Why ICANN’s New Domain-Name System Could Benefit Brands. A Domain-Name Consultant Offers Her Take Published in AdAge, August 16, 2011, by Architelos CEO Alexa Raad

When the Internet Corp. of Assigned Names and Numbers approved in June the new top-level domain program, virtually every major media organization covered it.

Unfortunately, few understood it.

They are not alone. Even veterans of the domain name system are mulling the potential for new TLDs. Do they portend a revolution in internet marketing, or are they much ado about nothing?

The Association of National Advertisers doesn’t like it. Last week, it fired a shot at ICANN, claiming new TLDs would cost advertisers millions to protect their brand names. ICANN counters that their approval process will block anyone from launching a TLD under a trademarked name they don’t own. That includes, for example, not only .Microsoft, but the owner of .software can’t sell Microsoft.software to anyone but Microsoft.

The uncertainty in the press about the viability of new TLDs, I think, revolves around a misinterpretation of what new TLDs are. They’re not just another way to name a website. If that’s all they were, then yes, Home.Coke has little advantage over Coke.com.

Others say that a domain name is not that important in the age of search, apps and Facebook. But these arguments are overstated. Google has been accused of putting its partners and services at the top of search results. Apps are great but limited in what they offer compared to websites. And as for Facebook, according to a recent Datamation report, for businesses “with more than a million ‘fans,’ fewer than 3% see the companies’ daily updates.” For smaller companies it’s about 10%. So “likes” and keywords don’t guarantee regular communication with your customers or top search positioning, much less a deeper relationship.

To understand the possibilities of new TLDs, think of an apartment building. A website (i.e., a domain name) is like an apartment. You rent it, conduct a good portion of your life there, entertain folks and get an address so people can find you and send things. You can paint the walls, but you can’t upgrade the plumbing or replace the cabinets.
The owner of the apartment building is the TLD. She decides who can live there, charges rent, makes the rules and determines whether you’ll have granite tops or laminates in the kitchen, burpee or shag carpet in the den.

Think of what eBay might do. With .eBay, the company becomes a registry that, like an apartment building owner, decides who gets an .eBay address and manages all the website names it signs up. Maybe that’s anyone who wants to sell occasionally on the site. So instead of a convoluted website address such as http://myworld.ebay.com/abestshop4u/?_trksid=p4340.l2569, which only a mental contortionist could remember and would be useless to use in print material, you get OldBooks.eBay. Not only can you put it on printed material, but it can appear where those who might see it can still remember it, say, the side of a bus.

Or perhaps eBay offers names to only its top sellers, so that http://stores.ebay.com/brookstoneco becomes Brookstone.eBay.

But we’re still talking about a name, a more marketable name, but a name nonetheless.

Now imagine eBay developing auctioning software and payment systems geared specifically for power sellers. By requiring they have a .eBay website, eBay would know exactly who all its most valuable customers are.

And what if the American Medical Association had the TLD .doctor and offered every member a free domain name — for example, MarcusWelby.doctor? Even if he declines a domain name, the AMA might give him a free email address that would be [email protected]. The association might also dictate that all communications from them would be only to those .doctor e-mail addresses, thus encouraging all doctors to check that account regularly.

Now you have a powerful, marketable list to sell. Anything sent to that list, perhaps information from a drug company, would be reviewed and approved by the AMA, making the organization both a gatekeeper and a seal of approval.
The AMA’s .doctor could build into that TLD — and offer to every member who launches a .doctor website — all the patient security, functionality and medical records warehousing a doctor might need, including methods for securely transferring records among doctors and hospitals and disseminating updated protocols and the latest medical research.
A commercial operation may have similar opportunities. An automobile company could exploit its own TLD to build a communication or logistical network with its suppliers, partners, dealers and customers. The policies, functionality and security built into the TLD are advantages to anyone owning a domain name under that TLD.

Currently, TLDs are so generic and large that functionality is an add-on and must be designed for the lowest common denominator. And registries don’t verify the credentials of domain-name buyers, and in some cases have either erroneous or no information on the actual registrant. But new TLDs will have that information and can also enforce other rules, including verification.

Some argue that previous generic TLDs, such as .biz and .info, didn’t catch on. But they didn’t have a clear targeted market. They were too generic. But .mac? There is certainly a community for Apple users who are now dispersed under various forums, blogs and other sites.

Meanwhile, the American Bankers Association has indicated an interest in a TLD. Whether it is a .bank or other TLD, the industry could be poised to sell domain names to financial institutions with the security, authorization and functionality they require.

There will be challenges, no doubt. While the American Medical Association may chose to operate .doctor, other groups might obtain .health or .wellness. The victor might be the one with the best business plan and marketing chops. And keep in mind that the application fee alone is $185,000, with another $400,000 to $500,000 to develop the necessary technology and systems to operate a registry. That should limit speculators, cyber squatters and the faint of heart. And then there is the ICANN requirement that applicants prove they have the technical and financial resources to run a registry.

And what if two or more applicants want the same TLD such as .love? Under proposed ICANN rules, an auction would ensue if more than one applicant passes ICANN’s evaluation process.

Lastly, larger possible pools of website buyers raise questions about how they will be reviewed, verified and approved.
As I said, there will be challenges — and not all who apply for a TLD will or should be granted one. And not all those launched will succeed.

Yet, for those willing to face these challenges, the rewards could be great. The problem is that with so few understanding the potential of TLDs, advertisers, brand managers and all forms of marketers are left scratching their heads. As with every new tool available to them, however, the savvy ones will figure out how to make TLDs expand brand awareness and develop deeper customer relationships.

Alexa Raad is CEO of Architelos, a consultant for top-level-domain applicants, and the former CEO of the Public Interest Registry for .org domain names. She can be reached at [email protected].

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