The Coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a new evolution of the digital age, forcing more day-to-day operations online. Businesses and consumers alike are more reliant than ever on electronics, the internet, and the software that comes with them. If your business is already using these innovations, you’re a step ahead of the pack. If your business isn’t already integrated online, you may be trailing behind. Here are some free and cost-effective tools you can use to kickstart your digital presence!
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Why You Need to Market Your Business Online Now
Even if we ignore the current global crisis (which we certainly shouldn’t), 2020 is the year in which all businesses should be looking to get online. While online sales have been increasing every year in recent memory, they are forecasted to increase even more significantly in the next 3-5 years.
It has never been easier to get a website, an app, a handful of social media accounts, and everything else you need. It’s easy to get these things because they’ve already been in high demand for years, and that demand is still growing.
Who These Tools Are For
These tools are ideal for any individual or business that is looking to make money online. Whether you have products or services to sell, whether you’re a store or an artist or a gym or a therapist, these tools will be ideal for bringing your presence to the internet and generating dollars digitally. You might be surprised it how easy it is to take your expertise and monetize it when you put these (mostly free) tools together!
Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that you immediately start using all of these tools. Check out the ones that sound like they’d be best for you, compare their features, and make the right choice based on what you learn.
Tools To Digitize Your Business
Here are some of the best tools for bringing a business online, along with brief descriptions of how to use them.
Google Docs, Drive, and Associated Tools
A free Google account comes with much more than just a reliable email address these days. You also get 15 gigabytes of storage space and access to a powerful suite of cloud software which makes working as a team online easy. Here are just a few of the applications available for free with a Google account:
- Google Drive: Cloud storage for safekeeping and easy sharing of files and folders. It is fully integrated with the other apps on this list.
- Google Docs: Powerful word processing software that includes a proofreading/suggestion mode, group editing and notating for documents, voice typing, and many third party integrations.
- Google Calendar: A full featured calendar app that integrates with many third party platforms.
- Google Sheets: A spreadsheet solution that can be custom coded – also integrates with many third party softwares to act as a database.
- Google Slides: Presentation software which can also be used for designing PDFs and images.
- Google Forms: Perfect for surveys and accepting form submissions with or without a website. Directly integrated with Google Sheets for filing submissions.
With all this (and much more) available for free, having a Google account is a logical first step for anyone looking to build a business online. If you’re a local business you’ll also want to set up a Google My Business page, which is similar to a social media platform where you can post information and updates about your company.
HubSpot is an incredible tool because of its overall powers and what it offers free of charge. The free software suite includes contact management, email marketing, chatbots and livechat, ticket support, and much, much more. This may seem overwhelming, but you only have to use the features that you need.
When you sign up for Hubspot you also get access to a growing library of free online courses. These are designed to teach you how to market your business in general and specifically using their tools. I’ve been through some of their content marketing courses and got a lot of value from them, so I recommend HubSpot as a great starting place for a business that’s moving online or starting out online.
The downside of HubSpot is that most or all of their free tools include their branding, so you’re giving them advertising space whenever you use their software. HubSpot’s rates are also fairly steep when you feel ready to graduate from the free suite, although they’re worth the price.
Even if you don’t end up using their software, HubSpot’s free courses and blog are great resources for your education when it comes to online business.
Mailchimp provides many of the same services as HubSpot, though not as thoroughly. True to their name, Mailchimp started out as an email marketing platform and expanded to provide a suite of related services.
One of Mailchimp’s best features is the fact that they include landing pages with their free plan. That means you don’t need a website at first – you can create a Mailchimp landing page and send your subscribers there to sign up. It’s not as good as a custom website, but Mailchimp also integrates easily with most website builders and content management systems.
Mailchimp’s multiple lower-priced options scale with increased contacts and are designed for growing businesses. If you look at HubSpot and feel like it has everything you need, I would recommend starting there. However if the number of resources on HubSpot overwhelmed you, I think Mailchimp is the easier alternative for getting started.
Whichever one you start with, there’s no reason you can’t eventually use both if necessary, or switch from one to the other. Both of these systems make it easy to export your contact lists and other data.
