Your Online Reputation and Why it Matters

Benjamin Franklin once said that it takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it. The reputation of a company has always been important, but perhaps never so much as today. Living in this Internet age, it is much easier to learn the reputation of companies, not only the ones down the block, but also those halfway around the world. Knowing your company’s reputation is important to your brand but equally important to the bottom line.

Researching Online

Marketing departments have long known that one of the most important tools for getting the word out about their business is through word-of-mouth recommendations. While advertising is about what you say about your company, recommendations focus on what your customers are saying. It is also believed that for every public review about your business, there are many more customers who feel the same way but simply have not taken the time to formally express it.

The Internet makes posting a review simple, and it makes that information easily available to the masses. Studies show that the majority of Americans today go online to research products and companies before moving forward with a purchase or arranging to do business with a company. Because of this, it is important that you pay attention to what your online reputation is, and become proactive in building it.

Encourage Customers, Follow Up

A great way to build your online reputation is to encourage your customers to spread the word and write reviews. There are many places on the Web where customers can write reviews about a company, good or bad. Encouraging all customers to review your company, product or service is one of the best ways to take control of your online reputation. Consider identifying specific places where they can leave reviews, or even provide a list of such sites on the company website or in your online newsletter.

Once people have been encouraged to leave reviews about the company – whether favorable or not, take the time to keep up with those reviews. Setting aside some time each week or bi-weekly to search out and read the reviews can be beneficial, and using that opportunity to respond to reviews can help build a positive online reputation.

As with most situations, there are individuals who have found ways to ‘work’ the review process. There are people that get friends or family members to stack the deck with glowing reviews. There are even companies that pay writers to whip up favorable reviews. As tempting as this may seem, avoid engaging in such behavior. If the word gets out that your reviews are bogus, it is going to be more damaging to your reputation than one or two less-than-perfect evaluations. Besides, consumers can often pick up on the trend, and will learn to discount the reviews outright.

Learning, Moving On

While online reviews can be helpful to a consumer who conducts research, they can also be a valuable feedback tool for the company being reviewed. Rather than immediately discounting the negative comments, be sure to consider the full context and overarching themes of the negative comments. The information may be accurate and valuable in helping to improve the overall customer service experience or in creating a better product with enhanced features.

In the end, when you have taken the negative information into account and made positive changes, future write-ups about the company should be much improved. Today, Benjamin Franklin might well give his quote a second thought and revise it to say “it only takes one bad review to help a company see the error of its ways and make improvements.

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Online company reviews appear on everything from personal blogs to Amazon.com. Setting up a Google alert with your company’s name can help keep you informed of anything new that comes out about your company. Once you have set up an alert, any time your company name is mentioned online and Google picks it up, an e-mail link will be sent to you.

Other good places to check online reviews include:

Maps.Google.com – This is the most important of all review sites since these reviews have a significant impact on your local search results.
Yelp.com
Shopping.com
CitySearch.com
ConsumerSearch.com
Epinions.com
JudysBook.com
AngiesList.com
Superpages.com
What should you do if you come across a review that is false or possibly slanderous to your company? Contact the website directly and explain that it contains false information that could be damaging to your company, then request the site to remove the review and/or allow your company to post a written response to it.

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Does Your Online Portfolio Do Enough to Bring in Patients?

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, over 10 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures were performed throughout the country in 2008 alone. Of them, 17 percent were surgical. That is many people opting for procedures, and it’s a good bet that those patients went online to research the procedure and/or physician options before having it done. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that 61 percent of adults go online for health information, and 41 percent of them do so to research a medical treatment or procedure.

We know that many people seeking cosmetic procedures go online first. So just how do you make sure, once they come across your site, that they choose to call your office and arrange an initial consultation? While there is no proof-positive route to getting every person to choose you over a competitor, there are tactics you can do to increase your conversion ratio. Having a great portfolio on your site is good place to start.

