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Simplify your Business with Digital Tools

Online tools and apps make productivity a breeze for employees at all levels and can even make the workplace more appealing to employees. When it comes to HR, automating workflows and tasks not only frees up your precious time, it allows employees to access the information they need to know when they need it. From remote access to a quick workday question, digital employees can navigate quickly to the info they need.

Many of these tools are easy to roll out and don’t require extensive employee training, so you can add them into your routine without slowing down. Apps to consider implementing in your workplace include:

  • Online payroll systems – including online check stubs and direct deposits
  • Time management software – such as PTO request forms or project management software
  • Knowledge management tools – such as such as workplace command structure charts and knowledge banks or FAQs

Productivity Benefits
When employees can access their information in one place, they’re less likely to hunt and peck around the website, wasting time, or to need to ask colleagues how to do something. They know where to go for HR resources, software training and scheduling. Side benefits of adding tech tools include opening up the organization to transparency and removing location-based barriers to cooperation between colleagues on different floors or in different departments.

Working Smarter
Tools help employees work smarter by removing barriers. Collaboration is hindered when you need to call or walk upstairs to get feedback. When you can chat with a coworker or write on an internal forum, you save time. Plus, it lets you pose your question or give an answer even if the person isn’t available at that moment, giving you a kind of asynchronous communication system. If your organization relies on teamwork to push ahead, consider adding collaborative tools so that employees have more ways to engage one another. Digital resources that complement one another are easy to access and promote smarter working.

Increasing Connection
As you add tools that allow workers to access payroll, calendar and time management apps remotely, your employees may feel a closer connection to the workplace. Someone who completes a quick online form then receives immediate confirmation it was received–or, better yet, a personalized email from HR noting their time off request, within 15 minutes of receipt–will feel more cared for than the same employee who submitted a paper request and waited days. That connection allows employees who share a project vision in a digital environment to connect in person.

Innovative Intranets
Intranets should be the communication hub for your business, connecting employees to the spokes at the point of need. Tools that innovate intranets promote business needs while allowing a social component that fosters closeness and collaboration. Intranets should offer organizational structure and knowledge to ground new employees and refresh veterans; they should also be responsively designed to grow with the company, not hold up change.

Complement Existing Communication
These new tools should augment workflow and business communication; they are not meant to replace existing communication options. Maintain a culture of openness by reassuring employees that your door is still open to discuss HR concerns, or holding weekly check-ins. Tech channels just offer other options that may be more convenient.

When incorporating digital tools, ask your most tech-savvy employees for recommendations of what they’d like to see. Making them your biggest ally can help get everyone on board when it comes to using these tools.

Small Business Going Mobile

You probably have a website for your business. It’s a great, low-cost way to market your products and services. You’ve probably also considered the need for a mobile application, too. Look around; it seems like everyone is getting a smartphone. Should you jump in and build an app for your small business? Do you need a mobile presence? Mobile applications can be developed for very little money and users can download them in under a minute so the answer to both questions seems to be affirmative. But what can these little software applications really do for you? Well, that depends.

Why You Should Bother

According to Pew Research, about 35 percent of American adults owned a smartphone as of July 2011. That figure is certainly growing. It represents an opportunity for small-business owners to use technology to their advantage. Gartner Research reports that mobile applications are expected to earn providers $58 billion by 2014. That’s a pretty staggering figure, right? Can you make interacting with your customers a little easier, more convenient or even playful? Consider it if:

  1. Your business offers a service that could be ordered or used by customers on the go.
  2. New customers might be enticed to buy from your business when they interact with your mobile application.
  3. Your customers currently interact with you and each other using social media technology such as wikis, blogs and forums.
  4. You’re willing to try creating a mobile application and dedicate some staff and budget to the effort.
  5. You can envision new ways to make money for your business using a mobile application. For example, if you offer a global product or service, you might be able to find new customers in Asia, where mobile application use has been rapidly adopted.

