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Outgoing Mail Server Solution

Oscar Foulkes July 18, 2013 My Little Black Book, Web Tools No comments

As we move around with our mobile devices, switching between 3G connection and various WiFi networks, outgoing mail settings (SMTP) are as much an issue as when we moved around with laptops only.

The reason for this is that each connection to the internet – whether via LAN, WiFi or mobile – uses its own SMTP server. There’s no problem receiving mail using all these various networks, but if you want to send mail you need to change settings. The problem is this – in most locations no-one knows what the SMTP server is for that network. And, even if you could find it out, who wants to be bothered with adding new SMTP servers?

The solution is one I’ve been punting for several years, smtp2go, which is one outgoing server you use wherever you are, on all your devices (you can read more about it here).

(Disclosure: I earn a small referral fee as a result of sign-ups that originate from this site)

Running Your Business in the Cloud

Oscar Foulkes August 3, 2011 Web Tools 2 comments

I have – occasionally – been accused of having my head in the clouds. It’s the kind of thing that gets said to people who appear to have little connection with reality (i.e. they “don’t have their feet on the ground”). I won’t deny that I happily give my imagination free rein, but my sense of reality is very … um … real.

There has been a lot of talk about cloud computing. The Cloud consists of servers parked in a variety of places around the world, which host both the documents/files we work on, and the software that we use. It’s a concept that runs completely counter to the basic computing principles that have made Bill Gates as rich as he is. No longer do you need Microsoft Office on your computer, and depending upon the device you’re using, you may not even be running Windows.

Google is not only the world’s dominant search engine, but with its Gmail and Google Docs offerings it is also a prime example of cloud computing. The pain we bear for using Gmail is that Google displays ads relevant to the content of our emails. Fair enough, it is a ‘free’ service.

Google Docs comes without this baggage. You can create and edit a variety of file types online, and then you can share them with other people (with, or without, editing rights), which makes it a lot more efficient than emailing multiple versions of the same source documents around the world, with various recipients making changes along the way. In Google Docs, one version of the document sits in a central place, so edits are visible to everyone in real time.

Google Apps is all this on steroids, because you can run your entire business in the Google cloud. And, you can add a huge variety of complementary apps.

The beauty is that you don’t need to maintain a file server, or a VPN, or buy any software, but it is a problem when your internet connection goes down. Fortunately, this generally doesn’t happen for more than a few hours per month. Google is by no means the only ‘cloud’ service available, but its sheer size makes one feel a lot more secure about not having in-office control over one’s data (which is sometimes a problem in its own right).

One of the most important tools that a company needs is a CRM (customer relationship manager). The feature I most love about a CRM (other than the contact information) is the linking of emails to particular contacts (or projects, even). I’m not a great filer, so it suits me when this gets done automatically. For companies that run sales teams it’s also really useful to know what the pipeline looks like, in terms of opportunities and closed sales.

Insightly CRM is available as a free app in Google Apps (paid versions only kick in for larger contact databases, but these are cheaper than SalesForce, SugarCRM and others). I’ve been test-driving it and have been very impressed.

You still read your emails through Gmail, but there’s a little button you can click if you want the mail to be stored in all the relevant spots in Insightly. And, when sending email you bcc a designated address, which then stores outgoing mails in the correct spots.

Insightly also creates contacts and organisations automatically when emails are received. What blew me away was the way it intuitively creates organisations. It takes the name of the organisation from the email domain (the bit), which does need a little editing. Then, it takes a logo from the email footer and links the logo to the organisation. The last bit is quite spectacular; Insightly goes to the website of and grabs the meta description (an extra bit of hidden information that makes the website more search engine friendly, by describing the company) and inserts that into a field, called background.

One shortcoming is that you can’t seem to link calendar events to contacts, so you have to use Google Calendar as a standalone service (however, Tasks are ported across by Insightly). And, while it is possible to initiate a reply to a stored email, the reply email won’t have the existing email conversation (i.e. it starts blank). However, it does usefully have that special bcc address automatically included. And, if you click on an email address while in Insightly the same thing happens.

I’m also busy test-driving a $190 Android tablet that I bought online (report to follow), which makes use of all the ‘cloud’ features above. This makes the cost of equipping the staff in a small business a lot more manageable – you don’t need software, or an office network, or a file server, and you can do a lot of your work on a device that is very affordable.

It’s worth getting your head around ‘the cloud’. It’s not pie in the sky, I can assure you.

How to customise Facebook pages

Oscar Foulkes July 18, 2011 Web Tools No comments

Facebook pages are being used by a wide variety of business and interest groups. I’m not suggesting that they are appropriate for all businesses, but I think the social component has interesting applications for the likes of restaurants and entertainment venues. And, apart from the usual ‘Wall’ functions, one can add additional tabs to Facebook pages, which create the opportunity for all kinds of interactions with ‘fans’.

