Friday, January 3, 2014

Five free online tools for campaigns

If you're launching a bid for political office, building support for a cause, or heading up a marketing campaign for a club or organization, here are some web-based services that can help. Even better, they're all free.

These are the online tools I've found most helpful, even essential, for a variety of campaigns. You can find other alternatives in most cases, but these particular tools are reliable, easy to use, and can work in concert to meet your campaign goals.

1. Wordpress. Every campaign needs a home base on the web, a place you'll send people to get the big picture, see the latest news, and take steps to get more involved in your cause. Of all the options, I find blogging software the easiest to set up and maintain. And of all the blogging services, Wordpress has the most to offer. (Yes, you're reading this on Blogspot; this isn't a campaign.) I generally register my own domain name and use a custom Wordpress installation, but that takes some additional time and work, and you have to pay for both the domain name registration and the web server hosting. A free blog is easier, and it costs you nothing. You can have a website up in mere moments, and get started with a design template that's already built and ready to go. This is where you'll place all the links to and/or widgets from the other tools below.

2. Rally. There are other ways to raise money, collect payments online, etc., but Rally is a great tool for campaigns. One of the best features it offers is the ability to stay in touch with your followers and supporters. Rally will help you build a community around your cause and keep your most engaged advocates involved. People who donate to your campaign can also build their own Rally pages and start raising money and awareness for you. Word of mouth is your best friend, and the folks who already support your cause are the people most likely to spread the word; the people who have donated to your campaign are also the ones who are most likely to support it in the future. Keep in touch with them, and keep them happy, because they are your biggest asset. And more often than not in grassroots campaigns, they're also your customer.

3. Wufoo. This online form builder with a funny name is one of the most useful services online. Wufoo comes in handy any time you need to collect information from people. You can use it to build a mailing list, create a survey, generate a feedback page, or design any number of other forms. If you need to identify supporter interests, or allow volunteers to select from a list of available opportunities, you can easily build a form for that purpose in minutes. Wufoo can be customized to send your supporters an email receipt when they complete a form, and you can choose to receive a real-time email notification also. Wufoo integrates with other services, such as Paypal, so you can even use it to sell campaign materials. I use it most often in conjunction with the next service on the list.

4. Mailchimp. It still happens, but gone are the days when people needed to CC dozens of contacts in an email message, compromising their followers' privacy, getting their messages flagged as spam, and exposing themselves to 187 out-of-office messages, bounce-backs, and replies. Of all the mass email and contact management services, Mailchimp offers the most for free. You can create multiple lists and groups, allowing you to build customized messages shaped for different audiences, and you can compose a message in advance and schedule it to deliver at a preset time. Mailchimp can be synced with Wufoo, so your email subscription process is seamless.

5. Facebook Page. If you want to reach people, you have to go where they are. And for now at least, the best place to find people and get them plugged into your campaign is Facebook. You'll still occasionally see some personal accounts being misused as a campaign or brand, but you really need to start with a personal profile using your own name, then create a Facebook page for the campaign. Some campaigns may want to use a Facebook group instead, but if you are controlling the message, stick with a page. In most cases, your Facebook page is your most regular connection to your followers, and you'll use it to highlight your blog posts, link to your Rally page to raise money, post photos of your supporters at campaign stops, build your email list, call for volunteers, and market your events.

Bonus Tool #1. Eventbrite. For campaign events big and small, Eventbrite offers a way for your community to reserve seats or purchase tickets. You can even create a free custom subdomain like The system can be configured to send automated email reminders to your guests, and you can download a sign-in list or scan bar-codes as they arrive.

Bonus Tool #2. Google Calendar. There are plenty of calendar and task-list alternatives, but Google Calendar is easy to use, appointments and events can be grouped by color, all kinds of reminder alerts can be set, entries can be shared with other users as needed, and everything can be managed from a smartphone app. Good timing and organization are vital elements of an effective campaign, and Google Calendar will help you stay on target.

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