ECommerce Small Business

SOPA / PIPA: Business on a Rope

You may not have heard much about SOPA and its counterpart in the U.S. Senate, PIPA.

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) have a noble and necessary cause behind them: To protect the intellectual property created by U.S. citizens and businesses.

What is “Intellectual Property”?  Movies, music, photos, books, stories, blog posts, computer software, patented processes, engineered work, designs and so on.

No doubt you are aware that there are people and businesses, both inside and outside the U.S., who copy other people’s creations and sell them in authorized outlets. You may know someone who uses an illegal copy of software or a copy of some music that they got from a friend.

If you know someone who is in the software, music, photography or movie business (a short list), or is an author, you’re probably aware that they are tired of having their stuff stolen, particularly when it is resold by criminals.

Anyone in these businesses who has studied the problem knows that there are benefits to having your stuff copied. These benefits can be tough to trace, but they are there. Those benefits usually end when your stuff is copied and then resold without your knowledge/involvement.

As a writer, a software company owner and photographer, I’m painfully aware of the potential and the reality of these kinds of losses.

Time to speak out

It’s rare that I get into political topics here but I think it’s important that small business owners are aware of SOPA/PIPA and the consequences that exist even for non-technical businesses. I’d kept mostly silent about this legislation so far because it seemed so obvious.

Then I found out that most of the SOPA/PIPA attention focused on my state’s Congressional people was coming from out of state. I noticed nothing in the state’s news outlets on the topic. That silence comes across in Washington as tacit approval from the masses.

When you first hear about the proposed legislation, you think “Sure, that makes sense.”

Unfortunately, this legislation is poorly-designed and is clouded by an overbearing amount of influence from the entertainment business. It attempts to fix a problem that needs to be fixed, yet most members of Congress really don’t understand what they are attempting to control and clearly have not thought through the unintended consequences.

One look at CSPAN hearings or their transcripts are enough to make that painfully clear.

It reminds me of the CPSIA situation.

CPSIA was a knee-jerk reaction to thousands of recalls of Chinese goods during the prior Christmas season and was rubber-stamped quickly without enough due diligence on the impact it would have on small businesses – particularly home-based manufacturers. The testing costs seemed tiny to a Mattel or a Lego, but when pushed down to a family making a living from handmade goods – they were crushing blows. Within two years, home-based businesses all over the country were forced to close because they couldn’t absorb the unscalable costs to small business that Congress never bothered to consider.

Mattel and the rest…got off with self-policing their compliance, despite being the same businesses whose actions provoked the law in the first place.

Much like CPSIA, SOPA/PIPA has the potential to hurt local businesses through the same kind of unintended consequences.

No help from the locals

The more I look around for SOPA / PIPA coverage in the local or state-level media and related comments from my state’s Congressional folks, the more the vacuum told me that something had to be said at the local level. The lack of outcry from the state’s business community makes it clear that it’s off the radar.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that the national press has barely, if not begrudgingly covered it. Here in Montana, there’s been almost no mention of it in the major state-wide press outlets.

SOPA/PIPA are aimed at stopping online piracy. While the law is aimed at protecting many businesses, it was created and driven through committee by the entertainment industry.

The language and methods used in the bill sound like something out of a World War II movie about jackbooted thugs who kick down doors more so than about little things like due process. The law also takes a xenophobic view of the Internet, as if the U.S. has carte blanche to filter and control it on our behalf as if we were Syria, Iran or China.

Anyone can put you at risk – intentionally

Worse than that, these bills do a poor job of actually addressing the problem. Pirates will dance around them as currently written because the methods they use ALREADY ignore much of what SOPA / PIPA use as a means of punishment: losing control of your domain name routing.

Yes, there have been recent modifications in the bill’s language that strike the domain name routing from the House version of the bill, but it only takes a moment to put them back.

Your competition can put you in violation of SOPA/PIPA simply by posting copyrighted material as a comment on your blog, or by linking to a site that uses copyrighted material illegally. Yes, just linking. I know. It sounds as ridiculous as those bogus emails that claim Microsoft is going to send you $50 if you’ll just open that link.

But…it’s dead serious.

Defending yourself isn’t possible until after your site is taken down by your web host, even if that site is what’s fueling your employee and revenue growth.

I wonder how long that reversal will take. And if the reversal gets appealed? What small business owner has the time, patience and money to deal with stuff like this? Very few of them.

If someone doesn’t like something that a local paper says, they can put that paper in the bullseye by linking to pirate sites in the comment section of their site. But you don’t see papers across the state standing up to oppose this law. Wonder why? Follow the money.