Why Portfolios Work

If you have a basic Web site for your cosmetic surgery site, you may get some calls, but you are probably getting most of your patients through other routes. With the direction that new media, especially the Internet, has taken things in the last few years, it is important to have more than just a basic site if you want to reach new patients.

An online portfolio for your practice goes beyond a basic site. It lays out everything the prospective patient may want to see and learn, and even touches on options they had no idea were available. A good online portfolio for a cosmetic surgeon’s practice should include some of the following:

  • Pictures. Cosmetic surgery is often about aesthetics. People want to see what changes are possible through specific procedures. It is important to have plenty of ‘Before and After’ pictures, showing the possibilities of all the procedures you offer.
  • SEO. Just adding a bunch of pictures or other material to your portfolio, without using the right words along with it, will not have the reach that it could. The benefits of using search engine optimization (SEO) on your photos, titles, pages, etc., should not be overlooked.
  • Information. Along with images, people want to be able read all about the procedures. You should offer easy-to-read, yet informative, pages of information in your portfolio that explain the procedure and any frequently asked questions about it.
  • Reassurance. Just laying out the facts about procedures does nothing to offer re-assurance to someone that you are the right person for the job. Undergoing surgery is a scary thought for most people, despite the benefits of the outcome. Your portfolio should offer reassurance, from you and/or from some of your past patients.
  • Sharing. Ask a few of your happiest patients to write their story up to share with others via your portfolio. By matching it with some ‘Before and After’ pictures, you will help your prospective patients make more of a connection, and see your office and the procedures you offer in a new light.

Try out some different ideas in your online portfolio and see what works best. If done right, you may just be surprised by the return you get. When millions of people search for procedures online each year about cosmetic procedures, you really need to evaluate whether you are doing enough to draw them to your site and then convert them into evaluations, once they are there. If you are not, it is never too late to make some minor changes that can have a lasting impact on your online presence, as well as on your bottom line.

How Banking Institutions Can Benefit from Web Analytics

If you have been thinking that public perceptions of the banking industry have been sinking over the last year, you are correct. In fact, in a report by J.D. Power and Associates, they state that the overall satisfaction with retail banking experiences is down considerably since 2007. Along with the banking financial bailout situation, consumers are reporting being unhappy about banks offering poor problem resolution, having long wait times, and charging additional fees. So just what is a bank to do? Think about improving your customer’s online experience by leveraging the power of Web analytics.

Web Analytics for Banks

The banking industry, just like most others, is a prime candidate to use Web analytics to improve their customer’s experience. After all, of the biggest problems that consumers cite for being unhappy with their bank, and ultimately leading them to switch to a new one, can be addressed through their online presence. You can help streamline your customer’s banking experience by offering them a safe and smoothly operating site where they can conduct their transactions, leaving wait times behind. You can also address many of their problems online through a good customer service, a frequently asked questions page, or a knowledge base system.

Using Web analytics, a bank can use the information collected to learn about what their customers need and want. Then they can aim to fill those gaps, offer them what they need, and make their experience easier and more satisfying, so they remain customers. Besides, research shows that satisfied online banking customers are more likely to tell others about their experience than satisfied customers that do their banking in person.

The Benefits

While most large banks have already taken advantage of using Web analytics, many others are still sitting on the sideline. The analytic process measures the performance of your site and what the customers are doing. It can also let you know how long they stay on your site, what pages they arrive through and what pages they tend to exit on. It can also give you an idea of who is using your site.

Online banking has become the direction that many people have gone in the last several years. Web analytics can help you not only bring in more new customers, but also allow for comparison between how many you are getting online versus in person. The process can also help increase the conversion rate of bringing in new customers online by identifying what search terms people are using to find your site, see what banner ads are working and which are not, narrow down your audience, and identify how to reach them online.

Additionally, Web analytic tools can help create a better customer experience by making sure new and potential customers are served pages to help get them to register, while it offers current customers pages that are relevant to them. It can also serve them pages that offer additional products to meet help their needs and expand the business they do with you.

