Are you ready to embrace the cloud? It's what everyone else is talking about? The thing is does anyone actually know what it is apart from being nice and shiny? And are any cloud services actually any good? I discuss 11 fantastic cloud services, software as a service or apps that will help your business.
#1 Office Software in the Cloud
I'm going to be sitting on the fence on this one, or rather give you three options! The choice you make in the end depends on your business. Traditionally most businesses had standalone computers connected to the internet or their own office server. Each computer would have individual copies of Office software (usually Microsoft Office) or the Office software was deployed by the server. The problem with this approach was that it required maintenance of a server, software updates, licences and you'd quite often end up being in a mess. No doubt you'll have heard that "the cloud" is the best thing ever and you should be embracing it right now. I'm always quite sceptical about such statements, but I do think now is the time for businesses to look into it. Here are 3 advantages:
- No local server to run, manage, maintain or repair
- Less reliance (if any) on an IT department
- You always have the latest version of Office (with security updates)
There are different options depending on your set up and budget. Office 365 Most of the Office 365 plans give you full versions of Office which you can run on your local desktops or laptops. Calling this a "cloud" service is stretching the definition a bit, but you do get some cloud storage to store and share your documents as well as Microsoft Exchange for your email. It's more of a subscription based service for Office with Microsoft Exchange thrown in for good measure. If you opt for Office 365, you'll still need to manage your computers and software together with security updates. That probably means you'd still need to keep someone or a team to manage your computers or to offer you support if and when things go wrong. Citrix XenApp Instead of running Microsoft Office on your computer, why not actually run it in the Cloud? With the likes of XenApp from Citrix you can run the likes of Microsoft Word, Outlook and Excel from your computer as if it is running locally- but instead it is being powered by servers at a data centre. This is not like traditional screen sharing or remote desktop- this is what is called "App virtualisation". The advantage of this is that you don't have to run any software locally on your computer. That means no worrying about software updates, security or backup- all of that is taken care of by your XenApp provider. It even continues to work if your internet connection dies. The ability or inability of cloud services to work offline is one of my big concerns with using Cloud based services- so the fact that it works is a big advantage. In order to use XenApp you need to find a Cloud based provider who offers Citrix XenApp, for example The IT Farm based in Manchester. Amazon WorkSpaces Internet retail giant Amazon have always offered a wide range of web services such as simple storage (S3) and cloud computing (EC2). Recently Amazon announced Amazon WorkSpaces which is their first venture into what they refer to as "a fully managed desktop computing service in the cloud". It is very similar to the likes of Citrix's XenApp in that it offers Office Apps virtually on your computer. The cost is also very reasonable starting at $50 per user per month (including all the software licences). I'm very interested to know more about this technology. I do have my concerns though. What will the customer support be like? Where will our data be stored? If it's the US (which is likely) then I'd be concerned about data security, particularly in the post-Snowden/NSA world.
#2 Password Management in the Cloud: LastPass
I've mentioned LastPass many times before including in my 10 tips to make your computer more secure. LastPass is a cloud based password management system which I believe all businesses should consider for the following reasons:
- It helps you and your team remember all your passwords
- You can share passwords for shared accounts with your team, and keep your personal ones to yourself
- Enables you to use super strong (uncrackable) passwords for all your accounts
- Saves time by filling in your login details across all your internet accounts
- With LastPass Enterprise you can use a Security Policy that your staff have to comply with- minimum length of passwords etc
- Words across all browsers and mobiles and offline
Everyone can use LastPass for free, but the paid versions aren't expensive. Premium is $12 per user per year and the Enterprise version is $24 per user per year/ That's just the start of it, but you get the idea. As you can tell I love LastPass- and no I'm not on commission- I am just a happy customer!
#3 Manage Customer Relationships in the Cloud: Nimble
Some of you may already be using a CRM (Customer Relationship Management tool) and some of you may not know what one is. I started using one for the first time some months back. After quite a few recommendations from people I trust, I decided to try Nimble. A CRM could be seen as an address book on steroids- but that isn't doing it justice. With Nimble you can import your contacts from many different platforms in to one super list:
- Your local address book (from Outlook, Thunderbird etc)
- Your cloud based contacts list (GMail, Apple Mail etc)
- Your Social Network contacts (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+)
- Social groups and Twitter lists
- Your newsletter service (for example MailChimp)
With these contacts you can then merge any duplicates and start tagging them so that they are easy to find later. For example I have tagged all the CEOs I know, my clients, friends, people from University, school, potential clients and more. Tagging means I can segment my contacts into different categories- making it much easier to find a group of contacts or a specific one instantly. One of the great features about Nimble is that you can see easily if your contacts are on LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter and Facebook and directly connect with them all from the dashboard. You can also see any mentions of you on social networks directly from within Nimble. It is such a time saver and will help you and your business be much more productive!
