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1ON1 with Russ Morton of Constant Contact on emerging AI in digital marketing and small business

Russ Morton, chief product officer at Constant Contact, contends results of the most recent small business survey showcase an appetite for small business owners to utilize emerging technology to reduce overhead and boost profits. (File Photos/
Constant Contact small business survey reveals appetite for marketing innovations
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

Found in the results of a recent survey at the email marketing behemoth Constant Contact are sentiments of how small business owners are coming to terms with the prospect of how artificial intelligence will impact the bottom line.

Across the board, Russ Morton, chief product officer at Constant Contact, contends results of the most recent small business survey showcase an appetite for small business owners to utilize emerging technology to boost profits.

“Our Small Business Now study explores how small businesses feel about artificial intelligence and marketing automation, and where they expect to these technologies to impact their businesses,” he told the Arizona Digital Free Press. “We discovered that while they are not always asking for AI by name, they are excited about the ability to work more efficiently and save money. Our study also revealed that SMBs who are already using AI-enabled marketing tools are seeing an immediate impact.”

The No. 1 challenge facing small business owners in America? Finding cost-effective ways to attract new customers, Mr. Morton says responses show.

“When we looked at the biggest challenges facing small businesses today, it was clear that they spend a significant amount of time working to attract new customers. They also need help marketing to existing customers, and converting leads into sales,” he said. “Fortunately, AI is helping them overcome each of these obstacles. According to our findings, 91% of small businesses who are currently leveraging AI say it has made their business more successful, and 74% of SMBs are interested in using AI in their business.”

Survey results point to a proclivity for small business owners to leveraging new technology and digital platforms created around those technologies to fast-track social media and marketing campaigns.

“The most common places where small businesses are leveraging AI are social media and email content creation, and that aligns with their goals for customer acquisition and engagement,” Mr. Morton said. “Higher quality content can also drive purchasing, so leveraging AI and automations to personalize marketing messages and deliver high-value content to customers is also a terrific way to boost sales.”

Marketing and AI are natural symbiotic partners, Mr. Morton points out of survey results.

“Overall, our findings show that there’s never been a better time to start using AI-powered tools to improve marketing efforts,” he said. “Small businesses now have access to the same tools larger corporations do, and they are excited about them. Those who have started using them are working faster, getting closer to their customers, and driving more sales.”

In the AI generated image above, which took 15 seconds to create, illustrates the working functionality of AI generated images. (File Photos/
1ON1 with Russ Morton of Constant Contact on emerging AI in digital marketing

The Arizona Digital Free Press reached out to Mr. Morton at Constant Contact to dive bit further into small business trends the email marketing pioneer are taking note. This is what he had to say:

*What are some of the most significant tech innovations that have impacted SMBs in recent years?

During the pandemic, we saw small businesses begin to embrace having an online presence and giving customers easy ways to engage or shop online. Fast forward, and now AI is having a significant impact on the SMB. The technology itself has been around for years, but the breakthroughs in the last 8-10 months have made it possible to have real dialogue with a computer assistant and immediately see a high-quality outcome.

Like all of us, small businesses are aware of this shift, and we’ve found that their interest in the benefits that AI can provide is growing. Our research indicates that 55% of small businesses are more interested in applying AI to their business today than they were six months ago, and as they become more familiar with its capabilities, I expect more SMBs to adopt AI to drive better business outcomes.

*Where can these innovations make the biggest impact for small businesses and how has Constant Contact been part of that transition?

Most small businesses are only marketers by necessity. They are extraordinarily busy, and they need better, faster ways to market themselves to customers. AI-enabled marketing tools can help ease that burden by saving them time, stretching their budgets further, and helping them get closer to their customers.

Marketing automation is a helpful tool to reduce time spent on manual tasks – things like welcome emails, reminder texts, and social media posts. That enables the SMB to spend more time on strategic initiatives for the business, instead of managing the execution of daily tasks.