Looking Ahead

Most likely, we have yet to see online banking reach its fullest potential. But as banks begin to see the benefits of being online, they can also utilize the informational tools at their disposal in order to help improve a smooth customer experience.

Whether you use Web analytics for e-mail marketing purposes or to see just how effective a site you are offering your customers, the possibilities of the tool is far reaching. And according to the J.D. Power study, higher customer satisfaction translates to committed customers, which is good news for banks and customers alike.

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10 Things Web Analytics Can Do For Your Site:

  • Identify key search terms used to locate your site.
  • Determine what banner ads are successful.
  • Compare how many customers join online versus in person.
  • Help narrow your audience and locate them online.
  • Offer relevant pages to potential and new customers, as well as produce better results.
  • Measure the overall performance of your site.
  • Give you an idea of who is using your site, how long they stay, etc.
  • Find out what page customers enter and exit on.
  • Help determine what your customers want and need.
  • Increase customer satisfaction rate.

Is your site en Espańol? It should be!

What if I told you there was a way to tap into over half a million people in the state of Florida, and over 45 million nationwide, simply by making some changes to your Web site? It is true! If you are like most businesses, you are largely overlooking the Hispanic market. Once you know more about the market and how easy the changes are, you will see why you should consider adding some Espańol to your site.

Strong Demographics

While you may think your main audience does not include the Hispanic market, you will have to consider the demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 45.5 million Hispanics living in the United States. The largest part of this group, 64 percent, have descended from Mexico, followed by 9 percent descending from Puerto Rico and another 3.1 percent from Cuba. Furthermore, the State of Florida joins 15 other states in the Union that have at least half a million Hispanic residents.

With plenty of people to tap into, throughout the state, the next thing to consider is the how many are speaking Spanish. This is an impressive factor when it comes to whether or not you should consider targeting this segment of the market. There are 34 million residents in the country that speaks Spanish at home, which accounts for 78 percent of Hispanics. If you are not offering some bilingual information on your site, you are essentially turning away 12 percent of the population.

Benefits for Businesses

Your business can stand to benefit in a big way from tapping into the Hispanic market. Even in a sagging economy, this segment of the population has strong buying power. In fact, the U.S. Department of State reports that this is the one area that more businesses are starting to take notice into consideration.

Hispanics have more disposable personal income than any other minority group in the country, and in 2007 that amounted to $863 billion, which was a 300 percent increase over what it was in 1990. While Hispanics were experiencing such vast growth, non-Hispanics saw only a 125 percent increase during the same period.

If you are not welcoming this market to your business when they are shopping or researching online, they are most likely going to the site of some competitor who is.

Simple Sites

There are several ways to offer bilingual information on your site. A few sites offer both English and Spanish versions on the same page, especially on the home page. This can be a little more confusing to the reader who sees two different languages, side by side on the page. The most popular option is to have a link in a prominent area on your site that says something like “en Espańol.” This link will take the visitor to a mirror site, which usually offers the same information, but in Spanish.

Here are a few things to keep in mind, if you do decide to add a Spanish section to your site:

  • Have a professional do the translation for the Spanish pages. Straight translating of information will not usually work. If you do this, you will lose some of the meanings or may not realize that certain words or phrases are offensive.
  • A professional may also need to make changes to the language code for the site, in order to ensure that it is set up correctly.
  • On your site, prominently display the fact that you do offer the information in Spanish. The link should be easily seen when someone lands on the page, and it should appear on every page, just in case someone reaches your site through something other than your home page.
  • If you do online advertising to attract traffic to your site, consider adding some Spanish ads in targeted locations to pull in that demographic to your site.
  • Send a press release announcing the Spanish-language addition to your site to any local Hispanic news outlets to inform the public that this has been made available.

The Hispanic market is powerful now, and it is expected to grow even more. The government reports that there will be 132.8 million Hispanics by the year 2050. There is no better time than now to extend a hand to this important segment of the market.

