In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown I was invited to host an online discussion for The Strategy Circle entitled “Digital tools and tips to ease your online workflow”. Coming from a broad digital background including online publishing, content marketing, web development and project management, this is a vast topic for me to approach – as diverse as business itself. It’s tough to hone in, in enough detail, in a way that covers everybody’s unique business needs in an hour discussion.
The way I see it, “online” or “digital” is no longer a tool you sometimes use or a division of your company – for many businesses it’s the future (if not present!) of your business operations. The COVID-19 lockdown period has catapulted many businesses from digital reluctants to a state of more tech savvy than they’ve ever been – and learning. And it’s a future that, now more than ever, we all have to embrace as a new reality.
As a follow-up I promised to share a list of some of my favourite online tools that for me really help to save time, streamline workflows, increase productivity, save money or really just put important business systems in place. I’ll do that here, so that I can share it easily with those who were – and weren’t – at the workshop session, and I’ll add to it over time as things change or new tools come up.
As the Coronavirus quarantine lockdown initiated this topic of discussion, I’m focusing on those areas of business that many non-technological companies and those traditionally not “online” are grappling with at this time. Broad topics that come to mind are: remote working, productivity tools for managing teams, getting your business online, social media marketing tools, ecommerce and online deliveries, setting up online courses or training, and other new ways to add value to your clients. Bearing in mind these are not all of the options out there – these are tools I myself use or have trialled – and I would love to hear recommendations for others not on my list. Please feel free to leave these in the comments below.
Productivity Tools for Remote Working
Google Tools and G Suite
Most people have used these in some way or other, and so while these may be obvious to some, I start off with the Google universe of tools (“G Suite“) as they’ve been integral to my workflows since setting up my own business and probably give the most important organisational structure. Not only do they help to organise all your documents and other files used within your business, they safeguard against the inevitable laptop theft or mobile phone breakage that all too many of us experience at some point. They also sync all your media files really nicely between your email attachments, calendar, documents, presentations, etc. saving you so much time in day-to-day business admin. These include:
Google Drive – for cloud-based file storage (syncs beautifully between desktop computer and your phone or mobile device – everything always available at your fingertips wherever you are). You can choose what you share with your team. I have one main folder separate from my personal stuff, and within that I can make ‘private’ anything I don’t want the intern to see! Free to use up to 15 GB, and then it’s about R200 a month for up to 1TB of space at time of writing.
Google Docs – like MS Word but it runs from your browser and can have multiple users viewing or working on one document at the same time, either viewing only, editing or commenting as you see fit. This is great for preventing version control issues (you only need one version of any document) and great for team work on proposals, reports, etc. You also never need to save. Ever. Again. It’s all live (and you can go back to any point through editing history.)
Google Sheets – much the same as the above but taking Excel into the cloud and working from your browser on shareable online spreadsheets. You can interlink between tables you copy from your sheet into a doc, which is also a nice easy live update feature.
Google Slides – has become my go-to presentation maker mostly because it’s so much better than PowerPoint and secondly because you don’t have to upload any images… they are all accessed directly from your Drive folder or from Google. Beautiful and seamless. You can share your presentation live as a link to present online, cast to another screen, or download it as a PDF or as a powerpoint file.
A note on all the above: you can also import and edit any regular doc, xls or ppt file – no converting issues here – and export as PDF, csv, doc, txt etc. All the Google software options are free to use. All of them you can make your document available offline and edit offline as well.
Google Keep – is my favourite little “to-do-list” app – and one I find mostly useful again because it syncs between your computer and your phone. Make a note on your phone while going for a jog and inspiration strikes or take a note in a meeting – and it’s there on your computer when you get back to the office. Also super useful when you have that “how do I get my text from my Word doc to WhatsApp” moment. Type or paste into Keep on your laptop. Open phone. Copy from your Keep app, paste wherever. Done. No more sending emails to yourself or typing lengthy essays on your phone.
More on this and other useful Productivity Tools here.
Video conferencing – jump to this section below.
Content creation, social media scheduling and dissemination
When we speak about ‘content’, we are usually dealing with words, images, video. Sometimes those images are photos and sometimes illustrations or graphic design. Content can ‘live’ anywhere online, such as your website, social media or newsletter, or form part of a printed brochure or magazine.
These are tools that make DIY content creation and dissemination easier, cheaper and manageable within your own business if you have the time or inclination.
Content creation: stock media, image design and video editing tools
Stock imagery – When you can’t afford a photographer for your content imagery, don’t just pull a pic off Google images; a) the quality might be bad (too low resolution), and b) you may be violating someone’s copyright. Rather head to one of the many great stock imagery websites. My favourite free ones: Unsplash and Pexels. The same exists for stock music. I’ve most recently used the Free Music Archive for some intro music for this video.
Image design tools – When it comes to image design, I personally default to Photoshop – but it’s only worth investing in if graphic design or content creation are important to your business. Otherwise there are free tools out there to create images that you could use in your social media posts, such as: Canva, for image design with or without text; Recite, for making quotes; Google photos, for an image collage; and many, many more.