Silence from DC so far

Here in Montana, none of our Congressional representation have taken an official public position on SOPA/PIPA so far. The feeling I get from those who have spoken with Washington is “seems like a well-intentioned law so what’s the big deal?”

I think I’ve already touched on that.

You may not be fond of technology. You may be less fond of politicians. I think you’ll be even less fond of the unintended consequences of SOPA/PIPA.

You can learn more about the legislation here and here. There are alternative proposals out there. Don’t depend on my opinion. Make your own and tell your Congressional representation how you feel about this legislation.

UPDATE:This Mashable piece nails the machinery behind the bill.
UPDATE:This TEDx talk from Clay Shirky does a wonderful job of explaining SOPA and the issues behind it.

Thanks to Khan Academy for the video at the top of the post. Excellent job.

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Etsy’s Social Commerce: Smart at Christmas

Etsy’s new Facebook app, the Gift Recommender, is a smart move and a great example of ways to use your data to attract more business.

I’ve no doubt that some will see Etsy’s “social commerce” via Facebook as “creepy” or invasive, but I suggest you give it a try to get an idea how this new app might impact your business or generate some ideas.

If Facebook isn’t your thing, but any form of retail is, create a test Facebook account with a throwaway email address so you too can see what the fuss is about.

Etsy is widely known for their belief in automated software testing. You can read about their latest project in their developers’ blog at

Hat tip to Scobleizer for pointing it out.

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Small business owner: “What’s with these funny new barcodes?”

Ralp Lauren Rugby QR code
Creative Commons License photo credit: mackarus

You may have seen those odd-looking square barcodes in newspapers and magazines, on product boxes, etc.

You might even have noticed them in the middle of the star-shaped signage in some Macy’s television commercials.

They’re called “QR codes“.

Why should business owners should care about them?

A smartphone can scan/read a QR code, which will take it to a specific web site address (URL).

Why use them at all? Who really cares about yet another barcode?

Your prospects and customers do. Some of your websites make it really hard to buy.

For prospects and customers using smartphones, it can be particularly annoying. But your customers don’t use smartphones, right?

Let’s talk about that. Currently, Nielsen (yes, those TV ratings people count other things too) says 40% of U.S. cell phone users use a smartphone.

A web search will tell you that there are 327 million active mobile subscriptions in the U.S. Yes, that’s more mobile subscriptions than there are adults, per the 2010 census. The numbers get a little whacked partly because of the number of people with a personal account/cellphone and a business one (provided to them or otherwise).

327 million is a fairly big number. Too big, maybe. To get a better handle on the numbers, a glance at a 2009 CTIA (wireless telecom industry group) survey of their members report indicated that 257 million Americans have data-capable devices and about half of those are phones. The rest are laptops and tablets. So we’ve reduced the number to roughly half the population, which is close to the Nielsen number.

Again, that’s a end-of-2009 number….BEFORE the availability of iPhone4 (and 4S), iPad and other modern-ish tablets.

Seems to me a number that’s even 10 million smartphones too big would be enough to provoke interest in the experience mobile/smartphone website users have at your site.

So now that you have big scary (or exciting) numbers to think about – particularly if your business deals in retail, tourism and other core business-to-consumer fields – get back to solving “we make it hard to buy” problem.

Important safety tip about using QR codes

Never (yes, never) use your home page URL as the destination.

Reason #1 – QR code users are, by definition, mobile users. Presumably you have a URL that is designed to be used by mobile browser users so they don’t spend all of their time squinting, pinching and spreading (or pressing zoom buttons) to read about your cool new product. If your site automatically senses mobile browsers and changes behavior or reroutes them to pages designed for mobile users, all the better.

Reason #2 – Sending them directly to your home page can make it far more difficult to measure inbound visitor numbers.

Why is that important? Because you want to know how your QR code links are performing by media/by ad/by publication etc. If you have them going to different URLs (web site addresses) such as and, then you can figure out their individual performance.

If QR code A works better than QR code B, you have information about the effectiveness of the media, placement and other characteristics of the location of that code. You can eliminate this reason by including QR code specific analytics codes (Google Analytics, et al) in your URLs, but that doesn’t eliminate the most important reason…

Reason #3 – Why did they scan (and hopefully share) that QR code/URL? Because they wanted something specific that they were looking at RIGHT THEN. If I’m looking at a Corvette ad in an in-flight magazine, do I want to go to or do I want to go to the page that describes the smokin’ Vette I’m looking at?

The primary reason to use them

Consider how annoying it is to navigate not-so-mobile friendly sites on a smartphone. Make yours the friendly, easy site for mobile users.

Make your customers’ life easier. Make it easier for them to visit your site, visit the right page and share something about your business that they want to share.

