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tools of the trade

digital toolkit for the small business

Digital Engagement

“It’s no longer the big beating the small, but the fast beating the slow.” — Eric Pearson, CIO, International Hotel Group (IHG)

The 2018 Connected Small Businesses in the US study, conducted by Deloitte and commissioned by Google, surveyed more than 2,000 small businesses (those with fewer than 250 employees) and found that there were huge gains associated with adopting digital tools, but despite the benefits, 80% of these small businesses were not taking full advantage of the digital technology available to them. The infographic below summarizes the statistical distribution of the digital engagement of small businesses.

Relative to digital engagement, businesses essentially split into four categories, following a normal distribution  – basic (20%), intermediate (30%), high (30%), and advanced (20%). Unfortunately, as the study pointed out, the bottom 50% had limited to no digital engagement when compared with the top 50%, which utilized a multitude of tools to benefit their businesses. Even more surprising at this stage, the bottom 20% (basics) were still just using an email account…no website, no social media presence, no digital or email advertising.

While surprising that many small and mid-sized businesses are not taking advantage of even some basic tools, it presents an opportunity for these businesses to experience real gains once they are knowledgeable of the relevance and benefits of these tools.

The following showcases important digital tools that small businesses may consider as part of their digital toolkit, many of which offer a free option.

Communicate

For businesses who are just getting started with digital tools, you’ll want to start here first.

Professional Website

Every business needs a website. It’s the digital space you can send existing or prospective customers to learn more about your business, products and services. According to a 2/3/20 Forbes post, “Why Every Business Needs A Website,” the benefits of a website are to –

  • Establish your credibility as a legitimate business that consumers or other businesses want to do business with.
  • Enhance your branding by providing a professional space to showcase your business.
  • Capture those all-important leads that have found your website and are interested in knowing more about your products and services.
  • Save time and customer service resources by including informative content and frequently asked questions (FAQs).
  • Provide updates and announcements to prospective and existing customers.
  • Leverage your digital marketing efforts by sending prospects to a web page that can collect valuable contact information.

There’s no excuse for not having a business website these days, and a Facebook page is not a suitable alternative. There are options for every budget including do-it-yourself websites, one-page micro-sites, or professionally designed multi-page websites with easy-to-use software that most businesses can maintain themselves. For more on getting started with a website, check out Starting With the Basics – Part 1.

My website go-to platform is WordPress.  Around since 2003, WordPress started out as blogging software, then expanded into a full-fledged website platform. The magic of WordPress is its plugins which will make your website “dance” with  features and functionality that in the early days you needed to hire a programmer to code. It’s a free platform that any reputable hosting service offers. It is a very popular platform and according to the WordPress website, “43% of the web is built on WordPress. More bloggers, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies use WordPress than all other options combined.” A free option is available – just create an account.

Email Marketing

Email marketing remains a powerful marketing tool, with a return on investment of $42 to every $1 spent, according to Litmus in “The ROI of Email Marketing.” Email marketing software is more than just a way to send and track emails. It allows you to segment and target lists, automate when you want to send the emails, conduct A/B testing to optimize your marketing message, and more, turning this digital tool into a very powerful solution to grow your business.

My email marketing go-to is Mailchimp. Founded in 2001, Mailchimp was designed as an alternative to the oversized, expensive email software of the early 2000s. At this time, it is the largest email service provider, is now owned by Intuit, and still provides a free option for small businesses to get started.

Social Media Marketing

Social media is the new network that attracts all demographics and many might say a marketing dream come true. It offers free access to a huge audience of prospective customers. It’s probably safe to say that most marketing professionals are likely using social media extensively.

Many small and medium businesses (SMBs) mistakenly think that social media is only for businesses with huge marketing budgets. Not so. In fact, social media platforms are a great opportunity for small brands to grow within a close-knit community. For more information on the benefits of social media channels, check out Starting With the Basics – Part 2.1 and a rundown of common social media channels that businesses use for marketing.

For a look at additional communication digital tools, check out Wired for Work digital arsenal.

Coordinate & Collaborate

After adding a website and email marketing to your digital toolbox, it’s now time to explore coordination and collaboration software. These tools will increase productivity and help keep you and your teams on track.

Productivity Suites

This represents a collection of cloud computing, productivity, workflow and collaboration tools. Originally referred to as office suites,  these applications included word processing, spreadsheet, email, calendar and presentation software on your computer or mobile device. The two most popular suites are Google Workspace (formerly G-Suite) and Microsoft 365, and now include much more functionality such as team meetings, messaging and chatting, video and audio conferencing, and more.

The decision of which productivity suite to choose is a choice based on familiarity, preference, the organization’s needs, and/or budget. Both platforms are subscription-based.

A comprehensive comparison between Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 can be found on ZDnet.com.

Project Management

Project management software is a set of tools designed to help teams plan, track and manage projects and allows members within the teams to collaborate. There are many good project management tools available and the right choice for you depends on your needs. Zapier (rhymes with happier), the automation experts, waded through more than 75 project management software solutions to find the tools that were best suited for small businesses. Their “best of the best” can be found here. Please note: no affiliate commissions were associated with this assessment.

On Zapier’s list is Trello, which I like because of its ease-of-use and for visually managing projects. Trello has a free option for small teams. I also like Trello because it integrates with the OKR (objectives and key results) tracking software, OKRstudio, which also has a free option. More information on OKRs, a popular goal-setting and performance management methodology, can be found by clicking here.

