Whether your company is just starting out, just starting to turn a profit or already on the verge of an acquisition, as an entrepreneur you’ll be constantly evaluating the tools that will help get your business to the next stage.
Even if the ink on the business plan isn’t dry yet, you want to be armed with the social media tools that will play an important role in company communication, product and brand promotions, and business development for your startup. Some of the tools in this list will be familiar, but it’s worth taking a moment to reframe how they might become power tools in a business context.
As an entrepreneur, you need to know what people are saying about your company as well as your competitors. Enter Monitter, a service that monitors Twitter mentions in real-time in a multi-column interface reminiscent of TweetDeck. Simply input a search term into a column, add or remove columns as desired, and get an automatically-refreshing picture of what people are saying about your brand or competing brands in your space.
Pro Tip: By default, the Monitter interface is gray on black, which can be hard on the eyes. You can switch to a more typical color scheme by selecting the ‘light’ theme in the menu at the upper right.
You already know about YouTube, but have you thought about how it could help your business? Could your product benefit from an awesome video walkthrough? Could your marketing strategy include a viral video strategy that gets you lots of exposure at relatively low cost?
And now with Promoted Videos getting placement in AdSense units around the web, there’s even more incentive to think about leveraging social video as a brand exposure tool. If you can create interesting content that’s relevant to your brand or products, a positive visual association with your company can attract new interest, build company culture, turn inquiries into sales, and give back significant brand dividends over time.
Pro Tip: The most obvious and frequent business use of YouTube is for marketing and advertising, but don’t overlook other ways in which your company can leverage YouTube. Visual walkthroughs and FAQs can be a great boon to customer service. Videos of you and your team giving public presentations, speaking at conferences or engaging with the media can establish and enhance your company’s reputation as a thought leader. And don’t forget the utility of private videos for use in executive and new employee trainings and recording company events; access can be shared with only the people who should be able to see each item.
As a small business, it’s hard to juggle building and improving your products with supporting what’s already out there. That’s where UserVoice can help.
From bug reports to feature requests, UserVoice can help track and manage the feedback of your users and customers. Not only does it assure your userbase that you care about what they have to say, but it can potentially leverage the best suggestions from the people who are actually using your tool or service. Since users can vote on the ideas of other users, you can start to get a picture of the most-requested features and fixes for your app or service to feed back into your products’ lifecycles.
Pro Tip: You can also use UserVoice to get feedback on a limited release or beta version of a product by setting up a private forum or forums. You can send invites to specific email addresses, or limit your feedback to company-wide participants by restricting access by email domain.
Most reports and punditry on the death of email are a bit premature. The good old fashioned mailing list is still a good way to maintain relationships with customers, especially when done well.
The web-based mailing list manager MailChimp offers list management, tracking and analysis, and custom HTML templates for up to 500 subscribers and 3000 emails a month for free. Paid plans kick in at larger subscriber numbers. Featuring integration with WordPress, Twitter, Salesforce and more, MailChimp is the list manager of choice for an impressive list of heavyweights including Mozilla, Intel, Canon, Fujitsu, Staples and more.
Pro Tip: MailChimp has a well-documented API that allows you to integrate the service with your own existing applications, tools, content management system or CRM solution. There’s a growing list of plug-ins already created for a number of platforms.
[Disclosure: Mailchimp is a sponsor of Mashable]
6. Get Satisfaction
Great customer support is important, but it can also be time-consuming and costly. Get Satisfaction aims to help by leveraging the strength of your user community and cutting down on repetitive support costs.
Get Satisfaction provides a forum where your customers can get answers to questions, solutions to problems, and submit feature and new product requests. Those answers and solutions are stored and searchable over time, cutting down on support costs and building trust with your userbase.
Used by small businesses and large popular brands alike, Get Satisfaction gets rave reviews for human customer service and helping to build communities around brands and products.