Getting Started
To get started, check out websites such as Infinite Monkeys or BudgetAppDev. You can create a basic business application with display advertisements with the Infinite Monkeys drag and drop interface for free. It’s easy (and fun) to create your application. Video help provides guidance along the way. By specifying some basic information and uploading a background graphic, you can create an application that reinforces your brand and helps you connect. You get to choose which features and functions you want added, including photo sharing, blog feeds and videos. You can download your custom QR code and put it on your brochures, signs and marketing collateral. Users will be linked your application or the HTML5 version in the event that your customer doesn’t have an Android or iPhone. You can also view usage statistics.

If You Need Inspiration
Check out the BudgetAppDev portfolio for some excellent examples to trigger your creative flair. People love to use their mobile phone to pass the time. Can you develop a dynamite quiz related to your small business that people will play while waiting in an airport or train station? Want to package up training and support tips, tools and resources for your company that your customers can access from any location? How about a restaurant guide for the area surrounding your business as a benefit to visitors?

If any of these ideas appeal to you, you’ve already taken the first step in designing and developing a mobile application to support your small business. Now, take your idea and consult with your customers to find out what they might need.

Most User Friendly Online Shopping Sites

There’s nothing worse than spending hours browsing through an online store, finally finding exactly what you want, then getting bogged down in a poorly designed, convoluted checkout.

Either you have to load about 12 pages just to buy one tiny teeny little thing, or they want you to open an “account” that for some mysterious reason requires you to enter in all of your personal information from birth to the current day, or they require your first born child – just to order a stupid headband, or whatever it is that you’re shopping for.

Bad checkouts can make you want to throw your laptop through the window, jump in the car, and head down to the mall. In fact, 63% of online sales are thwarted during the checkout process — probably because shoppers are so irritated that they just give up.

Luckily, not all online retailers are that bad! Some have even figured out that a smooth, quick and easy to navigate checkout might just, you know, be good customer service or whatever.

If you’re sick of writing your autobiography when you just want to enter in that 20% off promo code, pay with your Paypal account and get it over with already, check out these outstanding e-commerce sites. They’re all known for their user-friendly checkouts and are virtually guaranteed to help you keep on avoiding the mall for as long as is humanly possible.

  1. Amazon
  2. Target
  3. Busted Tees
  4. Loop 18

Amazon is known for its user-friendliness, from browsing to checkout. Users have the option of setting up an account; if they opt in, the process is quick, easy and doesn’t require a notarized copy of your birth certificate. Plus, every time you buy something in the future, your information is accessible in a single keystroke. Amazon literally provides a one-click shopping experience.

Though Target.com requires registration, its easy, non-intrusive registration process stands out. Instead of requiring lots of forms to fill out during the shopping process – otherwise known as annoying barriers to browsing – the Target site doesn’t make you create an account until checkout. Once your account is created, you can just sign in and get to shopping.

It may not be a household name, but Busted Tees – an online retailed of quirky tee shirts and eclectic gifts – has the right idea when it comes to checkout. Consumers can choose to create an account or not. The registration process is quick and easy; once you’re done, you’re linked directly to your Paypal account to simplify the process. Plus, if you sign up for the Busted Tees e-newsletter, they’ll send you a promo code every now and then that deliver significant discounts.

Loop 18 exemplifies one-stop shopping – with a one-stop checkout. This retailer’s site allows shoppers to browse through six stores at once – like Sonsi, Lane Bryant, Cacique and Fashion Bug – and pay at all of them through a single checkout. Plus, there aren’t any surprises when it comes to shipping charges; they’re clearly defined on the home page. And, if you choose to register, you can checkout with a single click.

So don’t despair: Many online retailers are discovering that customers simply want to buy their stuff and get on with their day. In fact, one study showed that a majority of websites are working on increased transparency and ease, an emphasis that should manifest in a greater number of user-friendly, easily navigated and quick checkouts.

 

 

Alternatives in the Cloud: Knowledge is Power

All the cool kids at the water cooler seem to have one phrase on the tip of their tongue: the cloud. Everybody is talking about the cloud. However, thanks to various advances in cloud computing, not everyone is referring to the same thing when they reference the cloud.

