10 Ways to Keep IT Systems Secure

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Technology continues to be a boon for entrepreneurs, offering increased mobility, productivity and ROI at shrinking expense. But as useful as modern innovations such as smartphones, tablet PCs and cloud computing are to small businesses, they also present growing security concerns. Following are 10 safety tips to help you guard against high-tech failure:

1. Protect with passwords.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but many cyber attacks succeed precisely because of weak password protocols. Access to all equipment, wireless networks and sensitive data should be guarded with unique user names and passwords keyed to specific individuals. The strongest passwords contain numbers, letters and symbols, and aren’t based on commonplace words, standard dictionary terms or easy-to-guess dates such as birthdays. Each user should further have a unique password wherever it appears on a device or network. If you create a master document containing all user passcodes, be sure to encrypt it with its own passcode and store it in a secure place.

2. Design safe systems.

Reduce exposure to hackers and thieves by limiting access to your technology infrastructure. Minimize points of failure by eliminating unnecessary access to hardware and software, and restricting individual users’ and systems’ privileges only to needed equipment and programs. Whenever possible, minimize the scope of potential damage to your networks by using a unique set of email addresses, logins, servers and domain names for each user, work group or department as well.

Related: How Small-Business Owners Can Award Against Online Security Threats

3. Conduct screening and background checks.

While rogue hackers get most of the press, the majority of unauthorized intrusions occur from inside network firewalls. Screen all prospective employees from the mailroom to the executive suite. Beyond simply calling references, be certain to research their credibility as well. An initial trial period, during which access to sensitive data is either prohibited or limited, is also recommended. And it wouldn’t hurt to monitor new employees for suspicious network activity.

4. Provide basic training.

Countless security breaches occur as a result of human error or carelessness. You can help build a corporate culture that emphasizes computer security through training programs that warn of the risks of sloppy password practices and the careless use of networks, programs and devices. All security measures, from basic document-disposal procedures to protocols for handling lost passwords, should be second-nature to members of your organization.

5. Avoid unknown email attachments.

Never, ever click on unsolicited email attachments, which can contain viruses, Trojan programs or computer worms. Before opening them, always contact the sender to confirm message contents. If you’re unfamiliar with the source, it’s always best to err on the side of caution by deleting the message, then potentially blocking the sender’s account and warning others to do the same.

6. Hang up and call back.

So-called “social engineers,” or cons with a gift for gab, often prey on unsuspecting victims by pretending to be someone they’re not. If a purported representative from the bank or strategic partner seeking sensitive data calls, always end the call and hang up. Then dial your direct contact at that organization, or one of its public numbers to confirm the call was legitimate. Never try to verify suspicious calls with a number provided by the caller.

7. Think before clicking.

Phishing scams operate by sending innocent-looking emails from apparently trusted sources asking for usernames, passwords or personal information. Some scam artists even create fake Web sites that encourage potential victims from inputting the data themselves. Always go directly to a company’s known Internet address or pick up the phone before providing such info or clicking on suspicious links.

Related: Seven Steps to Get Your Business Ready for the Big One

8. Use a virus scanner, and keep all software up-to-date.

Whether working at home or on an office network, it pays to install basic virus scanning capability on your PC. Many network providers now offer such applications for free. Keeping software of all types up to date is also imperative, including scheduling regular downloads of security updates, which help guard against new viruses and variations of old threats.

9. Keep sensitive data out of the cloud.

Cloud computing offers businesses many benefits and cost savings. But such services also could pose additional threats as data are housed on remote servers operated by third parties who may have their own security issues. With many cloud-based services still in their infancy, it’s prudent to keep your most confidential data on your own networks.

10. Stay paranoid.

Shred everything, including documents with corporate names, addresses and other information, including the logos of vendors and banks you deal with. Never leave sensitive reports out on your desk or otherwise accessible for any sustained period of time, let alone overnight. Change passwords regularly and often, especially if you’ve shared them with an associate. It may seem obsessive, but a healthy dose of paranoia could prevent a major data breach.

The average cost to an organization to recover from such a breach is $6.75 million, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. And that doesn’t count damage to your reputation or relationships. So be proactive and diligent about prevention. An ounce far outweighs a pound of cure.

Related: Data Backup and Storage: Should You Stay Local or Go Online?

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How to Create an E-Mail Marketing Campaign That People Will Notice

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In a world where social media gives businesses more immediate ways to connect with customers, is e-mail marketing still relevant? I think so. In fact, the volume of e-mail marketing messages remained at record-setting levels in June, according to Chad White, research director at marketing company Responsys, and retail e-mail volume will grow about 20 percent this year (vs. more than 16 percent in 2011), thanks to a shift away from old-school direct mail and print.

That makes for a more crowded party. Your e-mails are competing with (literally!) millions of others, which means you must be intentional in your efforts to create messages that truly engage your customers. Here’s how.

1. Start with a robust list.

This is an obvious point, but it’s worth reiterating: Make sure the contacts on your e-mail list actually want your messages. You may be as witty as David Sedaris, but if your audience has already tuned you out, what’s the point?

How do you know if your list is stale? Check your open rate. The average is 20 percent, according to the Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study released in July by marketing firm Silverpop. If your open rate is significantly less than that, you might have a stale list (or the average for your industry varies significantly from that of others).

Other measures of the health of an e-mail list include click-through rates (how many people took a desired action; i.e., clicked on a link) and conversion rates (how many completed a task in an e-mail message, such as buying a product or signing up for an offer). But the open rate is probably the most telling metric.

2. Freshen things up.

Freshen it up by doing something unexpected, suggests DJ Waldow, co-author of The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing. Segment your list to send a dedicated message to those who haven’t opened an e-mail recently, and make the content slightly offbeat–shocking, humorous or whatever fits your brand best. “Whatever you normally do, do the opposite,” Waldow says. The idea is to incite reaction and (one would hope) reengagement.

It’s tempting to hang on to those unresponsive addresses — it can be painful to think of purging unengaged recipients. But, as Waldow says, “E-mail marketing works best when you speak to those who really want to hear from you.”

3. Use real images.

Stock photography is so yesterday — it’s far better to use your own images. Punctuate e-mails with images from your Instagram or Pinterest feeds, or use staff photos. I like the way the Ibex Outdoor Clothing newsletter features company employees as models.

“Imagery doesn’t have to be polished to tell the story,” Waldow says. “Keep it real, light and fun.”

But be aware that too many graphic elements might make it more difficult for your message to render across every e-mail client and on multiple devices.

4. Keep it simple.

Kill the buzzwords, corporate jargon and Frankenspeak. Instead, communicate like an actual human–even if what you sell is complicated. Simple terms are more likely to be read, so write clearly, and use the first person.

Make your calls to action simple, too. In fact, make them stupid-obvious. Haven’t we all been the recipients of confounding e-mails that make it difficult to tell how to access an offer? “Don’t make me search!” Waldow says.

5. Create shareable moments.

Outfit your e-mail with social-sharing bling: forward-to-a-friend links and buttons for seamlessly sharing the content on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. I like the way Boston-based VC firm OpenView Venture Partners places a “tweet this” link after each headline teaser in its weekly newsletter, so readers can share the headline directly from the e-mail (instead of having to click through to the article itself).

Also consider how you can make the e-mail itself more social. At MarketingProfs, we highlight a tweet from a member of our community in our daily newsletter. Such features create a sense of camaraderie and add an element of surprise, Waldow notes, “because you never know if you’re going to be featured, so a reader is likely to open to see if today is the lucky day!”

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