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Ecommerce April 1, 2015

10 Free Online Business Tools You'd Be Foolish Not To Try

When I need a new business tool I'm usually thrust there by a difficult, seemingly insurmountable situation. This puts me in a position that is prone to foolish, snap software purchases or long hours of searching for just the right solution.

It's usually a time where:

  • I have a problem to solve and a half-formed ide of how to solve it.
  • There are plenty of other things to get done besides choosing new tools.
  • I'm convinced that I need the best, most expensive solution because it must have everything I need and be easier to use.

I end up in a sort of productivity lock-up that prevents me from getting much of anytthing done; and it's all because I can't settle on a software solution, let alone justify the purchase without being sure it will solve my problem without requiring too much extra effort.

That's why whenever I need software,

I always try to start with solutions that offer a free plan.

When you worry about prices, you add complexity. With complexity comes indecision. Indecision takes time away from the problem you set out to solve with the software in the first place. It's better to just dive into whatever solution seems like it will accomplish your need (and will let you try to solve it without paying) then upgrade it's features if you need to.

I've found that tools with free plans are also more honest with their feature lists and have a strong core competency that is well defined. They are more  solid and supported platforms as well, because they go through the wringer of thousands more user tests than pay-to-play solutions.

In this post, I’ll give you 10 totally free-to-use tools (and their paid / unpaid alternatives) that it would be foolish not to try before purchasing another solution. 

They get it done, plain and simple, and offer some of the best features around for the money (pun).

1. Google Analytics - Web Analytics

Number one in the list and for good reason. It almost goes without saying (but should be re-iterated) that Google Analytics is huge  is the standard for web analytics. There’s very few sites that don't have Google Analytics at least set up.

This is mainly because Google Analytics is  free, it's useful, and it works. Not to mention that Google (and it's analytics) are integrated with your SERP results, SEO information, and is likely a principal driver of your organic traffic.

Google Analytics Example

Google Analytics is one of those tools that seems to be pretty simple at first, when it actually covers a lot of ground.

There are many features that only advanced users will ever touch, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them too (if you're willing to learn how). But really, that’s precisely what makes Google Analytics so good: anyone can use it.

The best features of Google Analytics are:

  • Custom dashboards
  • Custom reports
  • E-commerce reports
  • Advanced segmentation
  • Cohort reports
  • Real-time analysis

In comparison with most of the other tools in this article, Google Analytics is considered  advanced in complexity, even though it's one of the more obvious solutions. 

Fortunately, it’s still really user-friendly for the basics and you will gradually become more comfortable to the point that, once you do need the advanced features, you'll be ready to tackle them yourself.

Alternatives to Google Analytics

There are lots of analytics tools out there, but there are zero free (and few paid) solutions that can compare with the integrated nature of Google's own analytics suite.

Some paid alternatives include: 

I’d say stick with Google Analytics. Even when you need more niche solutions for specific metrics, you likely won't ever completely leave GA behind.

2. Mixpanel - Event Analytics

An analytics platform focused on consumer behavior, Mixpanel is a relative new-comer with a lot to offer. 

What is Consumer Behavior Analytics?

Where Google Analytics allows you to analyze which are the most visited pages and what people buy, Mixpanel allows you to analyze your customers' behavior.

For instance, Mixpanel allows you to gather multiple types of information and profile your visitors. It combines demographics and other site interaction data to form "cohorts" which are essentially groupings of users based on similar data.

You can use individual bits of information or these cohorts to filter and analyze your customers' behavior on your site.

If it all sounds like it should cost you a subscription, it typically does. But, they offer a free plan, which has enough features to suit any beginner's needs. The only caveat is that you must put a badge at the bottom of your page, which states that you’re using their tool.

Mixpanel Example

A small request for such a useful tool!

Alternatives to Mixpanel

An almost identical tool is KISSmetrics. Their feature-to-feature comparison is similar, with the starting price being the main difference.

In a stark contrast to the free version of Mixpanel, the entry-level KISSmetrics plan is $200/month.

If money is no object, KISSmetrics is a great alternative to Mixpanel but one thing to consider is that KISSmetrics can be difficult to configure, especially if you're an analytics beginner.

For an easier solution, you can try  Popcorn Metrics, which is super simple to setup. You click through your site as a regular user would to tag the actions you want to measure and track. You still have to install a javascript snippet, like every other tool, but once that's done it's very "non-technical".

I recommend trying Mixpanel for free, then deciding if you need more power (KISSmetrics) or the ability to change it often and easily (Popcorn Metrics).

