Are Free Tools Really Free?

I just read a great blog post on HubSpot about using Trello’s free tools to manage your relationships with contacts. While I don’t think that this is a substitute for a full-featured CRM like Salesforce, it’s a great example of how free tools can be hot-rodded to do the same things as “big business” users are doing with their expensive systems.

While I’m a big fan of free tools, there are some cautions to consider before using one.

Sometimes the free or cheap tools actually perform better than their costly counterparts – but aren’t scalable, or lack key functionality. Website builders like Squarespace and Wix make absolutely fantastic websites, but if you decide to abandon that platform (or the platform fails, as some do) you are stuck with some really hard-to-work-with HTML code. Excel creates great charts, but you can’t make them into EPS’s, and if you want to make beautiful graphs in a professional tool like Illustrator you need to jump through hoops.

These kinds of drawbacks are extremely frustrating to a freelancer who might use a more standard, professional set of tools, because it’s hard to explain the risks to someone who just wants a “really cool website, fast.”

There’s also a danger in using too many free tools. If you own your own small business, you’ll be tempted to adopt a free tool ‘because it’s there.’ But then, you either need to become an expert in using the tool yourself, or you need to find an expert in using it. Suddenly, you’re spending time on the tool or on a problem caused by having adopted the tool, instead of on running your business.

One freelancer reported that to succeed with one client, she needed to be an expert in MailChimp, Wix, and WordPress, Unbounce, and integrations between Unbounce, eBay and Amazon. Doubtless a large agency could have done this, but my client was exactly the type of client that these ‘free tools’ appeal to – a small client with a low budget, so by definition they weren’t hiring a large agency. She said, “I used to be concerned about scope creep – now I’m concerned about tool creep.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you hop on board with a new free tool:

  • What’s my plan for integrating this tool with the others I already use?
  • If it’s a design tool, how will I keep my branding on-point if my current designer can’t or won’t use it?
  • How much time is it going to take me to learn to use the tool?
  • Is it really going to solve my business problem or am I adopting it for the gee-whiz factor?
  • What is the risk of the tool “going away” in a few years or months, and if it does, how will that affect my business?
  • What happens when I exceed the terms of “free” – can I afford to pay for the tool?

A few of my favorite free tools are Box (I use it to store professional certificates, study materials, downloaded eBooks, etc.), Evernote (Recipes!) and Brainscape (I’ve been using its free flashcards to learn Finnish). What are yours, and what are the risks you think about when committing to a free tool? Please add your thoughts in the comments.



Argh! Your Email Went Out With A Mistake

One of my favorite customers always finds mistakes in my marketing email, so I have an extensive list of the mistakes you can make. Wrong date, missing link, old subject line . . .  My favorite one? I misspelled my own last name in the “Reply-To” field. I picture this guy (he’s in a different time zone) spending his evenings combing through my emails, clicking every link, and topping off his glass of red wine with a smirk when he finds an error.

I’m sure this has never happened to you, but if it has, read on.

Anecdotal evidence (probably along with some studies) shows that your “Oops” email may actually get more attention than the original email. Why is this? As any good salesperson knows, people like to feel “better than” you. This is why presidential candidates try not to act like smarty-pants (smarty-pantses?) and why a popular selling system coaches its trainees to borrow a pen from their prospects.

Depending on your company culture, you may be able to inject some fun into the subject line. My favorite of all time came today: “Argh! GRB Hubba Hubba Gala – Address included” . . . what made it so funny is that “GRB” (the company’s acronym) actually sounds like an extension of “Argh!” and then “Hubba Hubba” . . . OMG. I bet the open rates went through the roof.

Don’t go doing this on purpose, but if you do make a mistake, send out an “Oops” email and move on. You may be pleasantly surprised.


His shirt was white and so crisp-looking I imagined I could hear the hiss of the steam iron; his suit, equally perfect, a somber charcoal color. He stood tall on an expanse of dewy grass, in an early spring chill, cranking three flags down to half mast – to honor the victims of the attacks in Brussels.

Everything about this man spoke of respect – from the way he dressed to greet his customers and colleagues to his assumption of the morning’s first duty – something he could easily have delegated to one of his staffers. His appearance and actions made an indelible impression upon me. And this impression associated itself in my mind with his company’s brand – Northern Bank.

As the company’s three flags flew at half mast, and I continued my walk to work, I saw another company across the street that hadn’t bothered to lower its flag even as the death toll climbs past thirty.

Everything your employees do both inside and outside your company, reflects on your company’s brand. Curious, I Googled Northern Bank and one of the first articles I saw mentioned it had been rated one of the Boston Globe Top Workplaces. This didn’t surprise me at all – it takes a good company culture to reinforce a company’s brand.

