3 Tips for Writing Better B2B Marketing Content

Content is king. Unless you struggle to create content, then it’s a burden.

I’ve been writing B2B marketing content for (mostly software and tech) companies for more than 15 years. Over that span, I’ve figured out how to consistently crank out great content over and over without fail. Here, I’ll share with you some tips on how to generate more and better content on your own.

For many people, writing is a chore. It used to be for me, too. I started my career as an engineer and I hated writing the weekly project reports. Even worse, I hated reading others’ weekly reports because they were so…boring.

But I quickly talked with executives and learned what they wanted: just the facts, boiled down to something they could read, understand, and take action on in a few minutes. With that in mind, my business writing drastically improved and I was granted the dubious honor of taking the reports of every engineer and distilling them down into the official departmental report. Every week. Yeah, it sucked.

As I moved into marketing I kept that directive in the back of my mind. Keep it short. Make it easy to understand. Have a clear objective or conclusion. And while some might find my writing style “too conversational,” many more consider it easy to read, concise, and to the point.

So with that background, and a ton of B2B product marketing experience under my belt, here’s what helps me generate lots and lots of content, very quickly, and with minimal edits and rework.

1. Write an outline and socialize it.

Don’t just start typing an ebook or a white paper or even a one-page sales asset. Instead, hit the “bullets” button on your editor of choice and start throwing ideas down. Think about the goals of the content. Is it to tout a new product or to announce a new partnership? Do you want the reader to take some action or do you just want them to think you’re an expert on a certain topic?

Think about every piece of content as a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need an early hook, but you also need to hold the details until later in the piece. I type these three bullets to get myself started: Intro, Details, Conclusion. Then, nesting every other point inside that macro structure helps keep me focused on a tight introduction, a logical and easy flow to the middle, and a clear and concise call to action or final takeaway.

Outlining should be a quick task, less than a few hours. You want to have enough detail so you and reviewers understand where you’re going, but not so much that you’ve wasted time if it falls flat. Don’t worry about formatting or grammar at this point. It’s not a final product, and you just want to capture flow, organization, and major arguments. (About a year ago, a marketing exec at a client, upon reading a draft outline I created, replied with only, “These aren’t full sentences so I can’t understand your points.” That’s just silly.)

Now, get some feedback and ask for details. Make sure your manager or colleagues or other stakeholders “get it” and can follow the flow. Much of the feedback will be useful and additive, while some will be useless, like “great” or “needs more”. Ask reviewers to be specific and actually edit or add bullets, not just comment. Long ago I reported to a short-tenured VP of Marketing who always used to say, “It needs to be punchier.” When pressed on what that meant, he would say, “I don’t know, it just needs to be punchier.” That’s worthless feedback, and more likely just meant “I don’t like the style.” If a reviewer can’t back up their feedback with tangible points or actual examples, ignore it and move on.

While you’re waiting on feedback, do some research, read some related articles or a competitor’s content, or review internal content. You’ll usually find a great nugget you may have forgotten to add. Also, take some time to step away from the topic. It sometimes generates a random spark of creativity once you’ve disconnected.

2. Always write for your target audience.

This may sound obvious, but write for a target reader. This is where your market intelligence and persona work will come in handy. You know what motivates your targets so write with that in mind.

If you’re not entirely confident in your messaging, then do some research. Read other content. Talk to some customers. Listen in on sales calls. Look at what competitors are doing. Look at what targets are reading and liking and writing on LinkedIn. Get some ideas and save some blurbs to reference or quote.

Don’t attempt to create generic content that caters to your entire audience. If you want to target both CMOs and marketing operations directors, then write two distinct pieces. Trying to target too wide of an audience makes for a generic end result that either won’t resonate with anyone or becomes too long and tedious for everyone.

Some marketers write for their manager or, more often, their sales team. It’s hard not to fall into that trap, since you’re qualitatively measured on what sales thinks of your deliverables. Avoid being pushed and pulled by individual (and outspoken) sales reps, especially top performers who have more influence. As a marketer, you should be the expert on the market. Reps should be experts on specific accounts, but you have to be confident that your words apply to the market as a whole.

3. Be a minimalist writer.

Does it drive you crazy when someone throws up a presentation slide that’s mostly words? Yeah, me too. It also drives me crazy when a blog post goes on and on and on, or when every page of an ebook looks like a wall of text. Yeah, some of that is formatting, but most of it is writing. Bad writing. Especially in today’s hyper-busy, overloaded world, if your content is too long, it won’t get read.

