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From blog platforms to email marketing services and conference call lines, plenty of free business tools are available that can help entrepreneurs launch their companies while saving money. But do free tools undermine your professional reputation?
“There’s a common saying in the world of Internet companies: If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product,” says New Orleans-based attorney Sean Morrison. “For many things, that is probably no big deal. However, if you are dealing with sensitive information like finances or trade secrets, then ensuring that information is secure may be a very big deal.”
Morrison cites the FCC case last year against the popular mobile app Brightest Flashlight Free, which enabled your phone to become a flashlight but also sold detailed location data to marketers without informing its users.
“Free business tools can be a great way to save on costs, but remember that you are paying somehow,” he says. “It’s simply a matter of what is more valuable – the cost of the service, or the information being shared.”
In addition to security, here are five other things you should consider when using free tools for your business.
1. Quality. “Free tools are great … if they work,” says Michael Bremmer, CEO of technology provider Telecomquotes.com. “The problem, especially with free conferencing services, is that sometimes they work great and sometimes they don’t. Today’s client doesn’t expect you to have call quality issues. And a poor-quality call can easily cost you a client, far exceeding the price of most conference calling services.”
2. Branding. John Turner, CEO of UsersThink [http://usersthink.com/], a company that provides startups with feedback on their landing pages, says free tools can help small businesses and startups survive, but if the branding cannot be changed it poses a problem.
“Not being able to use your own domain name for a hosted blog, or using an email service provider that always includes its own name in the footer of every email sent can make you come across as much less professional,” he says. “When that lack of control of branding becomes an issue, it might be worth paying for a tool that gives you that option back.”
3. Strings. Business coach Misti Patrella says business owners should consider the strings that are attached to the use of free tools. For example, email-marketing provider Mail Chimp offers free service as long as your company has less than 2,000 subscribers.
“If you like the interface, this can be a great savings,” she says.
But other companies put conditions on the service that aren’t as easily accepted, such as free web address from WordPress, Weebly and Squarespace that includes the providers’ name in the URL.
“Using a free web address makes a business look unprofessional,” says Patrella. “It is usually a nominal fee to put your own web address on a free site. In this case, the service is no longer free. As a real business it is necessary and imperative that you have your own web address.”
4. Skill. Just because the service is free, doesn’t mean you’re qualified to use it. For example, Canva offers free design tools.
“But should you be designing your own marketing materials?” asks Patrella. “In many cases, design and copy is better left to the professionals. You could be wasting your time.”
5. Ads. Some providers display ads in exchange for offering free services. It’s important to determine if this is something that your customers or partners will gladly interact with as well as how it will enhance your business’s image, says Keyon Thomas, director of marketing for InfoStreet, a cloud service provider.
“When a customer or potential partner sees an ad on a service or product in use, it can instantly leave an unprofessional taste in their mouth,” he says. “A great example of this is AnyMeeting, a screen sharing and video conference service. AnyMeeting is a great application, but since the free version displays ads during use, it makes no sense to use it unless you are only meeting with people internal to your company. You want your company to always put its best foot forward and using a meeting software that is full of ads can make your business appear small and unprofessional.”
Thomas says a great alternative to consider is MeetingBurner, which also provides a free plan to users but lacks the ads. “Being ad-free can help bolster your image in your client’s eyes, providing a smooth meeting experience without being disrupted by ads,” he says.