Generative AI for SMBs: What Is It and How Can It Help You?

Edmund_McGowan
edited September 2023 in Business

Artificial intelligence and its implications are shaping up to be the defining technology of the decade. The past few years have seen swift developments in generative AI, technology that a few years back was hard to even imagine has now become a commonplace reality. Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT, Midjourney, and GitHub Copilot have quickly grown in popularity and efficiency, allowing users to harness the power of this new technology both at work and at home. In this article, we will delve into generative AI, how it works, and how AI can help small and medium sized businesses (SMBs).

What is generative AI?

As the name suggests, Generative AI is an artificial intelligence system that generates text, images, computer code, and other media from user prompts, usually typed text. Designed to mimic human imagination and creativity, generative AI uses advanced machine learning techniques to learn the patterns and relationships of the data that they are trained on.

How does it work?

The “brains” behind each AI website or platform are models such as GPT-4, programs that analyze data to find patterns and make predictions, then utilize this data to produce new data with similar characteristics. The inner workings of individual generative AI tools differ somewhat, but they rely on generative adversarial networks (GANs) to create new examples from a specific training set. In essence, this means that algorithms are trained to generate output that appears to be created by a human. The more data that is fed into the AI model, the more it is able to perfect its ability to replicate human expression.

Can artificial intelligence help small businesses?

No matter how successful their organization is, many SMB owners are constantly  asking themselves “How can I improve my small business?” While each individual business faces different challenges in operation, using AI in small businesses is a low cost, highly efficient way to improve many aspects of your enterprise. From marketing content creation, to data analysis, task automation, and graphic design, AI applications for small businesses are manifold. Read on to discover how generative AI can benefit your SMB, and how to effectively implement AI in your business today.

Challenges faced by SMBs

Due to their limited size, there are certain challenges that negatively affect the success, growth, and sustainability of SMBs. First and foremost, limited resources (financial, technological, and human) may make it hard for SMBs to compete effectively with larger businesses. Financial constraints may also hinder SMBs, as lack of access to sufficient funding and loans makes growth and expansion an even bigger challenge. This lack of cash can, in turn, affect an SMB's ability to weather out periods of economic uncertainty. Lack of funding can also prevent SMBs from being able to effectively deal with unexpected risks, from supply chain issues to legal woes.

While the above issues require capital in order to be properly resolved, there are several other challenges commonly faced by SMBs that AI can help with. Firstly, competition, specifically from larger businesses is something that SMBs may struggle with. Larger brands that have been around for longer typically have far greater resources than smaller, newly established companies. These resources allow larger businesses to create and maintain a strong brand presence through effective branding and marketing. Thankfully, marketing for small businesses has been given a shot in the arm by generative AI technologies.

For smaller companies with restrictive budgets, generative AI can rapidly produce a wide range of marketing and branding content, including advertisement graphics, logos, videos, website content, and blog pieces. All of these can be created, tweaked and perfected, without the need to take on specialist staff, or outsource to freelancers.

AI can also help small businesses with customer engagement and retention, an area that SMBs typically struggle with. In saturated, overly competitive markets, it can be hard to make your business stand out, especially without sufficient financial resources. Thankfully, generative AI is a tool that can be effectively utilized to create memorable graphics and logos, as well as catchy advertisements and slogans. By creating customized sales materials and personalized marketing content, SMBs are able to compete with the bigger businesses in their approach to targeting and retaining customers. Read on, as we discuss five ways that AI can become an invaluable tool for SMBs aiming to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

1. Content creation for marketing

Content creation is arguably the most easily visible and accessible application of generative AI for SMBs. Chances are you have read an article or received an email generated by an AI program such as ChatGPT in the last few months. This area of generative AI can help SMBs create a plethora of content, from blog pieces to images, and even videos for social media. Different AI programs specialize in creating different types of content. If you want to create written marketing content, try an AI writer such as GhostWryter, or Scribe, and discover how much time and money you can save in written content creation.

Or perhaps you are wondering how to get started using AI to create new logos and graphics? Have a peep at Midjourney to get an idea of what is possible in AI image generation. For graphics, images and other art applications, we have got you covered in our informative article AI for art marketing: a guide for SMBs. It isn’t advisable, however, to rely completely on generative AI for all of your written content creation. AI generated text (and images) may lack the human style, and may even contain factual errors and biased opinions.

2. Task automation

Long before the Hollywood Writers strike and its association with AI programs replacing human writers, AI was already being successfully applied to task automation. From Siri to Alexa, Cleo, and Cortana, you may have used a virtual assistant, or two. The application of AI in task automation is wide and allows human employees to transition from time-consuming and labor-intensive tasks to tasks that are a better use of their time. Firstly, data entry, along with its sidekick, data extraction can be automatically, and efficiently handled by many AI programs, such as UiPath.

Another increasingly utilized feature of AI is its ability to schedule and organize. For SMBs that might lack manpower and secretarial staff, AI-powered virtual assistants can be a lifesaver. By taking care of meeting and appointment scheduling, as well as note taking, and never forgetting important reminders, your SMBs time management can be efficiently handled by an AI assistant like Otter.

