There’s no question that the business climate is tough right now. Uncertainties about tax rates, government regulations and its debt rating, employee health-care costs and other factors are stifling growth and creating concerns about the future.
Despite those fears -- or perhaps because of them -- many companies are seeking new ways to grow and protect their businesses for the future. To encourage that pioneering attitude, we take you to the classroom with no-cost or low-cost ways to increase sales and profits and transform your business.
1. The Mobile Web
Your company has a solid Web site. That’s great. But how does it look and feel on a mobile device? Unless you’re developing for the mobile Web, you’re missing out on a huge set of potential customers that are using smartphones to let their fingers do the walking. The Yellow Pages may have once been the first stop for most people seeking a product or service, but in the new century it’s Google, and more than half of all Web searches originate from mobile devices. C’mon, folks, the number of mobile devices with access to the Web has exceeded desktops since 2008.
Fear not, though, because the process of mobilizing your Web site doesn’t have to cost more than the average two-year cell phone contract (or last as long). Web services such as those at HostPapa, goMobi and MoFuse offer cost-effective ways to optimize your Web site for mobile devices. For little or no fee, these services modify existing Web sites so they look and work better with smartphones, often with no additional coding.
For developing a mobile site from scratch, sites such as mobi Forge, MobiSitesGalore, Wapple and WireNode offer quick and easy solutions that include hosting, mobile device detection and the ability to show ads. Each of these sites, along with dozens more, offer their own particular points of strength. For instance, MobiSitesGalore offers a drag-and-drop interface and forms tool that can create a mobile presence in just a few minutes. Wapple is a full-service agency that can tailor its services to precisely fit the need.
Buyer beware. Before engaging with any of these services, particularly if it includes hosting, solution providers would do well to spend a minute or two poking around elsewhere. Your first stop might be Woorank.com, which scans and rates Web sites based on visitor traffic patterns, search engine optimization, or SEO, mobility standards compliance and about a million other metrics. Once you’ve narrowed it down, use a free uptime monitor from SiteUptime.com to track prospective sites for a week or two.
2. App Site Engagement
Your next step in developing for the mobile Web might be to try your hand at building apps for Android, iOS or other smartphone platforms. This effort can be as simple as creating an “m” domain, such as the one at m.crn.com, to hiring or contracting coders to build and maintain one or more custom apps.
If you plan to target iPad and/or iPhone, then you’ll have to learn how to play ball with Apple and its App Store. Apple has a fairly stringent approval process for its applications. There are several good tutorial sites, including www.idev101.com, which lists specifics of all the objects and data that Apple requires in addition to the app itself.
iPhone/iPad development is not for the casual programmer. iOS apps are built in Objective c 2.0, a derivative of C that includes a messaging syntax akin to Smalltalk. For about $100 a year, Apple provides the iOS SDK and Xcode, a Mac-hosted integrated development environment for building apps for iPad, iPhone and Mac OS X. Among Objective C’s strengths as an object-oriented language is reflection, the ability of an app to observe itself and change its behavior when executed. Among the App Store’s strengths is its distribution system and wide audience.
With Android overtaking iOS by some measures, Google’s mobile platform represents a huge opportunity for solution providers building apps for the mobile Web. Google has an edge over Apple in a few key ways: its development tools are free, they’re hosted on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows, developers have a nice choice of Java or C/C++, and the Android OS is open source. Plus, the Google market is a bit less stringent than the App Store, but this might be viewed by some as a negative in terms of security.
3. Search Engine Optimization
Once you’ve mobilized your Web site, it’s time to make sure it gets seen. One way to improve your Web presence is to make sure that it appears at (or near) the top of search result lists, and that can be done “organically” (and for free) using search engine optimization, or SEO.
Many SEO techniques can be employed for free by you, your staff or even by software. One simple SEO strategy is to use backlinks. These are links back to your Web site from other sites in your market. Backlinks are seen by search engines as positive votes for you; they’re an indication of how important your Web site is to others in your part of the industry.
To start, Google the names of your suppliers and customers and approach the highest-ranking ones first; they’re the ones that will most quickly boost your ranking. Respectfully request of the admins that backlinks be placed on those sites. Another way to get backlinks from suppliers is on their “where to buy” page. And if they have a blog or other space for comments from customers (of which you are one), be sure to weave a link or two to your Web site as you heap your supplier with praise.
As for customers, some will agree to link to your site from theirs. Offer to provide an information page for their site that contains information about one of their premier suppliers (you) along with one or more links to your site. For customers that have a blog or other comment forum, apply the same strategy as described for suppliers.
