Up in the cloud – using Free to really take off

A version of this post was originally written for AskCharity.org July 2009

I happen to be sitting at a desk writing this blog, but I could just as easily be sitting anywhere (within reason) with a sufficient internet connection. So what’s new about that? Well, for one thing, I’m not using any bought-for software (e.g. Microsoft Word), and I’m not having to save onto a USB stick every few minutes. I have all the functionality that products like Excel, Powerpoint and Word afford – but with huge capacity to save, amend, edit and distribute – and all without the worries of losing a memory stick or compatibility issues with old PCs, outdated or expired software.

I’m using Google Docs a completely free set of programmes that you can tap into anywhere via the web; with all my docs and spreadsheets reliably waiting for me wherever I log in using my googlemail address. No more lost sticks, no more “memory full” messages.

I’m literally writing, saving and uploading to the Cloud, freeing me up from carrying anything more than my mobile phone and some spare change for internet cafes – or, even better, finding free spaces like public libraries.

Without wishing to turn this post into an unwitting advert for Google, I’ll move on (but their array of free web tools are legion, and pretty special). Essentially, the point I want to make is Free (as economic model – written superbly about at length by Chris Anderson) is out there, typically in negligibly limited versions of fee-based services, but perfectly adequate for the needs of the casual user – including charities that wish to keep subscriptions and resources to a minimum.

I use Free as much as I can. As Anderson cites, corporates have recognised the value of letting huge numbers of people experience and test their products and services for nothing a) because many will warm to the idea of buying an upgrade or access to pay-walled material once they’ve decided they like the basic model enough – and want a little more, and b) users will soon let you know if they dislike something about your service and tell you how to improve it.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr – to name but four – all epitomise Free (Flickr for example has a ‘pro’ upgrade version that the heavy user can pay for for extra capacity); and they give the likes of charity communicators like me gratis spaces to talk about our work, engage with supporters and stakeholders, lobby (and ask those who support us to lobby on our behalf), show videos, tell stories and influence. All of these online tools are outside of the realms of paid-for advertisements, costly poster campaigns and events. We need these things too, sure, but if you’re small you can arguably rely on Free more. And if you’re big you can seamlessly tie-in Free tools to your overall comms strategy, which may include spending more hard cash.

I thought I’d give you some more free resources. Not all of them are in the model of Free that Anderson describes – i.e. some of these are straight non-profit wikis and collaborative tools which is a different kind of Free, and not based on ‘freemium’ models that will later make money by selling different products to users.

Why not check out journalisted.com which allows users to search keywords, journalisits and online media outlets for free? Find out who writes about your area of work, and research their articles and blogs. Get specific stories emailed to your inbox every time they are published. You’ll know who to build relationships with and your pitches will be stronger. It also doubles up as a free way of compiling weekly media briefings to staff on articles of interest to your area of work.

Can’t afford a sub to PR Week? Register free with brandrepublic.com. This gives you searchable access to articles on all their titles including Marketing, Revolution, Media Week and PR Week.

Need a free alternative to pricey media databases? Try mediauk.com – it’s not exhaustive, but does carry websites, addresses, telephone numbers, emails for all areas of online media; including 822 radio stations, 538 television channels, 1,606 newspapers, and 1,970 magazines – from 265 media owners. It is updated regularly.

For the third sector, the time has never been riper to tap into Free – for information, for resources, for products and services – and for networking. Just remember to occasionally pull your head out of the Cloud and walk around on Earth once in a while.

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