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Simple Web Tools for Associations and Event Planners

The web is the great equalizer. It makes small companies appear huge and large companies appear more approachable. It makes us all equal.

I love to share good information, information that people can use to make their associations or events even stronger. These are the two groups that I have a soft spot for. Oh, yes, I pick on associations all the time but that is only because I want them to do “more better”. I have fretted over this post for a week, I wanted to make sure that I was leaving nothing out and then I realized that this should not be a concern, I should simply share the information so here I go!

Today it is 2010 and you need a great web presence if you hope to survive in this day and age. If you do not, you will be sent to the bone-yard shortly. Having a great web presence however, does not mean spending thousands of dollars. There are great online tools created by great companies that have leveled the playing field for associations, association chapters, and event planners to create amazing websites, have social interaction, presence and get things done. Anyone that tells you differently has no idea what they are talking about.

Do it yourselfers in the association, meeting and event space can get it right the first time with a little trial and error, reading and perseverance. You no longer need a “web developer” or “website designer” to get started, have an amazing site, be social, be found and manage your affairs. A little bit of money (and I mean little) and your time is all you need.

The one place that you should not shirk is your logo. I have said this before, check out this post.

I know that there are people that will disagree with me. I get it whenever I say things like this. Developers will tell me how their expertise is needed for SEO, for this and for that. Hooey. Their expertise is needed for mid-sized and above companies and associations that have a marketing budget and want to move to the true “next level”. Their expertise is not needed for the small company, small association, event planner or one-off event that needs to watch every penny and every drop of sweat equity. I believe this and I am not changing my tune.

This information is for beginners, so I have, of course, left off sites and tools like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Digg, StumbleUpon and all of the rest.

Why? Because including all of this information, while useful and necessary for intermediates and above, tends to frighten people who are just getting started or looking to start fresh. They look at all of the options and they start to cry… and with good reason. It is daunting. If I were just starting and got hammered with all of that information, I would have a freaking breakdown. It took me a long time to know what I know and I still don’t know the half of it.

I have also left out event registration sites (with the exception of Wild Apricot). I am actually putting something together that deals with Registration and it will be stand alone.

In this post, I have boiled it down to the basics. A place to start, be comfortable and to call your base camp, once the perimeter of the base camp is secure, then you can venture out into the wild wild web and find some other places you should be or other tools you should use. You do not head to Mount Everest and climb right to the top. You start at the base camp and work your way to the top, one step at a time, moving from camp to camp. Anyone who tries to head to the top on the first day dies. It is that simple.

These are strictly the mission critical tools that I think are important, the places you need to be and your starting point. Once you get comfortable navigating you can start to build a new site with Joomla or Drupal, get rolling with Digg or StumpleUpon and dive into more advanced options available for tools you already use. This post is not for those that are ready for that….. if you are ready for that, you can leave now…..go away.

Still here? OK. cool. Just so you know, this is not a how-to guide, that would take a lot more than a blog post, in fact, it would be a short book (hmmm). These should be treated as signposts or GPS directions for where you need to go. I will try to link to the places, people and anywhere I think that may help or that you may need. Everything here is in a kind of psychotic order as well, if you took each point below and did them in order, that would not be a bad thing, but it is not necessary.

Getting on the web, managing your stuff or getting something fresh for next to nothing:

Corporate Domain Name Purchase

GoDaddyDon’t laugh, they are still the best no matter what all of the pros tell you. They are cheap, have amazing customer service that includes a live body when you call for assistance. As a bonus, their call wait times are short should you need to call. They also make it easy for you to point your shiny new domain name at a website with no tech skills required. You will not be sorry you registered your domain with GoDaddy, regardless of their idiotic commercials.

Building the Website:

Need a website? Here are online tools that you can use to create an amazing site that will have a professional polish with little technical knowledge. You can create almost any type of site with the following tools. You can put video up, have internal forums, lock-outs for member only areas and more. It takes practice, but why not. By mastering any of these platforms (and it is not hard) you will be able to talk intelligently when you move up to the next level. Talking to a web designer can sometimes be like talking to a car mechanic, it pays to understand what that do-hickey is when they tell you it needs to be replaced.

Squarespace – Gotta have a website that allows your members to sign in or even register themselves. Want state of the art stuff and the ability to be up and running in less than a day, this is your spot. Famous companies using Squarespace include Marc Echo and the WWF. All for about 20-50 bucks a month. You can also integrate all of your spiffy social network stuff discussed below. Squarespace is great for people that are going to make the jump to the next level quickly as you can really dig into their system and mess with CSS etc (If you don’t know what CSS is, no worries, you don’t need too).