This is where outlining will help. If you have a one-page outline for a two-page sales asset, you know it’s going to be too dense. Keep in mind your desired content length as you’re drafting your outline. It will help you stay focused, and can even help with later formatting. You might even want to break your outline into pages, to help and to keep individual thoughts confined to specific pages.

Another good tactic for brevity is adding images. If a complex concept can be better conveyed with a simple image or icons, then use it. On the other hand, avoid complex or confusing screenshots or charts that require more text to explain than the real estate they themselves consume. A good visual should reduce your word count.

As you’re drafting, read it and re-read it again and again. Remove what’s redundant. Delete unnecessary words. Combine thoughts into fewer sentences. Instead of adding detail, link to outside articles or use creative formatting (like call-outs or sidebars).

Whatever you write, keep it short.

Do you have any other tips? Disagree with mine? Let me know with a comment.

Content, Content, Content

Whew, things have been hectic! If you’re interested, here are some of my latest work projects which have been taking up most of my time:

Oh, and taking care of this little guy:


C’mon, Google. You can do better.

I’m an Android nut, no question about it.

I have three Android phones sitting on my desk, three Android tablets floating around the house, and even a Cr-48 Chromebook. I’ve embraced the Google ecosystem, and nearly all of my digital data–from music to contacts to files to photos–resides on Google servers.

AndroidEmailAs a marketer, however, I take a critical eye to how Google articulates and presents their solutions. As Android has evolved over the years, I’ve also evolved from utter frustration to iOS envy to a feeling of superiority over all other mobile operating system users. And, as Google hired more designers and non-technical product and marketing staff, it was visibly evident in their products and their marketing materials. Android morphed from a collection of disjointed features to a cohesive and connected OS with a single and pervasive design theme.

Google’s apps also started to look more and more similar, giving users a common set of metaphors and visual reinforcement that all of Google’s myriad apps and services were, in fact, being built by the same company.

Then, I get an email…

As backstory, there have been many rumors about Google’s upcoming Android upgrade. I’ve been rabidly consuming any and all speculation over the past few weeks related to Android 4.4, as well as their poorly-hidden Nexus 5 phone.

What I didn’t expect–given how Google has really upped their marketing game–was the weak, ineffectual, and uninspired Android 4.4 launch announcement I discovered in my inbox this morning.


Take a look for yourself. It’s as if it were sent from 1998, via AOL, over a dial-up connection. What are my nits? Here we go:

  1. First impressions count, and this email is boring, drab and, dare I say, ugly. White, black, and, ugh, brown? Sure, there’s a tiny bit of green in the header, but, c’mon, you can’t look at this email and feel anything. I’ll bet anything that it was designed by someone with an engineering degree.
  2. It is all text, which is boring and un-engaging. Sure, Android developers like details, but it’s boring and gives me no real reason to want to read it. Visually, it’s a “wall of text,” as a former executive I worked for once said as he berated a presenting product manager and, turning to the remaining presenters, screamed, “If I see another wall of text, your presentation is over.” (It was then comical to see a dozen product managers flip open their laptops and scramble to edit their presentations, but only because I wasn’t presenting that day.)
  3. It wasn’t sent to just developers, so why does it look like it’s for engineers? According to the footer, I received this email because I “previously opted in to receiving emails with product updates, new features, newsletters, special offers and market research related to Android.” That means that average people (i.e. consumers) are getting this email.
  4. It’s too detailed. Sure, people want details, but that’s what websites are for. This email tries to straddle the line between giving a lot of info and teasing enough to get readers to click through. But the textual nature of it causes it to look long. And boring.
  5. The call to action is at the end. And below the fold. And barely apparent.
  6. The call to action only appears once. Nothing else in the body of this email–not the Android logo, not the KitKat, not the individual bullet headings–is linked. When you finally do go to Android.com, you see a modern, responsive, interactive page. Why couldn’t the “smarter caller ID” header link directly to that content on the website? That’s not hard to do, especially when you have thousands of smart engineers in your company.
  7. Why no imagery? The website features great photos of the new OS’s features, but why didn’t they use any in the email? And if they decided to use one and only one image, why use the KitKat? That conveys nothing to the reader about the email’s content, especially if they are not already familiar with Google’s OS version nicknames.

Rant, over.

Amazing Technology Advances the Art of Surfboard Shaping

(Note:  This article originally appeared on HuffPost Hawaii, where I write about Hawaii entrepreneurs.)

Surfing was enjoyed by the Polynesians well before Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in the late 1700s. At the time, he’e nalu, Hawaiian for “wave sliding,” was more than a sport. It was an integral component of Hawaiian culture and boards were made only from revered trees, shaped by craftsmen into that classic surfboard form: long, slightly thinner at the edges, rounded at the front.

