shopper.gifMichele Martin at the Bamboo Project asked about our favorite learning resources and what gets us excited about learning new things. I get tons of great information from reading other people’s blogs, but I saw that Rosetta Thurman wrote a great post about that already, so I’ll go with another favorite learning tool of mine: playing around with new software and online services via free trials.

As I’ve explained here before, I am a do-it-yourself nut and often try multiple solutions to a single problem. Free trials help fuel this habit. (Before you recommend that I enter self-employed consultant rehab, rest assured that I am getting better about hiring others to do the really important or really hard stuff, rather than trying to learn how to do everything myself.)

Still, I’ve found using free trials is a great way to learn about the abilities and limitations of various systems and how they could impact my clients’ work and my own business. By seeing what software and services can do, you also open up new possibilities you may not have considered before. Most free trials limit quantities, but that can match up just fine with a test run of a new campaign.

Along those lines, here are some free trials you might want to try, if you are considering ramping up your nonprofit communications, while learning something new along the way.

Hobbling along with Publisher or PageMaker?

Adobe is now offering 30-day free trials of all of the products in the Creative Suite line, including InDesign, which is the far and away the best layout program out there. I hung in there with PageMaker for several years because a couple of clients used it, but I’ve told them I’m done with it and going with InDesign 100%. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it, and there are ways to get it for less (TechSoup has it right now for $60). If you want to test-drive the full CS line, which also includes DreamWeaver, PhotoShop, Illustrator and several other programs, you can get a CD for $9.99.

Still pondering an email newsletter?

If aren’t sending out an email newsletter yet, simply because you are afraid of the tech side, relax. It’s really quite easy these days. I use iContact for clients and some of my own newsletters. They have expanded way beyond e-newsletters to offer RSS feeds, surveys, autoresponders, and the like. Their free trial is for 15 days and you can send 1,500 messages to up to 250 subscribers. That’s plenty of room to test drive a new e-newsletter. Just make sure that you have your list together before you start the trial so you don’t waste free days.

I’ve also used ConstantContact and know several people who like their service, even though I’m not using it anymore (because I like iContact better). But since we are talking free trials, why not sign up for this one too and figure out what you like best? They offer email newsletter and survey services. They’ve got a 60-day trial offer.

Looking for a way to manage online photo galleries?

Of course, if you are simply looking for ways to share photos online, I recommend Flickr. But if you want more control over how your images appear in a gallery and you want that gallery integrated into your own website, I like Shozam, which I wrote about earlier this week.

Forget photo galleries — Do you need actual photos?

I highly recommend that you use photos everywhere, but especially on your website, in your print newsletter and in your annual report. My favorite site for stock photography, and it seems I use it almost daily lately, is iStockPhoto. They don’t have a free trial per se, although you can browse and download comps (photos with their logo on them) for free. You can purchase credits for as little as $12, so it’s close to free.

Considering a postcard mail campaign?

I use VistaPrint for business cards and also for postcards. They give away lots of free samples, customized with your logo, etc, including 250 business cards, 10 note cards, 100 postcards, one pad of post-its, and a rubber stamp. You pay shipping and handling. Why not get the postcards and run a small trial mailing for a campaign you’ve been considering? You could match it up with that new email campaign your test-driving too!

OK, that should keep you busy for awhile!

One last tip on the free software downloads . . . be sure to keep track of what you install and uninstall anything you decide you don’t want. I ended up with five different photo galleries on my computer and it was a mess to clean up.