by Bridget McCrea
They say the best things in life are free. Nowhere is this more evident than online, where free software and utilities abound for organizations just like yours. From social networking platforms to Web security software to portals that allow you to post jobs and search for good candidates online, the Internet remains one of the last bastions for good, free stuff. Here are great new free* online services that you can start taking advantage of right now:
Social networking remains a largely “free” environment for users who want to interact online. Not only can your association join existing networks like Facebook and ActiveRain for free but you can launch your own social network free of charge as well, for members to interact with one another exclusively. Use social networking platform Ning.com to create new online networks for specific groups, such as young members, committees, or leadership. Another free platform is KickApps.com, which enables you to integrate social networking applications into your association’s Web site.
Along the lines of social networking is the unique and free Posterous.com, where you can send virtually any type of file and Posterous will convert it to the most web-friendly format available and publish it online instantly—no sign up or registration. This is great for getting critical news out to members (with photos, video, and PDFs) immediately, plus Posterous can “outpost” your material to your blog, Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets with one click.
Meeting and Scheduling
Instead of wasting valuable time and paper to get the word out about your association meetings, check out MeetingWizard.com, which allows you to arrange and schedule events in a simple online format. Send invitations, review responses, and issue confirmations and reminders using just a browser and e-mail account. Another scheduling tool, Doodle.com, includes polling and voting options that allow your association to gauge membership interest in important issues. And then there’s TimeBridge (with free and paid features), which claims as its mission “to ensure that your attendees arrive prepared, stay focused, and leave with a common purpose and clear to-dos”—who wouldn’t want that?
Free for personal use, Zoho.com offers productivity and collaboration applications that range from e-mail to accounting spreadsheets to online presentation tools. ThinkFree Office (www.thinkfree.com) is a Web-based office suite (i.e. an alternative to buying expensive Microsoft Office) that allows users to create, edit, and share word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation materials. It’s compatible with MS Office, so it’s ideal to have on your laptop for traveling, too. ThinkFree Office also features Internet-based file sharing and storage, and security.
Web Hosting and Creation
If your association is looking for a free, easy way to upgrade an existing Web site or create a new online home, check out Yola.com, which prides itself on being able to “take what’s in your head and turn it into Web pages in front of your eyes,” and without imposing banner ads or pop-up ad windows. Another option is Weebly.com, which offers a “drag and drop” site builder, editing function, and free hosting.
Your organization’s computers—and the sensitive data stored within—need to be protected. ZoneAlarm.com offers a free option that features firewall protection from hackers and other external threats.
Web Site Analytics
Associations looking to measure the effectiveness of their Web sites can use free Web analytics tools like Statcounter.com to analyze and monitor all the visitors to your Web site in real time. The information can then be used to tweak your organization’s online presence, making it more useful for members and visitors.
If your association doesn’t have a blog up and running yet, try Blogger.com or Wordpress.com, both of which offer free blog publishing tools. Get members and site visitors engaged in association activities and updated on association information through text, photos, and videos—all of which can be uploaded to and embedded in your blog within minutes with either of these utilities.
Phone and Fax
You’ve probably heard of the revolutionary Skype.com, which allows users to essentially “phone” each other through their computers for free. But now there’s a business version of Skype, deployable on multiple machines, that includes free Skype-to-Skype video calls plus some paid features including screen sharing.
FaxZero.com allows users to send faxes for free, and without using a traditional fax machine. Plus there’s a promising new service from Google, called GoogleVoice that gives you a single phone number that will ring any or all of your phones—home, mobile, and work. This free service also automatically transcribes every voice mail, then sends them to your cell phone as a text message.
With MongoFax, free to associations, members can use their fax machines to e-mail documents. MongoFax enables REALTORS® to instantly fax paper-based documents (disclosure packages, signed contracts, etc.) directly to any e-mail address by using the designated REALTOR® association’s MongoFAX cover page. This service saves on couriers, delivery services, paper, toner, and postage.
The next time you’re conducting an online meeting with board members, check out SlideShare.com, which enables you to upload your PowerPoint, OpenOffice, and Keynote presentations, tag them, embed them into your blog or Web site, browse others’ presentations, and comment on individual slides—all at no charge. Also great for embedding training presentations into your association’s Web site. Similarly, there’s Prezi, a mostly free online app that lets you create a dynamic presentation, save it online, and present it from any computer hooked up to the Web.
Free Technology Tools from NAR
NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology Outreach Initiative provides free advice to REALTOR® associations and MLSs on technology selection and implementation, including evaluating and comparing hardware and software alternatives.
Web site security scan & software for data security.
NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology offers free security scans of association Web sites to check for holes and vulnerabilities. CRT also offers associations two free software programs to prevent online data theft. NoScrape and reCaptcha identify a Web user as either a human or a computer program and can then block or allow access.
MLS policy compliance software.
PolicyPage, an Internet compliance software application, scans members’ Web sites for compliance with Multiple Listing System display policies.
NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology
TIP: Continuously updated library of free apps
If you’re constantly on the lookout for free tools to make your job easier, then bookmark CNet.com. This site not only catalogs and describes nearly every piece of freeware offered online, but tests and reviews them as well. Visit http://download.cnet.com and type in the search box for the category of software you need, for example “podcast.” Once the results pop up, click on “free” in the left-hand menu to view the free options. Here you’ll find “Podcast RSS Buddy” (free for the first five podcasts) among the options ready for immediate download.