What kind of flag does your company fly?

We Are Teabags

This was the subject line of an email I recently wrote to a colleague. The email was about why it is a good idea for people from completely different departments in a business to exchange ideas and share information – because, like tea, their ideas about best practices can diffuse throughout the company.

But that is not the point of this post.

The point is, it started an email chain. The subject line “Re: We are teabags” has hit my in-box a few times today, and every time, I’ve opened that email first because the subject line is so weird that it jumps out at me.

I’m not recommending you write subject lines that are completely different from the subject matter. This is disingenuous, and while it may get higher open rates, it will also annoy the recipients.

My point is that a little creativity in subject line crafting goes a long way towards attracting extra attention in your recipients’ in-box.

This works whether you’re crafting a marketing email that will go out to a large audience, or whether you’re simply asking a colleague for a meeting.

What are your favorite subject lines? What’s your pet peeve with subject lines?


2:15 a.m. in Paris

I got to the Expo Center today. The stands were being built by contractors who had already arrived in Paris by the time of the attacks. Our exhibit contractors had arrived from Germany and the US and our stand is beginning to look fantastic. It was exciting to see the graphics we had created at the office, actually being applied to the walls of the stand and looking good.

This morning I spent time focusing on things like tuning up the social media posts we have planned to go out during the conference week. You can pre-schedule Tweets and Facebook posts and so on, but if something happens in the meantime that makes them false, you look pretty dumb when they go out.

The people in Paris whose job it is to take care of tourists and visitors while at the same time worried about their own family – these people have been professional and kind to a fault. Last night when all the horror happened, taxi drivers turned off their meters and drove people home for free.

Getting meals and taking care of other basic needs has been odd. The restrooms at the expo center were closed for most of the day today, perhaps because staff stayed home… One of the event organizers warned me: “Go to the loo before you come to the expo center.” In contrast to what the center will look like in three short days, with espresso and pastry flowing out of many exhibit stands (OK: pastry doesn’t “flow”) . . . today the cafes in the expo center were closed.

I said in my earlier blog post that my entries from Paris would be in “classic web log” format, without much attention paid to good writing. This post is obviously no exception – instead of finding a good tagline, I will just say “Bon soirée.”

10:43 a.m. in Paris

Trying to figure out when / how to go to the expo center. Unfortunately I’m staying in a hotel some distance away. The really weird thing is following the Twitter hashtag for the conference to try to get up-to-date info, and seeing the pre-scheduled Twitter posts that marketers (like me!) have queued up ahead of time. “Excited as we prepare for the show!” and that sort of thing.

Sunrise in Paris

This blog post is more like the original version of a “blog” – a “web log,” an unedited, diary-like post instead of a carefully thought-out, search-engine-optimized gem of thought leadership.

Last night in Paris was a fairly ordinary evening for a business traveler. I had arrived in Paris at 8:40 a.m. to coordinate my company’s presence at EWEA, one of the wind industry’s most prominent annual conferences. I had spent the day going from airport to hotel to our company’s Paris office to gather together the things we’d need on our stand, ranging from a demo unit of our data logger to two large boxes of Finnish chocolate to give to attendees. I had dinner at a cheap sandwich shop, thinking I must be the dorkiest person in Paris right now.

Friends, family, and colleagues had urged me: “Have a good time in Paris!” It was a Friday night! But I was tired. And my partner, Nathaniel, had given me a whopper of a lecture about staying safe, with his unique combination of sternness and love. So I went all out: I stopped for an espresso and pastry across the street from the hotel at 6 p.m.

At about 10 p.m., wired to the hilt from the espresso but exhausted from a missed night of sleep, I found a “Yoga to go to sleep” routine on Youtube. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor with one arm extended over my head in a pose that should be called “Awkward Bird” when my phone rang. “Are you all right?” demanded one of my friends back home. “Yes, why?”

I spent the next few hours speaking (chatting, posting, tweeting…) with friends, loved ones, and colleagues. For the second night in a row, I haven’t slept much. My emotions are hard to fathom, ranging from numbness (‘how many people got killed?’) to breaking out in sobs when my colleague Niina texted me from home saying her thoughts were with me. The expressions of simple concern (“are you all right? stay safe!”) touch me. I’m more worried about my family and what they are feeling than I am about anything else. Not being fluent in French is challenging because the local news is more informative than CNN, from the perspective of what’s actually going on here.

There’s nothing I can do for the time being, except wait for other people to make decisions – whether it’s safe to go to the conference center now, whether the conference will in fact be cancelled, and so on. Two days ago I was excited for the conference to start – now I wish I were at home with my family.