It’s that time of year  when marketing professionals begin to make predictions about what will be hot or not in 2014. While it’s interesting to see where Coke and Nike will be spending their time (and money), I am much more interested in which trends, tools and platforms have the most promise for small business owners.

Top Picks for 2014

Gmail Address Required

It doesn’t matter if you ever send a single email to or from this account, every business needs a Gmail account. Why? This address becomes your passport to all things Google. I don’t expect small business owners to be using it as a social network in 2014, but it is more than a social network. As Google continues to strive to personalize search results, they are valuing authorship, links to blog posts and reviews. If search position is important to your business, so is GooglePlus.

Word of Mouth Explodes Online

For the last few years we have been telling small business owners that their word of mouth business has to move online. Shares on social networks are just the tip of the iceberg.  Today, review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor and consumer services reviews like Angie’s List and GooglePlus are becoming the first stop in most purchase decisions. Numerous studies ( including this one)  indicate consumers and businesses are putting their trust in online reviews more than advertising. So if you have a limited budget, this is where you need to be focused.

Step one: Start inviting your customers to post reviews. Step two: Pay attention to the reviews. Thank people for positive comments, and reach out to people are dissatisfied. Invite to talk to you offline, but demonstrate a willingness to solve their problem. You don’t have to roll over completely. Simply be willing to have the conversation.

Get a Good Camera

The shift toward visual media continues. While text is important, pictures and video capture attention and engage visitors. Even with the shift to mobile, web pages and blog sites much include rich featured images to draw people in. While the data regarding the amount of interaction varies based on the study ( from a low of 39% to a high of 120%) the bottom line is that when an image is included with your content on social platforms it increases the chances someone will stop and look, instead of skimming by.  This is true for Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Plus, but the increased focus on images doesn’t stop there.  Image based sites such as Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Slideshare, Path and Mobli continue to gain traction.  While you don’t need to add all of these,to your daily routine you will be ready to explore platforms where your target market is spending time if you have a strong image library and a process for gather new images.

Just as some tools are growing, others are declining. There are a few which won’t require as much of your time in 2014 as they did in 2013.

Not So Hot in 2014

Foursquare Isn’t the Place to Be

Introduced as a game in 2009, enthusiasm for this site seems to be waning as many former users delete the app or simply stop logging in. While developers have been hard at work adding location-based recommendation features, it is probably too little too late as Yelp and Google have clearly dominated that space. If your company has a special for Foursquare checkins, I suggest leaving it in place, by don’t expect a lot of traction. When Foursquare comes knocking to sell you featured advertising listings, the answer should be no.

Facebook Is Down but Not Out

Just as social media pundits have for years declared that this is the year that email will die, many have been predicting the death of Facebook as well. They point to significant decline in usage among teens and young professionals. That is true, but there are still more than 1 billion profiles worldwide. So how will Facebook fare in the months to come among small business owners?

They have been very direct in their mission to create a sustainable revenue stream through advertising. To push companies down this path, they are clamping down on page visibility. In recent weeks, we have seen visibility numbers fall by 75% overnight. This is devastating to many small businesses who have invested several years to grow a community they can no longer reach unless they are willing to pay. For many small firms, Facebook is a good brand builder, but not necessarily a direct line to sales. As a result, I think this move by Facebook will drive many to other platforms, including a strengthening of their company website.

The End of Free

One more trend to watch in 2014 is the end of free. We have enjoyed many years of free online tools as the Internet has evolved. But that is coming to an end as successful Internet startups become mature companies. Google is limiting the data it shares. Want more? Pay advertising. Facebook and Twitter are giving preferred visibility to advertisers too. LinkedIn has taken many of the popular features away from the average free users. Want more information about who looked at your profile? Time to pay for an upgrade.

It is unrealistic to think that any of these tools will be free forever, so now is the time to be selective. Find the ones you are really using, and be prepared to pay for those, and let the others go. Not just because of the expense, but because of the time it takes to manage them.

2014 is shaping up to be an exciting year, with lots of new possibilities.  Having the right tools in place will prepare you for the opportunities ahead.   What predictions would you add to the list?