The inside story on communications

Email is not the only game in town when it comes to firms' internal communiqués. Here are three alternative tech-savvy ways of communicating with others in your company.

In last week's column, I hit on some slick ways to boost the effectiveness of communicating with your customers. But what about internal communiqués?

While e-mail traditionally takes honors in surveys as the most-widely used business application of the Internet, it's not the only game in town. There are other tech-savvy ways of communicating with those in your company, whether they're down the hall or Down Under, that resemble traditional e-mail about as much as I do Matt Damon.

I've spotted three communications tactics that small businesses can apply easily, including a new form of dynamic, interactive messaging; a new America Online group site service; and an Internet telephony application that lets you call any phone in North America for free.

Zap your mail

One of the most innovative communication tools I've seen in a long time is Zaplets. A blender-mix of instant messaging, e-mail, and Web pages, Zaplets end up as interactive, dynamic mail, messages that update themselves automatically even after you've sent them to employees. They're also free to use.

Here's an example: you create a Zaplet that tracks a team's tasks by customizing several fields in a Web page form, then send the Zaplet. Recipients receive the Zaplet, which looks like a miniature Web page. (If they're using an e-mail client which doesn't support HTML, they'll have to click on a link in the text of the message to steer for a Zaplet Web site - the effectiveness of Zaplets drops to nearly zero without HTML-enabled e-mail.)

As recipients add items to the task form now in their e-mail inbox, that form is updated in all other recipients' inboxes automatically, without you lifting a finger. The caveat, of course, is that each recipient must retain the original message.

Zaplets can be used for scheduling meetings, tracking packages, brainstorming ideas, and 26 other business applications. You can even add your company logo to any Zaplet message by slipping in some HTML code; simple instructions are provided on the site.

Zaplets also sells its services to businesses that want to create and implement customized Zaplets, but I suggest you try out the freebies first to get an idea of their usefulness.

Although Zaplets help put several people on the same page via e-mail, other group strategies use the Web to literally focus everyone on the same page. My next move is to suggest a new offering from America Online (AOL) - the ISP that Net vets love to hate, yet is used by more small businesses than any other single provider.

If you're using AOL as your small business's Internet service provider, you can use one of the service's newer features, groups@AOL, to produce a customized community Web page where your employees can congregate, share messages, and send group e-mail. Only AOL subscribers can build a groups@AOL site, but anyone with Net access can reach and use the site. That means your biz must have at least one AOL account.

The groups@AOL sites are cookie-cutter in design, with generic sections devoted to events, favorite Web sites and a message board where everyone can initiate discussions and add to existing ones. A shared photo album, which AOL touts as a boon to families and friends, can also be used by business for such things as a photographic employee directory (by sticking each worker's phone extension and e-mail address in the accompanying caption) or a simplistic product catalog.

While it's simple and easy to use, groups@AOL doesn't offer anything beyond what you can already get from, say, an free service such as Intranets.com. The advantage comes from the simple-as-pie setup, and the integration with other AOL software and services, such as the You've Got Photos digital development service and AOL Instant Messenger, America Online's (and Netscape Navigator's) buddy program.

So far, so good. You've managed to use words and perhaps pictures to collect the thoughts of multiple people in your company. But what about the old stand-by, the phone? I have an idea here, too, one that takes advantage of the add-ons now part of the most popular instant messengers. Click to the next page and I'll even tell you which one works best for free phoning throughout North America.

Your business phone is a critical communication tool, no question. Take it away, and you'd probably go under faster than a Mob victim with cement overshoes into the East River.

Thanks to the recent integration of Internet-based telephony within the major instant messaging programs (AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, and MSN Messenger), phoning long distance is now essentially free.

I don't suggest using the Net to phone customers, since the quality of the connection is still pretty poor. But for calls within the organization, say to consultants, free-lancers, or even long-distance employees working in a branch office or on the road, Net phone quality is probably sufficient for most applications.

To make a phone call over the Internet, you need a PC with a microphone and a sound card (the same requirements hold for the other party when you make PC-to-PC calls). All three of the already-mentioned instant messengers offer Net calling, but MSN Messenger is my pick. Not only does it let you make PC-to-PC calls for free, but unlike the others, you can also call any land-line or mobile phone within the U.S. and Canada from your PC for free.

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