One of the statistics that’s surprised me most in the run-up to this festive season is news that UK consumers are set to spend over £180m online on Christmas day. I’m not sure quite how to feel about it. Do we really dislike spending time with our families so much that we can’t go even a day without whipping out the credit card and bagging a bargain on Amazon?
But then maybe it’s just another confirmation that we live in a world more wired than ever. Facebook is the UK’s second most-popular website (just behind Google). Mobile internet use has exploded – many of us are carrying small computers around in our pockets, and around half of internet users are getting connected while out and about. The internet is part of our everyday lives.
Indeed, 2011 was a year when technology featured prominently in the news. There was, of course, the October loss of Steve Jobs – who arguably did more than anyone else to turn technology into something we can use without having to think about how to operate it.
But what marked 2011 out for me was that technology played a central part in many other major news stories that weren’t, on the face of it, about technology at all.
There were the August riots, which many claimed were coordinated via BlackBerry mobile phones. And then there was the Arab Spring, where some protestors used social media to communicate with each other and reveal events on the ground to the wider world.
Closer to home, 2011 was the year tablet computers really started to show they could be more than a flash in the pan (despite some dissenting voices). It was the year cloud computing continued its steady expansion into the world of business computing. And – of course – it was the year when new EU laws about website cookies confused just about everyone. (Don’t worry – you have a little time yet to get your website in order.)
As you may know, IT Donut is one of a family of five Donut websites. Together with Marketing Donut, Start-up Donut, Law Donut and new arrival Tax Donut, 2011 has been a good year. Across all these Donuts we’ve built our readership up to around 90,000 visitors each month. Our monthly Donut newsletter is sent to around 54,000 people.
We’ve had a go at predicting what might be the big things for small businesses to watch in 2012. But no matter what the forthcoming year does hold for your business, we’ll be here offering the best IT advice, help and information, whenever you need it.
In the meantime, we’re putting down the keyboard, setting aside the mouse and taking a little time away from the screen to enjoy the festive period. We’ll be back at the start of January. Merry Christmas!
A brand’s domain name is akin to the wrought iron signs which hung from ‘ye old shoppe’ on the High Street in days gone by. It is the first signpost to your digital shop front and, just as on the High Street, you need to get it right to stand out from the crowd.
However, many small businesses still have not invested in the online real estate for their brand or for their flagship products. This is a failure on two counts: it’s a failure to grow their digital presence and failure to understand that effective use and marketing of a domain name would allow customers to reach their store in a single click of the mouse, without ever straying on to a competitor’s site.
Online real estate can be purchased for as little as a few pounds and perhaps this is why many businesses consider it to a minor part of a wider branding strategy. Combine this with the fact that most domain name portfolios are managed by the people in charge of IT rather than branding, and it is clear to see why domain names get forgotten about.
The company I work for, Sedo, ran an industry survey at Internet World 2011. It revealed that despite keyword domain names being available for as little as £500, well over a third (36%) of UK respondents would be willing to spend more than £5,000 on the right domain name for their company. This shows that the right domain name is now considered an essential part of a small company’s brand and online presence.
It is important to remember that if you do not see the value in your domain portfolio someone else will. Owning the right digital property is big business. Even the faintest rumour of a new product often results in a flood of acquisitions by savvy domain name experts wanting to sell on keyword domains for a profit.
It’s therefore important to build domain name planning into new product launch strategies and to think about multiple regions – like other countries - to ensure no one else is benefiting from your brand and marketing.
1. Unify your IT, marketing, and legal teams. In smaller businesses, these aren’t always separate departments. They might even be outsourced to third parties like your IT supplier and a law firm. But whoever they are, it’s important the people in charge of these areas work together to plan any expansion of your brand.
2. Short and sweet is best. The best brands are increasingly investing in snappy domain versions of their names such as t.co for Twitter. Short, relevant domains stick in people’s minds and can be easily integrated into advertising and marketing materials.
3. Keep an eye out for domain opportunities. Early 2012 will see hundreds of new domain name extensions becoming available as the domain name market is liberalised. This will be a massive opportunity to occupy new space on the web under new generic names like .dad or .sport. However, the changes also increase the level of protection you will need around your core digital assets to outwit brand hijackers.
4. Make domain names part of your wider strategy. Before launching a product, check whether or not that domain name already exists in key markets such as .co.uk and .com. If so, try to negotiate to purchase the domain from the current owner before your product launches, so you can keep the value as low as possible. If the domain isn’t currently owned by anyone, purchase it as soon as possible.
Read more relating to domain names
Are you turning your office heating down to save money?
It’s getting cold. Energy bills are going up and competition for small businesses is fiercer than ever. Cutting your costs will always be the most efficient way to save money and increase profits – so why not start with some simple energy efficiency measures?
Many of these tips are just as relevant for your business as they are for your home.