With the aim of learning how to use Facebook to develop deeper relationships with fans of Facebook pages, I test-drove a few different resources:


This is one of the most impressive online resources I’ve come across. The beauty of Shortstack is that you don’t need web development skills to use it, and it manages the Facebook integration for you. The free plan gives you the opportunity of playing around with their features, which are pretty impressive. As an example, it took me a couple of minutes to add a reservation tab to the Sidedish Theatre Bistro Facebook page.

AliExpress by Alibaba.comAnything you’ve seen on Facebook, from promotions to custom forms, gifts, polls, you name it, it’s there. There’s even a really cool widget that does a ‘fan reveal’ (in other words, content that is only available to fans of your page). You can also embed content from a website, or publish a product list (useful for e-commerce). Paid plans range in price from $15 per month.

Fanpage Minisite ($37 once-off) and Fanpage In a Box ($9.95 per month, or $39 lifetime) are similar, in that they provide templates for the web content that goes into that tab on Facebook. I like the WordPress interface both of them have. However, both of them require basic web development skills, so are not as user-friendly as Shortstack.

The benefit of these two is that the charge is once-off, and if your web development skills are advanced you could build in all kinds of cool features. For example, I’m certainly going to be adding Shopping Cart tabs to some of the Facebook pages I run, linked to the online shops I’m involved in.

All three of the vendors listed above have detailed online videos that take you through all the steps required.

With these resources, all it takes to become a Facebook Ninja is a few mouse clicks!

Perfect Tweeting

Oscar Foulkes June 30, 2011 Web Tools 1 comment

I’ve become a little bit addicted to Quora, which in their words is “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.”

You absolutely have to visit Quora – the richness of the answers, often with mind-boggling detail, is nothing short of amazing. By way of example, check out this answer relating to the business model of one of my most-admired online retailers,

I was drawn to answering a question this morning, about the “perfect tweet”. The answer is admittedly not as rich as the others on the site (you can read it here), but it has spurred me into action on a mini-post about Twitter that I’ve been wanting to do.

One of the people I follow on Twitter is Michael Jordaan (FNB’s CEO), whose praises I’ve been meaning to sing for some time. For starters, his own tweets are pertinent to the world of business, and therefore relevant to his industry. This, in itself, sets him apart in the world of corporate tweeters.

He clearly follows the Twitterstream for references to FNB, so he is alive to the conversation that is happening about his business/brand. Complaints are efficiently passed to someone within the organisation who can fix the problem. I have personal experience of this. It works well.

He is also a good re-tweeter (like forwarding an email message you’ve received), usually adding a pithy comment. To a tweet asking whether FNB had contributed any money to the ANC Youth League conference, he answered simply, “Nope”.

Earlier today, in answer to this tweet
“@Mohomed: the woman in this fnb mobi ad lithpth when she thayth thell phone”, he answered: “Thorry.”

For me, apart from the fact that Michael Jordaan is an additional customer service department for FNB, he is a case study in using Twitter in a manner that builds the business.

I’ve given two examples of how online resources change the way we communicate with the world and seek answers to important questions. Online also has huge implications for the names we give our products and businesses.

You see, if your name is not unique, you’re playing the cyber version of Where’s Wally. Apart from the need for your customers to find you online, you also want to be able to see when they are talking about you. Unless you’re Apple, generic words don’t cut it.

Michael Jordaan can track FNB on Twitter because FNB is not a generic acronym (it can also refer to a US sport team). For the same reason, it’s useful that his surname is Jordaan rather than Jordan.

Should businesses and their CEOs be on Twitter? You’re welcome to post the question on Quora, but the answer easily fits into a tweet: “Absolutely, yes!”

An Open Letter to the MyGate MD

Oscar Foulkes June 15, 2011 Web Tools 17 comments

Dear Dan

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Dan. I know that’s your name because I asked your employees the name of MyGate’s managing director. I left several messages for you to call me, but perhaps your telephone lines are down, the way that your computers so often seem to be. By the way, I don’t mind if you call me Oscar, should you ever get around to returning my phone calls.

I’m not one to dish out gratuitous public criticism, but seeing as you didn’t make yourself available to hear it direct from me, this seemed to be my next best option.

The online shops I run are dependent on our customers being able to make online credit card payments. This cannot happen without a payment gateway, for which I selected your company.

Two things happen when MyGate goes ‘down’. Firstly, we don’t have any sales, which, I’m certain you understand, is quite a serious problem for any business. Secondly, our customers get frustrated and generally disillusioned with us. We therefore run the likelihood of losing those customers forever.

Trust is one of the most critical factors for online retailers. I’m sure you can imagine how damaging it must be to our reputation when our customers have dodgy payment experiences.