#4 Backup and Sync in the Cloud: SpiderOak
Even if you've embraced the cloud when it comes to your Office Software, it's still likely that you'll have files stored on your computer that you want to back up or have available on other computers. For some businesses inexpensive "set it and forget" backup tools such as Carbonite might well be a good option. The problem is that if your computer's hard drive fails and you need to get your data back it could take days, weeks or even months to get your data back over a standard broadband connection. Many of you will be familiar with sync and back up tools such as Dropbox and Google Drive. These backup your files to the cloud and also syncronise them onto other computers that you own. I use both all the time. Unfortunately you can't really rely upon the security of these. Technically Google and Dropbox can decrypt any of these files if the likes of the FBI or NSA ask them to. If you have important data on your customers you can never be too careful with your data. That's why I recommend SpiderOak as a backup and sync tool. For $10/mth up to 100Gb of data is backed up to the cloud and you can syncronise this on to the folders of any other computer you own. I synchronise and back up my entire documents, videos, photos and desktop folders between my laptop and desktop. It means I can work between my laptop and desktop and have all the files I need and be happy that all my data is backed up securely. I say securely because SpiderOak adopt a "zero knowledge" policy, meaning that they can't decrypt my files even when asked to do so. All passwords are fully encrypted.
#5 Email in the Cloud: Google Apps
Google Apps is an alternative to Microsoft's Microsoft Exchange platform. It uses a business class version of GMail together with Google Docs (or Google Drive as it is now called). Although I tend to recommend Office 365 or a cloud version, I personally prefer Google for email, contacts and calendar. With the paid version of Google Apps, you get up to 25Gb of space for email and documents but you can always pay for more.
#6 Security & Encryption in the Cloud: Private Internet Access VPN*
If you work on the move and find yourself checking emails or going on the web via a public WiFi hotspot, then beware! Connections such as these (think Starbucks, coffee shops, motorway service stations) are not encrypted- meaning that anyone can sniff into your internet traffic. Many websites and applications do use secure connections (SSL) such as Facebook, GMail and Twitter, but not all websites are. This is why I recommend using a Virtual Private Network to encrypt your connection to potential snoopers. Using the service from Private Internet Access you can choose to connect to a server (there are lots of choices right round the world) and connect to the internet from there. This means your connection to any snoopers in the coffee shop you are working in is complete jibberish. I use this all the time when I need to connect to servers using FTP or email clients that aren't secure. Private Internet Access is remarkably good value at $39.95 per year.
#7 Social Media Sharing in the Cloud: Buffer
A lot of the people I meet tend to use Hootsuite to manage their various social networks. However whenever I explain Buffer to them they usually instantly see the benefit. Buffer is a scheduling tool for your social networks. Each of your networks has a queue of posts and a posting schedule. When the next time for a post is scheduled, Buffer posts the post which is at the front of the queue. I use Buffer for 3 of my Twitter accounts, my person Facebook account as well as my two Facebook business pages, my LinkedIn profile and company page, app.net and my Google+ Business page. It is a huge time saver for time strapped businesses- meaning that you can schedule your posts throughout the week. I use it to share interesting content with my followers and fans- which is important in building up my reputation as well as trust. The Awesome Plan which allows posting to up to 12 social networks costs $10 per month.
#8 Social Media Relationships in the Cloud: Commun.it
Regular readers to my blog will have read about Commun.it before. They call themselves a "Social Media Relationship Management Tool". There is some overlap with Nimble in this respect, but Commun.it does a much better job with helping you manage your community on Twitter. If you use Twitter for your business then I highly recommend checking out Commun.it. It helps you reply quickly to any mentions, find new followers or unfollowers, see who is tweeting about an article on your blog, find out who is supporting or influencing you as well as generating new leads. I could go on here, but I recommend having a read of my Complete Guide on Commun.it as well as my 10 Must Have Social Media Tools for Small Businesses.