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Check out these sites to locate and navigate their Spanish section. The link can be found at the top of each home page:

Florida Public Utilities

http://www.fpuc.com

Tampa Government

http://www.tampagov.net

Clearwater Florida

http://www.clearwater-fl.com

Online Newsletters Can Help Your Home Business Grow

If you think your company or Web site does not need an online newsletter, think again! People are online, and reaching them through the Internet is both smart and profitable for businesses of all sizes. Just consider how many people are online. According to comScore, an Internet information provider, in 2006 it was calculated that 694 million people worldwide were using the Internet.

And if that is not enough to get you thinking, looking at the online purchasing statistics from this past holiday season just might. For the 2008 holiday season, comScore reports that consumers spent $24.71 billion online. Using a professional newsletter to promote your business could have brought you additional business. When making e-mail marketing plans, however, it is important to keep in mind that not all newsletters are created equal. Knowing how to use one to reach your audience will make determine whether it is immediately moved to the trash bin or whether it brings welcome traffic and sales to your business.

Why It’s Necessary

Whether you are running a home-based business or one that is located in the biggest building in town, you can benefit from having an online newsletter. When someone reads a company newsletter, if it is done properly, they will not know how big your business is. Online newsletters are great for putting your name in front of customers on a regular basis. It helps build name recognition and gives you a reputation as an authority or expert in a given area. It can also drive traffic to your site.

In addition, online newsletters are ideal because they are green, since they do not use any paper, ink or other resources. Because of this, they require very little overhead to start and maintain, making them a cost-efficient tool that can yield a great return on your investment. But do not just start typing away to create your own newsletter. In order to be taken seriously and not marked as spam, you need a plan as you set out on this mission.

What to Include

Think about any of the newsletters that arrive in your e-mail inbox. Which ones do you read? Which ones do you immediately delete or unsubscribe to? Start there – that will give you a good idea as to what works in a newsletter and what does not. Also, check out the newsletters that any of your competitors may offer. See what they are including in theirs, and what you like and do not like about the one they have distributed. Additionally, keep the following areas in mind when creating your online newsletter plan:

  • Design. When it comes to reaching out to your customers, you want to make sure your newsletter always looks professional. It is easy to learn to create one on your own, but if you would rather not, you can outsource this for a small fee.
  • Writing. Each issue, it needs to be free of grammatical errors, to look professional, and to have strong headlines to grab the reader’s attention. You can either hire a writer to do this or, if you do it yourself, at least have someone else proofread it before it is sent out.
  • Focus. Your newsletter should have a new focus each time it is sent out. For example, find a holiday or event to target. Try to make it humorous, if possible. Your newsletter should also tease the reader, so they get a glimpse of information in the newsletter but then need to click to go your site to read the full details. Aim to keep it interesting and relevant to your business or product. Also, always try to have a call to action, such as a coupon or discount code, as well as inviting them to forward the newsletter to friends.
  • Frequency. Decide how often you will send out the newsletter, and stick with that schedule. Avoid the urge to send it too frequently, because that will most likely just annoy the subscribers. For most businesses, once per month is ideal, although having an additional extra issue occasionally for special purposes is fine, as well.
  • Simple. Keep your newsletter simple for the subscriber. Providing everything from having a link or button on your site to subscribe to having a link to easily unsubscribe is important. And avoid sharing your subscribers’ e-mail addresses with anyone. This will only lead them to distrust you.

Online newsletters are the future. Increasingly, magazines are also taking their issues online, leaving paper behind. Newsletters are right there with them. It is easy and cost-efficient for any company to take advantage of an online newsletter as a way to reach their audience. Use it to your advantage to reach your customer base with ease, especially if yours is a home-based business.

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Online E-mail Marketing

Online newsletters are simply another form of e-mail marketing. Used correctly, this tool can be highly beneficial to your company. The following sites can be helpful in creating and sending out an e-mail newsletter to keep you in contact with your clients. For a small fee, they help keep the process easy and professional.

http://www.ConstantContact.com

http://www.verticalresponse.com

http://www.icontact.com

http://www.streamsend.com

http://www.mynewsletterbuilder.com

www.jangomail.com

http://www.Lyris.com

Planning Your 2009 Online Advertising

Online advertising is here to stay, especially with industry experts reporting that some 70 percent of Americans are online, that many start their searches for products online, and that they often make their purchase right from the Internet.