Weebly – Silicon Valley start up that got a ton of funding and will allow you to create two totally unbranded and ad-free sites with tons of bells and whistles for FREE. Free is good. Need their professional level for video hosting and running your own ads, make it $40.00 per year. These guys allow you to create very impressive sites for nothing or next to nothing. So easy to use an 8 year old can create a site that would rival any professional site in appearance. They also have an integrated, simple shopping cart system that works “out of the box'”. This is good for those who sell stuff. FYI, they choose the company name because the domain was available.

Wild Apricot – Stupid name, great service. This is an amazing tool for associations. These guys have everything in one package. You can design your association’s website and manage all of your members including dues, renewals, and events all from the dashboard. If you are a serious professional organization with a limited budget, this is for you.If you are serious professional organization with a huge budget, this is probably for you too as you can really work within their framework to create some great websites and features.

Communicating:

Corporate Email:

You must have email, it is a fact and if you are an independent meeting planner and still using a Gmail or Yahoo email account you really need to stop and stop today. There are a million and one services that can provide email service, you can ignore all but one.

GoogleThere is no substitute. They have free and paid options that are ridiculously cheap. If you are going to be a power user than the pay is for you, but for most, free works. With a little work you will have emails flowing into your Outlook inside of an hour (and that is starting from scratch with 0 ability).

Project Management:

Basecamp Brought to you by the fine folks at 37 Signals, this online service will help you manage projects, is simple to use and will not kill your budget. This is not a big hulking program like Microsoft SharePoint which will help you build a Boeing 747 while it makes coffee. Basecamp is simple, straightforward and fine for most projects, especially event and marketing projects. Basecamp is used by companies like Kellogg’s, Trek, Patagonia, and Sub-Zero, if it is good enough for these heavyweights, it will be fine for you and all starting at $24.00 per month.

Google Sites Another fine program by the folks who give you everything for free and scare everyone because they know everything. Google Sites allows you to create an “intranet” that only you and those in the know can see. You can upload files, assign tasks, etc.You can even build a “real” front facing website with Google Sites although I don’t recommend it, it is not polished enough.

Get Social (Networking) – Where you should start

There are a whole lotta places that you should be in the Social Media world but you need to start somewhere. You need to know how it works, why it can be successful and why it can fail… for this reason, I recommend that any organization starting out with Social Media should begin with the top three.

Twitter – You know about twitter unless you live under a rock. Microblogging service that allows you to reach out to the masses in 140 characters or less. Brilliant, simple, free. If you want some basics, follow my Twitter and Hotels rules, they really work for everyone, just make the effort.

Facebook – Create your page and then have your blog or twitter account link to it to give it content. A great place to interact with members. Make sure that you pick the right type of page because once you choose it is final. I suggest everyone create a page for a “brand”. You are a brand after all. There are plenty of resources to help you maximize use of your FaceBook page, written by better minds than me. Jeff Bulla is one of those people, Jeff Haydon is another. They will also clue you in on Twitter and other social sites as well.

LinkedIn – Facebook for professionals. This is a must, create a page, create a group and link your stuff to it.

Managing your Social Network Accounts:

TweetDeck – A desktop application that manages all of your FaceBook, Twitter, and other accounts so that they all feed into one place so you can manage them, post to them and keep up to date. Simple to use and addictive.

HootSuite – Same as TweetDeck but online in a web browser. Yes, they both have pros and cons, but each is fine for a novice. Try them both and use the one that is best for you or the one that you like.

Building Social Networks:

Building your own social network is no longer seen as hip and cool, in fact, unless you are really serious about maintaining it, keeping the conversation going and putting in some serious time managing it, I would say stick with the ones that are already huge (FaceBook and LinkedIn). If you were able to get every FaceBook member who falls under your “space” or industry to “Like” your FaceBook page, you would be set for life. Concentrate there. OK, still want your own? Try these:

Ning – Build your own website/social network for about $20.00 a month. There was some concern over their future, but that looks like it is working itself out. PlannerWire had PlannerMix hosted here when we were into running a social network, but our thinking was people have enough social interaction to worry about, we did not want to add to that pressure.