Improving your energy efficiency is a great way of saving money on your energy bills, but it’s vital to make sure you’re not overpaying for your business gas and electricity in the first place.
Business energy contracts don’t work in the same way as domestic energy contracts. You can switch your domestic energy at any time, whereas business contracts lock you in for a fixed period.
At the end of your business energy contract, you’ll be given a short window of time to shop around and switch your business energy. But if you miss this window, you’ll be rolled into a new, fixed-term contract.
Worryingly, if you fall into the roll-over trap, you could see your prices increase by over 30%. I’ve seen cases where customers have been rolled onto rates that are over 100% higher.
Once you’ve had a letter from your energy supplier to let you know you’re in your renewal period, it’s time to shop around for a better deal.
If you give us a call at Make It Cheaper, we can talk to you about your energy use and requirements before finding you the cheapest deal on the market right now. Our advice is impartial and we can switch your business energy for free.
This winter, save thousands on your energy bills by following our simple tips and by securing the best possible prices for your business.
More ways to cut your technology costs:
Jonathan Elliott is Managing Director at Make It Cheaper.
Don’t end up with software that’s like a square peg in a round hole
When you buy software you assume it will do everything you need it to do for your business. After all, the marketing literature said so! But after they have committed to purchase and installed the software, many businesses discover that:
If this happens to you, you’ll find you have not bought what you thought. Worse, you’ll have incurred unplanned and unbudgeted additional costs.
The most important thing to do before buying software is to clearly define, communicate and agree your requirements up front. Then agree objective acceptance criteria so both you and your supplier know exactly what is expected: you won’t sign off the software until it meets these criteria.
Often, achieving this seems as likely as me winning the pole vault in the 2012 Olympics (I’m not keen on heights!).
Indeed, the analysis and thought process involved in establishing your acceptance criteria can, in itself, ensure you are objectively considering what your business needs. Establishing success criteria forces you to ask the right questions when considering an investment in software.
These are the kind of questions you should ask when it comes to defining requirements:
The last one is key, because acceptance criteria enable you to establish clear, objective measures that will ensure both parties (you and the software supplier) know what is expected, what is being delivered and can be happy when requirements are met. They will cover areas such as:
The criteria have to be objective and defined to the right level of detail. Why objective? Tell two people you are thinking of buying a great new car and one will tell you to buy a Porsche and the other a Nissan. Perhaps that’s a bad example … I would go for the Porsche every time, but that just goes to show that we do not intuitively consider other people’s perspectives!
Specifically, I have seen many companies make the mistake of defining criteria to say ‘performance must be satisfactory’. This is a totally subjective statement and could mean anything. It often results in endless unsatisfactory debates - once it is too late - about everyone’s interpretation of the word ‘satisfactory’.
The right business critical software can transform your business, but you need to know exactly what sort of transformation you are looking for – and you must be clear on why and how you will assure success.
Read more about buying software for your business:
Susan Chadwick is co-founder of Edge Testing Solutions.
Online retailers often take on temporary warehouse staff at Christmas
‘Cyber Monday sees Brits spend £19m AN HOUR on the biggest online shopping day of the year’ screams the rarely subtle Daily Mail. You’ve probably encountered the hype over the last couple of weeks: in the lead-up to Christmas, a flurry of media outlets have proclaimed the first Monday in December as the busiest online shopping day of the year, giving it the moniker of ‘Cyber Monday’.
But does Cyber Monday really exist? Or is it an invention of PR firms and retailers, designed to generate coverage and give their sales a boost at the start of the Christmas shopping period?
According to Mobile Fun, its busiest day of the year isn’t the first Monday in December at all. It’s the second. And that means for them, today is Cyber Monday.
What’s more, the online retailer reckons peak online shopping days vary across Europe. Going by orders placed on its website, The Netherlands has its Cyber Monday on 29 November (but then their main day for giving gifts is 6 December), while online orders don’t peak in Spain until 2 January.
“For many online retailers, peak online shopping days pre-Christmas vary across Europe and don’t all fall on 5 December,” explained Mark Riley, Mobile Fun’s head of marketing. ”We find that if a retailer offers late ordering and reasonably priced next day delivery, shoppers are happy to order up to the last minute.”
If you’re running an online business and currently dealing with the Christmas rush, perhaps the key point is to remember that even if Cyber Monday does exist for most retailers (and that’s certainly questionable, given the selective sales data that many release), it might not hold true for yours.
Sales trends vary by country, industry and quite possibly by individual business. So if you want this to be a bumper Christmas for your online shop, forget about Cyber Monday and focus on keeping items in stock, providing great service and not letting your online shop crash. And keep going right until your last delivery date, because there are always people who leave it late.
We gazed into our crystal ball this time last year. (Image: Frogman! on Flickr.)
Regular readers might remember that about a year ago we asked some of our IT Donut experts what trends we'd see in small business IT in 2011.
