Automation Tools For Your Small Business

By Zachary Rimlinger Updated on August 9, 2018

The rapid pace at which both business and technology are developing means that there are a variety of tools for doing away with mundane tasks in order to focus on more integral work. Oftentimes, and especially for small companies, your business can lean on this kind of technology to keep operating costs low. 

Not only do automation tools eliminate repetitive work and enable you to keep a lean team, but incorporating such technology can also help you take care of your existing staff. For those team members who crave opportunities to engage in more challenging or soul-satisfying tasks, automation frees time from their schedules to do just that. There are few better methods with which to improve employee morale and job satisfaction, which will always circle back around to help your business thrive and evolve.

Here’s a quick list of six free or low-cost automation technologies that can help automate workflows for a range of your business operations.

One Stop Shop  

Zapier is workflow automation king. Amongst a variety of uses, it can help you automate the receiving of data, file management, and all sorts of notifications by integrating with your preferred apps. For example, if an email hits your work inbox, Zapier can send a backup to your Google Drive, or Dropbox and can alert you on Trello, Slack, or another project management app. Or if you’re in the e-commerce business and use an email service like MailChimp, you can set up a “Zap” to automatically add new customers as contacts in an email list. Browse these 222 Zap ideas and you’ll quickly see how Zapier can optimize some of your existing workflows.

Scheduling

Calendly removes all the back-and-forth of setting up meetings by automating the scheduling process. Calendly makes invitees aware of your availability and lets them choose their desired time slot. Calendly also syncs with apps such as Slack, MailChimp, and Stripe, so be sure to check out uses that would be beneficial to your specific business. Whether its scheduling prospect calls or one-on-one meetings with your team members, including a link to your Calendly in your emails or email footer will save you many unnecessary exchanges.

Online HR Services

Onboarding new employees and fulfilling payroll can be tedious are time-consuming processes, to say the least. Social security numbers, addresses, direct deposit accounts, taxes—there is the ever-present danger of human error that comes with manual entry. But with Gusto, simply invite employees to sign up after setting up your company’s policies. More than helping you fulfill payroll, Gusto is a low-cost solution for centralizing and managing HR function such as approving time off, enrolling in company benefits, sending monthly check-in surveys to your team, and even generating reports that can give you an overview of your business.  

Email Management

It’s called SaneBox for a reason: this automation tool organizes your email stream to preserve a little more of your sanity. SaneBox analyzes your mailbox and email history to identify unimportant emails, which are then filtered into a single folder for later review, keeping your inbox focused on the urgent and important. You also receive a daily SaneBox Digest to bulk-process unimportant emails in less time. 

Customer Support

Support service requests can be mind-numbingly repetitive. Luckily for your support staff, there is Workfusion Chatbots. Through artificial intelligence, Chatbots takes over repeat inquiries from your support personnel and engages with the customer in human-sounding conversation. Workfusion guarantees a 50% reduction in manual service effort, making Chatbot a powerful complement to customer service staff.

Social Media Marketing

Let’s say you also want to share curated content that would add real value to your followers’ lives.  DrumUp has you covered with the latest in social media optimization. Rather than spend your time scouring the web, Facebook, or Twitter feeds for articles to keep your audience engaged, DrumUp’s algorithm automates it for you across a wealth of social media platforms. You cut down the time it takes to manage your presence by up to 90% while barely making a dent in your budget.

Conclusion

The benefits of office automation software for your business are manifold. For starters, the use of automation increases your staff’s dexterity with tech tools, potentially reducing the onboarding time with software and applications you adopt as you grow your business. If you can get your employees plugged into new software sooner, they’ll be more receptive and more adept the next time.

If you’re ready to take the next step, read these tips for successfully pinpointing what areas of your business are ripe for automation and how to get your team to play along.  

How to Introduce Automation Into Your Small Business (And Make It Stick)

By Laura Lopez on May 10, 2018 

Previously, we’ve shared specific tools that accountants and small businesses can use to automate their workflows. By automating core accounting tasks, scheduling, and more, businesses across all industries can redirect staff time away from manually-intensive projects while simultaneously saving money. This is especially true for small- to mid-sized companies that are often strapped for resources at the same time they’re striving for growth. 