Trello is a cloud based list building software, and it’s flexibility makes it useful for managing almost any type of project. You can create boards that are public or private, invite other users, assign people to cards (tasks), add due dates and labels, and that’s only SOME of the features of the free version.
One popular use for Trello is creating public roadmaps for companies or products, because in addition to everything else viewers can upvote cards that they’d like to see pushed into production. Whether you’re using it for blogging, social media, team management, or something else, Trello is sure to help keep you organized and on task.
Clickup is branded as “one app to replace them all,” although it’s core functionality is quite similar to Trello and it has many of the same powers and integrations. Another similarity between these two cloud-based tools is that they have powerful free plans which will be suitable for the early stages of most small businesses.
Although I haven’t used Clickup quite as much as Trello, my general impression is that it has more functionality but is a little harder to master. I recommend taking a look at both of these great applications and reading through their full features as well as their premium plans, to develop a full idea of which is best for you.
Skype is a Microsoft-owned leader when it comes to VOIP (voice over internet protocol) and video calling. With a free Skype account you can communicate with your contacts individually or in groups, via text, voice, video, or any combination of the three. You can also record your conversations and download them using Skype’s native tools, which is a fairly recent and welcome addition.
With a premium Skype account you can get an internet-based phone number that enables you to receive calls on any Skype-able device. This can be integrated with third-party voicemail providers in order to provide the same functionality as a local landline. You can also call out to almost anywhere around the world at very reasonable rates with a paid Skype plan.
Slack and Skype are often compared, but the truth is Skype is much more of a messaging/calling app whereas Slack is more geared towards teamwork and collaboration. Skype is fine for small groups working together, but if you have a team of five or more people Skype can get busy. That’s where a tool like Slack can be so crucial.
In the free version of Slack you get most of the important functionality, although there are some limitations on message history storage and number of total integrations. However like most of the tools on this list, the free version of Slack is probably adequate for many small businesses as they get started.
With Slack you can create workspaces and assign people to them individually or in groups. You can send public messages in groups or private messages, and as an administrator you can control some of these options for your users. Slack also supports one-on-one video and voice calling, although for larger group calls you will need a premium plan. Because of this, for most small business I recommend starting with Skype and moving to using Slack (or both) when it makes sense for your company.
Hootsuite is a cloud-based platform for managing your social media accounts from a single dashboard. Many business owners find it daunting to post to three or more platforms every time they have a message to spread to their followers. Hootsuite makes this process simple and painless, and comes with a bundle of training and additional features to help you succeed in your social media marketing.
With a free-tier Hootsuite plan you only get singular access to your account, but it comes with three social media integrations and thirty scheduled posts. That’s enough for most small businesses to schedule a post a day for a month, and if you’re just getting started online it’s probably wise not to have more than three social media accounts anyways.
If you decide you want to upgrade and integrate more accounts, the first premium plan is reasonable, however in order to add team members to your account you’ll need to pay over $100/month. Because of this I recommend starting with a free Hootsuite account and then switching to a service like Socialbee when you’re in need of a premium plan.
WordPress and WooCommerce
WordPress is the most popular blogging and website building solution in the world, and WooCommerce is its eCommerce integration. Both are open-source software, meaning they are completely free to use despite being created, updated, and maintained by experts but are. Don’t get too excited though; in order to create a self-hosted WordPress website you’ll need to buy a hosting package.
Here’s a guide to some of the best web hosting companies in the world. While there are many good options out there, few of them are as reputable and experienced as those outlined in that article.
It may also be in your best interest to purchase a premium WordPress theme and or plugins. I personally use and recommend Divi, one of the most popular themes in the world. It is a powerful drag-and-drop builder. You can try a demo of Divi for free on the Elegant Themes website, but in order to use it on your own sites.
A free alternative to Divi which is quite popular is using the free version of a theme called Astra paired with the free version of a page builder plugin called Elementor. Like Divi, Elementor makes it easy to drag-and-drop elements wherever you need them quickly.