Ask anyone in the publishing business about pass-along numbers. They’re important to readership, so much so that they claim pass-along readership as an asset to advertisers.

Transfer that thought to your website, catalog, ads, trade show materials, demo products and other materials. Do they need a QR code so that people can view/share them easily?

In many cases, I think so.

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Why they leave

Why do they leave your site?

Why don’t they buy?

Why do they abandon a shopping cart after going to the trouble to shop on your site, select items and add them to a cart in the desired size and color?

This might give you an idea or two…

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Marketing inside the Tasting Room

Puit d’Amour from St. Honoré Boulangerie

This past week, I had the pleasure of visiting the still somewhat chilly seaside of Oregon thanks to a handful of out of town appointments.

In between the productive parts of the week, we managed to visit a couple of western Oregon wineries.

While a good time was had by all, I found it interesting how different each winery’s tasting room experience was designed to sell.

The Fancy One

This winery, created originally as a farm by a Montanan from Butte, was a bit upscale, sizable and very clean. It was a long-established place, noting that “long established” means “since 1980 or so”.

They’re that new because ash from Mount St. Helens’ eruption killed most crops in the area, changing the soil for decades to come.

The room said “old money” (dark, massive woods). While there were a few sweatshirts available, the retail portion of the room was all about the wine. Lots of it. Information from two inconsistently dressed but very sharp wine servers was on target, friendly and as detailed as you wanted. They clearly loved talking wine.

The Spartan One

This tasting room had a simple, fuss-free entry off of their gravel parking lot behind the wine production area. There’s a bar, a few barstools and an area clearly used for packing shipments. All in the tasting room. The lone wine steward was reasonably well-educated about the wine but didn’t really provoke the conversation.

The Homey One

This one was very new, expecting to bottle their own wine from their own grapes for the very first time this year. Previously, they’ve made wine using grapes from nearby vineyards.

The tasting room was homey, if not a bit cluttered with every wine accessory and kitsch you could think of. A yellow lab was chilled out on the floor. A guitarist was just outside the tasting room’s open door, playing in shaded patio seating area. Unfortunately the wine at this place wasn’t very good. The staff was right at home, downright friendly and maybe even too at home if that’s possible.

The Experienced One

This winery was almost 20 years old. Their marketing materials (online) referenced comments by a well-known reviewer. The tasting room was small, uncluttered and while it had wine accessories, they include only those focused on a better wine experience (vs. coasters and talking corkscrews).

Staff was knowledgeable and friendly in an average sort of way. Nothing bad, but nothing outstanding.

What struck me

While we didn’t visit all of the wineries (there are quite a few), the ones we did visit took very different approaches to their goal – presumably that of selling wine.

In every tasting room, there was little to take home other than wine that would bring you back to them to buy more. Few items had a website address on them – at least those that you could take with you.

No one asked us for contact information, not even those who sold us a bottle of wine.

In some cases, there were Oregon wine country brochures and/or county-specific winery marketing association brochures, rather than winery-specific info.

Every winery but the “Fancy One” was out of “wine menus”. These are descriptive sheets about each of their wines that left you room to take notes and perhaps note which one you prefer over another and why. In two different places, the only one they had was leftover from a Memorial Day special event – in both situations, it was the last one they had.

Why is this important?

How will they choose?

Out of the 40+ wineries in that Oregon county, during our visit they often have but ONE chance to get a visitor to fall in love with their place, their wine, their mystique, and the grapes that only they know how to nurture.

These small facilities (small in the wine world) sell at most one wine in retail locations. Some sell only at the winery. That’s right – they have no retail presence.

Ordinarily, you’d want these visitors to ask their local store for your wine, but they often can’t. Their small production (number of cases produced annually) prevents widespread distribution. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’ve got to get them loving your stuff quickly in that situation.

Think about trying to penetrate (much less stand out in) mainstream retail wine shelf space the next time you walk into a grocery that carries wine (or a wine center store). It’s like looking at the salad dressing bottle shelves at WalMart. Your eyes glaze over at all the choices.

When the mind is presented with a zillion choices, one of two things tends to happen. People take the default choice (Gallo?, Wishbone?) or they make no choice at all. Next time you’re in your local grocery, watch people look at the wine shelves. They’ll look and look and in many cases, they’ll give up and take a Gallo (or whatever they saw on TV recently, or whatever is on sale).

Why? Because no one stands out in that environment. That’s why you see more and more outlandish labels and wine names. They know their bottles are on a shelf with 200 others so they’ll do A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G to catch your eye.

What do you want me to do next?

