We all know intuitively that it has never been easier or cheaper to do “x” than it is today. In fact, statements like that are boring and pedestrian to the point that you may already be considering moving on to the next article. What if I told you it’s possible to build a web site today for $0 in one weekend that would likely have cost over $100,000 and taken several months just three years ago?
After launching the web site Truemors, entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki posted a presentation titled “How I Built a Web 2.0, User-Generated Content, Citizen Journalism, Long-Tail Social Media Site for $12,107.09.” And he did so in 7.5 weeks. Closer to home, I received a RFP to build a web site for a local association on a Friday afternoon last year. By Sunday morning I had the entire site built with nearly double the functionality that was included in the RFP. These two anecdotes illustrate that it has never been easier or cheaper to build web sites, communicate, collaborate, reach out, or network. In fact, almost all of the tools I’ll discuss in this article are FREE.
The first step in leveraging these tools for your organization is not free, but it is very inexpensive. In order to gain full leverage from many of these tools, it’s important that you own and control your own domain name. Domain registrars can be found online and include services like GoDaddy, Register.com, and Network Solutions. Depending upon the domain level type (i.e. com, net, org) the annual registration cost ranges between $10 and $15 per year.
Next, you need to select a hosting service and it may or may not be through the same company that is your domain registrar. Selecting a hosting provider should be done on the basis of a) the operating system you intend to use (i.e. Windows or Linux), b) any applications or frameworks you’ll be installing (e.g. WordPress, Drupal, DotNetNuke), and c) promotions that various companies may be running from time to time. In most cases, you should not have to pay more than $4 to $8 dollars per month for shared hosting.
Content Management Systems (CMS)
Free, open source web content management systems have obliterated most of the barriers to entry that have existed from the early days of the web until very recently. I typically use the analogy of an “instant web site – just add water” to describe them. In fact, many hosts offer one-click installations of these frameworks as part of their service offering. Most CMSs share the following benefits:
- Ability to manage content without web or programming skills – no more relying on web masters to make changes.
- They are FREE.
- They are powerful, flexible, and scalable.
They also share most if not all of the following characteristics:
- Template (or skin) driven layout and design
- Group-based security and membership support
- Easily modified content
- Web standards upgrades
- Third party extensions
The most popular open source CMS systems are DotNetNuke, WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. A comparison of these systems is beyond the scope of this article, but my take is that WordPress is the easiest to install and use, while the other three are more powerful and flexible with a longer learning curve. Of the four, DotNetNuke is the only Windows-based CMS; the others are all LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP).
Google has a free service called Google Apps that provides a whole laundry list of FREE, powerful services including email, shared documents, shared calendar, shared contacts, web analytics, and more. It’s quite easy to create an account and configure these services for your organization and they deliver powerful collaborative features.
Many organizations still send email newsletters to their customers or members using standard email. This is dangerous for several reasons. First, many of these home-made newsletters violate the Federal CAN-SPAM Act. Second, if enough of these emails are sent you could be violating your Internet Service Provider’s terms of service. In addition to these dangers, they also have several shortcomings compared to dedicated e-newsletter services like Vertical Response or Constant Contact, like the lack of advanced reporting and analytics or attractive HTML-format emails. Plans start at $10 per month, but Vertical Response if FREE for non-profits.
Networking and Outreach
A full discussion of Social Networking is also outside of the scope of this article, but it bears mentioning. Facebook recently introduced the “Fan Page” feature that is becoming more and more powerful as a tool for organizational outreach. LinkedIn is a more professionally focused networking web site whose “Groups” feature is an effective means for connecting together groups of like-minded professionals. There are many others that have their own virtues and vices associated with them, but they all have one thing in common; they are FREE.
How to Keep Up
The world is changing and although this article can get you started, the landscape is changing quickly an you will need tools to keep up on the latest trends. Here are a few suggestions:
2. Ask questions about current and emerging technologies. Again, social networking sites are great for this particular approach.
3. Spy on other organizations similar to yours. What technologies are they using? How are they leveraging social media?
4. Network with others in your space.
5. But DO NOT simply accept the status quo and keep following the same old plan. Technology is always changing, so keep an ear to the ground and be a “heretic.”
We’re Talking Techno-DIY
Leveraging these technologies is similar to a “do it yourself” project at home; you don’t need to be a plumber to replace a faucet, but you may not want to install a new sink yourself. The trick is to find your comfort zone and ask for help when you’re outside of it. The take-away from this article is that you should, at the very least, be aware of the vast array of low and NO cost technologies available to solve problems today and you should vigorously challenge the assumption that “more expensive is better.”