To check your ranking and gauge your progress, there are lots of Web-based services that will crawl your Web site and evaluate its ranking. One good example was developed by Internet entrepreneur Michael Wong and can be found at Mike’s Marketing Tools (tinyurl.com/mikesSEO). Simply enter the URL and the search term to be ranked. The result will be the term’s ranking (from 1 to 100) for Google, Yahoo, Bing and AOL search engines, displayed instantly in a new browser window. No registration is required.
For your mobile SEO strategy, you must first realize that the requirements, behavior and activities are different for mobile users than for those searching from the desktop. Keep search terms small and limited to a single word so they’re easy to type on a small keyboard. Keep Web pages to a minimum height and width so they render well regardless of the browser and screen size. Be sure to include location into search-term planning. Test sites using Google Mobile at m.google.com.
NEXT: Spread The Word
4. Spread The Word
SEO might not be the only effective tactic for your site. When competition is fierce or when SEO isn’t effective, another option is to purchase search terms that will place your ad or Web site at the top of the heap. The value of this service is that it practically guarantees that people who see your ad are already interested in what you offer.
For example, Google implements this advertising service as AdWords (google.com/adwords). AdWords requires no minimum overall spend, and lets you decide how much to spend per day and whether to pay per click or per 1,000 impressions. Google also offers great free tools to help determine which search terms will work best for traffic generation, and where to place your ads for the best possible competitive advantage. Google also offers Web hosting, site design templates and a pretty good Web form creator and back-end database, all completely free of charge.
And for people who use Google’s AdWords program, you might once again turn to Michael Wong, whose free marketing tools include helpful utilities such as a keyword wrapper for automatically adding the appropriate punctuation for the desired search type, a link popularity checker, and a new keyword tool that automates much of the editing that would otherwise be manual and laborious.
Purchasing keywords also has a distinct advantage over building a business based on search engine referrals through SEO. Search algorithms -- which are as heavily guarded as the recipes for Coke and Pepsi -- change constantly as search companies vie for competitive advantage. These changes can (and often do) leave companies that once feasted on a free flow of customers to flounder as they attempt to regain it.
Not all the spending has to come from your own budget. Many large manufacturers offer market development funds and co-op programs to help pay for advertising and other marketing efforts. And companies such as Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Oki Data and others supplement their MDF programs with allowances for in-house printing of collateral materials, and offer training, on-demand printing, personalization and other specialized programs to help market your products.
Digital signage can be another cost-effective marketing approach, but starting up can involve a steep learning curve and some potential costs. Unless you plan on maintaining each sign individually, you’ll need a system to push your ads (and/or those of your customers) to the signs, circulate them across your signage network and provide performance and demographic reports as well.
Fortunately, there’s an excellent content management service that does all these things at no cost. Started by NEC as a means of selling more of its digital signs, Vukunet.com lets signage administrators register their screens and the demographics associated with them, resulting in a large national network. Screen layouts are created using a point-and-click environment that includes templates and widgets for things like news and weather. With 90 percent of the heavy lifting done by Vukunet, the reseller only has to focus on sales.
NEXT: Social Media
5. Social Media
Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media sites have become the chatrooms of the modern age, but with none of the negative baggage. It can be extremely beneficial -- and indeed becoming increasingly expected -- and indeed becoming increasingly expected -- for companies to have a presence on one or more social sites and to post there regularly.
In fact, large and highly diverse companies might even maintain several Facebook pages. For example, media company NBC Universal has a separate Facebook presence for its Dateline, Sunday Night Football and Olympics programming, and Fox News offers a Facebook page dedicated to video and another page for everything else.
Who has time for all that? Before that decision can be addressed, there’s a bigger issue: What will you post?
That depends on the company, of course. If your products are broken into a few categories, each with a distinct audience or following, it probably makes sense to dedicate separate pages to each. For example, people who read Fisherman’s Digest are not likely to be interested in Quilting Today, despite being published by the same company. Each publication should have its own social media presence.
On the other hand, the Pep Boys auto parts chain has a single corporate presence and leaves its individual franchisees to do their own thing. Pep Boys promotes its site with special discount coupons for visitors who “Like” the page. Offering incentives is a good way to be liked, and being liked is the key to expanding your network.
Every time someone clicks the Like button, that activity is visible to all their friends, who then have an opportunity to Like it, and so on. If your presence includes other sites, you can multiply this cascading effect by cross-promoting your other networks. For example, if you’re also on Twitter, people might follow you after they’ve Liked you.