Knowing that the competition (where you might not be stocked) often caters to “How much?”, why wouldn’t you try to hook folks while they’re in your tasting room? It’s the best possible situation for the winery. They can’t grab a Gallo. They can shop by price, but they still get to taste before they buy. They have experts to help them choose what fits their taste buds and their budget.

There’s something else critical about that the tasting room visitor: She walks in the front door with a sign over her head that says “I like wine and I’m willing to drive all the way here to try YOURS.”  Think about how often you get the opportunity to make a first impression on someone who has tipped their hand that strongly.

What does the winery want them to do next? Beyond taking home a case (or even a single bottle), they want these visitors to go home and order more of their wines online (if they can). They want them to ask their local store to stock or custom order them. They want their visitors want them to go to the DailyGrape and watch Gary‘s reviews of their wines and then order from him.

If that’s what you want them to do, you have to make it easy.

And now, it’s your turn.

Now…think about the “browsers” who enter your business. Think about the first time buyers and, where appropriate, the tourists who enter your business.

How do you “stick” in their minds? How do you help them return, even if all they can do is return to your website?

Wineries have to deal with customers in states (like Montana) who cannot (easily) have wine shipped to them due to arcane laws put in place (and kept there) by fear-driven trade associations.

In one way or another, we all have situations like that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take every step possible to make it easy to buy. How are you making it “easy to buy” even for your customers who have to exert effort to do so?

Let’s simplify that a bit: How are you making your stuff easy to buy?

What do you want them (your visitors) to do next?

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Easy like Sunday morning

First the iTunes store.

Now the Mac App Store doubles Evernote’s hourly rate of new user signups.

How many times does the forehead need slapping before it’s obvious that making it easy to buy is what it’s all about?

Make it easy to buy.

Make it easy to buy.

Make it easy to buy.

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Is it right under your nose?

That product line. I mean.

It’s hiding in your community, right inside your business.

I’m talking about the product or service that you sell locally.

The same one that you can probably sell online (or elsewhere) and become known as a regional, national or global specialist with, rather than limiting yourself to local business and possibly constraining yourself to the local economy – good or bad.

What about the box?

You might think you do things that can’t be sold outside of your neighborhood.

In some cases, you might be right.

But have you really honestly looked?

Think of reasons why people/businesses elsewhere might need what you do rather than focusing on the reasons why it won’t work, why it’ll be a hassle (sales are a hassle? Hmmm) and why others will think you’re nuts (remembering that they probably thought you were nuts for starting your own business).

You might have to repackage something or deliver it in a vastly different form, but who cares?

I can guarantee you one thing….your deposit slip doesn’t.

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Marrying Facebook, or just dating?

I‘ve heard a lot of talk about “Facebook taking over” the web lately.

It’ll only take over the web if you let it.

I realize there’s a lot of noise out there about new F8 (Facebook app) platform, which includes the like and share buttons that you see here on my blog.

Those buttons are important not because they drive traffic to Facebook (just the reverse, in fact), but because they allow YOU (my readers) to *quickly and easily* share a blog post with a friend on Facebook. No cutting, no pasting, almost no effort. Making it easy for you to share is the ONLY reason why the buttons are there.

If you have a web site and don’t have those buttons integrated, do so soon. Make it easy for folks to share what you do with their friends, family and co-workers via their Facebook wall.

Facebok is not a web host

I’ll bet you’ve seen a lot of ads in major media that promote a vendor’s Facebook page rather than their primary website.

Hopefully they have some metrics on that, but on the surface I just can’t recommend it. If you’re investing in a major media buy and can plaster one website address in your print/video/radio ad, why in the world would you send it to rather than your own site?

I just don’t see the point.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely agree that you should have a fan/group page at Facebook, but I really have to caution you against using a Facebook fan page as your primary (or only) website.

Even if your business is consumer-based (which means that Facebook is a natural for it – especially if you focus on products of interest to women), you need to really think hard about what’s going to happen if Facebook changes their terms of service and for whatever reason they decide that your fan page is no longer acceptable.

Whatever the reason might be, there’s there have been many instances where systems like this have just disappeared, have gotten bought out or have had changes in terms of service. Sometimes these events are very difficult to recover from.


If Facebook is used for your main website and you’re in a business-to-business market (where your clients are other businesses), it’s entirely possible that your clients will have no access to Facebook – and thus, to your website. It’s quite common for the network administration staff to block access to all social media sites, especially in larger businesses (especially big corporates with lots of worrying attorneys).

In some cases, even laptops that travel with outside employees will block sites like Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s OK to have a Facebook page for your business.

In many cases, it’s a great idea – particularly to provide another source for promotions and customer service access – but DON’T depend on a Facebook (or MySpace etc) page to be your only website.