While you may realize that you should be doing some online advertising, you may not be sure about the form in which it should be done. Before allocating where your online advertising dollars and attention will be focused this year, start by considering all your options. Online advertising is big business. In fact, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), online advertising revenues for 2007 totaled over $21 billion, which was a 26 percent increase over the prior year. Even with a sluggish economy, online advertising is seeing strong numbers.

Making Wise Choices

The fact that so much money has been spent in online advertising does not necessarily mean that it has been effective. Without doing some research and really evaluating where the best possible place is for a company to advertise online, your expenditure could be money out the window. With so many options for where advertising dollars can be allocated online, it is important to keep in mind that not all forms are created equal, and what works for one company may not work for another.

One of the most popular forms of online advertising is the growing sector of videos, such as those on YouTube.com. Online videos have become so popular that ComScore, an online research company, reports that over 10 billion online videos were watched during the month of February 2008 alone, which was a 66 percent increase over the same month in 2007. People like watching videos; if a company can tie in their site, product or service with an interesting online video, they can see a lot of success from this cost-effective method of reaching consumers.

Other popular online advertising routes for companies to take include Google ads and other search engine and pay-per-click (PPC) options. However, these routes, as popular as they are, require a tightly focused campaign in order to see a decent return on investment. In addition, search engine ads are often the subject of click fraud, which has received a lot of attention lately, as companies like Google (which has a $6-billion-per-year advertising network) try to find solutions to stop the problem.

E-mail marketing is another popular route to take, to keep your company fresh in the minds of people. But if it is not done correctly, people will see it as merely spam and will unsubscribe from the list quickly and without hesitation. It can be a very effective tool for those that use it correctly and to their advantage.

Budgets and Bang

The first thing a company needs to do, this time of year, is look at what their budget is, keeping it realistic, to see what they can allocate to online advertising. In order to get the most bang for the buck, it is important to continue what works and to ditch what does not. Accountability is everything in advertising. If a company is spending money on a marketing effort and not seeing a definitive result, it is time to try something else.

Every company should do some online advertising in 2009. But where and how they should do it will vary for each company. The best thing to do is to take some time to research the various methods, test a few out to see what works, or consult with an online advertising expert to get things set up and evaluated. Taking these steps will help create a prosperous new year, with plenty of leads being generated through online advertising efforts.

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Popular Online Advertising Options

  • Video – like those on YouTube.com are cost-effective and, done correctly, can raise consumer interest.
  • Banners – these ads run on sites; when people click on them, they are taken to the advertiser’s site.
  • Social networking sites – very popular sites with the younger generation. They can be an effective tool to reach potential customers.
  • Classified ads – craigslist has become an effective way to market to the masses, while putting out nothing but time to create the ads.
  • Advertising networks – they create the opportunity to reach many people and bring traffic to a site, as well as providing reporting statistics on views and click-throughs.
  • E-mail marketing – while sending an e-mail blast to just anyone may be considered spam, effective opt-in e-mail marketing can be an important advertising tool.
  • Search engine ads – such as those on Google help to target and reach an audience that is looking for a particular product or service.

Pay-per-click placement – gives people the opportunity to only pay for those that actually click on their ad. This is available through some advertising networks, search engines, and other popular sites.

Use Online SEO Press Releases to Your Advantage

Just about every company has a reason to send a news or press release, at some point. Whether it is to discuss a product, service, or change in the company, they are one of the easiest ways to keep the public, and your customers, informed. They are also the surest way to gain valuable publicity, which is an extremely effective tool for maintaining and growing a business.

