If you own a small business or run a small- business website, no doubt you’ve already had several emails and phone calls this week.
Software vendors want you to watch their demos, try their products, or otherwise convince you that their solutions can meet your needs. Ask how much it will cost, though, and the answers are vague: “We’ll have to evaluate your needs first.”
Sometimes your company just needs a reliable, hosted solution with clear pricing, a subscription-based fee with no long-term obligations, and practical features that can benefit your business almost instantly. Many free or inexpensive (under $100) hosted solutions are available on the web right now, and sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing what web-based tools are out there so you can match them to your immediate needs… without any pressure to buy.
Let’s say you want to send a short survey about your products or services to your customers. You want to collect information from the surveys automatically and then generate some kind of report on the results. QuestionPro.com offers free surveys in its basic subscription, with a limit of 100 responses, just to allow you to try it out without any obligation. It’s also free for non-profit organizations, students, and faculty members. However, even their paid subscription plans are very inexpensive, with prices as low as $15 US per month for unlimited surveys and responses.
QuestionPro also offers some very easy-to-use analytics (graphs and charts) to help you create reports on the survey data and cross-tabulate them, too. Best of all, it’s web-based, hosted on external servers, and has a gentle learning curve because it’s as simple as selecting your options for the survey. When you finish creating your survey, it generates a URL that you can either post as a link on your website or send by email. Survey recipients just click on the link to open the survey.
Another interesting solution is RSVMe (rsvme.com), a completely free software download that helps you create professional-looking email surveys. If you wish, it even offers an option during installation to integrate with Microsoft Outlook so you can select contacts from Outlook and send emails to specific customers, members, or clients.
I’ve used both QuestionPro and RSVMe and found the best way to learn to use them is just to start setting up your first survey. RSVMe doesn’t offer the same kind of sophistication as QuestionPro – for example, RSVMe sends you the scores for each question, but only QuestionPro lets you do more detailed reports and analysis. Yet both of these bargain solutions can be a huge benefit for businesses that want to conduct electronic surveys their administrative assistants can easily set up and manage.
Conducting web-based conferences used to be the domain of the big industry players such as banks, telecoms, and other industry giants, but now even small businesses with clients or partners in various geographic locations can conference online for under $100, and without any difficult IT requirements – just an Internet connection, a web browser, and a telephone. Of the many vendors offering inexpensive hosted solutions for web conferencing, Adobe stands out with its latest offering in its Acrobat product line. For a subscription starting at $39 US per month, Adobe Acrobat Connect (adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect) is a web conferencing service that can be linked to a customized URL, such as your company’s own web address. There’s no need to arrange a conference or set up users each time you want to conference because it’s “always on.”
For a flat monthly or annual price, you can invite up to 15 participants to conference on the phone while a web-based conference on a secure server gives you tools such as screen-sharing (doing a demonstration or PowerPoint slides on-screen), white-boarding (drawing figures or words on a white screen), and even streaming videos.
Small businesses are also looking for eLearning tools to help with new employee orientation, developing or upgrading skill sets, and creating a culture of learning and growth with your business. For as little as $34.99 monthly, Nuvvo (nuvvo.com) provides a hosted service that enables you to create online courses for your employees or customers. Features include customization (creating unique URLs, adding your company logo, and customizing the colors), content creation and evaluation tools (use text, images, audio/visual, and documents, and create quizzes and grade books), as well as blogs and messaging tools to help students and instructors interact online.
You may have had experiences where you or one of your staff have created a document that needs to be revised by many hands and then reviewed by many eyes before being shared with the company, your partners, or your customers. Document Collaboration services such as Koral (koral.com) can provide a hosted solution for you to do this for free, courtesy of Salesforce.com, a leader in customer relationship management solutions.
The only limitation is that it’s offered by invitation only, but you can request an invitation at koral.com/register.php. Basically, your free Koral account lets you upload and store documents you have created (on a Koral server that only authorized users can access); allows other staff, partners, or customers to share (access) your stored documents online; and even synchronizes changes to the documents that you or authorized users have made.
Any users who subscribe to a particular document are notified when any changes are made to it, and they can also search your Koral site for information they are looking for in stored documents. And it not only provides reports for you on which documents are being accessed, but also allows users to give you online feedback about the quality of the documents.
Email Newsletters and Notifications
Take it from someone who has been involved in a project to set up email list management software on internal servers – it’s expensive and requires a lot of IT effort. Better for most small businesses with a few hundred or a few thousand customers in their database is a hosted solution called GraphicMail (ca.graphicmail.com).
Free GraphicMail accounts are available to non-profit organizations, but the pricing is as low as $12.95 CAD per month to send email to 2,000 subscribers per month. GraphicMail helps you create and edit email newsletters or notifications using a web-based editor and numerous customizable templates. You can add your own logo and other images, send HTML or plain text emails, segment your subscribers by interest groups, and include a link that allows subscribers to forward the email to their friends. You can manage every aspect of your email lists online, track usage, monitor trends and popular links, and obtain a summary report. It also runs on any version of Windows and on Mac OS X. Best of all, subscribers can subscribe and unsubscribe from your web site – all you have to do is paste in a code to your web page.
I didn’t get to tell you about the free PDF-making software called CutePDF (cutepdf.com) or the Bullfighter plugin for Microsoft Word (fightthebull.com/bullfighter.asp) that checks your documents for awkward or clichéd business language, but we’ll save those for another column. Of course, there are many more free or inexpensive hosted solutions out there, so tell us which ones you’ve had good – or bad – experiences with.