The online world continues to change dramatically and small and medium-sized businesses are primed to take advantage of what’s available.
The real benefits of utilising online applications and platforms for your business come in the form of lower IT and infrastructure costs, lower support costs and being able to connect and sell to your customers whenever, wherever. In this article I’ll cover the types of online applications that are helping small business and the online tools that can help your business get to the people that want what you sell.
Get into the cloud
If you have a computer with a reliable internet connection you’re ready to take advantage of cloud applications. Put simply, cloud applications are not downloaded or installed on your computer, rather they are provided and managed remotely, and are accessed over the internet. Plus they can often easily integrate with other online or locally saved applications,
Imagine if your business could reduce software and server costs, and provide online access to staff that would help them get out of the office more? Online or cloud applications can significantly reduce costs to your business and/or give you access to technology that previously seemed too expensive. Many online applications are paid for on a subscription basis, so you pay for it while you need it and stop paying for it when you don’t. This also makes the cost easy to account for.
A good case in point is QuickBooks Hosted. This is a fully featured accounting program with inventory and payroll management functionality available online for $29 a month after the first year. A similar product bought outright may cost over $1,000 and require installation.
Free web-based email services, online word processors, website hosting, phone call software and data storage services are some of the key applications that businesses are finding useful. In the last year, natural disasters in Australia have highlighted how advantageous online systems can be. Backing up files online is certainly a good way of ensuring your business is better placed to recover following a disaster.
Many business owners find the reasons for using online applications compelling but they are still concerned about security. Understandably you may feel like you’re putting your business in someone else’s hands. Data centres are required to offer a secure environment and the security measures can be far better than what you can offer in your own office. However, I do urge you to check how regularly data is backed up, if it is backed up offsite, where data is held and if you can keep local copies of critical data for added peace of mind. Companies that are offering cloud services should be giving you access to servers designed for that purpose, they should be regularly backed up, updated and serviced.
The medium is the message
It’s well known in 2011 that there are millions of people browsing the internet at any time of the day and making purchases. Tools for reaching and understanding the needs of potential customers are more affordable than ever, and in many cases they are free.
Website design and hosting, email marketing tools and survey applications are giving small business access to sophisticated programs that once seemed out of reach. Being able to undertake market research can be incredibly valuable to your business and help you understand the best way to reach customers. A simple internet search will show you there are numerous survey tools available that are self-service, making it easy to create questionnaires and analyse results.
It’s been well known for a number of years now that you no longer need to understand HTML code or hire a designer to create a website. User friendly, inexpensive website tools that make creating and operating a website fairly easy are readily available. Plus, you can easily build shopping cart software into your site.
Many small businesses still choose not to have a website. Local business listings, social media sites, shopping platforms, forums and email platforms are some of the other online channels that are helping businesses get known. However it is important to understand what the audiences for each of these platforms expect. For example email communication is one-to-one whilst communicating on a forum is one too many.
Some businesses are choosing to use Facebook as a substitute for a website. Facebook has become an incredibly rich resource for reaching customers directly and the social platform gives a business the opportunity to speak directly to customers, upload photos, upload videos and even sell product. With simple Facebook applications like Vendio or Payvment you can have an online store operating in a few minutes. There are a number of applications like these available and an internet search will help you find out how they work.
E-shopping has undergone incredible changes and growth in the last decade and today the smallest of businesses can easily sell products online making them available to customers 24 hours a day. Ebay is good example of how the ability to sell products online is now accessible to the smallest of sellers. Having products for sale online is particularly useful for niche businesses that have products that may be attractive to customers all over the world.
It is now incredibly easy to add multimedia into your messages. With a simple video camera you can film a two-minute demonstration of your product in use, upload the video onto YouTube and post it across a number of social media platforms so that customers can get a better sense for how your product works. Photos are even easier to take and include on websites and social media pages. Now that internet plans are becoming more affordable customers are readily accessing video content online.
Online applications are driving business mobility and flexibility
We have seen that the desire for flexibility and mobility have driven many of the innovations in technology. Mobile phones now offer far more than the ability to take phone calls. The latest mobile phones are handheld computers that happen to have telephone functionality. Staff in any size business can now have anytime, anywhere access to online applications.
Smartphone and e-reader technology is continually improving and plans are becoming more affordable. It is now possible to make phone calls, access your email, complete your bookkeeping and post videos on You Tube from a hand-held device.
Taking advantage of technology trends
In 2011 your business can take advantage of knowing what other businesses are doing. This is particularly easy to track through mainstream and social media. Sometimes it is worth watching competitors and big businesses to see what trends are working before jumping in.
While it is not always imperative for your business to be first, it is fair to say websites, eCommerce, online marketing, smartphones and business management software have already proven to help businesses succeed and are worth considering.
There are lot of opportunities available online that could not only help your business achieve greater efficiency and more customers, but demonstrate to clients that the business is a professional, contemporary operation they can rely on.