Essentially, anytime someone mentions the cloud, they are referencing computing that exists as a service rather than as a product. Instead of a bulky disk that downloads a program onto their computer, cloud computing exists outside of their computer. The resources, software, or information that are provided as part of the cloud exist on a grid or network, which in most cases is the Internet. When companies use the cloud, they can expand their capacity and functions without having to add any extra infrastructure, hire any extra staff or purchase any software. For instance, if a company needs to engineer a large-scale project, they no longer have to waste weeks planning to buy new servers or other equipment. Instead, they can simply sign onto a cloud computing service that offers them this functionality without requiring them to spend piles of cash.

When many people think of cloud computing, they immediately think of the cloud services offered by Amazon or other big names in the industry; unfortunately, a relationship with any of these companies can be costly whereas a relationship with a smaller company may be just as effective or even more effective for less money.

Although most people are referencing the same set of advantages and the same general ideas when they refer to the cloud, there are several different forms of this emerging technology.

Six Types of Cloud Computing

  1. Web-based clouds. With the right web based service, business owners can avoid using expensive applications that may require a lot of space on their computers. Instead, they can perform the same functions from a web-based program. For example, they can use an API for something as ubiquitous as Google Maps, or they can use a mash-up of various programs so that they can perform routine tasks like payroll or payment processing easily and efficiently.
  2. SaaS (Software as a Service). This allows multiple users to access the same web based software from their own browsers.
  3. PaaS (Platform as a Service). This layer of cloud computing allows businesses to run a stack of tailored applications on the cloud’s infrastructure without purchasing the software or servers that would have been necessary to run these applications a few years ago.
  4. Utility cloud services. Instead of employing a host of geeks to add memory here and there, businesses can now safely and easily store heaps of data on the cloud using the cloud’s utility services.
  5. Managed services. Businesses have been using this version of cloud computing since years before the phrase was ever used commonly. In this version, the cloud provider rather than the business employees uses the application. Managed services are commonly used for things like anti-spam services that many business owners find useful to outsource.
  6. Service commerce. A combination of SaaS and Managed Services, service commerce cloud computing gives the end-user access to a number of services from a single application. These applications act like personal assistants, and they can do almost anything for a company from helping them to track their expenses to helping them to organize their payroll.

These six iterations of cloud computing are just fractions of what cloud computing is capable of. As the technology continues to emerge, new ideas will come into play, and the types of cloud services that providers can offer will continue to expand and evolve.

With so many cloud-computing options, more and more business owners are looking to the cloud for their particular needs, and they have many different providers that they can opt to work with. There are companies like Amazon that have massive, sprawling cloud servers for enterprise businesses. For companies and individuals looking for an Amazon alternative, there are many smaller cloud service providers that offer the same services for lower rates.

 

Future of Mobile Social Media

When Apple released the iPhone and effectively changed the entire mobile communications game forever, the price of entry was so high that only super savvy tech fans and the 1 percent could really partake. Now, the landscape looks much different. Increasing numbers of viable competing devices and falling data prices have opened the market to a larger segment of society. Since the debut of the modern smartphone, they have grown into a piece of society in a real way. When a band takes the stage at a show, how many phones do you see come out? Does anyone even look at another person on the train anymore, or are they glued to their 5 inch screens? Smartphones (and tablets) have become an extension of the body, and one of that function’s most important assets is its ability to connect with social media.

Most smartphones are filled with a stable of social media applications. As the hardware that runs those applications change and evolve, so too must those applications. The release of the iPad 3 this past weekend gives a little indication of what’s next for mobile: high definition and faster speeds. Compared to other advancements, though, that’s not very exciting. What we will see in terms of information sharing, cloud storage and mobile interaction in the next few years – all with regard to social media on mobile devices – is set to blow some socks off.

The Future of Social Media

Researchers at Stanford University envision a world where users can share data between two smartphones, as well as between a smartphone and a computer, with a single action.  Still confused?  Watch this video: Inventing an open-source mobile social media future at Stanford .

From the Stanford website:

They have formed MobiSocial to ask the most fundamental questions about this rapidly burgeoning field, questions that seem obvious now that mobile and social media are firmly entrenched, but which weren’t so obvious as the technologies were entrenching themselves: Can social be done better? Can it be even more social and more fun? Can it be more open? Can it be more secure? And, if so, how?

The idea is to find a way to synthesize the best parts of mobile and social, then streamline them so that switching between apps and connecting with multifarious networks is seamless, whereas now it’s all just collected in a device.