Spruz – Free for most plans, a little more for others. Create a social network with all of the FaceBook stuff and make it private for your group only. Not bad if you must create one, but again, what is the point when you can piggy back on some of the most trafficked sites on the planet (is it obvious I am trying to discourage people from starting their own social networks).

Multimedia

Putting your Videos online:

Online video is becoming mission critical. You are video taping your conferences, sessions and other events (you better be), you need to show them online, embed them in your website and post them to places all over the web. Here is what you need to do this. Don’t be stingy with your video, if you don’t show it, why do you bother shooting video. I actually had someone say, “we can’t show our video, then why come to our conference” — They don’t get it, you should.

Vimeo – Cheap, good and secure. You can post a video and make it private, post it to a website, allow others to share it and more. This is hands down the easiest video sharing site out there. You can post videos of almost any length, in hi def and do amazing things. Use it (and YouTube, you need them both).

YouTube – Necessary evil. Unfortunately, you must post your videos on the same site that glorifies talking dogs and beer bongs. Create a YouTube account and post all of your public videos here. They get watched which is what you want.  Maybe you will even become a sensation like that idiot flight attendant or a barking dog that sings My Sharona.

Photos

Most website software programs have a photo gallery built in for showing off your masterpieces, event images or other pics that you would like to share. There are reasons to have an outside place to put photos as well. In some cases, it is to integrate with social networking sites or to allow others to share your images.

Flickr: Photo sharing site that allows you to organize images, lightly edit them and out them together to share. It is owned by Yahoo so you have to create a Yahoo ID which is a pain in the butt because now you have one more log in that needs to be monitored but that is a small price to pay.

Picassa: Oh Google, how do you do it. Picassa is a desktop application and is one of the best for organizing images, getting them online and sharing them. A side note about Google… using multiple Google tools will make your life easy because you will have one log in for them all.

Corporate Blog:

Blogging is also something that you need to do. Most of the sites that allow you to create a website have some type of blogging
service built right in, Squarespace has one of the best. Should you want a separate blog site, I can recommend:

TypePad  – That is where this blog is hosted. It is cheap, easy and great. They have different inexpensive packages so you can pick the one that is right for you and your organization.

Blogger – Again with the Freaking Google, they are everywhere, but they create the amazing.

SEO or Search Engine Optimization.

SEO is what makes you get found on the internet. It is making sure that your site is put together in such a way as to make it easy for Search Engines like Google to find you.

I know that this is where I am going to get hammered I am sure, but no mind. I can take it. SEO is the Holy Grail of the internet, the 800 lb gorilla and the thing that drives most people nuts. Getting found is what it is all about. There are people that say you have to do this or do that, have the right Meta Tags and the right Ju-Ju to get found. Yes, this is true, but for those starting out, thinking like this is not for the faint of heart and probably a little above your skill set at the current time. Thinking about it as you start the journey will make your brain cramp, will make you nauseous and you may pass out. Instead, all you need is a little common sense.

Common sense is telling you to build your website, common sense is telling you that it will need content and common sense is telling you to make your content good. Content is king. Good content is crucial. What will make you show up on the first page of Google faster than anything is good content and inbound links. You must create things that people want to read and the people that read it need to link to you from their website, their blog or wherever. There is no faster way that is above-board. Even if this changes tomorrow, think about this, if the most influential people in your industry are linking to your site, what does it matter where you rank. The right people will find you.

Fast is also a relative term, there are different speeds of fast. While good content and inbound links may take months to get you to the coveted first position, Google is also now ranking social media. You may post something to FaceBook, your blog or Twitter and it will show up at the top of the results in the first hour so do not start a twitter account and simply let it sit idle. Letting your social media sit idle is as bad as leaving money on the table and no one I know does that.

Don’t get me wrong, as you start to build a site using any of the above tools, they have spaces for you to fill in Keywords, Meta information, etc. You should fill those out (oh, and they all have instructions). Need to know how to find some useful keywords? Go to Google, search for the term that most describes your industry (event planning) and click on the first listing. When you get to that page, find a nice blank spot on the screen and right click, choose “view page source”….. scroll down till you see “Keywords” and that will give you an idea of what you should use. I do not recommend copying them, use words that work for you, not someone else.

Rest assured, if you are creating quality content, working hard and keeping up with what you need to do, you will get you where you need to go. No matter how bad you screw up. The most important thing that you can do is not give up. Giving up is the fastest way to failure.

Do you have any online tools that are favorites and help you in your association or event planning role? Please let me know, I am always looking to add to my tool chest and would love to share them with the world!

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