If you ask Apple’s Siri what businesses should invest in, she sends you to the closest personal financial planner. Google’s advice isn’t much better – it displays search results for startups and the stock market. There has to be a better way, right?
Fortunately, successful brands have developed their own investment strategies, rooted in this straightforward philosophy – one that you can emulate. “The best companies position themselves as thought leaders,” says Rick Meekins, founder of consultancy Aepiphanni. “So right now it’s all about innovation and aligning products and services with what customers are looking for.”
Delivering what customers want isn’t always what it seems, though. Clients might prioritize lower pricing, but they’d be upset if their credit card data is compromised. They might ask for a single rep when a team of salespeople and designers could offer more creative ideas. They’re happy striking deals face-to-face, but they spend countless hours online. What’s a business to do?
Well, unless you’re clairvoyant, you need to have a realistic, multi-year plan – one, let’s say, that takes you through 2017. If you follow the innovation philosophy, you should focus your resources on two areas: technology and talent. With that in mind, here are six investments large and small brands are making now and into the future. You should do the same.
Mobile & Responsive Design
Ritz-Carlton is a premium brand that boasts lavish properties, luxurious amenities and exceptional service. Its mobile site, though, stands out for something much different – its simplicity. “We’ve really tried to listen to our customers and make using our site as easy as we can,” says Kyle Murdoch, the senior director of e-commerce at Ritz-Carlton. “With our mobile traffic growing, we’re focusing on a task-oriented experience – basically what customers need quickly.”
Because Ritz-Carlton is a global company, it offers mobile sites in every language from English to Arabic to Portuguese. While it includes resort photos at the top of the screen, its centerpiece is a short menu of options: hotel information, reservations, rewards and a contact button. One of the newest features is a services option that lets guests check in, check out, request personal items like shampoo and even order food. “We want to get it right, and surprise and delight our guests,” Murdoch says.
The next Web project Ritz-Carlton is working on is one many companies are still sorting through – employing responsive design. A responsive site is built so that all of the content and images remain the same size on any device, like a phone, a tablet or a desktop. “It’s important for companies to have responsive sites because they’ll save money and time,” says Brandon Arnold, a lead designer at Web consultancy Zurb. “Responsive design is also future proof – we’ve found it even works with things like Google Glass.”
Of course, what holds many companies back from investing in responsive design is the perceived high cost. Times are changing, though. Zurb, for example, now offers a free framework of tools – called Foundation – that lets IT personnel and even novice designers code and customize responsive sites faster. “It’s something we’ve done to give back,” Arnold says.
Carolina Digital Photo Group has been in business for 34 years, but only recently did the firm start offering clients a new way to advertise – by using marketing drones. “We primarily use them for real estate clients to show off their commercial properties and we use them above golf courses,” says Larry Harwell, president of Carolina Digital. “We have GoPro cameras on the drones to take video, then we’ll add music and voiceovers later. I think we’re going to see more and more of this in the future.”
One of Harwell’s clients, Wells Fargo, already sees the value drones can bring to promotions. The bank, which sponsors the annual Wells Fargo Championship each year in Charlotte, asked Carolina Digital to capture overhead views of the Quail Hollow Golf Club to help sell select tickets.
“They have a special seating area they’re trying to promote,” Harwell says. “We shot video with drones this year and we know we’re going to do it for them next year, too.”
Beyond photography, drones can be used at live events like concerts, festivals and trade shows. A Philadelphia-based startup called DroneCast recently raised $1 million in funding from angel investors to support an aerial advertising platform. Carrying banners and products, the firm’s drones act as flying billboards.
“We’ve been in business for nine months and we’ve gotten a ton of attention from major brands like Coca-Cola, Red Bull and Dave & Buster’s,” says GauravJit Singh, DroneCast’s founder and CEO. “National Geographic just asked us to advertise a new show they’re launching about Alaska. For part of the promotion, we’d have our drones dump fake snow on people on city streets if they tweet a certain hashtag.”
Even though DroneCast is in its infancy, Singh is booking events around the world, securing intellectual property rights and looking to partner with entrepreneurs to run franchises. “Right now, we work with ad agencies on campaigns, but we’d be open to a firm taking over a territory – especially if they have large clients that are really getting into marketing with drones.”
Forget telecommuters – the future is all about employees who never go into the office. Airline JetBlue has embraced a work-at-home program for more than a decade, allowing the carrier access to better job candidates and greatly reducing overhead costs. “Our model ensures we have eager people representing JetBlue,” says Frankie Littleford, the airline’s vice president of customer support. “Plus, the cost to run our reservations function is dramatically lower than other airlines because we don’t have to build and maintain large reservation centers.”
The scope of JetBlue’s program is massive – its main customer support center in Salt Lake City employs 2,000 people, but 1,800 of them work at home. These employees go through four weeks of training at a JetBlue site, taking live calls while experienced agents watch remotely via screen share. After that, agents are set up with a special computer system in their homes that utilizes a separate, dedicated phone line.
“When it comes to talent, we only hire people who are naturals at customer service,” Littleford says. “We teach them the computer system but their personality is why we hired them.”
The incredible flexibility lets JetBlue tap into a deep pool of talent that includes stay-at-home moms, retired business owners and tech-savvy Millennials who disdain cubicles. JetBlue agents don’t have to work in complete isolation, though. They’re given friendly feedback, can chat anytime with supervisors, and they attend live monthly group meetings.
“This promotes the JetBlue corporate culture even though our agents are based at home,” Littleford says.