Today, that artisan tradition continues, although much has changed over the centuries. As modern tools and materials appeared, surfboards morphed from wood to a block of foam with a central wooden stringer for strength, all covered with fiberglass and resin. Modern surfboards are lighter, less expensive and easier to produce, and incorporate curves and angles that make them unrecognizable against vintage boards.

Aku Shaper’s computerized shaping machine dives into a surfboard blank.

Even with this radical change in materials and designs, the act of sculpting a rough-cut block of foam, or “blank,” into a final surfboard shape, or “shaping,” has remained an artform. But just as the board has advanced, the art of shaping is being advanced by Aku Shaper, a Hawaii-based company co-founded by Kailua native Jimmy Freese.

“I was towards the end of completing a Master’s degree program in chemical engineering at University of Texas and figured I’d head back to Kailua for a spring break rest,” Jimmy recalled when asked how he got started.

“I had a friend who was a shaper and he mentioned a new machine that was on the North Shore. Being an engineer and a surfer, I was curious to check it out.”

A few months later, during a vacation in Australia, Jimmy visited a factory with a more advanced, but still crude, machine that could shape a board in 15 minutes. Hand shaping requires about 90 minutes.

“I saw the machine-shaped board and it was amazing. The finish was good. The stringers were perfect. But the machine itself was pretty rough.”

As a former usability engineer for HotU, one of Hawaii’s dotcom darlings during the early 2000s, Jimmy learned that a software’s user interface was as integral to success as the base capabilities. Knowing that most shapers were more artists than technologists, he knew that usability was critical.

“The machine in Australia was fine, but not really something a typical shaper could use. I saw an opportunity but it needed a different approach. It had to be as easy as ‘just send the design and the machine cuts.'”

Jimmy worked for nearly two years with a pair of Australian partners and his father, a professor at University of Hawaii, to put together a prototype and start selling.

Kerry Tokoro of Kaneohe’s Tokoro Surfboards positions a foam blank in the Aku Shaper.

“It was slow progress and we were doing okay as a company, but the machine development was taking much longer than expected. Eventually I dropped to part-time, finished grad school, then took a job trading currencies on Wall Street.”

As sales started to increase, he returned to Hawaii in 2005 and focused on the company full-time. After a series of disagreements on direction, Jimmy split from his former partner, joined with a new machine designer, Mike Rickard, and Aku Shaper was formed.

Jimmy, Mike, and a small team started looking for growth and found it in the standup paddleboarding boom. Standup boards are much larger than a typical surfboard, so the team made bigger machines. Their timing was perfect.

“For a while, we had the only machine that could handle standups. Advances like that helped us spread by word-of-mouth. We didn’t advertise, we just went after A-list shapers. We were making a top-tier product, so we wanted to work with top-tier shapers.”

As in any craft, there was some initial resistance to automating a previously hands-on process.

“Some shapers believe that shaping imparts the soul into the board, and that our machine was taking that soul out of the craft. These guys are artists. The curves that they shape are beautiful, but they can only make a few boards per day. We saw our machine as another tool, like their planers, sandpaper and screens.”

Shapers embraced the approach.

“One shaper told me that he’d had ideas in his head for 20 years but couldn’t take the time to perfect them by hand. With Aku Shaper, he could try new things then be more consistent when he found something that worked, and his customers loved him for it.”

As word spread, Aku Shaper expanded beyond Hawaii and Australia with customers in Spain, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and beyond.

“It’s great to hear our customers, like Wade and Kerry Tokoro at Tokoro Surfboards in Kaneohe, talk story about how we’ve helped them try new ideas, but it’s not a bad thing that they’ve also been able to scale their businesses a bit faster. Today, about a quarter of a million boards are shaped on our machines each year, so we’re really helping to grow the industry.”

Wade Tokoro inspects a finished surfboard blank at the shop he shares with his brother, Kerry, in Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu.

Through it all, the Aku Shaper team and their customers continue to believe that they’ve enhanced the traditions of shaping and surfing.

“I love surfing and have surfed my whole life. I appreciate the sport and the craft, so I’m stoked that we have both top shapers and surfers requesting boards shaped by our machines.”

Now there’s the one thing Jimmy never thought he’d help surfers manufacture: an excuse to buy their next board.

(Photos provided by Aku Shaper. Click here for additional images.)

A Marketer’s Approach to Harnessing Big Data

Note: I wrote this as a contributed article a few years ago for a consulting client, but they decided not to use it. Instead of letting it collect dust, I published it here. Enjoy!


