In part 1 of this two-part series, we talked about what automation meant for the small business and the creative agency. We looked at the various types of automation that you can use in your business, and the ways in which it helped to make your business more streamlined and efficient.
Talking about automation as a business enabler is one thing, but getting to grips with what automation tools are out there is quite another. So, to help you make decisions about the type of automation tools available, and the areas your small business can benefit from using them, this second post will specifically pull out some of the best available tools and give you the lowdown on each.
In the first post in this series, we split the areas of automation tool application into marketing, communications, and contracts. Again, in this post, we will put our emphasis in those areas.
Top Automation Tools
Contract automation is about managing the entire lifecycle of a contract, or other signed document – from cradle to grave. Automation of econtracts, will allow you to automatically manage, usually from a central location, the initial contract creation, through negotiation and changes, with auto-alert sending to parties involved in the econtract, right through to applying electronic signatures, and archive.
ApproveMe WP ESign is a WordPress plugin that offers a rich set of features for managing the econtract lifecycle. If you opt for WP ESign to manage your contracts you will be able to issue, manage, and sign contracts, all from your own website. WP ESign allows you to set up a contract, using a central repository, such as Dropbox. You can then start a lifecycle management process with that econtract. This begins by sending out automated email alerts to your client to read the contract and make updates as needed.
Once the contract is agreed, it just a simple click to apply all of the signatories esignatures on the contract. Alerts, letting everyone know the contract is agreed and signed off, can then be sent out. You can even archive your contracts for easy access when needed. Throughout the whole procedure, WP ESign also keeps track of any changes in the contract. And, the esignature applied to the contract, is fully compliant with electronic signature laws – the digital signature software using encryption to ensure that the contract is tamperproof. This works by making sure that signatures become invalid if anyone tries to change any parts of the contract after it has been agreed and signed off.
WP ESign also has some particularly cool features that will appeal to the creative agency. In particular, it works within your own WordPress website as a plugin, so it becomes a seamless part of your own branding.
Ninja Forms, also a WordPress plugin, gives you a large portfolio of document templates that you can use to create contract templates and other documents. WP ESign and Ninja Forms are fully integrated, and work seamlessly, to help you get clients engaged and on-boarded, quickly and efficiently.
If you use WP ESign in combination with Ninja Forms you have a very powerful, fully-fledged automated contract management platform.
WP ESign has a free to try demo. Pricing starts at $149 per year.
Ninja Forms pricing starts from $99 per year.
Marketing has really benefited from automation. All of those repetitive marketing tasks now have an automation tool to help you perform them, often with analytics built in to help you see how well a marketing campaign is being received.
Social Marketing: Hootsuite
Marketing your service and product is a big part of running a small business. But it takes a lot of time out of your day to do it consistently, and having an on-going marketing effort is important in building a brand and keeping your name in sight of potential clients.
Hootsuite is a social platform management tool. That is, it allows you to use a single interface to manage your social profiles. So, for example, you can create a message and post it simultaneously across all of your social platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, and so on.
One of the neat features of Hootsuite is the ability to schedule posts and tweets. This means that you can create a message at your convenience and send it when you know it will be most likely to be seen by the biggest audience. It also means you can set up several tweets in advance to create a story for your brand, then send them out at appropriate times.
The Hootsuite console also has lots of other features, such as ‘insight streams’ which let you track specific words or phrases. You can find out who has been talking about you, and just as importantly when your competitors are receiving mentions.
Hootsuite also has extensive analytics so you can see how effective your posts and tweets are.
Pricing: Hootsuite offers a 30-day free trial. Prices start from $9.99 per month for small business users.
Email Marketing: MailChimp
Email marketing, such as email newsletters and campaigns, are a really useful way to reach out to your audience and engage them. You can use newsletters to tell your clients and prospects what new services you offer, have general news items about your industry, and offer discounts. MailChimp allows you to create and distribute email newsletters and campaigns
MailChimp offers lots of templates that you can use to create your email marketing campaign allowing you to create really professional looking email newsletters. MailChimp also has the ability to target the email campaign based on behavior, preferences, and previous sales.
MailChimp integrates with a lot of online services, including WordPress, social platforms and a number of ecommerce platforms.
Pricing: You can use a cut-down version of MailChimp, without analytics, for free, and then prices start from $10 per month up to $199 per month.
Communications and Control Automation
If This, Then That or IFTTT
IFTTT is a multi-functional automation tool that allows you to automate loads of different business processes. It works through small programs called ‘applets’. The applets allow you to take all of your disparate applications and syncs them, connecting them together via tasks. For example, if you have a company WordPress blog, you could automatically sign someone up whenever they comment on our blog.
You can also track your work hours using Google calendar, sync with Trello to set up recurring tasks, sync files between Cloud folders, like Dropbox and sync with MailChimp. IFTTT supports around 110 of these services which can be linked up and controlled through the IFTTT website or app. IFTTT gives you a lot of insight into your business activities and can be a great way to keep track on your competition too.
IFTTT is a very powerful tool, but it can take a little time to get to grips with all of the possible ways you can use it. Fortunately, there is a lot of advice on the web showing you the tricks and hacks of using IFTTT in a small business context.
Pricing: IFTTT is free to use.
Slack is an online platform built to let you communicate with team members, as an alternative to email – kind of instant messaging for business. Slack’s power is in the way it combines messages together into related teams or business units. It means that instead of having emails which are unconnected, where you have to search through reams of them to find the right conversations, you can instead use Slack to directly create and access conversations.
Slack also lets you share files too, and it has a really simple drag and drop interface.
One of the best features of Slack is the ability to use it as a team collaboration tool. Because it is based on instant messaging, with built in file sharing, you can work quickly and transparently on projects, and have a highly visible timeline of who said, what, and when.
Pricing: You can get Slack for free with some limitations, or pricing starts at $6.67 per user, per month
Automation for the creative agency and small business has never been easier. There are lots of great tools out there; this article gave you a taste of some of the best ones. When you chose a tool, check it out using the free version or demo first, and make sure it’s the right one for your business. Automation tools can save your business time and money, but they can also be fun to use too. They make your business streamlined, and your customers benefit from an efficient company.