Worst case scenarios

What happens if Facebook goes under, or has some catastrophe that brings their site down for a week? What if you start doing something that they don’t like? It doesn’t matter what that is.

Might not be a big deal today, might not be a big deal next week but at some point in the game the possibility could occur that you could get your Facebook fan page turned off overnight.

Do you want to come in tomorrow and find that all of the links on the ‘net that point to your “site” on Facebook are suddenly pointing to Facebook’s 404 page – or worse – to a Facebook ad page that lists your competitors?

It could happen.

It’s OK if some of the links out on the net point to your fan page, but you want them to get to your main site: a site you have complete control over. Bringing them to Facebook is one thing, leaving them there is entirely different and downright risky.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about the new Facebook advertising features that have prompted all the privacy complaints – and we’ll talk about why these are mostly good for yo, both as a consumer and a business owner.

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iPads important to Montana tourism? HaHaHaHa, RIGHT.

Wild Goose Island and Saint Mary Lake
Creative Commons License photo credit: RTPeat

After reading yesterday’s comments about iPads and your business, if you own a business in Montana, you might have shrugged, rolled your eyes and thought “Yeah, but this is Montana”.

Long-time readers know that comment sends me to the stratosphere in a hurry.

So what made you think that?

It might be that “only” 600 were connected to the internet (for the first time) in Montana in the first week.

It might be that we don’t have decent GSM service, despite what the postcard-tossing guy on TV says. You’re right, we dont…yet.

That seems pretty wimpy compared to other states. It’s almost not worth bothering with, ya think?

Think about this instead

Around 3.5 million people visited Yellowstone last year.

Around 2.3 million people visited Glacier Park last year.

I don’t have to tell you which states they come from. You already know.

Can you afford to be invisible (or less visible than your competitor) to the “mobile, connected affluent” among that population?

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iPads for business? Yes. Start now.

Trust me on this. Your business needs an iPad.

I know what you’re thinking. It goes something like this:

Why does this Apple fanboy think I need this thing? It’s just like a dinky little laptop with no keyboard. I can’t even plug my USB thumb drive into it. There’s no camera.

I hear you, but I ask that you think forward a bit. The iPad available today will seem like a lukewarm joke in 5 years. Your kids won’t even touch it.

If you wait 5 years until “the space is ready”, you’re gonna be 5 years behind – maybe more.

Maybe the winner in 5 years will be an Android-based GooglePad. Maybe it’ll be a Windows-based GatesPad. Maybe it’ll be one of the tablets from the folks at CES this summer. But…


What matters is that you shift your thinking.

This stuff is going to impact your business and your life (and the lives of your clients) – and I can say that not knowing what you do for a living.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

First off, don’t worry about what it won’t do. Focus on what it *can* do for you instead.

There are at least five areas that need some strategic thought on your part:

  • How your staff will use the iPad
  • How your customers will use the iPad (and iPhone/iTouch)
  • How a phone-enabled, GPS-enabled tablet (generally speaking) will change your work, your clients’ work, your clients’ personal lives and so on.
  • How this “intelligent”, connected form factor will change how people consume information – which includes information that brings them to your business.

Note: The same things will apply to the HP Slate and other touch devices already in the pipeline.

Portable, connected – and finally, capable – touch-based interface devices are here to stay. You can either take advantage of them or watch someone else and then whine about the competition.

Answer this 27 part question

The iPad gives you a way to show your clients and prospects touch-navigable information that is *already available* but often poorly presented. That info is rarely displayed in context with anything else.

That’s gonna change.

Here’s an example:

“Show me a map with the locations of the three best italian restaurants on the way to the bed and breakfast we’re staying at tonight (it’s just outside Glacier Park). Include an overall rating from previous reviews, an option to read those reviews, directions to each restaurant, menu items with photos of the food, prices and eliminate the ones that don’t have a table for six at 7:00pm. Oh and a photo of the front of the place so we don’t drive past it.”

27 phone calls or visits to websites later, you *might* have a decent answer. That’s one of the simple, easy to understand examples. There are a TON more. If you’re a client, ask me how you can take advantage of it.

The difference with the pad isn’t just the always-on internet and the GPS/location-enabled functionality. Those are huge, sure.

What changes things is that you get a touch interface that a 5 year old can operate. Don’t discount the impact that has. Most people don’t truly understand it until they use it – I had the same gap in experience with the iPhone/iTouch, despite being a geeky, computer-toolhead kinda guy. This time, I know better.

I have so many ideas about this thing, my head is spinning (some might say it did that before the iPad).

If yours isn’t, think a little harder.