As ‘luck’ would have it, MyGate’s crashes have coincided with peak sales days, following on us launching special offers. I’m sure you know online retail well enough to know that call-to-action campaigns are most effective in the first couple of hours after they are launched. You can see how detrimental it would be to our business to miss out on the feverish excitement that our sales messages have incited in our customers.

Perhaps most alarming of all is that your people often don’t know there is a problem until I let them know (13 June is a case in point). What generally follows is a most unsatisfactory experience, which seldom involves any proactive feedback and always takes a long time to resolve, by which time the sales opportunities have passed.

And yet, when your charges are debited to our bank account, there is never an adjustment for the time that MyGate’s servers were down. At the very least, an apology would have been appreciated. I know it may seem outrageous to suggest that companies should apologise when they’ve let their customers down, but perhaps I’m just old-fashioned.

In closing, Dan, I think I could forgive some of your servers’ unreliability if the service was good. Sadly, both are poor. The type of function your company performs isn’t life-and-death, like flying passenger aircraft, for instance, or open-heart surgery, but it requires a similar degree of reliability.

I really just wanted you to know exactly why I’m no longer a customer. I would have been quite happy to tell you on the phone, or even face-to-face, but apart from the fact that you never gave me the opportunity, I don’t get the feeling you’re that interested in hearing back from customers. Certainly not ones that are really, really pissed off.

So what does one take away from the experience? The key – without deviating too far into pop-psychology – is frustration. When customers are not being ‘heard’ they get more frustrated (of course, it doesn’t help if the product doesn’t do what it’s supposed to).

I really hope they teach this stuff at Harvard Business School, because it’s important (much like sunscreen – and in both cases you don’t discover until later what damage has been done). You see, if you listen to your customers the first time, they don’t start looking around for someone else to tell.

Kind Regards

In Amazon We Trust

Oscar Foulkes August 20, 2010 Web Tools No comments

When the all-encompassing history of online retail is written, it is likely that the author will identify trust – or absence thereof – as perhaps the biggest initial factor inhibiting the growth of ecommerce. Fears around credit card security have largely been dealt with by banks’ continually tightening up procedures, but the main issue remains: you’ve paid somebody for something that still has to be sent to you. What happens if they either don’t send it, or send a product that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to?

On almost every measure is the ecommerce benchmark, and for good reason. We had reason to contact Amazon recently about a faulty Kindle. Within two hours of the telephone conversation they had despatched a new device, along with instructions for returning the faulty one.

True to form, within a couple of hours of us sending them the tracking number for the Kindle we were returning, the cost of the airmail postage had been deposited into our credit card. And, within four days of reporting the problem, a brand new device arrived by air freight.

I’ve always thought that one should measure customer service levels not on companies getting it right (because that’s what is expected of them), but on how they deal with the unhappy situation of things going wrong. Amazon came through with flying colours.

What’s interesting is the way they reversed the trust dynamic; it became a case of them trusting us to return the Kindle, which is the opposite of how the internet trust thing normally operates.

Amazon is currently on a P/E ratio of over 50 (think about that; they would have to trade for half a century before their profits have recouped your investment in their shares!), which implies that a huge amount of brand premium and expected future growth has been built into the share price.

Effectively, investors are trusting Amazon to continue growing its business in a way that will generate escalating profits. As customers, we trust Amazon to deliver what it says it will.

Regardless of who writes the history of online retailing, one thing’s for certain; Amazon wrote the manual.

How to Increase Sales

Oscar Foulkes August 12, 2010 My Little Black Book, Web Tools No comments

Sales and marketing – or S&M for short – are often lumped together as one function. While they are related, and both necessary to the success of an enterprise, they comprise different stages of the product eventually reaching the customer. For me, marketing prepares the environment for sales; the textbook example of Kottler’s demand expansion. Sales is the process whereby one converts prospects into customers.

Whichever textbook one studies, though, the customers one already has are easier to sell to than the new ones one hasn’t yet acquired. With this in mind, it amazes me how few enterprises (they could be charities, too) maintain a customer database. And use it.

If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, perhaps one of these inexpensive online solutions could tempt you into the game. Both iContact and Constant Contact offer the following services:

  • maintain mailing lists online
  • hundreds of newsletter templates
  • develop your own newsletter from scratch
  • do customer surveys
  • manage invitees and attendees for events

And, they both have sign-up forms that are easily incorporated into websites. Billing is monthly, and is generally under $10 if you have fewer than 500 contacts in your database.

Last week I played around with the survey functions, which I’ve never used before, and was amazed at how easy it was to construct a survey that could track seriously valuable customer preferences.

I also came across Omnistar, a highly sophisticated piece of software that one pays for once and which sits on your own server. If you’re a larger-scale company, the $287 is probably a better deal than a continuing monthly expense. It also offers campaign management, a very necessary feature that generally isn’t built into CRM (customer relationship management) packages. For people wanting to offer this as a service, Omnistar also have multi-user versions that can be white-labelled.