By making employees’ jobs faster and easier, a practice can accelerate growth through increased efficiency and strengthen its overall service. But how do you go about implementing automated processes? Don’t throw your staff into the deep end and expect them to swim. Below are some tips on how to ease into the practice of automation to make it stick. 

Establish a plan and contingencies

Before anything else, practices need a plan that spells out their end goals. For example, automating the backup of email attachments into Dropbox with a program like Zapier may be convenient, but a business must also ask related questions, such as how their team’s ability to easily retrieve the attachments will be affected? Will everyone have access or only a single point person? Will this make collaboration between teams smoother? And so on. Failure to establish a roadmap will likely result in miscommunication and crossed wires.

Identify areas of biggest need

One of the easiest ways to begin automating a practice is by identifying the exact areas within the company that need it the most. Quite simply, pay attention to constant frustrations. By first plugging the biggest holes in workflow, firms can alleviate their employees’ collective stress, increasing the chances of getting everyone on the automation train. And you’ll help your business run more efficiently, too.

Automate easier processes first

On the flip side, if a business is fortunate enough to not have gaping operational holes that demand immediate attention, they can start their automation journey by attacking easier processes first. Returning to the example above, backing up email attachments is one of the simplest activities to automate. Following this route will make the task of introducing further automation into the practice less cumbersome and easier for everyone to incrementally grasp.

Start with a small test team

At the end of the day, you know your team best. If you anticipate that your automation roll-out might be complex or come with a steep learning curve, there’s no need to bog down the entire company all at once. Instead, form a small team who can test the software in advance.  

Project management automation software like Basecamp, for instance, is ideal for experimenting with smaller teams. By test driving it with only a few people, you can determine whether it would be a good fit for a particular department or the rest of your company. If this small subset feels like the software is clunky, unintuitive, or not user-friendly enough, then you’ve just saved time and effort that would go into rolling the program out to the rest of the company. Plus, if the test users prefer the software, they’re better able to provide support to their coworkers as software is adopted.

Evaluate process efficiency

Owners do themselves and their firms a big favor by evaluating the individual processes they wish to automate before they set forth in that direction. This involves raking over the process(es) with a fine-toothed comb to pinpoint flaws. Multi-directional feedback is key. Seek input from your employees, then, devise a process map to help every worker visualize the various processes in your company and highlights which areas need attention. If you skip this step and blindly press on, all the automated software in the world won’t fix your processes’ underlying inefficiencies. By taking stock of your business’s inefficiencies and initiating steps to correct them before committing to new software, you can reduce the risk of flushing money down the drain when you try and switch over to a new tool.

Conclusion

At its core, automation is about enabling and optimizing professionals’ work. However, automation tools can do harm as readily as they can help. The fault is not in the programs but in how they are used or if they “fit”. Companies that don’t take the time to understand which of their processes to automate, or who use software as a bandage for underlying dysfunctions in their processes, will likely decrease their efficiency. But by following the above tips on how to wisely use automation to optimize existing practices, owners can pave the way for fewer speed bumps and more growth. 

6 Ways Property Managers Can Use Tech to Work Smarter

By Eric Romoff on May 2, 2018

Property managers deal with a wide variety of incoming requests at all hours of the day so it can be easy to feel buried under a mountain of emails, voicemail messages from contractors, appointments with prospective tenants, and government snail mail.

Whether you consider technology a friend or foe, today’s nonstop whirl of communications and activity requires modern property managers to innovate. It’s important to not get stuck in the weeds when selecting tools to power your workday, so we’ve compiled recommendations for utilizing technology to make your day-to-day processes and communications easier. 