Similarly, AI can understand what a customer is looking for and leverage data from past interactions to recommend the best time, channel, and content to send in a campaign. It can even draft emails and texts on behalf of the SMB and match their preferred language and tone. That level of personalization helps keep customers engaged and makes them more likely to make a purchase, or open a subsequent message from the business.

AI and automation aren’t new technologies at Constant Contact. Our customers have enjoyed using them for years through features like subject line testing, automated triggers for things like welcome emails and abandoned cart reminders, and our AI-powered spam filter. But, we significantly expanded the way we use these technologies this year to match the features that our customers were asking for.

*What are some of the challenges and opportunities that these innovations present?
Small businesses are new to this type of technology, and that newness naturally comes with some hesitation. Some are concerned about data security and the perceived time and cost to implement AI. However, our study also indicated that as SMBs spend more time with AI, they are more likely to see a notable impact on their business – and those who leverage it in multiple places tend to experience even greater outcomes. So, it just takes some time to understand where it fits into the business’ marketing strategy.

In terms of the opportunities, there are several. Our study showed that many SMBs are already leveraging AI-powered tools to improve their creativity, get closer to their target audiences and drive more sales volume. Almost one-third of SMBs expect it to save them at least $5,000 over the next 12 months, and 60% have saved time in their week. That efficiency is a game-changer because it allows them to spend less time on marketing and focus their efforts on other aspects of their businesses.

We also see an opportunity to leverage AI to improve the customer’s experience with a business. AI’s biggest strength is analyzing patterns in data to determine the next best action, so it can help SMBs understand what their customers want, and also what they don’t want. That enables them to create more relevant content, select the right channels to deliver their campaigns, and reduce friction in the purchasing process.

*What advice would you give to businesses that are looking to adopt AI and use it effectively?
AI’s potential can feel limitless – and a little overwhelming – but it’s important for small businesses to understand that it is merely a tool to help enhance the work they are already doing to market themselves. It is not going to replace existing marketing functions, nor should it be expected to deliver outsized results on its own. The technology is designed to help businesses find efficiencies and automate work that would otherwise require extensive time, effort and staff to complete.

I always recommend starting small with something familiar and building toward more advanced use cases. For example, SMBs send lots of emails and texts to their customers, so incorporating an AI content generator into that process can be a fun way create messages in less time. Similarly, setting up simple automations for manual tasks, like welcome emails or purchase reminders, can help offload some of the more time consuming marketing tasks and enable small businesses to work more strategically.

As they gain more perspective on how and where AI and automation can help, then it’s time to try them in more places – like writing copy for social media and events, or creating custom automations and personalizing campaigns to a user’s behavior.

*What are your thoughts on the future of entrepreneurship?
We actually covered this topic in our Q1 Small Business Now study earlier this year. We polled about 2,500 Americans and learned that the entrepreneurial spirit is strong, despite some economic headwinds.

It’s easy to think that a downturn would be a bad time to start a business, but we typically find the opposite of that to be true. Historically, slower economic periods typically lead to a boom in new business inceptions. Just look at the first four months after the pandemic where the US Census Bureau recorded a 127 percent increase in new business applications; we’re seeing a similar level of optimism this year.

Our research shows that in a recession, 45% Americans would pursue a career as a small business owner, or recommend it to someone else – and they don’t feel like they need a large nest egg to get started. About 45% of consumers would feel comfortable starting a business with less that $10,000 in savings. They are actively looking for ways to jump into small business ownership, and they are confident in their ability to monetize their hobbies and be successful. So, things look very positive for the future of small business.

*How about specific to Constant Contact? What does the future hold?
We want to make marketing easier for small businesses by delivering intuitive tools in a user-friendly platform. As we look ahead to the future, there is a big opportunity for us to continue to integrate technologies like AI and automation into new areas of our platform. That said, we are a customer-centric organization, so our innovation efforts are driven by what they need. Being flexible and open to their feedback allows us to deliver a toolset that can help them achieve their goals.

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