3. Google Keyword Planner - Keyword Research

And we've made it back to Google. Why? Because the Google Keyword Planner (GKP) is by far the best free keyword research tool around (seeing a trend here?).

Some say GKP has its limitations, but because it’s free and integrated with Google, most professionals use it anyway. It really does provide any level of keyword researcher with everything you'd need

Features include:

  • Approximate search volumes (extracted from Google’s database)
  • Competition level (for PPC only)
  • Geographical targeting
  • Other similar searches

Google Keyword Planner Example

As most keyword tools, it’s geared towards PPC. However, it’s still useful for organic keyword research and analysis.

Alternatives to Google Keyword Planner

There are some other free keyword research tools you can use in place of or as a complement to GKP:

While GKP is by far the best free solution, there are lots of paid solutions that are incredibly powerful and can potentially give power researchers a better experience and toolset.

Some paid alternatives are:

Unless you have a huge store with thousands of products, or are thinking of developing an extensive, complicated paid campaign, you'd be fine sticking with the free tools.

4. Mailchimp - Email Marketing

In my opinion, the best email marketing tool for the ecommerce business owner. What makes MailChimp so solid compared to every other email marketing tool isn’t that it’s free (for up to 2,000 subscribers), but that it's so incredibly usable.

The first thing you’ll notice once you sign up is that the dashboard is beautifully designed, and everything is easy and intuitive. From the campaign creations, to the campaigns analysis, everything is made so you don’t overthink your email marketing.

Alternatives to Mailchimp

Among Mailchimp competitors, you have:

None of these tools compares to Mailchimp for an entry-level solution. Its usability and design is second to none and, given the price it charges for its features, I’d say it's the obvious place to start your list management and marketing campaigns.

5. SumoMe - Lead Generation

SumoMe is a free tool developed by Noah Kagan, the King of the Tacos (go read any of this bio information or posts and you'll understand).

It's an all-in-one suite of 10 tools aimed at building email lists and generating social shares.

SumoMe offers all of these tools:

  1. List Builder
  2. Heat Maps
  3. Share
  4. ScrollBox
  5. Image Sharer
  6. Highlighter
  7. Leads
  8. Content Analytics
  9. Smart Bar
  10. Contact Form

The most commonly tools used are the List Builder, Share, ScrollBox and Smart Bar, which all revolve around building your email lists.

This is how the SumoMe ScrollBox looks on the Receiptful blog:

What’s amazing about Sumome the amount of sites that have started using their tools for list building and social sharing in such a short time and really it's because their solutions are so easy to install, use, and customize.

Even though SumoMe has started to charge for premium features, the base tools are still pretty great. I would highly recommend this tool for any ecommerce store owner that needs to grow their email list and wants to engage their on-site visitors with promotions and calls to action.

Alternatives to SumoMe

There are very few solutions that offer as many features as SumoMe (and surely not for free). There are a bunch of semi-competitors that offer one-off solutions and individual features (sometimes better than SumoMe can be) but none that really hit so many types of lead capture in one tool.

Paid Alternatives:

The above paid solutions are in some ways more robust than SumoMe but only Gleam and JustUno offer any type of "Free" plan. Both are limited by conversion amount and have a bunch of locked features (but at least you can try the solution).

I recommend going with SumoMe at least until you have started to integrate this type of lead capture and marketing into your site. Once you're ready to upgrade to a more complete / powerful option, you can either upgrade your SumoMe tools or move to another app.

6. Optimizely - Site A/B Testing

Optimizely is an optimization tool for testing variations and changes to your site. The goal of those tests is to increase your site’s conversion rates, be they signups, clicks, or even entire funnels. The primary value (aside from optimizing) is that it lets you do all of your site optimization testing without a developer.

Another thing that's great about Optimizely is that you don’t need to do much work to start using it. Once you (or your developer) installs a small javascript snippet in your site’s headers (just like you would for Google Analytics), you can start using it right away.

Then, to develop a test, you just use their WYSIWYG editor to make the desired changes without having to code anything. You can create variations of a change and set up user targeting and splits for those tests as well.

Once everything is ready, you simply publish the changes and wait for the test to run for a while until a statistically significant winning variation is determined ( time varies based on traffic and the changes). At this point, you would let optimizely maintain the optimized changes until either you, or your developer / designer could make those changes.

Alternatives to Optimizely

The free competitor to Optimizely is another Google solution:  Content Experiments

The problem with Content Experiments is that it is complicated to run compared with the visual, drag-and-drop solutions that are out there. While it's more powerful than Optimizely's free plan, once you start paying for Optimizely, the features are similar, if not better, and you get a dedicated interface rather than something stuck into your Google Analytics backend.

