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A lot of guides and articles aimed at small businesses often suggest getting tools that are simply too expensive. Startups and small companies often don’t have the means to shell out a couple of hundreds of dollars for an enterprise-grade solution. Even if it is the best thing in the universe, most small businesses will need a less-costly alternative and will often look to free tools.
Thankfully, there are good alternatives and that won’t cost you a dime and will allow you to get basic operations going. In this post, I will show you some of the free tools and methods you could use to get your website, marketing, SEO and customer service going.
What’s the best part about these free tools? They are so dependable that, you can continue using them long after you can afford getting a paid solution.
Let’s get started!
The entire Google Drive suite
Google offers a fairly powerful set of apps that can be a great alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. It includes a word editing app called Google Docs, a spreadsheet app called Google Sheets and a presentation app called Google Slides.
Apart from these three main apps, you also get surveying tool called Google Forms, which can be pretty useful when it comes to gathering customer feedback. On top of the core Google’s apps, there’s also a marketplace that includes even more options.
What’s most important about all the apps is that they are all cloud-based. You can access them from anywhere and it’s really easy to have several people working with the same document.
The collaboration aspect of the Google Drive suite makes it really good for small teams and businesses. We use it often ourselves for this very reason. For example, we can easily share a draft of a guest post with someone to get feedback. And since you get a hefty amount of cloud space for your documents, you will be able to use it for free for years to come.
Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides and the rest of the Google Drive suite
A set of tools useful in every small business and team. Based in the cloud. Allow for really easy collaboration. Space shared with your inbox, so virtually free forever.
Taking care of your SEO
When it comes to Google, the word editing and spreadsheet apps are not the things they offer for free. They will also help you optimize your content so that you can rank higher in Google searches. Currently, Google offers three tools that will help you take care of your SEO: Google Analytics, Google Search Console and Google AdWords Keyword Planner.
Google Analytics is your bread and butter web analytics tool. By adding the Analytics tracking code to your entire website, you will be able to see who is looking at your page, where these visitors came from, how long they stayed on your website and what path they took. This is a very brief summarization of what Google Analytics can do. We could talk for hours about all the features and small details you could spot using the tool. Google Analytics will allow you to gradually learn more and more about your audience and about your website’s effectiveness using. A must-have for any web-based business.
Google Search Console is the tool that will directly allow you to improve your search rankings. It will let you know what you can improve on a page to make it rank higher in Google. It will also allow you to change the way the search results for your pages look like. For example, you can have it display links to your social media profiles whenever your pages come up or show your opening hours. Finally, it will allow you to submit new content for Google robots to crawl immediately. Normally, you’d have to wait a day or two for the robots to crawl the new page. By using the Google Search Console, you can speed up the entire process and have certain pages appear in (or disappear from) search results right away.
The next tool, the Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool is normally used to find good keywords for CPC campaigns. Since we don’t want to spend a dime at this point, we can use the same tool to find good keywords. Why would you want to get the keywords? Once you start ranking up for popular keywords related to your industry, you’d be able to catch the so-called long tail clients. These are people who reach your website thanks to content that has been optimized for a specific keyword. For example, a bait shop might want to start ranking for “fly fishing” because people making searches like that are potential customers.
One bonus tool from Google that you can also use in combination with Google Analytics is Google URL builder. It allows you to tag the links you place outside your page to get a better understanding who comes to your website and from what sources. For example, when you add a discount link on your social media and in your newsletter, you can check which source has better results by tagging these two links.
Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Google Adwords Keywords Research Tool, Google URL builder
Take care of your SEO. For all intents and purposes, these tools are free (you won’t need the premium version of GA for a long time). See who comes to your website, how they convert and make sure that you rank for the right keywords in Google searches.
Free creative assets
When it comes to ranking for specific keywords, you will need content for that. Content will allow you to generate traffic to your website without having to spend cash on ads or leads. And what every good piece of content needs? Captivating graphics.
If you’re not a graphic designer yourself, or you don’t want to spend thousands on tools or outsourcing your graphics, you will need a source of free graphics that will make your content visually pleasing.
There are plenty of sites that collect and organize visual assets that you can use either for free or on a Creative Commons license. The CC license allows you to share graphics if you add an attribution and let others know what license what use. So by adding a line like this: “Photo courtesy of Mike via Creative Commons,” you get all the rights to use the photo.
Flickr is a service that let’s you quickly get hold of cool photos with the CC license. Simply filter the search results to show only the CC photos and enter the desired search terms. Using this method, you can easily get media resources for your blog posts, ebooks, website’s background and more.
Below, you can find a couple of additional pages that give you access to free (or CC) media assets.
New Old Stock
Free media assets for your content. They are either completely free or you simply need to attribute the author.
Using Slack for team communication
Slack can be your biggest internal communication channel right after email. It's one of the free tools that gives you the chance to take care of more trivial matters right away instead of clogging the your teammates’ inbox.
We had a huge problem with the number of emails we started getting. At some point, you’d have to spend an hour or two just on reading and replying to emails. As your company will grow, you will face a similar problem.
To deal with that, we decided to use an instant messaging app for teams to boost our business communication. The aim was to decrease the number of emails and handle more cases right away. The results turned out to be pretty good. We started spending less time on managing our inbox and more time on finishing our tasks.