The term “Big Data” has been gaining momentum in all aspects of business, especially with web analytics, mobile, social media, and customer data. And, it’s usually used in the context of impending doom and mixed with cryptic terms like Hadoop, MapReduce, and “in-memory database.” It’s becoming so pervasive that Gartner’s 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies has it entering the “peak of inflated expectations,” a sure sign of hysteria.

When it comes to marketing, however, massive amounts of data—whatever you want to call it—are becoming a fact of life with which marketers need to be concerned. But what is it and how do you leverage it to enhance your marketing efforts?

Big, different, and fast

Big data is generally defined in terms of volume, variety, and velocity. From a marketing perspective, you’re already collecting reams of data on every prospect or customer during even just one visit to your website. Couple that with the variety of customer touch points—purchase, email, advertising, support, social—and you quickly realize that even a small business is collecting data on a massive scale. The velocity, or speed, of data collection is also accelerating, especially as smartphones, tablets, and other technologies continue to weave their way into every aspect of everyday life and ease a potential customer’s ability to interact with your brand.

As the challenge of big data grows, marketers are told that they’ll need huge IT investments to collect the data, expensive and complex analytics tools to dig into it, and legions of data scientists to understand it. Furthermore, most of the big data focus from those developing the technology is given to the back-end, with “speeds and feeds” being touted and novel software architectures promoted as the great new hope for attacking big data.

Getting a handle on your big data

So where should marketers focus?

CIO magazine recently covered how marketing departments should roll big data analytics into their marketing strategies. While they go a bit deeper than a marketer might need, they do suggest that you focus on the most basic of marketing concepts:  What do my customers want?

It’s a common misconception that your big data is elusive and that you’ll need a huge project to even gain access to it. In reality, most marketers already have access to the data they need, usually within the tools that collect it. Finding the low hanging fruit in your data is as simple as segmenting your targets based on specific attributes, like preferred channels, content consumed, or recency of engagement (or purchase or click).

Since most marketers aren’t data scientists, it’s going to require a few trials to understand what your data can do for you. Don’t be afraid to dig in to it and ask questions of it. Think about the last time you said, “If only we could do X…” and use that as your first project.

Forbes magazine, in an overview of big data business challenges, stated that, “Successfully exploiting the value in big data requires experimentation and exploration.” Take that experimentation approach and start looking for ways to intelligently segment your customers into groups that you can then easily target. It’s not so much what you do, but that you do something, do it now, and learn from it.

Enhancing your capabilities

Why put in this early effort to see what’s possible? Because there’s a huge amount of value in your marketing data. So much so that it’s easy to justify an investment in analytics.

A mid-2012 report from Aberdeen Group, “Customer Analytics: Leveraging Big Data to Achieve Big Results,” shows that companies who optimize their customer analytics have revenues 90% higher and retention rates 3.5x higher than companies who don’t. Even more, they see customer lifetime value growth of 20% annually. That’s a great start to help you calculate an ROI to justify resources for your customer data.

As previously mentioned, each of your current marketing tools undoubtedly has some sort of reporting or filtering functionality, which is a great place to begin looking for ideas. However, few of those stand-alone tools go beyond simple reporting. And, fewer yet enable marketers to integrate data from multiple systems.

Instead, and as you grow your customer knowledge and see how it can impact your revenues and attrition, start to seek out tools that have the capabilities to dig into more data from multiple systems at a faster pace. Big data is volume, variety and velocity, so make sure that you’re thinking ahead and will be able to manage all three of those areas.

Also, beware of analytics that claim to integrate data but do so by aggregating (summarizing) it, thereby blocking you from the post-analysis targeting of individual customers. It’s great to discover that you have 50,000 customers ready to purchase, but unless you can target them individually, that information is virtually worthless.

Stop delaying

Regardless of your capabilities, your marketing data mountain is becoming bigger by the second. The way to get a handle on it is to start digging into it now. Understand what you have, what you can discover with your current tools, and what other capabilities are needed to wring out the value.

As with most professions today, marketing is becoming increasingly digital. More data is collected, more interactions are measurable, and more options for engaging with targets are available. Each day that you delay, your big data mountain buries you a little bit more.

Need help?  Here’s an assignment: How many customers made a purchase in the past month? Or, how many of your active prospects visited your website last week? If you can’t answer those questions in a few minutes, you should have an urgent talk with your manager tomorrow.

Worst Event Marketing Ever?

I signed up to attend CES this year, which unleashed a torrent of emails encouraging me to visit booths, attend events, and check out new products. While most of these emails were fine, a few stood out in their awfulness.