Video makers – Whether you want a short video made from simple stills and text for a social media ad, or a little more in-depth piece of content combining video snippets and editing in sound and titles, there are many easy-to-use free tools. For mobile: easiest – try Quik, it has some fun themes with music and creative fonts and various filters; once you’ve mastered that, KineMaster is a bit more advanced and has more flexibility. If you’d rather work on your laptop, iMovie is easy to teach yourself (and there are tons of YouTube tutorials if you get stuck).
Social media scheduling, automation and linking
Having multiple social media clients myself, scheduling my social media posts saved my life. Not doing this, you run the risk of spending so much more time on social media than is healthy… to the point that you may start dreaming in Instagram! (I kid you not.)
My favourite scheduler is Later. It’s free for one account, which is fine for most businesses unless you’re a content agency. Things I love: 1) it has a media library, so upload all your images in one go and manage them there adding notes, using tags, or simply by filtering “unused” media (or “used” if it’s been posted). 2) it has a calendar view, which is great for setting up your posts for the next few months in a nice timeline. 3) it has an Instagram preview tool, so you can see how your images look in your feed and move them around there for visual optimation (I love making a pattern in my clients’ feeds, really fuels my OCD!) 4) you can save text captions, which is useful if you have something standardised you append to certain types of posts (such as event dates, your website link, your brand hashtags etc.) 5) it offers hashtag suggestions. 6) tt has an image editing tool so you don’t have to resize your images first, and 7) you can save media direct from Instagram to your library (in particular, where you have been tagged in a post, or by searching images by hashtag).
While Later allows you to schedule posts to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, I still use Facebook‘s native scheduler for Facebook posts as it’s the best way to ensure your tags (handles) work and your link and images preview exactly as you want them.
Tip: if your image thumbnail is not showing up on a link to a blog or article you have recently published on your website, try this Facebook debugger tool.
For Twitter, Tweetdeck is still a great tool.
Another note on Facebook automation: the messenger tool can be wonderful for receiving messages easily from customers… but it can also quickly become an admin nightmare. My tip: set up an automated response message that covers your most frequently asked questions, such as what time is your store open, how do I book for…, what day are your classes held, how do I donate/volunteer/sign up, or where do I find your food menu. If you don’t regularly monitor the inbox it’s fine to say that too and provide an alternative contact method that suits you better.
Lastly, link shortening. A shortlink is mostly useful on any platform where you cannot click the link (like Instagram, currently, or in print) or where your link is really, really long and just looks ugly in a WhatsApp message or Facebook post. bit.ly is great for two reasons: 1.) you can customise your shortlink into something nice and easy to read (real words!) and 2.) it tracks clicks, telling you whether people clicked on the link from Facebook, Twitter or your website, etc. helping you optimise your dissemination strategy.
Of course, each social media platform has its own tools and features, and there are many more platforms that I haven’t mentioned here (such as LinkedIn, YouTube, Medium and Tiktok) but that would really be a blog (or workshop) of its own. (I do run a workshop on this on request, such as this one, so get in touch if you’re interested in setting this up.)
Newsletters & email automation
Another one that could have a blog of its own but simply, I love Mailchimp for organising my email contact databases and for the fact that there are WordPress plugins (and compatibility tools with most website / CMS platforms) so it’s easy for people to sign up directly to your mailing list from your website or Facebook. (You will never need a contact list spreadsheet ever again!)
With Mailchimp, you can create nicely designed email templates that are mobile friendly and optimised for email inboxes. You can also schedule your email newsletters in advance or set up automated mailers (e.g. an email someone gets when they sign up on your website, or buy a product from your online store, or don’t open your email for 7 days, among a variety of other triggers). Mailchimp also has a huge FAQ and tutorial section so it’s very easy to teach yourself when you get stuck.
There are other options out there that I haven’t tried: one that recently came recommended is ConvertKit, which apparently has great templates and more advanced features. I am yet to find something I can’t do with Mailchimp though, so you may want to do your own research there as I’m biased!
Video conferencing and related opportunities for businesses
If you haven’t had a lockdown Zoom call I’d be surprised… or at the very least one using any of the similar video conference tools, from WhatsApp video to Skype to HouseParty (now the number one trending app in Australia).
For Business, Zoom has become the favourite (it’s a bit more complex to set up than Skype but allows more people on at once). It has useful features such as text chat (for notes or questions), file sharing, recording, and screensharing.
Aside from meetings, there are a couple other business opportunities here. For content creation, you could set up an interview, panel discussion or Q&A session with thought-leaders. Record the session and post it as free content on social media (YouTube, Instagram and Facebook are all good options), use it on your website, or include it in a paid-for content package such as a masterclass, online courseware or a digital conference (since that convention centre version is probably a long way off…)
The switch from physical to digital gatherings shouldn’t be seen as a boundary or hindrance. Rather see it as removing a boundary: no longer are you limited by distance, cost of travel, time in traffic, number of seats in a room. Why limit your audience to people based in your city or who can afford to travel? Maybe your real tribe is a global one based on shared interests or values, rather than proximity.
