10 Awesome Online Tools Your Small Business Should Be Using

crowdSPRING is a small business – our team totals nine people (and a really cute chocolate lab puppy named Lucy). As a small business, we leverage online tools to help us run our business efficiently and inexpensively. We are selective – we do our homework and always compare competitive products within any category. Before we make any decision, we typically look at the top two or three finalists and thoroughly evaluate them before deciding what to use.

Entrepreneurs and other small businesses often ask us about the online tools we use, and we’re happy to share. We only recommend the tools we personally use and like. Here are our top 10:

1. Google Website Optimizer

What it is: Website Optimizer is a free tool that helps you test and increase your site’s conversion rates. You can test variations of text, images, and other content. It’s easy to use and provides a very compelling way to test and increase conversions.

Why we use it: We’ve used the Website Optimizer for numerous tests on our site, including the home page, our “how it works page”, and on other pages to test specific elements. If you wonder whether the effort is worth it – it absolutely is.

How we use it: We develop content for a specific page and run tests to see which content leads to higher conversions. For example, we’re currently testing three variations of our “How It Works” page. For a more detailed look at how we use Website Optimizer, you should read my post – “Increasing Conversions Using Google Website Optimizer“.

2. Google Analytics

What it is: Google Analytics is a free tool from Google that provides detailed and very useful information about your website traffic and the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

Why we use it: There are numerous paid analytics tools available – and many are quite good. Google Analytics is free and offers more than enough features that most businesses need. Google has continued to innovate in this area and has recently added new features, including advanced segmentation (allowing you to analyze subsets of your traffic) and custom reports.

How we use it: We monitor traffic to every page on our site. We also monitor every marketing campaign that we run to evaluate whether the expenses (both time and effort) are justified. We’ll also occasionally compare our data to those of our competitors. If you’re interested, I recently wrote “10 Tips For Evaluating Your Competitors” – a useful guide that lists additional resources that could supplement your analytics data.

3. Gmail Apps

What it is: Google Apps is a low-cost online service that provides powerful email, calendar, documents, intranet solutions for small businesses.

Why we use it: Google charges $50 per user per year. It would cost us considerably more (in setup, time, and support) to replicate the services offered in Google Apps on our own. We get outstanding email service with world-class email security, spam filtering and archiving, group calendar capability, group document, spreadsheet and presentation capability, and although we don’t use this feature – the opportunity to create an intranet for our company.

How we use it: Some of us use the online gmail interface while others use the Mail client in OS X. We often generate documents and spreadsheets that we share among our team, and we share online calendars (iMail integrates nicely with Google Apps – some on our team prefer iMail and Calendar in OS X – and those live peacefully with the rest of us who use the Google native online applications).

4. Google Alerts

What it is: Google alerts are free email updates from Google search results about any topic you’re interested in tracking.

Why we use it: We track numerous terms (different people on our team track different terms). For example, I track the names of our competitors, our own name, certain key industry events or terms, and many more terms/topics. Anytime Google adds something to its index that mentions crowdSPRING – I receive an immediate email notification with a link to that item.

How we use it: Without the ability to learn about new content, we would have difficulty participating in online discussions about us or about issues that are important to us. Moreover, Google Alerts help us to follow new developments in the industry.

5. Zendesk

What it is: Zendesk is an online service that helps you deliver outstanding customer service to your customers.

Why we use it: We are committed to world class customer service. To deliver on that commitment, we have developer policies and processes that allow us to quickly and fully respond to all requests from our customers. But because we have a small team, we have to rely on great tools to help us. We run all of our customer service efforts using Zendesk.

How we use it: Anytime a customer sends us a complaint or question using our online form, we receive it in our Zendesk application. Multiple people on our team are able to access the application at the same time, assign tickets, deal with issues, monitor progress, review numerous reports about our efficiency, and ultimately, deliver great customer service.

6. Campaign Monitor

What it is: Campaign Monitor is a low-cost service that helps you with email marketing. You can send text and html email campaigns, track the results, and manage your subscribers.

Why we use it: We send emails and our newsletters to tens of thousands of users who’ve opted in to receive email from us. It would be very difficult and expensive to do this on our own

How we use it: Campaign Monitor maintains our subscriber list and allows us to test every html email in multiple email clients before it’s sent. It also monitors numerous statistics about our emails and delivers reports to us showing how many people opened our email, how many (and who) clicked which link, etc. We use this data to improve our emails and newsletters and to better understand what our users like reading about.

7. Skype

What it is: Skype is software that allows small businesses to make free video and voice calls to anyone around the world who owns a computer and has installed Skype. Skype also allows you to make  low cost voice calls to any phone in the world.

Why we use it: Skype offers free video-conferencing and an easy way to connect with pretty much anyone. It allows us to have a video/audio call and also to exchange files and to type comments in a separate window.

How we use it: We have a full fledged phone system (from Avaya), but when we call internationally or have video or audio conference calls with people, we often use Skype. It’s free (or very inexpensive), works well nearly all the time, and is super easy to use.

8. Highrise

What it is: Highrise is a low cost web based contact manager designed for small businesses.

Why we use it: We want to make sure that everyone has access to the contacts that we need to run our business efficiently. We tried keeping separate contacts, and while that works for some, it ultimately made it very difficult for us to operate. We also learned that when a person leaves the company or is away for a lengthy time due to family leave or a short term disability, it’s difficult and often impossible to replicate the lists of contacts they developed for the company.

How we use it: We maintain a common list of contacts, especially for marketing and public relations activities, so that multiple people can access those contacts and review a history of the conversations with each person.

9. Basecamp

What it is: Basecamp is a web-based project collaboration tool It allows a team to share files, assign tasks, centralize feedback and manage projects.

Why we use it: As a small team, it’s very important that we manage projects efficiently. We could not do this without using the right tools to help us. Basecamp allows us to easily manage both software development and non-software development projects. It’s very easy to use and is sufficiently flexible to let us use it in multiple different ways.

How we use it: Depending on what we’re working on, we manage our software development efforts using Basecamp. Among other things, we establish milestones and assign tasks, have online whiteboards, and track conversations about design mockups. Our marketing team also uses Basecamp to keep track of marketing and public relations initiatives.

10. crowdSPRING

What it is: crowdSPRING is the online marketplace for creative services. Over 37,000 designers from 150 countries are ready to help small businesses with logo design, stationery design, web design and other custom graphic design needs. Unlike traditional marketplaces, a buyer on crowdSPRING posts their project, names their own price and deadline, and then selects from at least 25 designs to their specifications (or they get their money back).

Why we use it: We’d be nuts if we didn’t leverage our own community for our needs. As a small business, we have a very limited budget. Yet, we want to compete against others, including against much better financed competitors. Our own community lets us do this at a price we can afford, without sacrificing quality.

How we use it: Pretty much everything you see on our site – and even off our site, was developed by our community. Our site design comes from our own marketplace. We sourced our great new business cards on crowdSPRING. Same with our banner advertising – and much more. We eat our own dogfood, and are super-pleased with the results.

We love learning about other online tools that other businesses use and like. What do you use that you would recommend, and why?