Finding brilliant free tools to help you increase your bookings and reservations is the holy grail of business. Luckily we know where to find them. Here's our full guide on where to find 'em and how to use 'em.

Let's Get Tooled Up

Businesses dispense with a lot money. A lot. That’s just how it goes.

We call them ‘operating costs’, but at the end of the day - they’re bills.

It’s not like when you’d ask your Mom to lend you some money, knowing full well she’d never expect it back because you were a ‘student’ - bills won’t take your finances into account, or say ‘just get me back next month.’ They’re pretty persistent like that.

You know, when you start getting a load of these...

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That’s why when I find a tool that makes the running of my business more efficient, I’m grateful, but when I find one that does it for free - I’m ecstatic.

In the dawn of the ‘Freemium’ business model (Companies offering free accounts, with the option to upgrade for premium features), what you can get for the grand total of $0 is actually rather remarkable.

I wanted to share with you 5 of my favourites free apps & tools, that helped to markedly up my bookings and reservations, and subsequently helped implement slow and steady growth.

It’s important to invest in growth after all- but that doesn’t always require a financial investment. Time or energy can work just as well.

Here is where I channelled mine.

1. Hootsuite

Hootsuite is the definitive tool for social media scheduling. That’s right, I said it.

Now you don’t have to worry if Lucy is off on holiday and you know she’d usually keep tabs on your social media. Hootsuite never goes on holiday.

Studies show that consistency is one of the most important factors in customer satisfaction, therefore making sure your web presence is regular is very important for generating bookings.

You want to create a feeling of trust and dependability around your venue, so haaave to keep up with online correspondence. Things like customer response time, content and style is a heck of a lot easier to keep consistent when you have Hootsuite by your side.

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Hootsuite can post to multiple channels at once, so lets you consolidate all of your social media into just one app. (It supports Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Wordpress, Foursquare and MySpace.) You’re actually able to manage a complete content calendar inside of one just one application.

You can even keep track of responses from all of the synced mini-feeds on the one screen.

The best bit though, is the ‘Quick Search’ function, because it makes customer interaction a total piece of cake.

Let’s say you want to find all the results for your venue, let’s call it‘#BettysBar’, Hootsuite can run a search (which can be further filtered by location) that will let you save that search as a new stream.

That essentially means opening a new feed of every mention of that specific hashtag, in real time. They call them ‘insight streams’...

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This makes engaging with potential customers, as well as those already talking about your bar that much easier.

It also means that if someone mentions your venue negatively, you can be the first to know about it and quickly jump in to do some damage control. Hootsuite allows you to interact with the individual social medias within the app, like so:

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I used Hootsuite to increase our bookings even further by saving streams of hashtags that I could use as an opportunity to engage with a user.

I saved streams like ‘#INeedADrink’, ‘#FML’ and then filtered them by location, in order to reach out to local people inviting them down to ease their woes with us.

Simple, but extremely effective.

The app also lets users schedule their posts in advance (up to 350) across any of the synced social media, so it can go out at optimum post times - even when the bar is run off its feet.

On a good day, we were looking like this…

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2. Mailchimp

God bless Mailchimp. Mailchimp is an e-mail marketing platform that helped triple the amount of weekly bookings we were taking.

Outreach marketing is a numbers game, after all, and for ‘Entertainment & Events’ the benchmark email open rate is just over 21%. That unfortunately means that the engagement rate (the percentage of recipients that actually act on your email) dilutes to only 2.3%.

This means that if you send an email to 200 people, only 4 will actually do what you invite them to.

Unless you plan to spend all day typing out emails, you’re going to need to enlist the help of Mailchimp. High quality, personalised emails - in bulk.

Mailchimp only requires 2 things from you. The bare bones of one awesome marketing email or newsletter, and access to your mailing list. Simply import your mailing list (from Excel, Zendesk, Google Contacts etc.) and then design just one email:

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Once that’s done, you can send it out to certain recipients you’ve grouped together in ‘lists’ (Females only, Ages 18-25…) depending on who you’re trying to target.

Mailchimp doesn’t just send the emails though, it tracks the entire campaign.

It looks at how many were undelivered. How many were opened. How many were actually clicked on. Mailchimp helps you understand which marketing angles actually work.

If your emails are going straight in the bin, then your offers are going unseen, and efforts are going unappreciated. Once you know how to grab the attention of the customer, your bookings will begin to increase organically.

We sent vouchers out to our most frequent customers and the open rate was nearly half...

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Mailchimp will even pin your email campaign data against the ‘industry average’ so you know if your strategy and content is measuring up to what your competitors are sending out. A free account will let you send a massive 12,000 emails out every month for absolutely nothing.

Once you’ve done a few campaigns, you’ll also be able to start running A/B tested campaigns for free. That means you can send two versions of the same email out to see which one gets the better reception.