  1. Physical paper files are the enemy of efficiency. To automate your workflows and centralize important files and information in the cloud to easily access them anytime, you’ll want to digitize existing processes that involve old-school paperwork. In other words, look for opportunities to turn paper documents into editable digital files, by using browser-based editing tools, or gathering data via online forms like Google Forms that feed those responses into a Google Sheet.
  2. If you don’t have one already, your first order of business is to find a proven property management software. This will help you automate appointment and information requests, schedule and notify tenants of property inspections or repairs, and allow prospective clients to view photos or renderings of a unit, all without having to manually respond. Think of a property management software as the first-line virtual assistant that helps you process and prioritize requests. 
  3. When you do have a tenant ready to come on board, digitize the lease signing process either through your property management software or a digital signing application like DocuSign.  You’ll remove the need for a final in-person appointment to sign documents, which can be especially tough for couples or out-of-state tenants. Sometimes, it can take weeks to get everyone to find the time to meet within business hours.  
  4. Install a chatbot on your leasing website that allows prospects to ask questions before requesting a walkthrough of a unit or apartment. Automated chatbots have greatly improved recently and help many companies qualify in or out prospects that would otherwise call in and take up your time.  If a prospect is ready to come in for a viewing, Drift’s chatbots take automation one step further by setting the appointment for you and your prospect.
  5. Use an SMS messaging app (like EZ Texting) for the tenants and prospects that prefer to communicate that way. Your property management software might come with that capability, but if not, you might consider adding it to the mix to automatically remind tenants that rent is due (or late) or notify of an upcoming repair or inspection via text.
  6. Shameless plug: you can eliminate the need to process checks at the bank by digitizing your mail and automating deposits by using Earth Class Mail’s automated check deposit solution. You’ll save countless trips to the bank and have the ability to see what checks you’ve received in the mail from the comfort of your desktop or smartphone.

If you have any other tips, please drop them in the comments section below!

Rise of the CFO-for-Hire

By Eric Romoff on April 18, 2018

Increasingly, companies are outsourcing the role of Chief Financial Officer (CFO), also known as CFOs-for-hire, and interim, or contractual, CFOs. It may seem odd that companies, from large firms down to small- and medium-sized businesses, would contract out an executive position. But understanding the challenges and opportunities this trend presents can help you evaluate potential payoffs for your business. 

Benefits

  • Lower costs. With permanent employees, benefits, opportunities for training and career advancement, and other aspects for retainment should be top-of-mind considerations. Having an outsourced CFO, however, sidesteps some of these factors because the position is either temporary or such logistics are handled by the CFO’s parent company (when there is one). And because you may not boast the payroll to accommodate in-house accounting, small and medium-sized businesses benefit from this exponentially more than their larger counterparts.
  • Minimize off-peak periods. Outsourcing gives greater flexibility to hire a CFO according to a business’s peak season. If a company doesn’t need a full-time CFO during off-peak periods, they’re under no pressure to hire one. Maximize payroll, and profit, by limiting overhead and keeping overall costs low.
  • Flexible commitment. Taking a test drive before finding a full-time financial executive might not be the worst idea. Depending on your particular arrangement with your outsourced CFO, it might be easier to make changes if they’re not living up to expectations. 
  • Trained professionals. By looking outside your own walls, you can rest easier knowing your next CFO comes vetted by a home agency. This puts your financials in the hands of trained pros, leaving you more time to focus on scaling your business.

The perks of contracting an outside CFO can be great, but below are some challenges to prepare for along the way.

Challenges

  • Longer onboarding. Syncing workflows and work styles with that of a CFO-for-hire’s parent entity can take more time than hiring and onboarding an in-house employee. This is especially true when it comes to establishing communication procedures. Both your company and a parent agency or independent CFO will have their own way of working, and acclimating an interim CFO to your set of processes will require an extra dose of patience. 
  • Less control. When working with a CFO for hire, you forgo some leverage that comes with managing a full-time team member. Some motivators for high performance, such as opportunities for long-term career advancement, don’t exist. Often times, the client company won’t exert direct control over the CFO, instead having to coordinate with the home agency to voice concerns.
  • Limited independence. Outsourced CFOs typically don’t make considerable financial decisions on your behalf. While you can still expect to save buckets of time by outsourcing financial leadership, meaty financial decisions will still fall squarely in your lap. Of course, you’d want to be working with someone whose expertise you trust and who is able to push back and provide financial reassurance when needed. 
  • Vulnerability. Increased protection against the mishandling of money is definitely a pro of outsourced CFOs if there’s a quality agency or parent company with skin in the game. But the risk remains that a hired gun may mishandle sensitive financial data. You might get the sweats wondering if an outsourced CFO is engaged in Tom Foolery. 