3. Data analysis

Another of the less immediately obvious faces of generative AI, that certainly hasn’t been headline news is data analysis. Handing over the responsibilities of data analysis to AI is an important step that many SMBs can benefit from. By automating and enhancing data analysis procedures, AI programs can free up employees to deal with more pressing tasks, such as saving time, human resources, and money. AI resources such as Microsoft Power BI can effortlessly collect huge amounts of data, and convert it into insights, which SMB owners can then act upon in order to improve their businesses.

On top of the analysis function, visual analytics platforms like Tableau allow users to centralize their SMB’s data, and turn the data into engaging visuals. By gathering data from diverse sources, and presenting it in an accessible format, SMBs can effectively establish a data-driven culture. By increasing accessibility and engagement with important data, insight can be turned into impact, allowing workers throughout an organization to make informed decisions, using the latest analytics.

4. Customer support

In an ideal world, every customer query would be answered with a reassuring human voice, or a handwritten email. Alas, in today's world, this is often an impossibility. Thankfully for SMBs, AI can make a big difference to the support that they are able to offer their customers. Firstly, websites can be augmented with AI-powered chatbots, greatly enhancing customer service experiences. Chatbots are a constantly improving technology and are able to offer increasingly human-like assistance, providing instant responses to customer inquiries, as well as helping with troubleshooting and other important processes. This instant, multilingual support does not require a lunch, or other breaks, and can provide instant responses to your customers across the globe, 24/7.

Chatbots such as Zendesk’s AI bots allow human customer support agents more time to help complex customer cases, instead of sending hours trudging through basic information. On top of basic customer care and troubleshooting, AI can go several steps further to optimize your customers’ overall experience of your brand. By analyzing feedback and customer preferences, AI can identify areas for improvement and tailor support responses accordingly.

5. Language translation

Last, but certainly not least in our exploration of five ways that AI can assist SMBs is language translation. Traditionally, smaller businesses have struggled to break out of local or regional markets, due to language, trade, and cultural barriers. While many enterprising SMBs have made good use of Google Translate, or similar translation tools, recent AI developments have really moved the field of language translation for SMBs into a new era. Communication is key, and armed with translation services like Bing Microsoft Translation, the world is truly your SMB’s oyster!

Modern translation tools support a wide range of languages, allowing SMBs to accurately reach customers and suppliers from Turin to Tokyo, with ease. In addition to translation services, multilingual chatbots, as we mentioned above, can really transform international customers’ experiences of your brand. AI can also assist in localizing content by breaking language barriers, and equally importantly, adapt your content and communications to adhere to a country’s cultural sensitivities, as well.

Implementing generative AI in SMBs

The implementation of generative AI into the running of your SMB should follow a structured plan, beginning with a clear outline, listing the objectives, expectations, and limitations of using AI. The next step after defining objectives is identifying use cases, these are the areas in the SMB that you think can benefit from the intervention of AI. Each SMB will have different areas where automation may increase efficiency. Hopefully, it will be easy to identify these with reference to the five points above. 

The next step is selecting an AI model (or models) that best serve the needs of your SMB. This is a very important consideration, as an AI model trained in code, such as GitHub Copilot is developed for developers, and is not best suited to tasks such as data analysis, for example. In the same way that employees aren’t expected to be experts in multiple departments, neither are all AI models. Depending on the areas of your SMB that will benefit from AI, you may need to invest in several platforms. There are far too many generative AI tools in the mix right now to list them all. Fortunately, many offer free, or very reasonably priced trials, so take the opportunity to shop around before you commit. 

After data collection and preparation, we recommend beginning with a trial run, targeting one specific area of your SMB, before rolling out AI across every corner of your business. It is important to mention that as well as training the AI model with your data, most systems will require a skilled AI expert in order to integrate the AI with your current systems, as well as to monitor and maintain your system. A possible alternative to taking on a full time AI specialist is to work with an AI tool such as Microsoft 365 Copilot, that can be seamlessly embedded into the apps that your SMB uses every day, from Word to Excel, Teams, and many others.  

Microsoft 365 Copilot is designed to usher in a whole new way of working, combining the power of large language models with business data and the apps that you most likely are already using. Copilot will help your employees excel at many of their everyday tasks, fundamentally transforming the way that they work. In March 2023, Microsoft announced: “With these new tools, people can be more creative in Word, more analytical in Excel, more expressive in PowerPoint, more productive in Outlook, and more collaborative in Teams.”

The takeaway  

As we learned in this article, there are many challenges that SMBs face in today’s hyper competitive markets. Limited by their size and resources, SMBs historically struggled to compete with larger enterprises to gain footholds in various markets. From brand identity to social media content creation, and continued customer engagement, generative AI is proving to be a welcome shot in the arm for SMBs. 

Generative AI is not the enemy of employees, it is a set of tools that, if used correctly, can make everyone’s work lives more efficient. AI can actively take care of time-consuming, repetitive tasks, such as data entry, leaving human employees with more time to get on with other, more important tasks. AI can be implemented to optimize the running of your business operation. Let generative AI provide a platform for your SMB to develop, and explore new business horizons.

Edmund is an English copywriter based in New Taipei City, Taiwan. He is a widely published writer and translator with two decades of experience in the field of bridging linguistic and cultural gaps between Chinese and English.

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