The going's been tough for Americans lately as they continue to digest election results — not to mention tons of turkey — and gear up to go holiday shopping.
Across the nation, small-business owners are preparing for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. To boost consumer traffic and sales, behind the scenes the customer relationship marketing (CRM) industry is cooking up email and social media campaigns — and now artificial intelligence is entering the realm.
New York-based Signpost is one of the players in this brave new space, looking to disrupt such CRM heavyweights as Salesforce.com, Infusionsoft, ExactTarget, Mailchimp, Constant Contact and Square. A.I. is the big differentiator, said Signpost founder and CEO Stuart Wall, because it does away with many of the arduous manual chores required by existing CRM software. "Everything we do is automated," he said.
What also makes Signpost unique, Wall added, is that "we exclusively focus on brick-and-mortar businesses," predominantly local merchants, versus mass retailers and e-commerce platforms. "About 9 in 10 transactions are face-to-face," he claimed.
Whether it's a gym, florist, bicycle shop or restaurant, local businesses are forever looking for smarter ways to satisfy loyal customers, as well as attract new ones and keep them coming back. Black Friday has been the major one-day lure but went on steroids in recent years, enticing shoppers on Thanksgiving Day itself or with month-long promotions.
Small Business Saturday was created by American Express in 2010 — then officially designated by Congress a year later — and the shop-local push has produced impressive stats. According to the "Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey," annually conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express, more than 95 million consumers participated last year, marking an 8 percent increase from 2014, ringing up $16.2 billion in sales, an increase of 14 percent from $14.3 billion in 2014.
More from Holiday Central:
Black Friday deals aren't all about TVs and video games, Home Depot says
Here are the hottest emerging tech gadgets this holiday season
Cyber Monday eats Black Friday as Wal-Mart takes holiday mash-up a step further
While endless TV, radio and print ads aim to drum up sales this weekend, CRM software relies on customer data to tailor one-to-one marketing programs, taking advantage of mobile technology to generate emails, texts, tweets and other messaging to alert shoppers. That software can be daunting for small-business owners to work with, insisted Wall, a Harvard Business School graduate who launched Signpost in 2010 after trying to help his sister advertise her pottery studio on Google proved overly complicated. "I said, 'How do we create software that empowers brick-and-mortar owners, like my sister, to be world-class marketers?'"
Backed by Google Ventures, Smart Capital, OpenView, Georgian Partners and a handful of angels, Signpost has raised more than $36 million. The private company employs nearly 200 people in New York and another 50 in Austin and Denver. Forbes listed it #94 among its America's Most Promising Companies last year, estimating revenues of $7 million, a figure Wall has declined to verify.
In the mold of Apple's Siri and Amazon Echo's Alexa, Signpost introduced Mia last April. She keeps track of and cross-references every one of its 7,500 clients' phone, email and credit card data in real time, Wall explained, constantly updating a database of about 30 million individuals. Retailers pay $300 a month for an A.I.-controlled toolkit.
"Our main value to small businesses is what we call outcomes," Wall said. An outcome involves generating five-star reviews on Yelp and Facebook, converting new customers and developing loyalty among existing customers. "The end result is that our average client using Mia gets about a 1.8 [rating] star lift on Google and Yelp, from 2.9 to 4.7 after the first year, and about a 10 percent lift in revenue."
The A.I. strategy for CRM has attracted competitors, including Yext, Single Platform and Luco, a service from GoDaddy. The power of the technology, Wall said, is that with each bit of customer data, A.I. software keeps learning. "Every month, we're pulling in lessons we've learned from the prior month," he reported.
In other words, if the company's local merchants do as well as expected, "Mia will be smarter next month than she is this weekend," Wall said.
— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com