To get started learning WordPress, I recommend going to YouTube or Udemy and watching a few beginner tutorials, or even a full course if you have time. There are a lot of intricacies to running a WordPress website which many users overlook, so you may want to outsource your website/blog building to an expert if you have trouble learning software.
Shopfiy is the next most popular eCommerce platform after WooCommerce, and while it’s more expensive it’s also easier to master. If you don’t have an eye for design you may want to outsource that aspect, but working with the Shopify platform is simple.
Like WordPress, Shopify websites can integrate with many third party applications including HubSpot and Mailchimp. Also like WordPress, there’s a ton of free and paid training available online that will help you get your website up and running.
If you have the budget and you know you want to sell products online but you’re not especially tech savvy, I recommend using Shopify. However if you’re budget conscious or you just want a simple website or blog that doesn’t need to sell things, WordPress is the more powerful and cost efficient option.
Paypal is in the business of making it as easy as possible to send and receive money online. Paypal is free to access but takes a percentage of most transactions made through its services. While there may be better options for collecting payments from local clients, when it comes to selling products or services at scale or billing international clients, Paypal just makes things simple.
Paypal has two tiers, personal and business. A personal Paypal account is great for shopping online and for exchanging money between family and friends. With a business account you can actually bill clients directly within the platform, or just send them your special payment link along with an invoice of your own.
Although it’s far from flawless, a Paypal account is necessary for most freelancers or businesses to get started online. It’s fairly ubiquitous in the world of online business, so I recommend signing up if you haven’t already.
Stripe is the next most popular payment processing platform after Paypal, and while they make money the same way (by taking a percentage of transactions), there are some subtle differences between the two providers. Medium.com uses Stripe to pay its writers, and Stripe makes integrating direct credit card payments into websites easier than most other platforms.
Stripe is becoming a standard method of online payment and billing for more and more websites and businesses, so having an account makes a lot of sense. I recommend getting both a Paypal and Stripe account so you can get paid no matter what. Once you learn more about both platforms and build your business you may decide to commit to one or the other, but many online stores and service providers offer both.
QuickBooks by Intuit is a bookkeeping solution which recently added a cloud-based model, making it much easier to access and use for many business owners. With QuickBooks you can invoice and accept payments, track income and expenses, create reports and estimates, and more – and that’s just with the startup version. There are free alternatives to QuickBooks out there such as Wave Apps but with all the functionality QuickBooks brings to the table it will probably help you save at least as much as you spend on it.
If you’re worrying about how you’re going to remember unique, strong passwords for all these different accounts, LastPass will come to your rescue. Lastpass is a password management software. It gives you access to all of your online accounts through a single passphrase by encrypting and saving your other passwords via a browser extension.
Lastpass has a free version and multiple premium tiers for both personal and business use. The free version actually provides most of the functions you need as an individual, but if you upgrade to premium you get extra features such as one-to-many sharing and emergency access.
Putting Them All Together
You might be wondering why I decided to include so many tools in this list, and why some of them provide similar functions to each other. It’s simple – I wanted to give you options to explore, and I wanted to provide everything (or at least almost everything) that you’ll need to get started.
Here’s an example of how you can use all of these tools together:
- You can set up Lastpass so that it will memorize all of your other passwords for you as you create the accounts.
- You can talk to your team members on Slack or Skype and plan the launch of a website, blog, or eCommerce store.
- You can develop the plan for the website in Trello or Clickup, assigning tasks to team members and tracking your progress.
- You can draft your website content and make more detailed plans using Google Docs and other Google apps.
- You can build your site using WordPress or Shopify.
- You can share your website’s content on social media using Hootsuite or Socialbee.
- You can collect visitors’ contact information using Mailchimp or HubSpot so you can remarket to them.
- You can collect payments from clients and customers using Paypal or Stripe.
- You can keep track of your financials using QuickBooks.
As you see, there’s a lot to work with here. Remember, you don’t need to use all or even most of these. Depending on the specific needs of your business, you may opt to only use one or two of these tools at first, but all of them over the course of a couple years. My best recommendation is to investigate those that seem most beneficial to you, and experiment with the free versions of those that you deem necessary.
Are there any tools or categories of tools you feel are missing from this list? Let me know with a comment!