My Favorite Free Communications Tools

I am frequently amazed by how many excellent communications tools are now available for free. Just a few years ago they were either not available at all or were expensive. Now, with a little time and ingenuity you can express yourself (or promote your clients) in ways we only dreamed about.

Here are a few of my favorites.

  • WordPress: This blogging platform has now evolved into a full fledged Content Management System that rivals Drupal and Joomla but which (IMHO) is much more intuitive to use for the non-programmer. Not only is the platform itself free, but there are thousands of free templates, to give you a customized look and feel, and innumerable free plug-ins that provide a wide variety of functionality. I use both WordPress.com and WordPress.org, depending on the application. Certainly for the complete novice, the hosted platform at WordPress.com is a blessing. My 11 year old daughter set up a blog by herself in less than an hour on WordPress!
  • Freeconference.com: This free webconferencing service is easy to use and works pretty well. Only once have I had a problem with the sound quality.
  • YouTube: With a little imagination you can create your own broadcasting channel on any topic you want. While it’s helpful to provide your own content, even that’s not necessary: You can bring other people’s videos into your Channel using playlists.
  • Blog Booker: Turn your blog into a PDF book in less than five minutes. It works like a charm!
  • Self-publish your e-Book in a number of electronic formats including Amazon Digital Text Platform (DTP), Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble PubIt. While these services don’t charge you for creating your book, all do take royalties on sales.

Of course there are also platforms such as Twitter, FaceBook, and LinkedIn for people who want to stay connected.

The hardest part is keeping track of all of the new offerings. I’ve really been enjoying the proliferation of these new digitally available platforms and products because they have allowed me to manage my own content on line and present it in visually appealing packages. I was shocked recently to find that I was able to recreate a site that in WordPress that I paid major $$ for someone to build for me in Drupal. The real kicker? Mine looks better.

Building a Website using WordPress

Recently I volunteered to help my riding club update their website. While I have experience designing information architectures and writing content for websites, I’m not particularly HTML literate. So when I peeked behind the curtain I was appalled. Where was the content management system (CMS)? There was none. Instead you had to ftp the articles over to the site.

This is when I learned that I was truly technology challenged. The first time I tried to go onto the site and make edits I managed to ftp all the articles from the site onto my computer, leaving just an empty URL. That convinced me that there had to be a better way.

I’ve been using WordPress.com for more than a year now. In addition to this blog I also have a popular equestrian blog, Equine Ink. I like the flexibility afforded by the templates and I find the interface to be intuitive and easy to use. In addition, I could see that by using the WordPress CMS, we could make our website more of a community effort and involve more of our members.

Since the club wanted a Website rather than a blog, I turned to WordPress.org so we could use our own URL and have email addresses associated with the site. I set up hosting through GoDaddy.com, a service that makes it incredibly easy to upload WordPress templates. Given my previous experiences using an ftp client, I was skeptical, but it turned out that after downloading the templates onto my computer, the GoDaddy interface made it easy to upload and install them.

The wealth of free — and low cost — WordPress templates is amazing. Of course, many of them look like templates and it took some time to find one that met all of my requirements. Along with finding a template with the layout and fonts I liked, it was also important to me to find one that is supported by the author. In the end I selected Paalam, a theme written by Sadish Bala. It’s a very elegant design that works well with photo-intensive postings. Having access to support forums has already helped. I wanted to move the position of the title and was able to get the revised code very quickly.

I quickly found plug-ins that added functionality such as a photo gallery and used WordPress’s password protection function to safeguard a members only section of the site. For the technically challenged, this is certainly a quick and easy way to build a fully functioning site without becoming a programmer!

For comparison purposes, here’s the site that we started with:

The original site did not allow you to easily size photos for the header and was text heavy. Since all members love to see photos and videos of the hunt, I thought we would be better served by a design that enabled us to easily incorporate images.

The original site did not allow you to easily size photos for the header (so the image repeated) and was text heavy. The navigation bar was only across the top and you need to mouse over the tabs to see the sub pages. Since all members love to see photos and videos of the hunt, I thought we would be better served by a design that enabled us to easily incorporate images.

Here’s the new WordPress site:

The template of the new site allows all sub-pages to be shown in the left hand navigation bar making it easier to find topics. It is easy to incorporate images into the pages and posts. I particularly like the dynamic nature of the blog format. Rather than having a static site, new posts can be easily added making the site more representative of the community.

The template of the new site allows all sub-pages to be shown in the left hand navigation bar making it easier to find topics. It is easy to incorporate images into the pages and posts. I particularly like the dynamic nature of the blog format. Rather than having a static site, new posts can be easily added making the site more representative of the community.