You should watch out not to go overboard with your Slack use. You don’t want to simply exchange the time you spend in your inbox to time you spend on Slack. The goal here is more efficient communication and not simply different communication
Instant messaging tool for teams. There’s a free plan that only limits the number of archived messages. Use it to speed up your communication and get more productive time.
Using Gmail for customer service
If you’re just starting out your customer service, the cheapest and tool you can get is a simple Gmail account. You can simply hook it up to your own domain and name it along the lines of “email@example.com.” Add the address to your contact page, and you will start you first support channel: customer service email address.
By using the built-in tags, categories and folders, you will be able to fairly efficiently organize your ongoing and past cases and generally stay on top of things. You can even share the account between several people to handle more cases at a time. If you do, make sure to let each other know who’s taking care of which case (for example, over Slack), so there’s no double communication with customers.
Google gives you a lot of free space for the email account. If you’re not planning to share some big files, you will be able to use it for free for a long time.
A free Gmail account can be your first customer service channel. The amount of space you get without paying will last for a long time. Make sure you hook it up to your domain so your customers don’t have to wonder if they are contacting the real support or not.
Setting up a knowledge base
An alternative and also cheap way of offering customer service is preparing self-service materials for your customers. These are guides, walkthroughs and tutorials you can share on your website. This is possibly the most efficient way of doing customer service as one material can help hundreds, if not thousands of customers at a time.
As a rule of thumb, you want to create guides for the most common problems first. The more readers can use a guide, the better the time you’ve spent writing it was used. Make sure to use the same style and structure when writing too. It will make understanding other materials easier for your customers after they’ve see one.
If you would like to learn a lot more about building your knowledge base, check out our Complete Guide to Self-service Materials. It will teach you how to set up a knowledge base from scratch, how to create self-service videos and how to make a smooth transition from self-service to customer service.
You can either start hosting it on your own website or use Google Docs to create a set of articles for your customers. If you decide to use Google Docs, make sure that you set the sharing privileges to view only as you don’t want for anyone to vandalize it.
Very efficient form of customer service. A collection of tutorials and helpful articles. It will allow you to save a ton of time on explaining the same problems over and over.
Exchanging files over Dropbox
This one is extremely useful for creative teams or any kind of remote work. Dropbox allows you to share files for free. As simple as that.
The starting 2GB of space should be enough for a while if you get rid of the files you no longer need. You can also get more space by sharing your affiliate link. Whenever someone signs up using your link, you will get an extra 500MB of space every time someone signs up using your link.
If you’re patient enough, there’s actually a lot of other ways to get more Dropbox space. Some of them are relatively simple, like connecting your Facebook account for an extra 125MB of space. Other methods take a bit more time and effort but also provide a lot more free space.
Easy cloud storage. Useful for remote work and creative teams. You get 2GB for free when you start. You can also get a lot more space by completing various tasks.
Kickstarting your email marketing
You’d think that you need to invest a lot to get your email marketing going. However, there are services that can get you started for free with relatively little limitations.
For example, Mailchimp offers a free plan that will allow you to send out quite a few emails. The plan allows you to send 12,000 emails each month to 2,000 subscribers. When you reach the point where this is not enough, you will probably be able to afford a paid plan anyway.
And why would you need email marketing in the first place? It allows you to stay in touch with your customers and potential customers. You can use targeted email campaign to convert leads into buyers and sell more to existing customers.
Good way to start your email marketing. Send up to 12,000 emails each month for free.
Social media monitoring and scheduling
Using social media is already a pretty free way of getting extra reach, coverage and sales. You can make it even more cost-effective by speeding up your social monitoring and posting. You can do that using apps like Buffer or Tweetdeck. They will allow you to schedule several posts in advance, which should considerably speed up the amount of time you need to spend on social media.
When it comes to monitoring your channels, Tweetdeck gives you the ability to look up several feeds at the same time. So for example, you can check your mentions, several hashtags and see what an influencer from your industry wrote. Everything on one screen.
Tweetdeck is completely free. Buffer offers a free plan that will allow you to schedule posts on one profile per social media.
Social media scheduling and monitoring for free. Tweetdeck is completely free while Buffer’s free plan limits the number of social media profiles you can use it with.
When you should abandon free tools
You will reach a point when the free versions of tools really no longer cut it. And it will probably happen sooner rather than later. You will either need to use the tool on a bigger scale or you will need to start using the more advanced features. This is a good signal that you should go for the paid version of an tool.
Using the free version gives you the ability to learn a product thoroughly. You will get a good feel for it, even if you don’t have access to all the features. This will provide a great basis for your decision to upgrade to a paid version or look for something else.
Using the free versions will only get you so far. Even though email is great at first at both internal and external communication, you will soon need something more powerful and design with customer-service in mind. In the same vein, offering self-service is awesome as long a there is a real-time communication option available too.
When that moment comes, take a good look at the current state of your business and ask yourself if spending a few extra bucks each month is worth all the extra opportunities you can get in return. Running a business with as little recurring costs as possible is smart but knowing when to switch to a paid solution to get a positive return on your investment is even smarter.
What are your favorite tools that come with a free plan? What tools you can’t live without even though they don’t have a free version? Feel free to share in the comments!