Conclusion

It’s important to also consider how a nontraditional CFO might fit with your company’s team makeup, structure, and culture. But ultimately, only you will know if an outsourced CFO will positively impact your company’s bottom line. That’s the thing about the for-hire business: testing the waters is a built-in feature. Whether you want to use sporadic financial advice, or put feelers out for a good match that can eventually become in-house, you can shape outsourcing to fit your company’s specific needs. 

Technologies to Make Accounting Processes More Efficient

By Matt Goldman on March 19, 2018

Accountants, like everyone else, are constantly barraged by new programs offering a suite of features and tools that promise to make the workday a breeze compared to the old days. But which technologies can actually make a difference? After all, can’t you duplicate the functionality you need with some fancy formatting to an Excel spreadsheet and call it a day?

If only it were that simple. To raise your numbers-crunching game and work more efficiently, consider leveraging this newfangled tech. This list will get you up to speed:

Zapier:

Zapier connects apps and sends data back and forth between them by setting up “Zaps”, or automated digital tasks that function more-or-less like old-school macros. Zapier works with hundreds of different apps and can automate nearly any task.

Furthermore, Zapier can automatically generate an invoice whenever you fill out a form, including every time you receive a payment. Then, like magic, it can save your invoices back to your accounting software, presto-chango, storing all of your client’s transactions for future review. 

Client Portals:

Portal technology such as Clinked.com are secure, cloud-based accounts that enable you and your clients to safely store, transfer, and download files. Everything is guarded with bank-grade, end-to-end encryption for the ultimate in proven security. To further increase safety and protection, Clinked gives you permission controls that let you determine who can download what.

One of the best things about Clinked and programs like it? You cut out the hassle of sleuthing for lost attachments, files, or emails that go missing in cyberspace. Everything stays neat and tidy in central storage, removing one more migraine for both you and your clients.

Basecamp:

Project management tools like Basecamp upgrade not only your workflow but the overall synergy of your team and firm, too. You can view everything on a single page, whether it’s the work of the entire firm, specific teams, or even individual projects.

Basecamp employs a raft of tools to see your jobs through, including:

  • To-Do lists of completed and unfinished tasks 
  • Message Center to communicate with other members 
  • Campfire Room to host quick informal chats 
  • Docs & Files organizer to index all team materials 
  • Schedule for posting deadlines 
  • Automatic Check-ins to generate feedback from your team 

Basecamp is also very fluid, letting you customize projects according to its respective needs rather than being shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all approach. Each project is an adventure!

Recount:

Many professionals have decried the rise of AI within the accounting world, specifically the ethics of handling sensitive client data and the likelihood it could replace certain jobs in the industry. 

Still, others believe it a matter of time before AI is accounting’s new normal. One such program jumping on the AI revolution is Recount, a financial analysis tool that lets users securely upload client data. From there, Recount identifies trends, pinpoints issues, and make informed predictions of what might happen next with their clients’ finances.

Best of all, these tasks are automated and fulfilled within a matter of seconds. This may prove to make Recount and other AI-based accounting tools an indispensable–and perhaps inevitable–part of crunching numbers.

Once you pass the learning curve, these products reward you with fewer mundane tasks, increased organization, improved search, upgraded security, and more time to focus on the work that matters. Whether you’re in a team of five or a firm of 50, the above programs represent only a few of the means by which you and your colleagues can improve your working experience. Not to mention increase overall client satisfaction.

SQL for Slack – A New Tool From Our Lab

We’re a Slack company, actually that might be an understatement. Slack is very much a part of our corporate culture, and we use it for…everything.

One of the biggest benefits we’ve experienced as a company is in our ability to improve data transparency, eliminating many of the information silos that form over time.

Anyone in our Slack organization can summon near real-time data on everything from lead volume, to operations performance, to active users on each of our addresses, and much more.

A lot of the data we pipe in directly via Slack apps and Zapier integrations, much of it even streams live.

Still, we had a ton of data locked away in SQL databases. Accessible, but obviously not as democratic or immediately actionable as live streaming data into Slack.

Like so many new products are born, we built something to help solve our own business problem and now we want to share it with you.

SQLBOT.co – SQL reports in Slack, no coding required. 

If you have awesome data tucked away in virtually any popular SQL database, this is the tool that will let you unlock it and make it actionable for everyone in your organization.