Another example of this new technology is Sparsh, which allows social media users to transfer data from one medium, such as a smartphone, to another medium using only their touch. That means that each person effectively becomes an organic vessel for information.

These new software systems will have to be powered by robust mobile application development platforms. Mobile application development platforms, such as Brew, will also shape the future of social media. Development platforms continue to incorporate new options for creators of mobile applications, which translates into more sophisticated social media apps in the future.

The Issue of Privacy

Social media claimed its coveted position in popular culture so quickly that many social media platforms were unable to keep up. Along with the widespread use of social media platforms came a lack of privacy and increased vulnerability to identity theft and other social crimes. As mobile social media applications move into the future, it’s likely that they will address these concerns as effectively as possible. For example, since new mobile social media applications will allow users to quickly transfer data from one medium to another, the applications handling the transfer will use encryption to prevent third parties from intercepting the data.

Consolidation

One of the common aims of future applications will be consolidation. There are already apps available that consolidate social media profiles into one location, but it is likely that these apps will become more sophisticated in the future. In addition, new mobile apps will consolidate personal data into an “individual cloud” that a person can use to make purchases, share video and photos with other individuals, and swap valuable information. However, in response to privacy concerns, these new apps will protect your data using more sophisticated security measures.

 

Websites That Work!

I don’t know if you got the memo, but Google basically runs the world.

They control more than half of the Internet search market, and more than 90% of mobile search. Their ad system is genius and their products ubiquitous. Thought the company has branched out recently, their bread and butter is still in search and in order to succeed in Google’s world, you have to play by Google’s rules.

Google populates search terms by indexing websites and plugging them into an ever-mysterious algorithm. Over time, SEOs have determined the most important factors in that indexation and they are speed, relevance, freshness and content.

What does that mean? It means that if your site is not easily indexed in Google, you may as well cease to exist.

SEO has been around since kids were trying to sneak into adult chat rooms on AOL, but the industry and its methods change as often as the Internet does: every day. Many entrepreneurs are just getting started with a serious site and have only just heard about SEO. For those people, here is a quick guide to building a website that works well with Google’s search index and will help you rise in rank and increase your views and potential for conversion.

Title Tags and Domain

This is the most basic rule of site building in SEO. You want your domain to be easily remembered and easily found. The subject of your blog should be very, very clear in your URL. If you are selling air conditioning services, you probably don’t want your domain to be Plasticmugs.net, right? The title tags appear in the title bar of your web browser and as the headline in most searches. The more relevant your title tags are, the higher you will rank for searches using those keywords or co-occurrence terms.

FRESH

Google’s freshness update was enacted earlier this fall in order to give newer content a bit more priority in searches. For example, if you search for Super Bowl tickets, you’re likely looking for seats at this year’s contest in Indianapolis, and not to the 1993 Super Bowl. Freshness is designed to present you with the most up-to-date information insofar as it is relevant to the search. What that means for you is that if your site has a blog, you can benefit from more frequent updates. Google will read frequent updates as positive activity and bump your site up a bit since it appears to be offering valuable content to a responsive audience.

This is more valuable to sites that deal in constantly changing information. For example, a site about Chicago events has to update constantly because its main subject is always in a state of flux. Sites that sell space heaters or list facts about James Van Allen were not affected by the Fresh update because their topic and content are largely unchanged.

 Locate

Relevance has been the key to SEO since the Panda update, which wiped out four score of bad, spammy sites to greater enhance the user experience. The more relevant your content is, the more Google will like you! Websites about what to do in St. Louis should mention The Loop, Cardinals and all the other things associated with the city. Google will see all those terms connected, and will connect that site with other sites about St. Louis, giving that webmaster a highly targeted audience (people searching already want to know about what to do in St. Louis) and less competition, though the competition is tougher because they all want to bring the searcher to their St. Louis events site.

It’s a long road to good SEO and brand recognition, but a healthy site is a positive and essential first step.

Manymoon vs. Basecamp vs. TeamworkPM: The Throwdown!

Heavy Weight Belt

Manymoon vs. Basecamp: do you know who will win as the better cloud-based team and project manager?