Pro Tip: Embeddable widgets allow you to bring the conversation back to your own company’s site or even within your products themselves. Drop a searchable FAQ or a feedback tab or page right into your website or service to integrate the customer service experience right where your users need it.
What would this list be without our favorite microblogging service? From best practices for brands to tips for executives to using Twitter for customer service, there’s no shortage of creative ideas for leveraging Twitter for your business.
Even if you’re not in a technically-oriented industry, you’ll want to know which influencers in your domain are on Twitter and which of your potential clients and customers are there (hint: probably a bunch). You’ll want to wrap your head around hashtags for business, and more certainly check out Twitter’s own guidebook for businesses (as well as our own guidebook, of course!).
Pro Tip: Try not to use Twitter as a purely broadcast medium; whether one person or several posts to your official account, make sure your company is listening and interacting as well as simply posting. Strive for authenticity in your company’s tweets and try to think of it as taking part in a conversation, not just another soapbox platform.
Facebook is the other social networking giant you’ll want to be sure your business has a presence on. It’s another powerful tool for building relationships, raising visibility for your brand, and targeting your customer niche.
With a robust and relatively low-cost advertising platform, you can connect directly to the potential customers or clients who might want to know about you. Optimization tools help you fine-tune and target your ads more intelligently, and get detailed insight into who is responding to your ads.
Pro Tip: Authenticity is key here too for maximum impact. With changes that made Facebook Pages more like personal pages, your brand’s home on Facebook is no longer relegated to fairly static profile information. Since the Wall Feed is usually the main point of entry for your fans and visitors, think of it as an opportunity to provide some sort of utility to your visitors, whether it be information, entertainment, or relevant expressions of your company’s culture and mission.
If you’re like most startups, you’ve got a heck of a lot going on. You need to keep on top of your projects and open loops, not just internally but with your clients, partners, and customers as well. That’s where a good project management tool comes in.
Basecamp from 37signals is a great and cost-effective web-based tool for project management and collaboration. Featuring to-do lists, milestones for important due-dates, file sharing, blog-style messaging, wiki-style writeboards, time tracking, and integration with the excellent group chat product Campfire, basic plans for small businesses start at $24 a month.
Pro Tip: Add extra functionality to your Basecamp environment or integrate it with your existing systems in the extras and add-ons department. For example if you use Freshbooks, you can even invoice your Basecamp projects via Freshbooks.
From hiring to networking with cohorts and potential clients to participating in groups and question threads, LinkedIn is a powerful social network for entrepreneurs and business professionals of all stripes. It’s a great place to both discover and research potential job candidates (with a reported 75% of hiring managers using it over Facebook and Twitter), as well as both keeping up with and extending your network.
Pro Tip: Although it’s not an overnight success solution, positioning yourself as an expert in the LinkedIn Answers domain(s) relevant to your business can be a great way to increase your authority and drive new interest to your business. Don’t underestimate the power of asking for advice here as well.
1. Google Apps for Domains
Startup costs for outfitting an office with networking and computing equipment are staggering enough as it is without even taking into account the software and maintenance components. One area for adventurous entrepreneurs to cut costs in the latter department lies in the realm of typical office staples: email, calendaring and the office suites businesses typically need to use to prepare documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
Instead of paying an IT staff to set up, host and maintain your own mail servers, Google Apps for Domains can handle custom email addresses at your own company’s URL. As an alternative to Microsoft Outlook worth considering, Gmail also integrates nicely with Google Calendar for your group calendaring needs.
And whereas once Microsoft Office was one of your only choices in the office suites department, Google Documents now handles document, spreadsheet and presentation preparation with aplomb — all the while making it easy to share and collaborate with colleagues without having to email documents around or check items out of a central repository.
Pro Tip: For the truly frugal, you can even opt for the totally free Standard Edition which includes basic Gmail, calendaring, Google Docs and Google Sites. Premier Edition will run you $50 per user per year, but increases user email storage to 25GB, adds more security features and guarantees you uptime and support.