All you need to do is…

Write some SQL

Write SQL so you can send to Slack

Connect to Slack

Get SQL Reports in Slack

SQL reports in Slack from SQLBOT

SQLBOT has been designed to work with any popular SQL database (PostgreSQL, MySQL, and Microsoft SQL Server), and requires no coding experience to get started.

Take it for a spin and let us know what you think, first 30 days are free.

P.S. Developers interested in contributing to the project? Email Us

Open Source Experiment: Chargify App for Zendesk

From Steven Maguire, VP of Tech @ Earth Class Mail

One of the key value propositions of Earth Class Mail is the ability to access important business information, the kind contained in your mail and physical documents, from anywhere in the world.

This same principle drives the development of internal tools that we use to ensure our customers have a positive experience with our services.

The Problem

Two of the third-party tools that we use a lot everyday are the Chargify recurring billing platform and the Zendesk customer service platform. They are “mission critical” and we couldn’t deliver the level of service our customers expect without them.

Each of those tools contains important information about each customer, their accounts, history, pending support requests, and the like.

We noticed that our own team members were switching between Chargify and Zendesk dozens, if not hundreds, of times everyday.

The Solution

We also observed that the primary reason for switching to Chargify’s web UI was to view read-only data within Chargify’s platform. That is, they were just looking at customer information, not taking any billing related actions.

That observation led us to a very natural and, it seems now, obvious hypothesis:

If we eliminate the need to switch between Zendesk and Chargify, then our team members would be more productive and be able to provide better service to customers.

Fortunately, Zendesk supports a third-party application development platform, that means we can build internal tools that will work natively in the Zendesk platform. So now we have a great opportunity to test our hypothesis.

We’ve also decided to make our Chargify Zendesk app open source, so that anyone can use it. The reasons for that are:

  1. Zendesk apps are not how we make a living.
  2. The more contributors there are to this project, the more we will all benefit from a better product.
  3. If we can make it easy for other businesses to provide better customer service, then we’ve done some good in this world.

We’ve built, tested, and released a minimum viable product of the open source Zendesk app, here’s how:

Development

After reading the documentation for Zendesk’s Apps Framework v1 we learned a few things:

  1. A tool to create and scaffold a new blank project.
  2. A tool to lint and validate the code that you write for your project.
  3. A tool to package your application code in a zip file that will be uploaded, unzipped, and installed within your Zendesk account.
  • Zendesk supports a third-party app marketplace where you can find and install public applications; some free and some paid.
  • Zendesk supports installation of private apps without going through the marketplace.

With these observations in mind we created a goal for the experience of our app:

Whenever a Zendesk agent is viewing a customer profile or ticket, we want to use the email address associated with that customer or ticket to display customer and subscription records from within Chargify.

After some research we discovered that a single email address can be associated with more than one Chargify customer record, and each Chargify customer record can be associated with more than one subscription.

This discovery drove the decision to include two views:

  1. A customer search results view, and
  2. A customer detail view.

Using the “app.activated” event emitted by the Zendesk application framework we attempt to load the customer search results view first.

During the creation of this view we use Zendesk’s Data API to fetch the customer’s email if we are looking at a customer profile view in Zendesk, or the requester’s email if we are looking at a ticket.

With this value in memory we issue a customer search to Chargify to fetch customer results.

We introduced a few use cases here:

  • If no Chargify customer records are returned we update the search results view with an “empty results” alert.
  • If more than one Chargify customer records are returned we update the search results view with a list of each of those customer records as links which will load a customer detail view.
  • Finally, if a single Chargify customer record is returned we redirect the application to that customer detail view; we feel a search results page with one result is not valuable.

When loading a customer detail view we issue a couple other calls to Chargify to first fetch the fully hydrated customer record as well as a second call to fetch each of the subscriptions associated with the customer.

When all this data is available we update the customer detail view to display the data.In order to facilitate these API calls to Chargify our Zendesk application needs to know two pieces of unique information:

  1. The subdomain associated with our Chargify account
  2. The API key associated with our Chargify account

Fortunately, the Zendesk framework provides a way to ensure we can gather and securely store that information during installation.