Another great use of video conferencing is workshops or knowledge-sharing sessions. Whether you charge for these or make them free, they are a great value-add to your customers or network, and a fantastic way to connect with your community “face to face”. Again, why limit your knowledge to an exclusive audience who previously may not have been able to afford a ticket or cracked the invite to the press conference? Yesterday I watched a Q&A between two museum heads, one being the Zeitz MOCAA, and I thought to myself, normally only the editors of art magazines or fellow museum curators would be privy to this discussion. And honestly, that’s the shift we need to see. A move towards openness, sharing without borders, an inclination towards inclusion and collaboration.
An added benefit – it’s a great way to demonstrate your own expertise or the value of your network depending on the type of session. And while you might not charge for that hour, you are bound to get work or business out of it – and at the very least develop reputation and relationships.
A note here – where you don’t need other participants on the call, all the “live” social media video platforms are great here. Most popular currently are Facebook live (for a more local community, often people you know), Instagram live (a mix of people you know and interest-based followers) and YouTube (for a wider global audience). From live cooking classes to an exercise demo, the live interaction these platforms offer is often more personal and fun for the audience than a pre-recorded polished video.
On a related note, online courseware is great to develop as a package for clients or customers wanting to take free content to the next level. Often people offer a free teaser, or short video demo, whether it be a yoga class or guitar lesson, and use that to entice people to sign up to a paid-for, in-depth course or a subscription-based membership.
When it comes to creating material, your format depends on your subject matter and how best to explain your topic. It could be a simple PDF manual you create using something like Google Slides. You can include webinars or masterclass sessions that you’ve recorded on Zoom. You could include more polished videos that you’ve shot in a studio and edited professionally, where you demonstrate a physical activity or explain a complex concept. You could add in one-on-one sessions to the course package if your schedule allows, for a more “premium” or customised offering.
Finally there are also tools out there for building more complex online courseware that include things like testing or assessment. I’ve heard good things about Teachable as a starting point.
Websites & Ecommerce
Types of websites
A website can be as simple as a one-page company brochure, to a multipage portfolio site, to a content platform with a blog that you update daily, to a fully blown ecommerce platform that serves as your online shop and the back-end of your stock management system. So naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. How much time, money and effort you spend on it depends on the value to your business.
For the simple one-pager, there are platforms like Squarespace and Wix that do the job. You’ll easily be able to create your own website in a few hours or days.
I’m more of a fan of WordPress, personally, for a long list of reasons that include better features, SEO, versatility and reliability – but the barrier to entry is higher and may be daunting if you’re not tech savvy. If you’re slightly tech savvy, once you are set up, it’s very easy to manage and update yourself even if it takes a couple of lessons or online tutorials.
Content management systems (CMS)
Most particularly, WordPress is the best content management system, so as soon as you opt for a multi-page site with an extensive portfolio, blog or online content space, the simple site builders will cause you more trouble than good.
WordPress is handy because it has so many add-on extensions, called “plug-ins”. Whether you want to connect your Mailchimp account or add on a fancy delivery system or connect to your accounting software – if you can think of it, there’s a plugin.
E-commerce & online stores
On the E-commerce side of things, WordPress (using the WooCommerce plug-in) is the cheapest option for an online shop as there are no monthly fees or percentages charged on sales. (Shopify for example is easier to set up BUT they charge a percentage on every product sold, which over time can cost you a lot more than the setup of a WordPress site.)
Things to consider when setting up your online shop are:
In South Africa, many people are happy with EFT or Snapscan to make online payments. PayFast is a free plugin that allows EFT and online card payments through internet banking. If you need something ultra secure for a more complex operation, PayGate is connected to FNB and there are various business utilities they offer but they do charge a monthly fee of around R500. PayPal is good for international payments but not all South Africans have an account.
Delivery system and fee
Do you charge a flat delivery rate, is it location dependent or do you build it into your price? Is delivery free for a purchase of a certain price? Do you courier door-to-door or offer a free collection option? These are all questions to consider and all of these have plugins to automate the calculation.
If you’re a food business, consider piggybacking off an existing system like Uber Eats or U-Cook. Or partner with neighbourhood services who may be delivering a similar but complementary good that you can team up with and both benefit from each others’ networks.
Collaboration is queen
We sometimes say, content is king. In today’s rapidly changing world, collaboration is queen. The power of connection and a strong social network is limitless. When everybody is facing a daunting economy and very uncertain professional and social circumstances, why not reach out to those who you can work with and ease the load off each other? Working together, sharing the love, spreading the load, allowing each to do what they excel at and learning where to outsource what you can’t do (or hate doing!) yourself. Ultimately, you’ll build a more solid business and be better at what you do if you take this approach. Your customers will sense it too. Love is only real when it’s shared…
The funny thing is, this is at the heart of the ethos of the Internet and the entire plethora of online tools that have developed as a consequence of its evolution. The Internet is about sharing knowledge. It’s about not reinventing the wheel when someone has already made a perfectly good one. It’s about using those pearls of wisdom that have been left out there for you to find, creating your own, and adding them to the treasure box.
I hope this has been helpful, and if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about, please don’t hesitate to comment below or pop me a mail from the contact page.