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Back to School: 5 Technologies You Need to Learn to Use Now

back-to-school-11090102 Credit: Dreamstime.com

You've been putting it off long enough. It's time you learned these new technologies that could save your business money and save you lots of time. Here are five technologies you need to learn now.

Google +

What is it?

Google+ is an online social network designed to make sharing things on the Web more like sharing things in the real world, by giving users the ability to share different things with different people. Some of the Google+ features include "Circles," which allow users to create their own specific groups for information sharing. Circles can be used to separate friends from coworkers, for instance, so the user isn't forced to share every post with both groups of people. Google+ also includes options for having videos and news articles sent directly to the user to watch and read at their pleasure, as well as video chat rooms that allow the user to talk in HD to as many as 10 other people. Another feature lets users upload every photo and video taken on a smartphone directly to a secure album in the cloud.  Google+ is free.

How your business will use it:

While still in its infancy, social media expert Toby Bloomberg says Google+ offers some well-designed benefits for business owners.

Specifically, Google+ is giving businesses new ways to connect with its customer base, he said.

"I see circles as an interesting opportunity for niche marketing," Bloomberg said. "It is important to map which customers are on Google+ and understand how they are using it."

Holding customer focus groups in the HD video chat rooms also can be a time- and money-saver for business owners.

Since the social network just went live two months ago, there is still much to discover about using the new tool – and much to learn about the potential advantages it could deliver to business owners.
"It's important to remember that Google+ is in the infancy stage, and changes seem to be made almost weekly," Bloomberg said. "For a business owner, taking time to understand the benefits and limitations of the platform are critical in order to determine how the tool can be turned into a tactic and incorporated into the overall master marketing plan."

Office 365

What is it?

Office 365 is a cloud service featuring all the Microsoft Office programs and productivity tools, and is available in a wide range of service plans designed to meet the needs of businesses of all sizes, from the largest to the smallest. Using Office 365, users are able to easily connect through instant messaging and virtual meetings with people who are either down the hall or across the country. Different users also can work on the same files and documents at the same time. Office 365 offers a range of service plans for a monthly price, ranging from $2 to $27 per user.  Some of the more expensive plans also include advanced IT controls, innovative security technologies and 24/7 IT support.

How your business will use it:

Designed specifically for businesses, Office 365 offers benefits for businesses of all sizes, said Marty Parker, principal consultant of UniComm Consulting.

Parker said a main advantage of Office 365 is that it provides businesses with a complete communications suite at their disposal, offering access to email, calendars and contacts, information tracking and instant messaging.

"The one big exception, for now, is the lack of inbound or outbound calling," Parker said, adding that Microsoft does have plans to add that feature by late this year or early next year.
Parker said another advantage is the ability to easily connect with customers, clients or supply chain partners through the program's conferencing feature.

"Those invitees join via their (Web) browsers and can share voice, video, presentations and applications," Parker said. "With the dial-in conferencing option, any invitee can join the conference call via a telephone."

In addition, Parker said Office 365's SharePoint application supports team rooms and file- and document- sharing features that enable easy collaboration with customers and clients.
While the service has some competitors, Parker said none of them offer as much bang for your buck.

"There are some with lower prices and less functionality, but almost none with more functionality," he said. "Plenty of them have less functionality with a much higher price."


What is it?

Evernote is software designed for archiving anything and everything. Formatted text, full Web pages, photographs, voice memos and even handwritten notes can be stored in an easily accessible online location. The saved items can be sorted into folders, tagged, edited and exported as part of a notebook. Whenever a user sees something online, thinks about an idea or even experiences something, they can save it into Evernote using emails, photos, documents and a host of other ways, all while having it accessible and searchable across all the platforms and devices that they use. Many of Evernote's functions are free; however, a premium service, offering additional storage space for saved items and higher levels of support, is available for $5 a month.

How your business will use it:

Guy Kawasaki, social media expert and founder of Alltop.com, said there are a host of ways that small business owners can use Evernote to simplify their operation.

The main advantage is being able to have all necessary information in one central location, as opposed to having to waste time bouncing around between applications, Web pages and beyond to find the data needed to get a job done, said Kawasaki, who also is an advisor for the Evernote Corporation.

"Business owners can use Evernote as a big filing cabinet in the sky to store anything that they might need in the future, (including) receipts, password confirmations, airplane reservations, hotel reservations, emails, and websites," he said.

In addition, with the use of a scanner, business owners can easily convert paper-based documents, like business cards, to an online format that can be saved to an Evernote account.

Evernote also has mobile apps for the iPhone, Android and iPad, making it additionally appealing for business owners, Kawasaki said.

"You'll have your documents with you wherever you go," Kawasaki said.

Kawasaki also points to other business-owner benefits, including the ability to archive voicemail messages or convert pictures of white boards into text to be accessed later, and the option for personal dictation, allowing owners to leave themselves reminders and keep track of future ideas.


What is it?

Klout, a free service, measures influence based on a user’s ability to engage and influence others. The Klout Score uses data from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare to determine how influential a person is online. Instead of basing ratings on potentially misleading metrics such as follower or friend counts, Klout looks at three main criteria, including how many people the person influences (which looks specifically at the number of people who respond to or share the user’s posted message). Finally, Klout examines how often top influencers share and respond to the user’s content. Klout has analyzed more than 85 million people on major social networks, and is used by more than 3,000 brands and applications.

How your business will use it:

Business owners interested in determining the online influence of some of their customers may find Klout a useful tool, according to Rob Bertholf, a search engine optimization expert in Hawaii. Specifically, Bertholf said the service gives business owners the opportunity to directly target those who they know will be able to continue spreading their message.

Bertholf compares it to a chef who only has one serving of a delicious dish — but wants the world to know about it. When deciding whom to offer it to, the chef wants to find the person who would enjoy it most and who has the loudest voice to tell others all about it, Bertholf explained.

"Klout allows businesses to get the biggest return on their marketing dollar by giving products to people who are sure to amplify their message or product the furthest," Bertholf told BusinessNewsDaily.


What is it?

Dropbox is a free cloud-based service that lets users access and easily share their photos, documents and videos, no matter in the world where they are. Any file the user saves into their Dropbox app will automatically be saved to all their computers, smartphones and iPads, as well as the Dropbox website, which can be accessed from anywhere. It also gives users the added assurance that if their computer crashes, all their files can be easily restored. The software's shared folders allow users to work together on the same projects and documents from their own computer.  Dropbox offers 2 GB of space for free, enough for thousands of documents or hundreds of large photos. Users also have the option to upgrade to a Pro account, which offers 100 GB, for $19.99 a month.

How your business will use it:

Services such as Dropbox give business owners a number of significant advantages — including, most importantly, a highly reliable backup system for documents and other electronic files, according to Christopher Carfi, vice president of social business strategy for consulting firm Ant's Eye View.

"While no service is infallible, a service such as Dropbox is generally less likely to fail than a hard drive," he said. "If files are stored on Dropbox, then even a hard drive crash or loss of a laptop does not result in the loss of files."

The other major advantage is mobile access to most files. Files stored in Dropbox are available on the user’s laptop and desktop computer, as well as an array of mobile devices, Carfi said.

"As such, once a file is stored in Dropbox, it is easily accessible anywhere, at nearly any time," he said. "As long as the file is synced to a mobile device — typically a fast and painless process — it is accessible anywhere, including times when access to a network is not available, such as when on a plane."

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.