I could go off on a tangent on how, even with an amazing product, marketing is a critical function. Good marketing should be seen as a requirement, especially when you’re marketing to the press and media covering the largest consumer electronics show on the globe. Furthermore, sales reps (and even sales VPs) shouldn’t be blasting marketing or event emails, and definitely shouldn’t be sending emails to press and media.

So, just for reference, if you’re blasting out a pre-event email and trying to drum up traffic at your booth or interest in your product, here’s what NOT to do.

(Note:  Below is the entire email, and I’ve obfuscated the name and booth number to prevent embarrassment.)


XXXX will be in booth #XXXX. We look forward to meeting you!

Admin & Sales

XXXX, Inc.

A/B Testing on Wine Labels

As a huge wine non-snob, my first stop in the grocery store is always the wine discount shelf. The way I look at it, it’s like the store paid me to age their wine. Win-win!

Wine and marketing collideDuring a recent trip, however, my interests in wine and marketing collided as I spotted two wines from the same brand, Mia’s Playground, sporting wildly different labels. As you can see in the photo, their Cabernet, on the left, has a fun, playful, non-intimidating label, while the chardonnay on the right has a more serious, formal design.

I’d never heard of Mia’s Playground wine, but at $4.99, pretty much any wine is worth a shot. A quick web search shows that Mia’s chardonnay usually retails for $16, while their Cabernet goes for about $15. That’s a pretty steep discount, and makes the differences in the labels even more interesting. Why are two wines priced similarly yet sporting different label designs, and why are they both heavily discounted? Is this Mia’s A/B test gone horribly wrong? Are they trying to position the different varietals for different market segments?

As I thought about it more, I wondered if the label even makes a difference. I was confident that it did, but as a quant, I needed to see the numbers…

What Do the Academics Say?

Since wine is a $32.5 billion industry in the US alone, it’s no surprise that plenty of research has been put into wine marketing. Think about the logistics of the typical wine purchase: it’s highly-subjective, there are tons of choices, even at small stores, and each wine has a new vintage every year. As a wine consumer, you’d probably lean towards known wines that you’re familiar with (which just increases the marketing efforts required by competing wines) or, without additional information (like reviews or Wine Spectator scores), you’d just choose the one with the best marketing+price combo.

Here are a few tidbits from some semi-recent studies that show how much impact labels have on wine sales:

  • From a 2007 UC Berkeley study: “…the illustration used on the label had the greatest impact on both purchase intent and perceptions of brand personality.”
  • A 2007 study from University of Reims, France, found “that when the label is authentic, young consumers don’t see any risk buying the wine because the presence of the label is a definitive indication of the product’s authenticity.”
  • A paper presented at the 2010 International Academy of Wine Business Research Conference stated that “packaging can be related to between 26% and 42% of predicted price differences.”

To add some confusion to the mix, or just to show that even the consumers themselves don’t know what they want, I found these two conclusions from separate Cal Poly studies:

  • One study found that “Americans did not rank ‘has an animal on it’ as a desirable feature but two of the top three brands, Yellow Tail and Toasted Head, had an animal on them.”
  • Another study found that “there is little to no correlation between wine label design aesthetics and price.” However, this study focused more on font, colors, and layout over label content, and was written by an undergrad (gasp!). One interesting finding of their research was that tasting scores by Robert Parker were higher for wines with labels that were designed in a top-to-bottom format over a left-to-right format. What’s up with that?

Where Was I?

OK, I’m off the rails here. Back to Mia.

As I started writing this post and googling “Mia’s Playground,” I learned a few things:

Having worked a stint in the wine industry consulting for Robert Mondavi Wines, I immediately recognized Sebastiani as one of the biggest wine producers in the US. With 1.3 million cases sold in 2011, that puts them at #14 on the Wine Business Monthly list of the largest North American wine producers. Sebastiani’s website has them at 2 million cases in 2007, so the Great Recession has, apparently, not been kind.

Their most-recognizable brand is probably Smoking Loon, but their website shows nine brands, of which Mia’s Playground is not seen. Digging deeper, I found that Mia is actually Don Sebastiani’s daughter, and that her name also adorns a wine-based cooking sauce.

Wine.com shows Mia’s Playground as “no longer available,” and they and Snooth.com list vintages from 2002 through 2008.

$15 is “Luxury” Wine?

Marketing plays a huge role in the wine industry, obviously. This wine industry publicist says that 2% of a wine’s retail price is dedicated to marketing, which translates into $650 million spent on wine marketing in the US. With that amount of spend, there’s definitely room for consultants, focus groups, and, yes, even A/B testing.