3. Google My Business

Google My Business officially lists your business as Google recognised. (That means you get one of those little boxes that come up on the right when someone searches for you)

You know, the ones like this…

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‘So what?’ you might be thinking, but bear with me. That was my initial thought too.

Borrowing from the status of a really trusted search engine like Google completely legitimised our brand to a lot of people.

I’m not sure if our surge of bookings after registering was due to being more visible in searches, or seeming more trustworthy - but I do know that it worked.

We work really hard to cultivate good feedback and deliver great customer satisfaction, so having our objective Facebook and Google reviews visible below our name only helped our cause. We weren’t telling people we were ‘great’ - we were showing them instead.

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It also added us to Google Maps (and provides driving instructions) which meant people could easily use their current location to find us, and more people in the area (out-of-towners specifically) decided to drop by on a whim.

I think it’s gotta have something to do with accessibility. By that I mean: people are familiar with the Google layout. In one glance they know where to find your number, address, opening hours etc.

It also meant people could dial us directly from the Google page on mobiles, so it felt much less committal.

We found a lot more people called ‘just to ask’ us things, and more enquiries meant more opportunity to create a good interaction that would encourage them to book with us.

The best part of Google My Business, though, is that it doesn’t cost a dime.

4. TapHunter

TapHunter is a bit like a social network in its own right.

Essentially, it is an app (and website) which connects beer/wine/cocktail lovers with stockists in their local area. This means that if someone is on the hunt for something specific, and your venue is listed as a local stockist, they’re funneled your way.

Because TapHunter markets to people specifically seeking out what we were offering, i.e. certain beers or rare liquors, we found that it didn’t just bring more people in - it also upped their spending average.

Bars, pubs and clubs can amend their inventory in the app, and it will automatically alter your online menus and alert fellow TapHunters to the update.

You can also integrate it with your social media channels so when something new becomes available or gets restocked, it posts a status to your followers to let them know. Just add your ‘Live Drinks List’ to your Facebook page and the app will run an automatic public broadcast:

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TapHunter is great as it again, ups your social media presence. Pair it with Hootsuite and you’re a complete social media force. The more visible you are to users, the more UGC (User Generated Content) is encouraged.

That means more Instagram photos, Twitter hashtags, Facebook check-ins and so on. At that point, marketing begins to take care of itself because people are creating a buzz around you without you even doing anything.

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It’s a bit cheeky, but I also used TapHunter to keep tabs on what our competitors were offering, and for how much. That way we could make our selection (and rates) that little bit more appealing.

TapHunter isn’t 100% free but it does offer a 2 week free trial. They’re smart, though. 2 weeks was more than enough to make me realise that I needed it.

5. StumbleUpon

I’ve already said how massive a social media presence is for bookings, (Thank you, Hootsuite and Taphunter!) but just being visible isn’t enough.

If your social media stream is just a bunch of retweets and promotional spam, people are going to be clicking unfollow left, right and centre. Instead, you need to be providing value to your followers in the form of actual content.

That’s great and all, but realistically, who has the time for that?

Not a small, independent bar with a grand total of 8 staff, that’s for sure.

Enter StumbleUpon.

StumbleUpon isn’t specifically a business tool, but is an epic resource for content curation.

It directs you to thousands of interesting websites, threads, articles, images etc., just choose your area of focus and ‘stumble’ through what they’ve compiled for you.

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You can sync it with all of your bar or nightclub’s social media profiles and easily share tonnes of interesting pieces with your following on Facebook and Twitter.

Your social channels then begin to look more useful and interesting, and less like irritating door-to-door salesmen.

We saw a 40% increase in followers in 6 months and since more people were aware of us, more people began to book with us. We were managing a daily growth of 4:

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StumbleUpon lets you make lists to save content for later too, so you can easily organise things you find into little folders for later posting.

‘Drinking Games’, ‘Cocktail Recipes’, ‘Funny Articles’, ‘Venue Recommendations’ - that sort of thing.

That’s right. We also link our followers to other great venues.

‘Why market your competitors?’ you might be thinking...

Well, no one enjoys a pushy sell. The more you can establish yourself as an unbiased online voice, the more respected and well rounded your social media will feel.

That’s when you’ll see a marked increase in bookings, and StumbleUpon helps locate great content to help do just that.

To Summarise…

We increased our bookings and reservations by outsourcing near enough all of our marketing to an application that would do it entirely for free.

It’s all about the autonomy. Getting everything to keep going on its own volition.

That meant we still kept up to speed on all the bar work, I didn’t need to spend out on recruiting any more staff and our time could be invested in making our ‘in store’ (or rather in bar) experience that much better.

Marketing may very well get people booking, but cracking service? That’ll get them coming back again and again.

About the Author

Marcus Ewing is a regular writer at Cluboid focused on helping large and small businesses achieve better bookings and reservations.

You can read more posts by Marcus on our blog.

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