More and more people are cloud computing. I mostly use it for my business, since it is much more efficient for me to keep information on the cloud and be able to access it from anywhere.  Recently I was asked about cloud-based project management.  I was using Manymoon. Then I switched to TeamworkPM. Then someone else chimed in saying they use Basecamp.  When I actively use a tool for my business I will sing its praises. So with 3 project management tools going head to head, the gauntlet was thrown.

It was time for the Manymoon vs. Basecamp vs. TeamworkPM throwdown.

So, which one is better?

Manymoon

Basecamp

TeamworkPM

Calendar yes yes yes
Tasks yes yes yes
Milestones yes yes yes
Team members yes yes yes
Email Alerts yes yes yes
Document Sharing yes yes yes
Bulletin yes yes yes
Reports yes yes yes
Time Tracking yes yes yes
Mobile App NO yes yes
Free Plan yes yes yes
Google Apps Integration yes NO yes
Sales Force Integration yes NO NO
Templates yes yes yes
Website Integration NO NO yes

As you can see, there are more similarities than differences.  What is comes down to is functionality that meets your needs.  If you need to be able to access your task manager from your phone then you should go with Basecamp or TeamworkPM. If you need to integrate Google Docs then Manymoon or TeamworkPM. If Sales Force is your key, then you should go with Manymoon.

I was a big Manymoon user for a long time, but I have switched to TeamworkPM. I like that I was able to easily create a login on my website for the application. It just seemed easier for me to use. But really the differences were in the minute details. A big one for me was the ability to schedule daily recurring tasks that only occurred Monday through Friday. It seems like such a little thing, but not having weekend notifications that tasks were due was a bit deal to someone with a flooded email box.

Though all of them are great project management tools and will definitely help you get organized and focused, you need to find the one that matches your needs and work style the best.

SEO Killer! Google is the Primary Suspect

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the primary way to drive traffic to your website. It is what facilitates you coming up in search results and therefore facilitates people going to your website. But Google might be trying to kill your SEO.

SEO primarily operates from the use of keywords. These words are used strategically in your site to help the search engines find your site and match it with appropriate search terms. The better your SEO the better you will turn up in the search results. Really good SEO can result in you being one of the first few websites found in a relevant search.

Google is jumping on the privacy train, but not in a way that users will actually know. They are making it so if you do a search, and you are signed into Google, your search will be encrypted. What does this mean? Good question! This means that the information about your search, keywords and the link you clicked to get to the website will not be shared with the website.

What this means to websites:

When someone comes to your website from a search engine, they use a search term to find your site. That gives them a link to a page on your site. They click the link and go to your site. As obvious as this is, this information is important to your SEO strategy. You want to know the words people are using to find your site. You want to know the links that are bringing people into your site.

The data you will not be receiving due to the new encryption is:

  • Referral Data – This is the link they clicked to get to your site.
  • Key Words- These are the search terms the used to find your site.

This information will not be withheld on ads or sponsored listings, so if you pay for your listing you will still know how the user found you.

Whats the upside?

This is only affective when people are signed into their Google accounts, which is roughly only 10% of the users. So 90% of your organic traffic will deliver data to your analytics. The other 10% will show you that the user came, but not the how’s, what’s or where-from’s.

Why are they killing my SEO?

Good question. The primary argument is this is a step towards increased privacy. Google has often been criticized for being too invasive. They gather and share information about their users. This is giving users the option of increased privacy in their searches. Of course, Google still has this information and that information is still feeding into their ads, sponsored links, stories, etc. So you will not likely notice the increase in privacy.

From the users point of view nothing has changed. From the websites point of view, they are being denied some valuable data.

Jobs Loss for Social Media

The recent death of Steve Jobs reminds us that, while he didn’t have a direct impact on current social media, Jobs did help create the environment for social media to flourish. With products like iTunes and the rise of podcasts in the early 2000’s, Apple put an emphasis on sharing and creating original content before social media sites became popular. And with the iPhone and the iPad, Apple made mobile computing easy and encouraged users to share more of their lives through social media.

Apple—and the world of technology at large—finds itself at a crossroads. Will the loss of Apple’s leader impede their ability to offer more and better products? And, if there is a slowdown in innovation at Apple, will this have a similar affect in how people use social media?

