How to Make the Most of Free Online Tools

Photo of sculpture of a giant FREE rubber stamp
Photo by Alan Levine, Creative Commons

The Internet is awash with free websites, applications, and tools to help you save time, increase productivity, spy on your customers, and generally do business better. Plus there are countless webinars, eNewsletters, and blogs serving up neat molecules of free advice. Practically the only thing that isn’t free is your time. Here are my tips for getting the best free advice.

1) Start with a pen and paper.

Photo of notebook and pen
Photo by Sebastien Wiertz, Creative Commons

Really. I know this is an article about digital tools, but before you waste a lot of time looking at shiny new applications, write down what you want to do first. For example:

  • I need to tame my Inbox.
  • I want to be reminded if someone doesn’t respond to my emails.
  • I want to create a DIY website that doesn’t require tech know-how.

Even though I spend most of my days in front of a computer screen, I find something freeing about sitting down with an empty piece of paper in front of me and writing down what I’m thinking. But an empty computer screen works just as well.

2) Don’t waste time reading outdated articles.

Screen shot of a Google search boxIf you’re using Google Search, do a preliminary search, then click on Search Tools (on the right of the top menu). Go to “Any time” on the left and click the drop down arrow to your preferred time frame. I usually choose past year, or if I know there will be lots of reviews, past month.

If this seems like too many steps, just type the current year into the search engine along with your search terms. For example, enter “Best CRM small business 2015.”

While some older or irrelevant content may still show up, it’s a quick and easy way to find the more current results.

3) Look for recommendations from reputable sources.

Sure, there are plenty of great tech sites and blogs, but I find that the established publications–such as Forbes, Fast Company, and even the New York Times—hire great writers that offer user-friendly advice. These mainstream outlets are reliably objective and tend to attract the savviest commenters, too, so be sure to read the comments sections. I also love the articles in MarketingProfs and Social Media Examiner. On the nonprofit side, Nonprofit Tech for Good is a great resource. Look for the sites that others link to. If I can’t find a source I’m familiar with, of course I’ll read articles from other places, but I filter them for bias.

4) Choose the simple solution first.

Illustration of CRM process
Photo by Tineye, Wikimedia Commons

Unless you’re scaling up really fast, start out with a simple solution before investing your time in something with a learning curve. For example, if you’re a Gmail user and aren’t already using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program, why not incorporate some CRM techniques into your Gmail account? Here are some great suggestions for how to use Gmail as a simple CRM tool.

5) Avoid analysis paralysis.

Unless a new program or app is going to change your life, don’t agonize too much over which one to try. Start with the one that seems best suited to your needs, size, and budget. Most programs and apps are either free or offer a free initial trial. Block out a couple of hours and give one a try. Once you’ve gotten under the hood of one program, you’ll get a better feel for what you really need and can switch to a better solution.

Bonus tip: Delete stuff you don’t use.

Subscribing to newsletters you don’t read is like having a closet full of clothes you don’t wear. The downside of getting free advice and free apps off the internet is that you usually have to sign up for their email list to access the good stuff. Follow the ones you always open and unsubscribe from the rest. (And yes, that applies to EGGS-pert Advice, too!)