The problem, however, is that most businesses send out a news release and then tend to drop it into a file, never to be seen again. Little do they know that such releases, even those that are several years old, can be good online marketing tools. Every company should have a Web site, and on it they should have a press section where an archive of all their press releases is maintained. Even if a company does not go back and pull out old releases to add online, they should begin adding their press releases to their site, from this point on.

Why Online?

With millions of people across the country using the Internet regularly, the foundation is laid for getting as much company information online as possible. Many people begin their quest for products and services by doing an online search or company comparison, before physically heading to a business or making a phone call. People may not know your Web site address, or even that your company exists or has a Web site. Even then, if you are using the press section correctly on your site, you have a good chance of reeling them in.

The key factor when putting press releases online comes down to making sure they are optimized. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a method for ensuring that releases contain relevant keywords that are apt to be used when someone searches for something related to your business. For example, if a business is located in Clearwater, and specializes in offering 4D ultrasounds during pregnancy, it is important that they add some popular and relevant keywords to bring local traffic to their site. To do this, they would want to add in words like Clearwater, Florida, 4D ultrasound, pregnancy, etc. But do not overdo it by trying to use them too many times; the release could end up not reading correctly, or the search engine could penalize it or, worse, avoid it altogether. A good general figure to aim for around five percent of the release to contain keywords; therefore, if a release was 300 words long, it would not be out of line for you to have 15 keywords scattered through it.

Benefits of SEO

When a company places their press releases online and they have taken the steps to properly optimize them, it can increase traffic to the site. When someone logs on, conducting a search for something related to the business, and the press release comes up, the chance is increased that they will click to go to the site. Once at the site, it is important that it offer enough information to capture their attention and, hopefully, their business.

In addition to adding the optimized releases online, it is a good idea to consider submitting those to online sources, as well. There are companies that accept and release them online, some for a fee and others for free. This will also help to increase traffic to a company’s Web site, as long as the company remembers to include a link to their site. SEO is an important marketing tool that can help every business bring in more traffic to its site, which usually translates to increased business.

Getting Started

Going back years to add releases to a company site can take some time. But adding in all of the releases from this year will not take long and can pay off in the long run, making it well worth the effort. Avoid putting the release online in a document or PDF form, which will hinder their ability to show up in search engine results. Instead, opt for having the text added directly to the site.

In this age of technology, every business should take advantage of using SEO press releases online in order to help grow their business, keep their customers abreast of what they are up to, and keep traffic flowing to their Web site. Besides, it is important to keep up with the competition. Even if you are not doing it, there is a good chance your competitor already is, or is in the process of getting it started.

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Online Press Release Newswire Sites

There are many online sites that will help your releases get exposure. Some charge, some do not, and all vary in method. While some will e-mail it to demographically selected journalists, others will put it on their site, allowing for the increased chance that it will be picked up in search engine results. Compare what each place offers to see which will meet your needs before deciding which one to go with.

http://www.PRWeb.com

http://www.PRLog.com

http://www.24-7pressrelease.com

http://www.MarketWire.com

http://www.i-newswire.com

http://www.PR.com/press-releases

http://www.PRLeap.com

http://www.PRNewswire.com

How Technology Travels

Maybe it is just nostalgia, but travel used to be a more straightforward affair. (It was also more comfortable in many ways, but I doubt I need to detail those.) You would call the airline, buy a ticket, step off at the gate and your loved ones would be waiting.

My, how times have changed. Now there are travel sites to help you find the best fare, airlines like Southwest that allow you sit wherever you want, extensive security stuff which means you get to the airport earlier and probably sit longer…the obviously necessary changes borne from evolution of the traveling population.

Which begs the question: what is worth knowing about?

Given how un-amusing travel can be nowadays, it might not feel like much. There are a few diamonds in the rough, however, that still bring some creature comforts to the travel entanglements many of us deal with as we travel for business. Take the effort that Orbitz.com has put into personalizing the experience by harnessing the finer points of Web 2.0 technology: community building.