Quality Segments of the Global Wine Market
Quality Segments of the Global Wine Market, Wine Communications Group

More googling seems to indicate that Mia’s Playground switched label designs with the 2005 or 2006 vintage from the fun version to the serious version, maybe in an attempt to spur sales or justify the price.

Sadly for Mia, a wine priced at $15-16 is considered an “ultra-premium” wine by the Wine Communications Group. (Other sources peg $15 as either “luxury” or “super-premium,” so this segmentation system is clearly unclear.)

It’s very telling about the US wine consumers’ palate (or wallet) that 94% of wine sold is under $14 per bottle. Or, maybe it’s indicating that, for those who are willing to spend more than $15 for a bottle of wine, price ceases to be a key decision-making factor? Either that, or I’ve been over-paying for wine for the past 10 years.

Bottom Line

Mia may have simply been another victim of the Great Recession, since the timing fits perfectly. As the economy started to slow, and instead of lowering the price, Mia tried to up-level her brand with a serious label befitting a $15 wine. With a 2008 vintage hitting the shelves in 2009, and with Sebastiani’s sales dropping 35% between 2007 and 2011, Mia’s bosses may have had to cut under-performing brands.

In any event, wasn’t this a fun exercise!? Let me know what you think with a comment below.

I’d really love to see the sales numbers before and after the label change. But, as a marketer myself, if the change of label had minimal or even negative impact, it was obviously a sales execution problem! 😉

I’ve sent an email to Sebastiani to get the real story on Mia’s Playground and will update this post if/when they respond…


Tech Marketing Gets the SNL Treatment

I guess that I’m not alone in being baffled by the horrible marketing being perpetrated on consumers by technology companies. (Side note: when is “tech” going to be considered simply “consumer electronics?” Are mobile phones and laptops still so cutting edge that they need to be referred to as “high technology?”)

Saturday Night Live took on the consumer puzzle known as Verizon (and the ‘guilty-by-association’ handset makers) in a very funny skit this past weekend. Just watch it and you’ll be laughing out loud.

Verizon’s marketing department, on the other hand, should be crying…and updating their resumes.

SOPA: Wrong for Everyone!

Note: Today was “SOPA Blackout” day, where Google, Wikipedia, and thousands of other websites blocked access to protest SOPA. I’m vehemently anti-censorship, have contacted my local Senators and Congresspeople (several times), and wrote the following post, which originally appeared on Aloha Startups.

UPDATE: Both SOPA and PIPA were killed…but new threats loom

SOPA: Wrong for Startups, Wrong for the Internet, Wrong for America

I really don’t want to get political, but the issue of censorship really tweaks my craw. When I was in high school, I learned about Freedom of Speech, due process, and how censorship was used to oppress people in other, “evil” countries. I had to read “Fahrenheit 451” and was taught that the USSR was evil because, among other things, the government controlled the news. More recently, I’ve read stories about the “Arab Spring” being energized via social media, and that the US helped to keep those channels of communication open while their governments tried to censor them. Now, it appears that our own government is trying to make it easier to censor the internet in the US.

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act,  is a bill introduced to the House of Representatives this fall to give law enforcement and copyright holders more power to fight internet piracy. According to Wikipedia…

Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws especially against foreign websites.[5] Opponents say it is Internet censorship,[6] that it will cripple the Internet,[7] and will threaten whistleblowing and other free speech.[8]

While I’m obviously against online piracy, as everyone should be, SOPA gives rights holders the ability to shut down websites’ payment systems just by claiming copyright infringement. PCMag.com had this to say:

Among the more controversial provisions is a section that would allow rights holders to contact the financial institutions that do business with a particular Web site and ask them to shut down access because of infringing content. If you ran a Web site that used PayPal or accepted payment via MasterCard, for example, and someone thought your site contained pirated content, they could contact PayPal or MasterCard and have those companies cut off access to your site, effectively shutting down your business.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced the bill, said that the bill’s critics are “spreading lies” after some of the top internet companies printed an open letter saying that the bill (and the PROTECT IP Act) provides censorship “techniques similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran.”

SOPA is still in committee, but they are meeting today to vote on amendments to the bill.  (I was going to link the word “committee” to the YouTube-posted version of “I’m Just a Bill,” but it was taken down due to copyright infringement. Irony?)

Democracy In Action

So what did I do? I contacted my representative, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, to express a constituent’s opposition to SOPA. (It’s made very easy at http://americancensorship.org/, where you just type in your phone number and zip code, they give you a few talking points, and then your phone rings, already connect with your representative’s office!)

