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Four Cheap or Free CRM Tools for Marketers

  |  March 16, 2009   |  Comments

Generating leads is one thing. Tracking leads that come in through your Web site or online marketing activities is vital if you're going to convert those leads into customers.

While most of us work on (or talk about!) generating leads for our businesses or clients, few of us seem to know a heck of a lot about what to do with them once we get them. This is especially true of small to mid-sized businesses, nonprofits, and schools that seem to jump into online marketing with a "build it and they will come" mentality and then have no idea what to do with "them" once they get there.

Customer resource management (CRM) software has been around for a long time, but for the most part it's out of the price range of organizations without big bucks to throw around -- which these days is pretty much everybody. And having a CRM system to track leads that come in through your site or your online marketing activities is vital if you're looking to convert those leads into customers, members, or students. But for companies on a tight budget, there don't seem to be too many alternatives to the expensive packages. Or are there?

Over the past several years, Salesforce.com has blossomed because it costs less than $100 per month per user, making it affordable for many companies. And the fact that it's a hosted solution -- rather than software you have to install -- means it's quick to set up and get working. But I started wondering: are there even cheaper solutions out there?

Happily, it turns out there are.

I used a few specific criteria that seemed important to the kinds of organizations I've mentioned above.

  • Does the solution integrate with online marketing/SEM (define) campaigns?

  • Can it handle e-mail? That's vital if you're going to follow up with your leads.

  • Does it provide reporting? Justifying ROI (define) is especially important in a tough economy.

  • Can it easily import and export data? If it can't, you're going to be limited with what you can do with your leads.

  • Is it relatively easy to set up, easy to use, and (perhaps most importantly) cheaper than the paid version of SalesForce.com?

Four packages met my criteria and all seem like great solutions for lead-tracking on a budget.

FreeCRM

While FreeCRM is loaded with gobs of nifty features, it doesn't seem to have the capability to easily integrate with paid SEM or major ad reporting software. It's on my list mainly because of all the other features it offers (for free!).

It's an attractive alternative if you have a reasonably-competent coder who could import contacts generated by your marketing into FreeCRM using its Outlook/POP account/CSV and other importing functions. Once you do, you'll be able to take advantage of its extremely robust e-mail creation and tracking functions to follow up with your leads.

You can even use its group calendar and team-based tools to distribute access and contacts to your customer service and marketing teams. There's even an integrated survey tool and form builder for gathering customer information.

As a Web-based tool it's easy to use: just log in and create an account. A free version runs banner ads, provides no support, and limits your storage to 10MB, but for only $14.95 per month per user, you can eliminate these restrictions.

CiviCRM

CiviCRM has caused a bit of a stir in the nonprofit world lately by providing many features previously only found in high-end (and fairly expensive) non-profit CRM systems for free in an open-source format. Its four modules allow you to take donations online, plan and manage events, generate and manage e-mail campaigns, and manage/track membership programs.

Cool, huh? But being open source and not provided as a hosted solution, you're going to need a tech-savy PHP (developer to install it on your servers and mold it into a solution that fits your exact needs. This is also a great benefit: you aren't locked into a hosted solution that makes you change the way your organization works.

Better yet, its open-source nature makes it extremely flexible for integrating it into your CMS. It also reportedly plays well with the popular Joomla and Drupal open-source CMS solutions.

As for features, it doesn't have features that directly integrate with SEM or ad tracking software. But the coder you get to install and configure CiviCRM could probably easily link it to your existing SQL databases that capture leads. If you can get by that hurdle, CiviCRM has great e-mail handling capabilities, sophisticated reporting, and can input data from a variety of formats. Oh, and all those other nifty non-profit CRM tools like membership management, donations, and event planning.

As for cost: how's "free" grab you?

Salesforce.com Free Edition

Yeah, I know: this might be cheating to mention Salesforce.com's free edition after seeming to put it off the list at the beginning of this column. But for a small business (or freelance business) that wants to tap into the power of customer relationship management for free, even the limited functionality of the "free" edition still makes it something to consider.

As a Google partner, Salesforce.com integrates fantastically well with SEM campaigns. However it's a bit hard to tell how well this works with the free version. Ditto for ad campaign management and tracking. While the free version will import contacts, it won't export them.

Even so, it's incredibly easy to log in, create an account, and get started. And it's free. For small businesses or solo operators looking to dip their toes into CRM, it's a good place to start.

ZohoCRM

Out of this list of free or cheap CRM solutions, Zoho looks like the winner if you want to integrate with your ad campaigns. It works with AdWords/paid SEM; it integrates with major ad reporting software; and it appears to have darn good reporting capabilities (that also integrate with Web analytics packages). Data can be imported and exported via XML or CSV for easy import and export into other programs you might be using to manage your campaigns (such as snailmail mailmerge software). And considering that it's free for three or fewer users, it's an incredible bargain.

The free version's limitations are few: the free version doesn't have auto-responders for e-mail, has no workflow or roles-based security, and lacks many e-mail functions. Even so, if you want to step up to the Paid or Enterprise versions, they're only going to set you back either $12 or $25 per month for up to four users. That's still cheaper than the full-blown Salesforce.com offering. It's an alternative worth checking out.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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