On the Orbitz site, there is a service called OrbitzTLC which offers more information than you can probably imagine on most of the large airports here in the US. Choosing one from the dropdown immediately gives you blog postings, forum postings by other travelers from everything about good places for loved ones to wait, to the hidden nook for a bite to eat. It displays a dashboard with the airport status, traffic, and security wait times. All of these update in real-time, making it a nice-to-have tool to glance at before leaving to brave the airport.

Their TLC service does not stop at just those kinds of goodies. When you book your ticket you can enter in email addresses or phone numbers of people expecting you so they will receive any notifications about flight delays or cancellations. This saves you many phone calls if you find yourself standing at the customer service desk.

Speaking of getting settled in at the airport, wireless Internet is standard in all major metropolitan airports nowadays. There are some that provide it free of charge, but they tend to be the smaller ones. The larger airports easily monetize the boredom we all face while we sit at the gate, unable to have a friend or loved one there with us anymore to keep us company. Most airports use the T-Mobile HotSpot system to let you get hooked into the connection, which generally runs about $10 for a “day pass”….something that seems a little frustrating given that you are probably only there for a few hours at most.

If you find your fingers itching to start surfing the ‘net the second you sit down, you might want to check out Verizon’s FiOS card. This little device acts as a portable wireless connection for your computer that will work virtually anywhere it can access Verizon’s network. It plugs into the side of your laptop, searches for the signal, and you are connected! Granted, it is not going to be quite as fast as what you are used to with your home connection, but it is still pretty impressive given what it is based on. (Incidentally, this is also a nice-to-have item if you are stuck as a passenger in a long cab ride to the airport or sitting on the tarmac.) There are multiple modems available, and Verizon usually runs some kind of rebate/free offer on the device itself with a pre-determined contract length. There is a monthly access fee associated with it, but if you travel a lot and find yourself connecting at two or more airports just on one leg of the trip, the savings wind up being significant.

Sure, travel used to be simpler. There were fancier accommodations and the help was much happier. As we keep regressing into our little Internet worlds where we socialize less to get more information, travel is one industry that certainly has not missed that boat.

Virtual Working Reality

In the last post, I demonstrated the ways in which you can save considerable time and travel expense with online collaboration tools to share with your clients. That does, however, raise another issue: do you have to be there with your employees?

When Flat World Media was first created, it was designed to be a virtual entity in the interest of cost savings for a start-up. We embraced software-as-a-service (SaaS) to its fullest extent by pushing our business into the virtual world through services and online applications. Part of the security of storing things virtually opened up new ways to share and collaborate with employees as well. As our company grew, so did its online presence within the business. Back office operations, databases, servers, email and even our phone systems set up shop online, making us reachable and versatile. How many of these aspects of your business do you really need to have housed within your four walls?

As we continued to grow and our client base became very healthy, even more online tools started to become part of our roster. We added Salesforce.com to help us communicate and keep track of discussions and progress with our clients. All of our customer databases were housed on a dedicated machine out-of-state with RAID back-up should there ever be a failure of any kind. We have no IT department. That comes with our service.

All of these tools allow you to create a nimble and robust company without the traditional overhead costs that can exist when you first set up shop. It also considerably widens your talent pool. You are no longer confined to people within driving distance of an office. The last thing we wanted was to be an environment where people were clockwatching or having to punch in and out.

A few months ago, however, we had to make a decision about whether the company should stay virtual or become some kind of physical entity. It was difficult, because the versatility of the online world made it so easy to be mobile and have colleagues who were happier and more productive working in their own environments. But, as I mentioned in last month’s article in relation to selling and dealing with clients: sometimes you cannot replace a good old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. We wanted to find a way to bridge the benefits of a virtual business with a “home base” of sorts for those times when people just need to be around people.

So we gave in, and carefully chose an office space not far from my home. What was crucial was that the feeling of the virtual space and the freedom associated with it needed to stay intact. It just became important that the local people we do deal with feel they have a space where the company exists. There are still no time clocks. There are still no requirements about local versus non-local employees as we have many colleagues who are in different time zones, and even different countries.