In the unlikely event that the app begins running and that information has not been set, the app will display a third settings view with instructions on adding that information via the Zendesk API.

Installation

Another hat tip to Zendesk here as they have made the installation and management of third-party apps very simple and straightforward.

The process involves:

  1. Downloading the zip file of the latest binaries
  2. Uploading the zip file
  3. Accepting some terms and conditions
  4. Providing subdomain and API key

That’s basically it! Be sure to read the documentation on the project page for a more granular walkthrough.

Additionally, if you need to update your subdomain or API key, you are welcome to do so via the API or a point and click interface provided by the Zendesk App management tool.

Once installed the app will appear in a new pane to the right of a Zendesk user profile view and Zendesk ticket view.

The Future

We mentioned previously that this project was designed as a minimum viable product, and that’s what we’ve delivered here. While our team is really enjoying the current version, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Here’s a short list of immediate opportunities that we see:

  • Add client side caching to reduce API traffic to Chargify’s API
  • Add nested detail views for things like Subscription Statements, Subscription Invoices, etc
  • Add some update operations to push data into Chargify’s API
  • Add the project to the Zendesk App Marketplace
  • Minor enhancements designed to get novice engineers involved in open source; look for the “first-timers-only” label in the issues.

Contributions to the project are very much welcome in regards to any of the items listed above, or any other improvements you can dream up!

3 Keys to Social Media for Startups and SMBs

In many ways managing a social media presence has become just another thing all companies do, a mindless daily task to cross off your to-do list.

Partly that’s because doing it well requires a lot of time and effort. The activities that tend to take up a bunch of time don’t always result in value for the business.

Earth Class Mail is no different, so we took a lean and focused approach to managing our social channels.

There are a few basic fundamentals you want to build your social media presence on:

  1. Listening – tracking what others are saying about you, your industry, and your competitors.
  2. Engaging – communicating directly with others.
  3. Sharing – building an audience that can relate to and appreciate content that you broadcast.

To execute them effectively we had to make some compromises, be clever, and maintain control while allowing for applications to take over some of the tedious work.

Key 1: Admit your limitations, and focus on one or two channels

Yes, many will scoff at this compromise, but it’s completely necessary unless you have a full-time resource dedicated to engaging across a lot of networks.

If you don’t, then you’re just turning in a half-hearted effort on many channels instead of a world-class effort on one.

That’s the triage decision we made, to focus exclusively on Twitter where our largest and most engaged audience has been

Frankly, it was an easy decision. We have more followers on Twitter than any other network, we have been using it as a customer service channel for years, and Twitter is just easier to build an audience on than most other networks.

You may have a similarly obvious decision to make, or it may be more difficult. If you’re not sure, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Where do I hear from customers most? i.e. customers reaching out to you, or mentioning your company by name.
  • Where are my competitors most active?
  • Which network am I the most comfortable with? i.e. if you’re already a Facebook power user, follow many brands etc. and get the ecosystem then that could be for you.
  • Which network is most suitable for my skill set? i.e. each network has a basic premise that is hard to ignore. Twitter is all about short headlines and news. Facebook is extremely image and video heavy. Instagram is all about creating visual stories etc.

In the end, we decided to focus our efforts where we felt they could be most impactful – you should do the same.

Key 2: Automate as much as you can

Anything that you do on a set schedule or with a repeatable process can be automated. We decided on a basic toolset for our needs, here it is:

  • HootSuite – we use the Free version. There are more features in the paid versions, but we just need this to listen for certain keywords and occasionally reply to mentions or DMs. There are lots of alternatives: Sprout Social, TweetDeck, and Buffer to name a few.
  • SocialOomph – this is the foundation that everything rests on. It’s the only tool we’ve found that allows you to recycle posts and inject spun content, so that the network doesn’t bounce it back as duplicate. There are no great alternatives that we’re aware of.
  • Flutter – a great tool, still early in development, but it really helps automate posting content that you can’t easily get from something structured like an RSS feed.
  • Buffer – you can do a lot with this tool, but we use it primarily as a medium to post content that is being pulled from a structured data source like RSS feeds.
  • IFTTT – a great, free, conditional logic tool that lets you automagically post stuff to your social profiles via a tool like Buffer. (there’s a lot more you can do with IFTTT)

It’s critical that you take some version of this step to automate your workflow so that you can free up time for the activities that really need a human touch. Auto-replies to mentions and DMs always come off as robotic, so spend your manual time there and let the machines take care of the rest.