If you’re aiming for a diverse workplace based solely on race, age or gender, Mark Miller thinks you’re making a mistake. There’s another key piece to the puzzle – called cognitive diversity – that can improve your company’s innovation and production.
“In business today, it’s important to create and build teams with people of different thinking styles,” says Miller, the vice president of marketing at consultancy Emergenetics. “These different viewpoints can help you find a component of your message that’s missing.”
Think for a moment about how your marketing department operates. Who drives the conversation? How do projects get done? What kinds of personalities make up your staff? To be most productive and creative, according to Miller, your team needs to include these types of thinkers: a goal-oriented visionary, an empathetic soul, a data-driven ROI type, and a deadline-motivated person who excels at being a doer.
“The group also needs a leader that makes sure a project gets contributions from everyone,” Miller says. “What you want is more collaboration and teamwork.”
This approach, though, begs an obvious question: How can you know for sure how your employees think? This is where Miller’s firm, and a growing number of others, comes in. They offer online cognitive assessments that generate detailed thought profiles. Once you figure out your employees’ preferences, you can put together a more complete staff.
“At Emergenetics, we use assessments ourselves,” Miller says. “We live the same cultural perspective that we take to our clients.”
Tuition assistance programs are becoming more popular in workplaces today, with major companies like UPS, BP and Google paying college costs for employees. If you decide to offer tuition reimbursement to staff, experts suggest you partner with a local college that may offer discounted courses. But what if you can’t afford a program like this?
Another way to help employees continue to learn is by following the example of WebpageFX, a Pennsylvania-based Internet marketing company. Through a point system, the firm rewards employees for completing internal training courses and reading books from a company library.
“Every week, new learning resources are added, so nothing is outdated,” says Trevin Shirey, the senior business development manager at WebpageFX. “The incentives encourage employees to grow their knowledge, and they’re more satisfied with their jobs. We’ve had very little employee turnover.”
The rewards system is straightforward – reading a book, for example, nets a WebpageFX employee one point. Ten points can be traded in for a $25 gift card, while 100 points earns a $500 gift card. The company also provides an internal social network as well as lunch-and-learn sessions where employees can share best practices.
“We’ll bring in pizza or sandwiches for a department and pick a couple of people to present to the group,” Shirey says. “It’s an investment for us as a company because we’re cutting out an hour or two from the workday, but we believe it’s worth it.”
In tiny Hamtramck, MI, near Detroit, Rebecca Smith is making a giant impact. Her company, Better Life Bags (BLB), hires mostly first generation immigrant women who can’t get jobs anywhere else. Smith pays the women – who are from countries like Iraq, Jordan and Bangladesh – a good enough wage so they can support their families.
“My company started from a hobby of mine, but I wanted it to have a bigger purpose,” says Smith, BLB’s president. “A lot of companies, of course, are for-profit, with a mission attached. We put our mission right up there next to profit.”
Smith’s mission is clear: to make lives better in an especially depressed city – a two square mile area with a near 20% unemployment rate and little economic opportunity. Smith succeeds by offering chances. One of her workers, for example, stopped her on the street and asked for money. Smith gave her a job instead. Her first seamstress used her paychecks to furnish her home.
“I’d walk into her house to deliver fabric and she was so excited to show me she had bunk beds,” Smith says. “Before, there was just a mattress on the floor.”
Smith’s company – which grew from an Etsy shop – also has a history of donating 10% of every sale to help a low income entrepreneur in a developing country. BLB has supported urban farms, sewing clubs and other local groups in need, as well. The 13-person firm’s next big goal is to cut into Hamtramck’s unemployment rate. “If we hire 40 people, we can reduce unemployment by 1%,” Smith says.
Now you might be thinking, can a company that invests so much in its community really survive? Better Life Bags proves it can be done. “Investing in people above profits has never led us wrong,” Smith says. “We’ve never had a loss – not one month.”
Invest in Data Security
Reading about major data breaches at Staples and Home Depot might, ironically, give your business a sense of security. After all, what hacker would go after your firm when big retailers offer a goldmine of customer info? The reality, though, is that your business could be target number one.
“Hackers know the access points to larger businesses often come through smaller third-party firms, like vendors,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “What hackers are trying to do is exploit a relationship, through maybe a spoof of a product update or a set of credentials.”
Kaiser points out that the statistics paint a concerning picture. Data from the National Small Business Association shows nearly 71% of security breaches target modest-sized companies that are ill-equipped to handle attacks. And according to Visa, 95% of the credit card breaches it discovers each year are from its small-business customers. “As a smaller company, you have to assess your risks and defend against the crown jewels of your business – like customer data,” Kaiser says. “You also need to be respectful about the data of your employees, like their bank account and social security numbers.”
To ratchet up security, all companies should take basic steps like updating security software, encrypting emails and blocking suspicious websites. But your approach needs to be more specific, experts insist. For example, Kaiser recommends office personnel avoid sharing USB drives that could hold hard-to-detect viruses.
Also, if you have employees that telecommute, you should consider two-step verification for sign-on to systems. “This is similar to Gmail asking for a password and then also texting a code to your phone,” Kaiser says. If you have salespeople who travel frequently, remind them to never access documents using an unsecured airport, café or hotel network.
“They need to be using a VPN connection,” Kaiser says.
Over the long term, your company’s planning should also include a data recovery plan in case your systems are compromised, as well as cybersecurity training for staff. “You want to build resiliency into your culture,” Kaiser says.