The Medium is the Message

Apple has yet to create a social media platform of their own, but that’s because they don’t have to. Their hardware and other products were built to inspire creativity in the individual and to allow users to take control of their computer experience. Apple’s focus on their products has meant that their message—thinking differently—is carried to every Apple user.

For areas like education, this means that iPods, Macbooks and iPads used in the classroom can inspire new techniques and resources for teaching and learning. From podcasting to interactive iPad apps, Apple gives both teachers and students a chance to explore collaborative learning, online school programs, and interactive educational technology. Social media is becoming a larger influence in education right now—and Apple helped facilitate that new relationship.

The Next Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs influenced more than just Apple: with Pixar, he helped create a new genre of animation, and with the short-lived NeXT, Jobs and his company produced the first web servers. It’shard to imagine that there will be another innovator with talents as diverse as Jobs’.

Still, if something has to carry on Jobs’ legacy of innovation, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook come close: with more than 800 million users, Facebook is by far the world’s largest social media network. What Jobs did with hardware, Zuckerberg is doing with the Internet: giving millions of users a chance to connect to each other, to share activities and to exchange ideas. Facebook’s latest developments include the integration of apps that allow users to do everything from help each other with homework to find and share new recipes. By creating an open online environment that pushes people to share more, Facebook is changing the nature of the Internet. And with just five years online, the potential for Facebook is boundless.

The death of Steve Jobs has already had an impact on the tech world, but the innovation of other minds—both at the helm of companies and everyday end users—will continue to find new and original ways to advance technology. Jobs’ legacy is that he helped give each person with a computer the power to make a mark on the world. With Apple’s products and the inspiration of its users, that power will continue to grow.

iCloud OS: Good for Business?

Apple has finally released their new operating system, iOS5, complete with the highly anticipated iCloud. Drawing on principles of cloud computing, iCloud gives you access to all of your information but doesn’t rely on any one machine, whether it be a computer or dedicated server, to store or access information.

With documents, information, calendar dates, contacts and automatic backups now stored in the cloud, how we can we expect to see businesses utilize and thrive with these new resources? Or, can we expect a change at all?

 Paperless? Or Close To It?

 Whether to cut down on cost or become more eco-friendly, many businesses have been taking steps towards becoming paperless for a while. Though it’s difficult to completely leave paper behind, iCloud eliminates much of the need for paper.

With documents stored in the cloud, there’s no need to print. And, as you continue to re-draft your business model, there’s no need to print updates or make changes in every document. Any changes you make in sixth draft will be applied all across the cloud. All of your iOS devices will be kept up-to-date with changes.

Faster Pace?

 With many apps designed for iCloud and mobile use, the loading time will be significantly less. Not only will your apps and documents load faster, but the ability to work on the go and around the clock could mean people will do so. While we once had to stop working for the thirty minutes we rode the subway, or drove to a meeting or the hour we spent eating lunch, we could soon work straight through all that down time.

 

Sharing in the cloud means instant access to information, which means faster responses, which adds up to more business at the end of the day.

Will We Ever Have An Excuse Not to Work?

 iCloud allows you to access any document in the cloud from any iCloud enabled device. It boils down to you needing to find a new excuse for “I’m out of the office” or “I don’t have my computer.” With iCloud, your office, computer and information follow you wherever you go. As long as you have an iCloud-enabled device, you have access to your material. Start searching for new cop-outs.

 Never Lose Documents Again?

 iCloud automatically backs up all of the priceless information on your iGadget. Your music, TV shows, applications, books, photos, app data, organization, messages and ringtones will be backed up daily. When disaster strikes, your business plan or entertainment items won’t be casualties.

Could Staying Connected Be Any Easier?

 Your calendars, appointments and contacts will be with you all times now thanks to iCloud. If you wish you could remember Jeff’s email address, now you won’t have to. If you saved it on your computer, it’s now on your phone too. The iOS5 notification center will remind you of any date set in your calendar, any alarms set on your phone or upcoming deadlines.

More fun at Work?

 Lastly, with the ease of sharing photos, videos, sites and documents could we maybe all have a little fun too? If you stumbled across a great comic during work, why not share it? Businesses can certainly change with iCloud, so why not for the better?