Give people a reason to visit. To the extent possible, try to provide some unique content on your social sites beyond what’s found on your own Web site. This can include discussions about new or upcoming specials, features or content, questions or comments from your employees about visitors’ comments, and event feeds from related sites that your site Likes or is friends with.
Once the content for your social media site(s) is known and has been populated adequately, promote that presence to your mailing lists, add links to your Web sites and update all business cards and e-mail signatures. Be sure also to provide incentives to visit and Like your pages to help promote your efforts.
Lots of tools exist to help mine those new leads, funnel them into your CRM and transform your social media efforts into actionable data. One good example is Hoot Suite (hootsuite.com), which manages followers, allows scheduled posts and populates multiple social networks including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter from a single post. An ad-supported free version connects with five social profiles and two RSS/Atom feeds, and includes social analytics. Another useful tool is People Browsr (peoplebrowsr.com), a $149 per month service that specializes in data mining, analytics, and trend and sentiment tracking.
6. Sales Force Automation
If your sales force is larger than one person, it can benefit from salesforce automation tools. Usually a part of customer relationship management (CRM) tools such as Salesforce.com, SFA systems record customer contact and buying history and automate functions such as reminders, follow-ups, lead tracking and other sales-related tasks.
Market leader Salesforce.com is a cloud-based CRM that imports and tracks accounts, contacts, tasks and events, offers customizable reports and integrates with Outlook, Gmail, Lotus and Google Apps.
Pricing plans start at $2 per user per month. Free trials are available and can usually be extended.
If free is more your cup of tea, there’s a pretty good solution at FreeCRM.com that costs nothing for as many as 50 users. It contains many of the same features as Salesforce, including automated lead generation and tracking, as well as tracking of calls, customers, tasks, opportunities and deals. It also offers group calendaring, management of sales pipelines and the ability to import and export from other systems.
Like most hosted systems, FreeCRM is accessed through a browser and can be used to develop marketing campaigns. A fully featured pro version starts at $15 per user per month and adds technical support and sync with Outlook, PocketPC and BlackBerry. In general, we favor such cloud-based hosted systems for their ease of access from anywhere and carefree maintenance of back-end tasks such as server availability data backup.
Speak with industry thought leaders to gain an understanding of the keywords and phrases used by customers in your target market to search for solutions, and then using those words and phrases to develop your content. Where appropriate, map your content to specific stages of the buying process. Build landing pages and develop attraction and conversion strategies that can be measured and refined using the keywords and phrases throughout. Know which pages work to convert visitors into leads and which do not; refine ineffective pages until all landing pages result in successful leads.
7. Reduce Energy Usage And Expense
Here’s something you can do to save money in your own company, and then offer it as a service to customers to help them save money too. Numerous opportunities exist to minimize power and cooling costs while boosting the bottom line. With a few simple techniques, you can measure power usage of compute and cooling systems in the data center to maximize efficiency and minimize costs.
In the data center or the server closet, sometimes a little common sense is all that’s needed to solve a big problem. Take a quick visual assessment of your equipment’s hot-air output. All equipment should be exhausting hot air in the same direction, and preferably on the opposite side of a wall or equipment row. Just like closing the car windows when the air conditioner is on, it’s best to contain or separate hot and cold areas of the data center with curtains, boxes or partitions of some kind. When racks are used, be sure to close all openings with blanking plates or another insulating material.
The next step is to perform a power audit by totaling the power used by the entire facility and dividing it by the power used by just the compute equipment alone. Energy draws on facilities include overall UPSes, cooling units, lighting, security, fire protection and administrative PCs and supporting systems. Compute equipment is limited to shared servers, storage systems, network routers, switches and other such devices.
Dividing the IT equipment power into the overall facility power results in the Power Usage Efficiency, or PUE. Lower numbers are better. According to the Uptime Institute (www.uptimeinstitute.org), most companies fall somewhere between 2 and 3, depending on a particular company’s annual usage. An industry leader in data center power efficiency is Google, which boasts a PUE of 1.21. The company publishes its efficiency practices at google.com/corporate/green/datacenters.
NEXT: Get Free Training
8. Get Free Training
A great many companies offer free training on their products. Of those, it’s likely that many also provide additional training and support for presales and postsales activities. Such programs are a golden opportunity to enrich your organization’s sales and support teams for little or no net cost to you.
For example, VMware (www.vmware.com/education) offers extensive training delivered in a variety of ways, including classroom, live online, self-paced and on-site. Many of its programs are free to anyone who registers; others are free to VMware resellers.