While Rep. Hanabusa’s email response to an earlier anti-SOPA note I submitted via her website, pasted in its entirety below, assures me that she will “keep (my) thoughts in mind should this bill or any similar piece of legislation come to the floor,” it’s obvious to me that she supports SOPA. She does go into detail to clear up some potential confusion about the controversial portions of the bill, and uses the typical politician fear-mongering lines around “unsuspecting consumers,” “expose children to serious health risks,” and “identity theft,” but avoids the bigger points around due process and censorship as they relate to the rights holder’s (not the Attorney General’s) ability to impact suspect sites.

Read the email for yourself, educate yourself on SOPA, make your views known to your representative, and let us know what you think in the comments. Whether you’re for or against this legislation, let your voice be heard. While our rights may be starting to erode with this bill, at least the macro democratic process is still going strong…in theory.


December 14, 2011

Dear Rushin,


Thank you for your correspondence regarding H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act.  I appreciate your input on this important issue.


H.R. 3261, introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (TX), allows the Attorney General to seek an injunction that would block access to foreign websites dedicated to intellectual property infringement. Intellectual property is any product conceptualized by an individual that has commercial value. This includes among other things patents, trademarks and trade secrets. Common intellectual property infringement includes pirated software, illegal distribution of music or movies, or counterfeit merchandise.


Many of these foreign sites appear legitimate to unsuspecting consumers, who are tricked into purchasing shoddy products or downloading pirated content like music, movies or games. Some of these counterfeiters sell imitation goods such as infant formula or baby shampoo that expose children to serious health risks. Illegal online pharmacies market counterfeit drugs to consumers. At best, these drugs may simply be ineffective; but at worst, they can be harmful, or even fatal to consumers. Additionally, individuals put themselves at risk to identity theft, credit card fraud, and exposure to malware and computer viruses by visiting and making transactions on these sites.


Under this bill, once the Attorney General formally seeks an injunction against a foreign website, the Justice Department must go to a federal judge and lay out the case against the site. If a federal judge agrees that the website in question is dedicated to illegal and infringing activity, then a court order can be issued directing companies to sever ties with the illegal website. Third-party intermediaries, like credit card companies and online ad providers, are only required to stop working with the site. They cannot be held liable for the illegal or infringing actions taken by the foreign website.


Under existing law, it is already illegal to operate domestic websites that infringe on intellectual property rights, just as it is illegal to operate a brick-and-mortar store selling pirated goods.  H.R. 3261 simply extends those prohibitions to foreign infringing websites.


This legislation elicits vigorous debate on both sides of the issue and I appreciate all the input from constituents I have received on this bill. Unfortunately I believe there are several misconceptions of the bill that I would like to clear up.


First, H.R. 3261 does not restrict lawful free speech and is not a form of censorship. The fact is the bill establishes judicial review and requires judicial approval for a site to be shut down. Ultimately restricting sites from offering fake designer purses or selling copies of the latest Hollywood movie is not an unlawful restriction of an individual’s Constitutional right to freedom of speech.


Next, the bill would not require an entire site to be shut down if a single page is found to be infringing. H.R. 3261 allows a court to target only the portion of the site that is engaging in criminal activity or infringing, leaving access to or funding of the rest of the site alone.


Finally, the legislation does not require internet service providers to engage in any monitoring, supervising, or policing of their networks. It only requires them to take action at the direction of the Attorney General if a federal court rules that a foreign site is engaged in criminal activity for which seizure would apply if it were in the U.S. Just like 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act, internet service providers are only required to take minimum steps, with no duty to monitor.


H.R. 3261 has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, where it awaits further consideration.  Please be assured that I will keep your thoughts in mind should this bill or any similar piece of legislation come to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote during the 112th Congress.


Again, thank you for expressing your views on this crucial issue. I hope you will continue to contact me on federal matters of concern to you.  If you would like regular updates, please sign up for my e-newsletter athttp://hanabusa.house.gov.



Colleen Hanabusa
Member of Congress

Tech Product Names Suck

After nearly two years with my beloved HTC Nexus One phone (great name, eh?), I just upgraded to the new Samsung Galaxy S II 4G. But, since three of the four US carriers have a Samsung Galaxy S II 4G phone, mine is the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G for AT&T. Please don’t confuse my phone with the Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch (yes, with the comma), which is Sprint’s version, or the plain vanilla-sounding Samsung Galaxy S II, available at T-Mobile.

My phone, as its name implies, is a 4G version, same as the Sprint model. T-Mobile’s model doesn’t have 4G in its name, despite it also being a fully 4G phone. T-Mobile has other phones with 4G in the name, but not sure why they chose to skip it for the Galaxy S II.

Samsung Galaxy S II Family
The Samsung Galaxy S II Family: T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T, from left.

