For a small business, figuring out what systems you have to invest in and what can be put off is a necessary, difficult task. And you can't leave the decision solely to the tech people.
"If you throw the problem at the IT department it stops being a business problem and becomes a technical problem," said Charles Day, founder of business consultancy Looking Glass. He advises executives to begin the process by asking what need they're trying to fulfill.
Here are some common categories and objectives.
Project tracking and client management
David & Goliath's digital creative director, Nels Dielman, recommended Basecamp as the "best project-management tool out there." The web-based proprietary software includes wiki-style text documents, an internal messaging system, to-do lists, file sharing and milestone tracking that can be widely shared.
But while Basecamp can augment and affirm organizational structure, some businesses don't require it, according to Mr. Day.
For example, when Baldwin& started up in 2009, the creative agency used Basecamp but found it a "bit unwieldy because we were all in the same office," which eliminated the need for online progress tracking, said founder David Baldwin. He recommended TimeFox for tracking hours. "It's as much about protecting yourself as it is about accurate reporting," he said.
Every business needs a tool that tracks basic customer relationship management. Mr. Day said: "We went to the client, here's what we showed them, here's how they responded." While Salesforce is the biggest on the market, it's also the most sophisticated and requires someone with the expertise to deploy it. Mr. Day advises using cheaper solutions that stay on a locally hosted and customizable database.
Monitoring and insights
Monitoring tools like Lithium, Radian6, Tracx, Sysomos and VenueLabs are extremely important to businesses that value data and analytics, and they're not just for campaigns driven by social media.
Scott MacLeod, director of analytics and insights at The VIA Agency, said the programs give "quick pulses" on what people are thinking and buying. These so-called conversation-analytics tools are often more cost-efficient and faster than doing primary research.
Mr. MacLeod also uses Google's free tools, such as Ad Planner and Insights for Search, to understand media and search behavior, as well as paid tools Google Analytics and Website Optimizer to quantify the impact of digital campaigns.
Media tracking and storage
Sending out your work to clients, vendors or the press? You need to invest in a system that tracks various media. There's Wiredrive, a sharing application that lets you play media within the program and also track how media are being viewed and used. An alternative is Interdubs, which lets you send work to clients through customized pages and designs. Simian is a similar media-management program that creative teams can use to share reels or build collaborative presentations.
Crowdsourcing agency Victors & Spoils considers cloud-based systems its most important tech investments.
"Our work transcends being tethered to a specific location," said Director-Product Management John Gerweck. The firm recommends Amazon S3 servers, GitHub and DropBox for storage that 's accessible from anywhere.
Making life easier
Automated directory-based answering systems are easy to implement but also frustrating for callers. Baldwin& uses OneBox, a remote-receptionist company that ensures a real person answers the phone. Because the agency doesn't have a phone system with direct lines, the receptionist routs calls to cellphones.
Square, or any other mobile-payment solution, can be extremely useful for small companies working off-site. David & Goliath's has been using Square for events with Hamstar Clothing. Staffers take along their mobile devices so that they can plug in payment hardware for transactions.
Advantage, an integrated agency-management tool, lets you keep track of vendor requests when you don't have enough staff or resources to evaluate each one. The system has become cheaper and customizable, and it works in-browser, according to Julie Walford, director of project management and digital production at David & Goliath's. Advantage connects workflow details with accounting functions (including production invoices and employees' time off) so that agencies can "keep the balance," she said.