HootSuite, Buffer, and IFTTT are all incredibly well documented. We won’t spend time detailing how we use them here, but there’s lots of content already available with a quick search.

Get the most out of your existing content

Queuing up a bunch of content is day one of intermediate social media management, but we took it a step further by putting the content to work for us into perpetuity, or close to it. 

That means if we have a slow content month, we don’t need to scramble to fill up our queue again or risk that deadly black hole of silence on Twitter.

SocialOomph actually makes it really easy. They use standard spun content schema, so if you’ve done something similar on the SEO side of digital marketing then you should be really familiar.

Basically, we load up the content of our post and format a bunch of alternate text variations that the program then randomly chooses to Tweet out. 

We then set a recurring schedule for posting the content and voila! Suddenly our entire content library is on permanent repeat with multiple unique variations of the post. If you’ve been managing social media for a while, this tool is a game changer.

Use third-party content to improve your profile

Automating re-posts of content from RSS feeds is really easy. That’s how we use IFTTT and Buffer, it’s actually a standard integration you can just plug and play.

Getting content from a non-RSS source posted to Twitter automatically was a totally different challenge. We struggled for a while before accidentally stumbling on Flutter.

Flutter is a pretty basic tool, still being worked on so it’s rough around the edges, but extremely powerful for this use case.

It works by allowing you to choose a CSS selector (the id of an “element” on a page) that it will scrape on some recurring schedule and post to Twitter, or push to Buffer if you choose that option.

This is honestly amazing! You can scrape content from the web version of a newsletter, a subreddit, a blog without an RSS feed, and basically anything else.

Imagine how much more content you have access to that you won’t have to pull and share manually anymore.

Key 3: Communicate with others in a real, human voice

Since you aren’t wasting time with all those tedious tasks anymore, thanks to automation, you can start to have real conversations with others.

As a customer service channel, Twitter has been a great network for us. It’s really easy to react to negative feedback quickly and correct issues, or find those customers that are primed to become brand ambassadors.

We also take the opportunity to just engage with others in a conversational tone. It’s great for prospecting new customers, or simply developing a brand personality that’s relatable to your target audience.

The best part about this approach is the freedom it provides to focus on growing your audience instead of constantly keeping up with maintaining the content. That by itself was worth the initial effort to set it all up.

3 Inexpensive Ways to Validate Your Idea

This is a guest article by Jonathan Chan @ FoundrMag.com.

Everyone out there has a big idea. If you count yourself as an entrepreneur, chances are you have an idea for a startup.

The problem is that few ideas are actually any good. Even with a great idea the reality is that it won’t necessarily translate into a great business. But, you can save yourself from a lot of heartache and wasted effort.

That’s why you need to validate

Validation is when you actually put the pressure test on your idea, to see if anyone even wants what you’re offering in the first place. Too many would-be entrepreneurs make the mistake of keeping themselves in a bubble and fall out of touch with the real world. 

Check out our own journey into market validation, where we build a business online from the ground up.

The goal of validation is to find the true fans of your product. A true fan is someone who would put down money for your product even if they don’t have it yet. You should get at least a hundred of them to validate further investment in your idea.

When it comes to validation, it’s important to remember these rules:

  • The goal is to find 100 true fans.
  • Always listen more than you talk.
  • Keep in mind that great ideas don’t always translate into great products.

Talk to your customer

Here’s a quick little exercise to get started. Quickly write down at least five people you know who would use your product. That’s five people who would fall over themselves in order to do business with you. Then talk to them.

If you can’t think of at least five people, then maybe that’s all the validation your idea needs.

Don’t stop at this step! It’s a good first step, but for the most part you’ll probably get a load of people telling you that they could see themselves using your product. 

The first mistake entrepreneurs often make is they rely solely on their friends and family for feedback on their idea. This is exactly the reason you need to expand your validation beyond friends and family. 

You need to ask people who are complete strangers. In fact, you need people to tell you that your idea sucks. You need to find a way to actually get in front of your target customer and start asking them what they think.