For more information on coordination and collaboration tool, check out the Wired for Work digital arsenal.

Automate

Many businesses who are more digitally engaged are looking to further increase productivity and efficiencies using digital automation tools. These are the tools that handle the boring busy work, freeing up business resources to focus on what’s important (e.g., impactful customer experiences). Following, you’ll find some of best automation tools for businesses.

Workflow Automation

Described as “easy automation for busy people,” Zapier offers a way to connect apps and automate workflows. Their goal is to help users build their own personalized, code-less workflow automations that integrate the many different web and mobile apps we use every day, using connectors, or Zaps.

When you get started with Zapier, you usually have one specific task that you are trying to accomplish. For instance, it could be  copying information from one app to another, such as adding new customers to a central database and an email marketing system. Or it could be all those little details that follow an online sale, including a confirmation email, an alert to the shipping department, a sales record to your accounting software, etc.

Zapier currently connects more than 3,000 apps and provides some ready-made Zaps for workflows between popular apps. Zapier offers a free plan that you can upgrade once you become familiar with their tool.

Social Media Automation

Once you’ve developed your social media marketing plan and have posted to the channels that are best for your business, it’s now time to explore social media automation. Social media automation involves using tools to enhance your social media presence through content curation and advance scheduling. These tools allow you to free up your time spent creating one-off posts so you can spend more time engaging with your audience and growing your followers.

According to Zapier, the best social media automation tools are Buffer for straightforward social media scheduling; Hootsuite for all-in-one social media scheduling, monitoring, and analytics; MeetEdgar for automating your social media posts; SocialPilot for small teams; and Sendible for an affordable option with all the features. As with most digital tools, there’s no one best social media automation tool—just the one that’s best for your needs. Many have free trials that you can check out to decide which option is best for you.

Marketing Automation

What if you could automate the mundane, repetitive tasks that are a necessary part of a successful marketing campaign? With marketing automation software, you can.  It’s taking the routine work and putting it on autopilot. You’re still in control, but a lot of the behind-the-scenes details run by themselves. With marketing automation software, you can save lots of time and effort while making your campaigns run better.

ActiveCampaign describes itself as customer experience automation solution. It’s actually a three-in-one tool including email marketing, digital marketing automation and small business CRM. Using ActiveCampaign’s visual automation editor, you can map out what’s going on in your automation. ActiveCampaign has comprehensive training and support as well as a free trial to test it out.

HubSpot has long made its reputation in marketing. It provides automation marketing software designed for inbound marketing, including content management, search engine optimization and other tools similar to the ActiveCampaign offerings. Founded by two fellow graduate students at MIT in 2004, their goal was to make marketing more personal for businesses to attract more customers. You can see a side-by-side comparison by G2 of ActiveCampaign vs. HubSpot Marketing Hub.

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to digital tools. This goes for digital automation tools, too. The best automation product will be what’s best for your business and its specific needs.

For more information on other digital automation tools, check out the Wired for Work digital arsenal.

Unique Software Solutions

Unique software delivers unique solutions. This includes CRM (customer relationship management) platforms, eCommerce solutions, finance and accounting software, LMS (learning management systems), among others. There are many choices for each. Let’s explore some of the latest popular tools.

CRM Software

Organizations utilize CRM platforms as a way to store and manage customer data, which can then be studied for further insight, used to automate marketing and sales processes as well as forecast future sales and more.

Popular platforms include Salesforce and its Salesforce Essentials for small business. ActiveCampaign is a customer experience platform that also includes a CRM platfrom, designed for small businesses.

Forbes rates some some other popular small business CRMs here. Please note, they describe the companies as partners, which may also mean they receive affiliate compensation. In the end, there are many choices of CRM platforms, each developed to help businesses achieve different goals and objectives.

eCommerce Platforms

The pandemic significantly accelerated the growth of online shopping, according to an Adobe Covid-19 Impact report. According to the report, COVID-19 gave eCommerce an extra boost, as consumers fled online to meet their daily needs. The “boost” covered the period from March 2020 to February 2021, where a total of $844 billion was spent online. In the 2020 calendar year alone, $813 billion was spent online, which was 42 percent more than in 2019, and it’s not slowing down. In fact, 2022 is expected to be the first trillion-dollar year for eCommerce and motivating small businesses who are not already selling online to set up their virtual shops.

Shopify is one of the most popular eCommerce platforms in the world. Part of its popularity is that you can create an online store quickly and easily, no programming expertise needed, and provides many ready-made templates for styling the “look and feel” of your store. These templates can also be edited and customized to your own branding. Shopify claims that “millions of the world’s most successful brands trust them to sell, ship and process payments anywhere.”

WooCommerce is another popular eCommerce tool and is also very flexible when it comes to customizations. It differs from Shopify in that Shopify is an all-in-one eCommerce solution while WooCommerce is an eCommerce plugin built for WordPress.

Shopify and WooCommerce are the two top eCommerce solutions. If you are looking for the most cost-effective solution and want  full control of your online store, then WooCommerce may be the best platform for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a  completely hassle-free solution that has limitless scalability, then Shopify is likely the better choice. I like Shopify because I don’t need to update the software whenever updates are made. It’s automatically done online. You can find G2’s side-by-side comparison of Shopify vs. WooCommerce here.

For more information on other digital tools, check out the Wired for Work digital arsenal.

Digital & Online Tools Infographic

Digital and Online tools

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