There continues to be much speculation about the success or failure of the new gTLDs, scheduled to begin launching this October. The internationalized domain names will go first, but it's quite likely by early 2014, we will see the new generic top-level domains start to launch and be available to the public.
For marketers, this poses an important question: "Will there be a land rush and grab for domains like there was in the 1990s or should we take a wait-and-see approach?" While many may opt to take the wait-and-see-approach, given the scaled expansion of the top-level domains, it's not advisable to sit on the sidelines. A few of the big categories of top-level domains include the geographic domains, notably in the U.S., .NYC, .Vegas, and .Miami, as well as 900-plus terms related to search and navigation, media, travel, entertainment, shopping, commerce, and lifestyle. A few of the most popular new top-level domains include: .app, .inc., .art, .book, .shop, .blog, .llc, .design, .cloud, .hotel, .news, .store, .love, .mail, .web, and .ltd. Some others of interest include .jobs, .red., .style, .feedback, .gripe, .active, .singles, .win, .one, .green, and .social. It's an overwhelming undertaking for marketers to evaluate this new landscape and many are opting to wait and see what happens.
Should Fear or Strategy Drive Behavior?
Could that be a critical mistake? Many will recall the early days of .com when it was the Wild West of just buying up domain names of value and then selling them to the highest bidder. An entire industry was formed around this very phenomenon. While new mechanisms are in place to protect trademark owners this time around, the reality for most brands is that there is more than one company with the same trademark in the world. Meaning, just because you have a trademark in a name, does not mean you unilaterally are the only one with the right to a domain name using that name. While fear of not having a digital asset should certainly be a consideration, strategy should drive behavior. And, to develop a strategy requires thinking both offensively and defensively about the value of the new top-level domains as a digital asset.
Offensive Strategy - Why Would You Buy Up New Domains?
The first offensive strategy for acquiring your brand in any of the 900-plus new generics or any of the geographic domains is understanding how it fits within your vertical industry. Is identification with NYC, Vegas, or Miami important to your business? Will that provide some authentication or market leadership for you to be in that domain versus .com? Then, you will want to secure your brand in those top-level domains. Is there a specific category that relates to your business such as fitness, tennis, golf, dogs, cats, etc.? Do your consumers identify with that vertical? The answer to this lies in your current data analytics. You can evaluate how consumers are currently finding you, through which channels, and through which keywords to determine if these verticals could be important. Can you use the new top-level domain as a category indicator for your business? Could you launch something new and innovative using a new top-level domain to test the market ways of using your digital platform? This would allow you to innovate within the new gTLD framework while not losing the search equity associated with your existing site, likely on .com. Much like apps have become niched portals into functionality needed on the go, new websites within these new top-level domains could become niched channels or feature sets of your digital platform online.
Many believe that .com will remain the gold standard and there's no reason to start acquiring these other domains. From an offensive standpoint, marketers should invest the time in reviewing the list, understanding the categories related to your business, assessing if your analytics suggest these categories could be more valuable, and then evaluating the impact on search and navigation to your site. Finally, it's important to evaluate who will own and operate the TLDs related to your brand category. How will they market the top-level domain? What support are they offering to drive consumers to these new top-level domains? Will they maintain a certain integrity within that category? Google, for example, is launching nearly 100 new top-level domains. What might it do for you to be affiliated with a Google domain? What other services can they offer you? Amazon, likewise, has applied for 76 top-level domains. What are your current affiliations with Amazon and will it benefit you to be affiliated with its new top-level domains?
Offensively, the new gTLDs offer a catalyst for every business to think disruptively and provide a platform to try new ways of using your website within these new domains. At a minimum, it is worth the exercise of evaluating the new top-level domains, evaluating your analytics in light of these domains, and considering innovative opportunities in a scaled expansion of the Internet.
Defensive - What Keeps You Up at Night?
If you are still unsure there is an offensive strategic reason to acquire your brand or sub-brands in the new top-level domains, there may be defensive reasons to secure these digital assets when they first become available, even if it's just to ensure a competitor does not. If your brand is not locked down on a global level, which unless you are Coke or Pepsi, it likely isn't, then you should asses the cost-benefit analysis of acquiring your brand in gTLDs related to your brand category. This will ensure that if the new gTLDs do start a paradigm shift in the Internet that you don't find yourself without these key digital assets a few years from now. Use the Trademark Clearinghouse to register your brand and be aware of when sunrise periods allow you to secure your brand before the top-level domain becomes open to the general public. Set a budget for acquiring core brands. Most big brands I talk to are prioritizing their portfolio and planning to secure their core brands in the top categories related to their business. It will also be important to use monitoring tools to monitor the use of your brand in an expanding Internet environment. There are some new cost-effective, cutting-edge tools that will be critical for large and small businesses to utilize.
Are the New gTLDs the Zip Codes of the Internet?
It's quite possible that in the future we will look back and wonder how we lived in an Internet world largely dominated by .com or .co.country code. These new gTLDs could become category indicators of digital assets and allow you to splinter your primary website into various pieces that relate to specific categories and functionality, as apps have done. The top-level domain may become a Zip code or way to indicate the nature of the website beyond just a .com. Before the 1960s in the U.S., we didn't have Zip codes. The introduction of Zip codes created the direct mail industry. What industry might the new top-level domains create? Whether you believe the new gTLDs will be successful or will fail, it's rarely a good strategy to assume nothing will change.
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Jennifer Wolfe is founder and president of Wolfe Domain, a gTLD digital brand strategy advisory firm providing comprehensive guidance to global brands, interactive agencies, domain registrars, and legal counsel representatives on establishing a holistic gTLD name-anchored brand strategy for the next generation of the Internet. As a forward-thinking, accomplished, award-winning attorney and executive leader, she also serves as managing partner of their affiliate law firm WolfeSBMC, specializing in advising on intellectual property and brand campaigns and new media law. With a depth of entrepreneurial savvy, brand knowledge, and legal expertise, Wolfe brings a unique perspective to creating holistic generic top-level domain (gTLD) name-centric brand strategies that effectively bring cross-functional teams together and serve as a catalyst for business innovation.
March 19, 2014