For that you need to clearly define, in writing, who you believe your target customer is and get in contact with some of them (this could end up being totally wrong, but you need to start somewhere). 

That means actually go to the places where they’re hanging out, online or offline. Come armed with questions, ask them to fill out a survey, or maybe even convince a couple to be beta testers for you. Develop a 15 second pitch for your idea, that’s all the attention you’ll get from people you don’t know.

It doesn’t really matter how you approach this, as long as you’re actually listening to them and taking what they have to say seriously.

Smoke test

One of the best ways to validate your idea is to start selling it, even if you don’t have a product to sell. It’s never too early to start selling.

A smoke test is super easy to do and is often used by some of the best in the business before they even start building their products.

The easiest way to do a smoke test is to set up a landing page for your product or service. Don’t worry if you don’t have one at the moment; the entire point of this exercise is to just gauge interest for your idea. 

Make it so that the landing page actually has a strong call to action like, “Sign up now” or “Get a free consultation” that people can actually click on. This will become very important data for you later.

There are lots of inexpensive services out there to help you do this, even with no development or programming experience. Try these: Unbounce.com, Launchrock.com, QuickMVP.com

Now that you’ve set the bait it’s time to start casting the line out.

Remember to go after your target customer here, so don’t just do a social media blast linking back to your page and hope for the best. Actually find out where your potential users hang out and seed it out there. 

Come up with a real pitch, sell the value of your idea and incentivize people to visit your page. Early-bird discounts are a great incentive, so is exclusivity. 

Some common messaging examples: “Sign up today and get 50% Off”, and “Join our waitlist and be part of the beta test”.

If you don’t mind spending a little bit of money then you can drive targeted traffic to your site with Google AdWords, Bing, or Facebook. Do your research on how pay-per-click (PPC) marketing works, or find an inexpensive contractor to launch a small campaign for you.

This whole process shouldn’t take you more than a few hours of work, PPC campaign excluded, and a couple days of patience. After a few days, it’s time to check and see if you got any nibbles.

Remember the goal is to find 100 true fans. How many people visited your page? How many people actually clicked through on your call to action? 

Usability cafe

Developed by the tech-heads at Google, the Usability Cafe method is a very effective and cheap way for you to validate your idea. The best part is that you don’t even need any special tools to implement it.

Even though this is a method primarily designed for apps and developers, you can easily use this for other types of products and ideas as well. 

Although, unlike the smoke test method above, you will need a functioning version of your product. Remember to go as lean as possible, no need for any bells and whistles yet.

It can even be a bunch of static landing pages with links, laid out how you imagine the app working, for example.

The Usability Cafe is based upon the principle that up to 85% of your core usability problems can be found just by observing five people using your product. 

The method is simple: Just find a popular cafe nearby and ask the first five people you see to test your product for you.

All you really need is a couple hours of time, a simple (i.e. MVP) version of your product, and some rewards for your beta testers. Remember, all you’re asking them for is ten minutes of their time, nothing more, nothing less.

Give them five minutes to play with your product and ask them to talk out loud about their experience, any problems they’re encountering, and to be as honest as possible. 

After that’s done, just spend another five minutes getting a bit more in-depth about the app and their thoughts. When all’s said and done, treating them to a muffin or a coffee for their time can be a great reward.

The entire point of the Usability Cafe method is to take yourself out of your own bubble. Sometimes what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to someone else. 

Getting out there and speaking to people can not only help you develop a better product, but open your eyes as to what’s possible with your idea.

Wrapping Up

Too many entrepreneurs out there make the fatal mistake of jumping without looking. While it’s important to have confidence as an entrepreneur, it’s also important to have the common sense to pack a parachute too.

By using these validation methods, you’ll be able to take your ideas out of your head and into the real world. See what works and what doesn’t, and make sure to double down on whatever it is that works best.

Again, remember these simple rules:

  • Find 100 true early adopters that would buy your product.
  • Collect feedback from people you don’t know, lots of it, and take it seriously.
  • Understand that great ideas aren’t guaranteed to turn into great businesses.

If everything goes right and you have yourself a validated idea, take that bold step forward. But always make sure to keep on iterating, pull yourself out of your bubble whenever possible, and always be listening.