#9 Document Sharing & Lead Generation in the Cloud: edocr
I have mentioned edocr a few times before with a complete guide and on my 10 Must Have Social Media Tools article. As a business you will be creating content- that may be on a blog, customer documents, white papers, manuals, guides and more. You may have these to hand for emailing to your clients, or the facility to download these from your website, but how can you give these a bit more exposure? edocr hosts your documents and makes them accessible to a much wider audience. It does this by showcasing your documents on the edocr web site under specific categories. You can link your edocr profile to your Google+ profile which will highlight to Google you as author. You (or other people) can also embed edocr documents on blogs and other websites. When someone reads one of your documents, edocr can interact with other apps such as Nimble or just send you an email- perfect for lead generation.
#10 Real People Web Analytics in the Cloud: CANNDi
I met the CEO of CANDDi, Tim Langley, earlier this year at a Techcelerate event. I had heard about CANDDi before through this CANDDi Insights Review from social media consultant and blogger Lilach Bullock. To begin with I just couldn't understand why anyone in their right mind would want to build an analytics platform. Everyone uses Google Analytics, right?! However, to call CANDDi a web analytics platform is to completely miss the point. CANDDi isn't so interested in web stats but more in real people stats. Their tagline is "Who, not just how many". I tell you, that is music to my ears! Everyone seems to be mad about numbers. How high is your Klout score? How many Twitter followers do you have? What is your monthly web traffic? I deliberately listed "chasing numbers" as one of the top "tips" in my ironic article about becoming a social media guru. Do you know what? None of these statistics are important by themselves! I have to admit that increasing my Twitter following, or having a high Klout score can give a nice warm feeling inside, but are these stats by themselves going to help you grow your business? No! Once you sign up, you add your CANDDI code to your website. This is very similar to the way you add your tracking snippet for Google Analytics. The CANDDi team take quite a hands on approach with customer support too which is very encouraging- particularly as the CEO himself gets involved with this! CANDDi tells you more about the actual people who browser your website and their behaviour. For example...
- Their name
- Phone number
- Their location
- Their company
- How engaged they are (how many visits, which pages they visit, where they come from)
It does this by cleverly syncing information from contact forms, comments, mailing lists and other methods. You can even use your favourite mailing list system (for example MailChimp) to track who is clicking through to your website. If CANDDi can't work out exactly who the person is, it can still tell you their rough location and perhaps the company they work for or own. CANDDi isn't just for your website either, it can integrate telephone tracking too. This is a fantastic high level lead generation tool. CANDDi isn't cheap (it starts from £99/mth) but it's not expensive when you compare it to far less effective forms of advertising and marketing platforms.
#11 Telecommunication & Phones in the Cloud: Soho66*
So, you've got a website, you have email and you're using social media. Congratulations and welcome to the 21st century! But are you talking to people on the phone? Yes, the phone! I know, I am teasing, but it is easy to forget the importance of the phone. We all have mobile/cell phones and we're all connected, but having a professional phone service for your business is important. Just listing your mobile phone number will look unprofessional and it doesn't give you a lot of flexibility. This is where a VoIP (Voice over IP) or internet phone facility comes in. Here in the UK I recommend the service from Soho66* which we've used for many years. Despite having a huge number of services, it is remarkably easy to set up. You can choose many different types of phone numbers and then decide what happens when someone phones you. For example you could get all calls to forward to your mobile/cell phone or landline phone. Or you could set up a more complex call routing set up. For example:
- Play welcome message
- Connect to Office VOIP phones for 10 seconds
- If no answer then phone office AND home VOIP phones for 10 seconds
- If still no answer then phone office and home VOIP phones and mobile/cell phones for 10 seconds
- If still no answer, redirect to voicemail
You can set up business hours for your calls so that calls outside of these times are directed to your voice mail straight away. You can record calls and store them securely. You can also set up an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system that allows the caller to choose which extension or department to be directed to by pressing a key on their phone. You can receive faxes and send faxes by email (yes, some people still use faxes!). Unfortunately, Soho66 is only available in the United Kingdom, but there will be quality VOIP providers where you are located if you live outside the UK. If you live in the United States or Canada, you could check out Google Voice. Although not as flexible as a full VOIP provider it does provide some of these features.
So, are you ready to embrace The Cloud? Have you already done so? What services do you or your business use? As always let me know your thoughts, dear reader, in the comments below!