Doing it this way means you’re using your own internet service provider (ISP) for sending the mails (services like iContact send the mails via their own servers). Bear in mind that most ISPs have a daily/hourly limit on the number of emails you can send. If you’re getting limited by your ISP you could switch to SMTP2go. They offer corporate accounts that allow you to send up to 100 000 emails per month, not to mention my favourite feature, which is the ability to send emails from any location.

Someone who has given you permission to email them has given you privileged access to a precious place – their Inbox. I’d offer these as pointers:

  • don’t abuse the privilege, by over-mailing or sending waste-of-time content
  • as you’re writing the content, have a clear idea of what you want the message to achieve, or the action you want the recipients to take
  • keep it short and simple

If you feel you’re in need of extra guidance, Email Marketing Demon and Responsive Email Marketing both offer a series of instructional videos.

I’ve been writing and distributing emails for more than ten years. It’s something I enjoy doing, and which – thankfully – seems to get reasonable results (click here to read about one of the best ever). The resources listed above are useful if you’re planning to do it yourself. If not, drop me a line, and I’d be happy to see how I can of assistance.

Shades of Grey

Oscar Foulkes June 16, 2010 My Little Black Book, Web Tools No comments

My online work often puts me in the position of needing to select colours for navigation menus, not to mention buttons, headings and many more.

The problem is that one can’t just call something red, or green, or yellow. Not only does one need the Hex code for the colour (e.g. #000000 is black and #FFFFFF is white), but there are almost infinite graduations within one of the recognisable colour groups. And, once one has found the perfect fuchsia, how do you get the perfect scarlet or purple to complement it?

To the rescue comes one of the most fabulous software tools I’ve come across, Color Schemer, which allows one to play with colours in almost limitless permutations.

They have a free, limited online version here, but at $49 the full package is well worth it.

In a Virtual World, Humanity is Real

Oscar Foulkes April 25, 2010 My Little Black Book, Uncategorized, Web Tools No comments

We have been taught to distrust almost every aspect of online interaction. The majority of the email we receive is spam; unsolicited and potentially costly. Credit card fraud – we are told – is rife. And, don’t even start on chat rooms, which may be virtual but can lead to danger in real life. To quote a Bruce Springsteen lyric, it’s like “a part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop”.

For good reason, and we’re not about to drop our guard.

However, it’s not all bad. I have encountered some extraordinarily useful people online, who have generously dispensed with professional assistance that would have cost me thousands had I commissioned it. I am thinking, particularly, of the people who frequent the support forum for the Thesis theme (WordPress template) I used to build this website. I elected to use the same theme for, but needed some assistance with the technical side of getting it to look the way I wanted. Every time I posted a query there was an answer within 12 hours, which meant that I, as a non-techie, could build my own website. There are seriously switched-on people who give away hundreds of lines of code every day without payment. It’s most humbling to be on the receiving end of this generosity.

Humanity, generally speaking, is alive and kicking.

Building professional websites really easily

Oscar Foulkes February 15, 2010 My Little Black Book, Web Tools No comments

I was very excited last week to discover an amazing tool for building websites. What makes it amazing – with a capital A – is that it’s pretty much WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).

As far as websites are concerned, WordPress has been the object of my affections. The 1000s of templates (themes, they’re called in that world) make it easy to get a reasonable-looking site up and running quite quickly. There are also 1000s of plug-ins that enable the site to do really useful things, ecommerce being one of the most obvious.

The problem arises when you need to make little tweaks to the look and feel. Then one needs to know stuff like HTML, PHP or CSS – all of which may as well be Greek. I’ve picked up some pidgen-code along the way, but I still need technical assistance if what I’m doing is slightly out of the ordinary.

Oscar’s Pleasure runs on Thesis, which is the most adaptable of the WordPress themes I’ve come across. Almost every component is customisable, which is great for people like myself. I’m very happy with my $87 purchase.

The tool I came across last week, Artisteer, enables anybody who can ‘move a mouse’ to make up their own themes for WordPress, skins for DotNetNuke (as well as the equivalents for Joomla and a variety of other content management systems – that’s CMS for short!). Every change one makes is visual (i.e. not in code), so what you see is what you get. In effect, even non-developers have almost limitless options available when setting up a new website, rather than having to remain within the confines of an existing template.

Over the past eight months, as I’ve been on my learning-by-doing voyage of web discovery, I’ve often thought how valuable such a tool would be. I think I would probably have been willing to pay a lot more than the very reasonable $129.95 for the standard edition of Artisteer.

Even a proper web developer is likely to benefit from using Artisteer to perform many of the drudge parts of the development process as a time-saving tool.

For the rest of us, it’s the equivalent of being able to whisper sweet nothings to Helen of Troy without needing to learn Greek.