The Web also contains plenty of free sales training sites. One good example is EyesOnSales.com, which publishes numerous quick-read articles targeted at specific sales issues. For example, after visiting the site just once, I’ve learned how to further qualify a sales lead when they’ve told me to “Just e-mail your information.”
9. Seize The Cloud
Every company wants to know how they can use the cloud to improve their business. With the virtualization of literally everything, opportunities exist in just about every area of the data center to help companies improve server efficiency and performance during season peaks, reduce or offload energy usage requirements for computing resources, improve data backup and disaster recovery plans, and on and on.
To seize on this, pick an area of technology that you or your organization already understand and become an expert. For example, off-site backup and disaster recovery is something that every company needs and many companies ignore. Dozens of reseller-friendly solutions exist, including those from Barracuda Networks, Iron Mountain, JungleIT and StorageCraft.
Another way to leverage the cloud is to resell services of a cloud-compute provider such as Amazon. Its Elastic Compute Cloud (aws.amazon.com) took the virtual world by storm in 2006 and has been a leading force in virtualized computing ever since. The company’s innovative pay-as-you-need pricing model and API-based access have not only set the bar for resource allocation, they have spawned hundreds of new companies and services that resell or reuse on-demand compute and backup resources.
Applications, too, must be made to work on with cloud-based platforms, and there will be a learning curve associated with relevant APIs. For Windows developers, Microsoft is trying to flatten the curve with Windows Azure, its cloud development platform. Solution providers also should be aware of OpenStack (openstack.org), an effort spearheaded by Nasa and Rackspace to develop a “ubiquitous open source cloud computing platform for public and private clouds.”
10. Mobile Security
As you’re evaluating Amazon’s APIs, you might also verify that they’re in line with your client-side development efforts as well. Because if you’re not currently building apps for clients, you’re missing a lucrative opportunity that can cost relatively little to enter into. As we wrote in our June CRNtech cover story, “The ‘Write’ Opportunity” for resellers today is increasingly to add the title of Independent Software Vendor to their shingle.
Again, opportunities exist to build new apps for Apple’s iOS (Objective C; Mac-hosted tools), Google’s open-source Android (C, C++, Java, Linux-, Mac- or Windows-hosted tools) as well as Microsoft’s Azure platform that’s akin to Visual Basic and .Net (Windows-hosted tools). There are additional platforms, of course, but for any development effort, be prepared to dedicate at least one full-time programmer whose job does not also include Web site maintenance.
If the plan is to build apps for health-care workers, be sure you don’t run afoul of HIPAA -- and the more recent HITECH Act -- regulations. You might not even be aware of HITECH, which was part of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan. Start with a visit to its official Web site (www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy) and consider subscribing to the regulations mailing list. Another great resource is the HIPAA Survival Guide (www.hipaasurvivalguide.com/), which includes the HITECH Act.
Exercise similar cautions for the regulations of PCI Security Standards Council for credit-card transactions and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Compliance also can be enhanced by simply selecting one platform or protocol over another. For example, forward-thinking developers can equip apps with the IPv6 protocol, which ensures iron-clad security as well as an incredible performance boost thanks to its point-to-point communications nature. And though its future is unclear, HP’s TouchPad and its webOS has VPN capabilities built right in. How you choose a platform can help differentiate your company from competitors, and give your products and services an edge.
11. Increase Your Recurring Revenue
The Holy Grail of any business is the recurring revenue stream. It’s predictable and stable, and continues to flow just by keeping the doors open. Such income usually includes fees for services that you provide, such as backups, on-site and remote technical support, routine maintenance such as that for printers, copiers, telephone system programming, employee installations and moves and so on.
For example, let’s say 20 of your existing customers agree to pay $25 per month for you to back up their data to your cloud system each day and visit them once per month to pick up their backup media for off-site storage. That’s $500 of monthly revenue for a service that costs you perhaps a few dollars per month for electricity and gas.
It’s easy to see how several of the categories in this article can be combined to help transform your company and improve its bottom line. As another example, recurring revenue can be generated with the combination of a good backup application that you purchase or develop, linking it with a cloud-based storage repository for backup and recovery, and tying it all together with a disaster recovery plan and a monthly fee that’s tailored to each client’s needs.
Putting It All Together: Analyze, Plan, Do
The first step in transforming your business is to get together with your staff to analyze their strengths and interests and the greatest needs of your customer base. Then focus on two or three of the easiest and most applicable suggestions we’ve made here, develop a strategy for making them happen, and then make them happen.
One more thing: Be sure to set SMART goals, meaning that all your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timebound. With this simple rule, a successful transformation is all but assured.