What it boils down to as your business grows is what compromises you feel you can make. The cost/benefit ratio becomes a huge consideration when exploring all the options that we have as small business owners. It is important to stay flexible. I certainly never intended to have a physical operation from the outset, but growth made me reevaluate what would work best for my clients as well as the employees and consultants who help keep the company robust and booming. We are actually very lucky to have those options in this day and age. We are not bound only by tradition anymore, and we can allow ourselves to be guided by what is best for the company. And truly, that is the most rewarding partnership.

Virtual Meetings Give Us Unbeatable Service

Meetings and collaboration used to be a pretty big production by today’s standards. There would be travel involved, or telephone calls plagued with comments like, “Wait, what page are you talking about?” Plane tickets would be booked, cars would be rented, and board rooms would be reserved to review information and close deals. That was the way it was done, but nowadays it sure does sound like a lot of trouble thanks to the tools that exist today.

Conducting business virtually might have seemed like a fad at first, but thanks to tools that keep human collaboration alive and well over sometimes thousands of miles, companies are seeing a huge benefit. They save all the trouble of traveling, but can still meet with customers, conduct meetings, show demos, and brainstorm together in a team setting. What started as communication via e-mail and instant messaging to provide a quicker method of communication has evolved into a completely new toolbox for running a business. Some are free for simple solutions, and others come with a price tag that can wind up giving you back time you could never buy for solving more complex needs or issues.

A free tool that’s been indispensable for me in helping to fix bugs on others’ computers or showing someone how to use a program (sometimes for family members in need, of course) is Crossloop (http://www.crossloop.com). The virtual access portal it provides gives you total control over the desktop on their PC. You move your mouse, and it performs the action on their side. Particularly for things like training, it is one tool that closely resembles a side-by-side training session without anyone having to go anywhere. However it is a Windows-only solution.

A similar application that can give you access to a PC anywhere in the world is GoToMyPC (http://www.gotomypc.com). If you do make the trip to a client and forget a file or have a program to run that is a little too much for the laptop you have with you, GoToMyPC will do the trick for a mere $20 a month, allowing you unlimited access to one other computer. If you want to kick up the collaboration aspect, you can use their tool specifically for meetings with multiple folks using their similar GoToMeeting application (http://www.gotomeeting.com). Hosting your meeting with their easy interface will let several people in very different locations all view your desktop as you go through your PowerPoint or do a product demo. You will find it especially helpful if there is often discussions on the phone that include, “I’m looking at the PowerPoint you sent at 9:03am…is it that one, or the one from 1:23?” No more of that, everyone will literally be on the same page.

The big owner of the category GoToMyPC has set up camp in is virtually dominated by WebEx (now owner by Cisco Systems). A similar interface, along with their MeetMeNow feature provides another reasonable priced alternative to conducting meetings online.

Maybe you do not need a desktop sharing tool, though. Let’s face it, no matter how great an application is; sometimes it is still all about good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Futuristic as it may sound; many applications also have this covered for a regular chat in-person…well, almost. Video chat has helped many business owners is this area as well, providing that personal touch which is easily lost in email and desktop sharing. A great program that combines the video teleconferencing feature with document sharing is Adobe’s Acrobat Connect. Providing an easy and always-on URL makes it easy to jump into a virtual meeting room, invite others, assign permissions to people and label them as a host, presenter, and participant. A feature to also note is that it is compatible with both Windows and Mac, something to stay aware of when you are using a tool to connect people.

My business does so much work for our customers in the Internet realm; it is easy to stumble on many tools that help us do our business virtually. While nothing can completely replace the value of personal meetings in helping potential customers to understand our capabilities, we’ve been about to provide amazing service once an account comes on board thanks to tools like these. Customer service takes on a completely new meaning when we are available to our clients this quickly and efficiently, providing a robust level of accessibility that was once impossible. As these programs continue to evolve it is conceivable that clients may never have to see me post-sale…though I will miss those frequent flyer miles.