Marketers Go on a Drinking Domain Binge

There are drink masters and then there are masters of drink domains. From big spirits sellers to small Web property owners, people are willing to pay top shelf prices to purchase no-name domains. Consider vodka maker Conglomerate Russian Standard Co., which plunked down $3 million last month for the rights to vodka.com, which now leads to its Russian Standard site. Or take Steve Olsher, who as president of Liquor.com in 1998 spent $75,000 on the domain.

Now a Chicago real estate developer, Olsher has regained custody of Liquor.com, and, like a true property investor, aims to lease the virtual abode. “We would certainly consider [leasing the domain],” he told ClickZ News. “The question is, is a Liquor.com worth more than a vodka.com because it’s generic and more encompassing?”

Another possibility: to re-launch Liquor.com as an e-commerce site similar to its earlier distillation as a wine and gift basket delivery site. Depending on what else is blended into the overall marketing mix, Liquor.com could be valuable, said Greg Leonard, director of public relations for Diageo, owner of brands like Crown Royal and Baileys. However, he added, “At Diageo we much prefer to call what we do spirits.”

Rum.com has been associated with the Captain Morgan brand since before Diageo bought the brand from Seagram in 2001. Set to re-launch later this year, the rum.com domain is a way to engage in a highly competitive beverage category, according to Leonard. “It provides us with a competitive advantage,” he continued.

Vodka is another “cluttered category,” said Leonard, who wasn’t surprised by the big vodka.com payout. Because search engines are so powerful, he added, owning non-branded domains can help drive people searching on generic terms to a particular brand. “It is going to at least create some awareness that’s not there,” he said.

That rum.com is the “official party headquarters for Captain Morgan” is obvious, since the site is labeled as such. Diageo’s Malts.com site, on the other hand, takes a far subtler approach. Indeed, it’s not clear to the user what brand or company is associated with the site, which can also be accessed via scotch.com. Though it highlights eight of Diageo’s classic malt brands such as Talisker and Oban, it appears as a non-advertorial content site, meant to inform users about Scotland’s whiskey regions, distillation, manufacturing and pricing.

“We’re playing the role of educator more so than, ‘please just go buy this brand,’ ” said Leonard.

Zinfandel.com, owned by Drinkwine.com, is an informational site, and part of the WineCountry.com site network. The site features a wine guide, and content on wine clubs and wine country travel; it offers advertisers newsletter ads and advertorial content. Champagne.com is an educational French language site covering all things bubbly. Wine.com also offers educational information, but its main objective is to sell vino.

Less than educational is the lad mag-style content site Beer.com, which runs ValueClick-served ads alongside goofy video and animation clips and cheesecake galore.

Although there’s an obvious search engine optimization component to owning generic domains, a good deal of traffic to general domains is derived through direct navigation. According to Mark Peterson, VP of public relations at Marchex, the majority of traffic to the 200,000 domains the company owns “comes through type-in.” In fact, just 10 percent of traffic to its domains, which include brew.com, napavalleywine.com and winecountrytours.com comes in through search engines, with the remainder of users entering via direct navigation or browser bookmarks.

Marchex uses its Open List system to generate category-specific and localized content sites that are well-optimized for search. The company also feeds in business reviews and other information through a distribution relationship with Yahoo. “There can be significant value associated with owning and monetizing generic, commercially relevant domain names,” said Peterson, who believes the vodka.com sale validates this.

“The long-term value proposition,” he added, “lies in building [Marchex] domains into bona fide destinations, and ultimately it’s a more desirable advertising buy.”

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