help SMBs and should be seen as a warning of sorts for those that are hesitating.

“We believe the SMBs who use tools powered by AI and automation will have a significant advantage over businesses who opt not to utilize this technology,” Morton said. “Small businesses see the power of AI, and while they are still new to it, they are already working more efficiently, creating more memorable experiences and growing their businesses.”