Twelve months on and we figured it would only be right to tot up the scores and see how accurate our experts' predictions were. So, how did they do?
Paul Lewis from Moo told us he thought we'd see more useful 'freemium' tools appearing in 2011. These are services like Dropbox and Huddle which offer useful, basic features for free and then charge if you want to access additional functions.
Even a year ago freemium services were fairly common. The idea has been around for a good few years, ever since the term was popularised by author and Wired magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson.
Freemium services go hand-in-hand with cloud computing, because many cloud services follow the freemium model. As cloud computing has grown in 2011, so have the number of useful, free tools available. We rounded up five of the best a couple of months ago.
Verdict: there's a greater choice of freemium services than ever before, but most businesses are a way off being able to do everything for free. 8/10.
But after an initial burst of publicity, Quora seems to have faded somewhat from view, even though it does have an active community of users. In particular, questions about starting and running a company seem to attract a lot of answers - suggesting Quora can be a valuable source of advice for business owners.
Verdict: Quora has become a good place to go for business advice, but it's nowhere near as widely used by companies as other networks like Facebook and Twitter. 5/10.
David Hill from Cloudnet Telecommunications said he thought potential customers would get more impatient in 2011. Driven by the growing use of smartphones and expecting immediate responses through social media, he reckoned businesses would have to get better at providing the right information to customers at the right time.
He's certainly right in that a growing proportion of people are using smartphones while out shopping to look up information, compare prices and research products. A recent survey found that 24% of consumers have used a smartphone while shopping - often to check product details or competitor prices.
And email guru Monica Seeley confirms that we've become accustomed to getting near-instant replies when we send emails - which makes David's prediction look fairly accurate.
Verdict: better mobile internet access means more people expect they should be able to look up the information they need, immediately. 7/10.
This prediction had a clear connection to cloud computing too. Ciaran Kenny, from IT support firm Macnamara, told us that the traditional model of paying for business software all in one go would become less popular. Instead, companies would start to pay for software on a subscription basis.
Certainly, subscription software has gained ground since Kenny's prediction. Most notably, Microsoft launched Office 365 in June. It's a version of Microsoft Office that you pay for by the month and access over the internet.
But have we seen the death of traditional software that's paid for in one go? Not a bit of it. Microsoft still sells this version of Office too - and the shelves of PC World aren't likely to be empty of software anytime soon.
Verdict: there are more subscription-based packages available than ever, but businesses are only slowly starting to embrace them. 6/10.
Do you agree with our assessment? And what technology has made a real difference to you this year? Leave a comment to let us know.
Could your web hosting be a roadblock for your website? (Image: williac on Flickr.)
If there's a piece of business IT that's a commodity, surely it's web hosting. There are countless providers, yet what you get is basically the same, right? It's space to get your website on the internet - how much difference can there possibly be between packages?
Well, when you're trying to find reliable web hosting for your business, you might want to learn from the recent experience of eBuyer. Earlier this week the online electronics retailer demonstrated that the ability of your web hosting to handle sudden surges in visitor numbers can hugely affect customer opinions.
Perhaps in an effort to jump on the 'black Friday' and 'cyber Monday' sales which have crossed the Atlantic in recent years, the company announced its exciting £1 clearance sale: 'Every product £1 - updated hourly.' Promising items such as flatscreen monitors for just a quid, it attracted lots of attention on Facebook, Twitter and deal websites.
Unfortunately, things didn't quite go to plan. Demand from customers crashed the eBuyer website even before the sale had started, taking it offline for several hours.
Inevitably, disappointed customers vented their frustration on the company's own Facebook page, and on other sites like MoneySavingExpert.com and HotUKDeals. News stories on The Register and other tech sites followed.
It turned what should have been an attention-grabbing sale into a damage limitation exercise. Check out the apology the company posted on its website.
Let's not be too harsh on eBuyer. They're by no means the first online retailer to fall into this trap and they won't be the last. It's a classic mistake: generating massive demand for your products or services, while failing to ensure your website can cope.
Problems like this are commonly caused by poor internal communication (the marketing department sets up a promotion without briefing the technical team properly), or simply underestimating the level of demand.
The type of web hosting and the way it's set up has a crucial role to play too. Large companies like eBuyer have complex hosting systems, probably with lots of servers spread around different locations. Getting these geared up for a traffic spike can be a complex job.
Whatever your set up, it's important to speak to whoever manages your hosting well before you launch a promotion or start a project with the potential to create a huge increase in website traffic.
Indeed, when you first choose your web hosting, ask yourself whether this is an important requirement. Some types of hosting - notably cloud hosting - are inherently better suited to managing big spikes in demand.
One-off flash sales are a great way to gain PR and boost your customer base - but only if your website is up to the task of serving all those customers. A failure during a traffic spike is incredibly frustrating, because it takes your website down when you have most potential customers trying to view it. Just ask eBuyer.