The biggest paid competitors to Optimizely are: 

Even though they're very similar to and of comparable quality to Optimizely, you'll have to pay to use even the basic features that Optimizely offers free.

7. Streak - Customer Support

Streak is a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) for Gmail. If you're new to the term, the essential functionality of any CRM is to manage and track the different engagements with your customers and service providers.

You can use Streak for a number of things such as business development, sales, hiring, support, and more. Really any type of customer interaction based out of your emails.

I prefer to use Streak for customer support tickets as shown below:

You can use it to manage quality control emails, return inquiries, and more. You can set up email templates and groupings to easily grab canned responses to save yourself loads of time in your inbox.

What Streak really accomplishes well is to keep tabs on which customers were already helped and which weren’t and to make it easy to visualize.

Alternatives to Streak

One direct competitor to Streak is  Keeping, which is currently in beta. It accomplishes the same basic functionality of grouping your support tickets but it isn't quite as polished as it's still finding its footing.

Streak and similar solutions are great for smaller online shops and businesses that deal primarily with inbox support. If you start to require more complex histories of interactions that also tie in other customer intelligence data like purchases, site interactions, or live chat you may need to upgrade to a more complex solution.

Try some of these paid Help Desk software:

Streak is probably a solid option for most small ecommerce store owners, especially because it integrates with Gmail. If you do grow and require a bit more functionality (including support teams) Streak can scale with you until you make that jump to a standalone product.

8. FullContact - Contact Management

FullContact is a tool that allows you to manage your contacts. Imagine as if it was an online rolodex.

FullContact offers you a number of tools to help organize and manage your contacts including:

  • Two-Way Sync w/ Google 
  • De-Duplicate & Clean Contacts
  • Unify Contacts from Multiple Sources
  • Monthly Contact Updates
  • iPhone app and Gmail Plugin

FullContact is especially useful for managing all your affiliates and more permanent business connections. So, if you need the email of a certain person at a particular business or the name of that guy from the conference you attended, you use FullContact to store and update this information.

Fullcontact Screenshot

In a way, it can also be used as a CRM of sorts, but it’s not built for managing the "relationship" history so much as the aggregated, up-to-date profile of the contact. I like to think of it as the futuristic facial scanning we see in movies. You know, the one where it pulls up their eye color, DOB, etc from a central database? 

FullContact does this for your contacts' social profiles, images, and all of their associated information. It compiles and updates from all of your connected streams to give you the most up-to-date information possible for each contact.

Alternatives to FullContact 

Among other, paid contact management tools, you have:

9. Hootsuite - Social Media Management

Hootsuite is a social media management tool for companies that need one centralized dashboard to handle their different social media accounts and streams.

If you have ever found yourself switching from one social media account to the other to either publish something or check out new messages from your customers, you’ll know it can be a messy process.

Hootsuite lets you checkout all your social media accounts in one place and publish / engage with users without having to switch between accounts or browser tabs.

Hootsuite Dashboard

Hootsuite is also great for monitoring your streams for content to share as well as watching for customer support issues.  This article by Econsultancy describes what the best companies do with their social media management.

Worth mentioning is also  Buffer, which unlike Hootsuite, is really good at content scheduling and publishing. The one area that I find lacking in Hootsuite is the ability to generate effective scheduling of content.

Alternatives to Hootsuite

Try these solutions to manage your social accounts:

10. Mention - Media Monitoring

Mention is a media monitoring application. It allows you to listen, in real-time, to what's being said about your brand or targeted keywords on sites, blogs, and social channels.

Mention is great for businesses of all sizes and it's especially useful for services, restaurants, and highly branded companies. When you set up an alert, you can choose which keywords to target, which to ignore, and from what channels you'd like alerts.

Mention Screenshot

Then, when you see something (either positive or negative) you can respond from within the app to that user if it's on social media.

Alternatives to Mention

There are fewer alternatives to mention for small businesses than are offered to larger, enterprise-class companies. Hootsuite is one free option but even that doesn't offer the same experience (as it's not solely built for it in the same way that Mention is).

Some paid options include:

  1. Brand24
  2. Sprout Social
  3. Coosto

What Did I Miss?

Have a favorite I didn't mention? Let me know in the comments!

If you're looking for more business tools, check out the  Moblized App Directory to start your search. 

A special thanks to Michael Grubbs for contributing to and editing this post.

Ivan Kreimer is the Growth Marketer at Receiptful, an API that lets you send beautiful email receipts that help increase an ecommerce store’s revenue through targeted marketing messages and upsells.

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