12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.

You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.

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Four Great Remote Training Tools

As more companies use web-based apps to power their sales and marketing campaigns, we have become acutely aware of the need for good user training.

This winter we have rolled out installations of Solve360 (a CRM), SugarSync, Expensify, QuickBooks and various Google products.

The canned help for these services is generally good, but usually not enough to fully engage everyone. Personalized handholding and troubleshooting goes a long way towards full user adoption — which is the key to a project’s success.

If we’re not on-site, these are the four tools we use most often to help coach individual users along the learning curve.

chrome-remote-desktopChrome Remote Desktop

This is a free add-on app for the Google Chrome browser, which allows someone to give total control of their computer to another person in a remote location.

This is most useful for a “tech support” situation, e.g. if someone is having trouble understanding where to click in a new app, or has gotten lost in a web-based app.

Making a connection is pretty simple. The user opens Chrome, goes to the Remote Desktop page, and initiates a sharing session. Chrome provides a unique twelve-digit code, and they repeat it to me over the phone. I punch that code into Chrome on my computer, and the connection is made through Google’s servers. I can now “see” the user’s desktop in my version of Chrome, control their mouse, and make keyboard entries.

The above startup sequence takes about ten seconds. Screen lag is very minimal. Security is good: the code expires after a few minutes, and an inactivity timeout closes a connection automatically.

Webinar tools like GotoMeeting and WebEx have a similar function to “give desktop control” to a remote person, but Remote Desktop is vastly easier for ad-hoc use.

meetingburner1Skype and MeetingBurner

On the other hand, I may want to show my screen to someone else.

Skype allows 1:1 screen-sharing, and doing so is pretty convenient if you’ve already established a Skype voice connection with the remote party. Also, the Skype IM window permits you to share chunks of text like URL’s or a set of bullet points. However, if Skype gives you a dodgy connection, the display lag can be significant.

MeetingBurner, at this writing, is the freshest entrant in the webinar world. I use this app when broadcasting my onscreen actions to more than one person, or to a non-Skype user. Startup of MeetingBurner consumes about a minute of the broadcaster’s time.

MeetingBurner has a free tier of service, and a paid tier that enables the recording of webinars.

The latest beta of the Skype program for Windows allows 1:many screen-sharing. Yet the more attendees you have, the more likely it is that someone doesn’t have Skype. Better to use MeetingBurner.


So far, we’ve covered how to train people remotely in real-time. To convey basic usage of a web app to a group of users, we use Screenr to build canned tutorials.
screenr_logoScreenr records a portion of my screen, plus a voiceover. The resulting video is available for viewing online by the user, and even plays well on iPhone/iPad. Private sceencasts (which might show proprietary information) are possbile with Screenr’s paid tier of service.

We find Screenr most useful for demos that introduce a new app, or brief “skills” videos that coach someone through a particular feature.

Since these screencasts are recorded live and can’t be edited, they should be brief and introduced as informal tools.


Nine Marketing Tasks You Shouldn’t Be Doing Anymore

For the marketer at a medium-sized company, the development of web-based apps has made some tasks obsolete. With some effort and startup costs, by 2009 you can stop:

Running your business without an intranet. A simple intranet can help you share files with remote staff, have discussions, host a wiki, and remain very secure. Open source website software Drupal is a perfect tool for this. Its user and group permissioning is particularly easy, and you can easily extend it into an “extranet” where your partners and commissioned sales reps get access to a portion of the site’s content.

Guessing at what your customers are saying in public. A few ideas: 1) Do a Google search for “better than [your-product-name-here]” or “similar to [name] — remember the quotes. There are a number of variations to this for tire-kicking customers; i.e. “also considered [name]” “looked at [name]“. 2) Yahoo Answers, especially if you cast your net to include competitor names. 3) an RSS feed of your keywords from Tweetscan. 4) an RSS feed of a Bloglines search. The signal-to-noise ratio of these channels can range from bad to good depending on your company name and sector, so it will probably require some tuning. And you’ll need someone to draw generalizations from the little data points. (Hello, summer intern!)

Paying to host webinars. For the medium-sized business that only does the occasional webinar and remote presentation, WebEx is a luxury. It’s a great service, but you can get the same effect with Zoho.

Asking someone else to change some text on your website. In 2001, websites were usually made on a PC and uploaded to the webserver. Dreamweaver was the norm, along with tools like FrontPage. Altering a page (e.g. adding news, updating a headshot) meant asking the IT guy or the web developer, who might have been offsite. Thus began the dance of request prioritization and email tag for reviewing the page. Now, there are sophisticated and near-free content management systems (CMS) that live on the webserver. To make a change, you log into the system through a web browser, and make the change yourself. The key is that you (and the other editors) can be permissioned to make only certain low-impact changes, and changes can be rolled back if you screw up. Good CMS’s include my current fave Drupal, Expression Engine, Joomla, and Movable Type.

Relying on a PR firm to monitor the news for you. A PR person still helps interpret news and coaches you through a response, but there’s no reason to lean on them as the source of breaking news about you and your company. For media monitoring, Google Alerts and Factiva ($) will get you 90% covered.

Paying lots for development of embeddable website widgets. Seen all over Facebook, widgets might make sense for your marketing. If your widget audience is in the tenthousands, then it probably makes sense to get professional agency work. But if you’re just running an experiment, DIY widgetmaker Sprout is worth a go.

Wondering which half of your advertising works. I’m looking at you, Ogilvy. There are a bunch of ways to reduce that “wondering” to a third or a quarter. Namely: Landing pages, conversion tools for PPC ads, custom URL’s for print ads and DM campaigns, and the filtering tools in web analytics. Integrating lead management tools like Eloqua and Salesforce helps you track conversions.

Speculating on how people get to your site. Knowing where your web visitors is not a new development, but it’s worth mentioning here for the smaller companies whose website statistics are accessible only through their webmaster or web developer. The point is that you can have online, free access to reports that show you the following: 1) which other sites are linking to you and how many people are coming from them; 2) what locations your visitors are coming from; 3) which ads they clicked; and 3) what search keywords your visitors used. Google Analytics is the best free tool out now, but there is a new free package called Piwik that bears watching. With GA, You can add fiters and goals to track these people through to conversion.

Paying for shopping cart software. I admit that the integration and setup of a cart will cost you much more than the cart itself. The bigger point is that quality of free ecommerce software is a lot better now than it was several years ago, and better-supported by a developer/user community. Old and confusing: OSCommerce, ZenCart. New hotness: Magento. Our pals at Avenue Verve, who are our preferred developers of ecommerce sites, swear by Magento.