Oh, and even though only Sprint calls out the fact that their phone is a “Touch” (indicating a touch screen, I suppose), all of these Galaxy S II phones have a touch screen. Of course. Not sure why they didn’t all call that out, other than the fact that it’s pretty obvious to everyone these days that a “smartphone” is also a touch-screen phone.

Let me be clear that none of these phones are to be confused with AT&T’s Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket Android Smartphone. Yes, that’s its full name: Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket Android Smartphone.

The Skyrocket, as its name does not imply, is a 4G LTE phone (LTE is newer, faster technology, as opposed to the AT&T model’s older, slower HSPA+ technology, which AT&T has decided to market as 4G*).

Let’s review that last point: the phone utilizing slower, older 4G tech has “4G” in the name, but the phone utilizing the newer, faster LTE 4G tech does not have 4G in its name. Nor does it have LTE in its name. It does have “Skyrocket,” which, I guess, a focus group equated with super-fast mobile data speeds, so no need to be redundant. I’d love to know the reasoning behind that decision. Maybe all of AT&T’s LTE phones will be branded as Skyrockets?

Confused yet? You should be, although Samsung has made some confusing product naming decisions recently. In this case, however, I’m guessing that the carriers had more to do with it than Samsung.

(I had someone ask me the other day, “What’s the difference between an Android and a Droid?” I won’t even get in to the marketing behind that perplexing branding, or the fact that Verizon is marketing Droids as some sort of tech robot device…)

Apple is King, Right?

Not all tech companies have sucky product names. Apple, the master of marketing, has pretty straight-forward product names. The iPhone. The iPhone 3G. The iPhone 3GS. The iPhone 4. And the new iPhone 4S. Simple. Same with their MacBook and MacBook Pro, and iPad and iPad 2. Not entirely consistent, but easy to follow. Although, when you get into their iPods, their naming becomes so simple that it’s confusing: every iPod is named simply “iPod <model>”, like iPod Touch or iPod Nano. But Apple changes the format or design or features every year, which sometimes renders past iPods incompatible with software updates or accessories or, more often, cases. Apple then resorts to the product’s generation, like, “Fits first and second generation iPod Shuffles.” Or, Apple forces accessory makers to resort to this type of crystal clear description: Fits 13-inch MacBook (aluminum unibody/black keyboard) & MacBook Pro 13-inch (incorporated SD Card Slot Version).

How do you know which generation iPod you have? And how does the average person know if their MacBook has a unibody?

HP Puts in Minimal Effort

In the past, I’ve marveled at HP’s confusing, long, cryptic product names. They’ve started to get better, but they still have a ways to go. Simply navigating to HP’s laptop products page you’ll see their Pavilion line in this order, sorted by price: dm1z, g6z, g6s, g4t, dv4t, g6x, g7t, dm4t, dv6t, dv6z, dm4x, dv7t, and dv6t (“select edition” and “quad edition”).

What the hell do those names mean? What’s the difference between the initial letters of d or g? Why are g’s mixed with dm’s and dv’s? And how do they expect the typical consumer to ever know what those names mean or which product they should purchase?

Let’s not even get into their printers…HP Photosmart Plus e-All-in-One Printer – B210a…

Sure, they have a massive product portfolio, but there’s no way for consumers to make heads or tails of their naming conventions.

Ask a Mac owner what laptop they have and they’ll say, “MacBook Air” or maybe even “13-inch MacBook Air” to be specific. But ask an HP laptop owner and I’m sure you’ll get, “Um, an HP.” Heck, I personally own an HP laptop and know that it’s some dv something or other, but have no clue of the full, proper name, or why it’s even named that way—and I’m a geek!

Bottom Line

Sure, there are a lot of available options, lightning-fast innovations, and frequent upgrades to tech products, but there needs to be more creativity and innovation on the naming side. Software companies have always made it easy with sequential version numbering or, more recently, annual releases tied to the year or season. Microsoft, who can’t seem to make up their minds, flip-flopped when they moved from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 then Windows 98, but then switched again to Windows XP, then Vista, and now Windows 7 and the upcoming Windows 8, but I digress…

What’s the solution? Give some marketing people access to these product naming decision meetings to provide a consumer’s point of view, rather than just the engineers’ point of view. I’m sure that there’s some very specific translation for all of these product names, but the average consumer will never spend the time to understand. Instead, they’ll just remain confused.


* The best line from PC Mag’s article on AT&T’s perversion of the term “4G” – “The International Telecommunications Union started out by defining 4G as a set of technologies that no U.S. carrier will have for several years. But as carriers defined 4G down, the ITU basically gave up.”