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What Taylor Swift Can Teach Your Company About Protecting Its Brand Online

The explosion of top-level domains will open up new possibilities–and major headaches–for companies. Is everything about to .suck?

What Taylor Swift Can Teach Your Company About Protecting Its Brand Online
[Taylor Swift Photo: A Katz via Shutterstock]

Your company could probably learn a thing or two from Taylor Swift.

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Earlier this month, the ever business-savvy pop star unwittingly generated a ton of click bait for publishers by doing something smart: She registered her name under the new adult-themed top-level domains .porn and .adult. It’s a wise move for any brand, but these salacious-sounding TLDs are just the beginning: The number of available website domain names is about to explode.

This coming influx of domains will undoubtedly free up new branding updates for companies of all sizes. But will it also create a new headache for brands?

Obviously, Swift–forever protective of her intellectual property, right down to the phrases used in her lyrics–isn’t taking any chances. And while it’s wise for most brands to snatch up domains and social media handles preemptively, how much effort is really necessary in 2015?

“What companies need to realize is that there are all these new domains coming out that they may not have heard about or thought of,” says Howard Greenstein, COO of DomainSkate, a company that helps businesses with domain brand protection. “But they can be used for things like cybertheft and cybersquatting.” These bogus domains are often used for everything from password phishing to malware distribution.

Nefarious practices like these have been employed for quite some time, but the arrival of these new TLDs is generating millions of new, often legitimate-looking options for cyber-scoundrels.

So how did we get here?

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The reason that the Internet will soon be flooded with a wider variety of domain names is because in 2011, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the international organization that oversees how the domain name system works, decided to open things up. Instead of having only a few meaningless TLDs like .com, .net, .biz, and country codes like .ly, the organization agreed to usher in a more freeform system: Why not have more specific options like .dentist and .nyc? With startups forgoing vowels and inventing new words just to come up with brandable names–not to mention the rising popularity of using country-specific extensions like .ly (Libya) and .io (for the British Indian Ocean territory)–the system we use to point human-readable words to the IP addresses at which websites actually live had run its course.

So in early 2012, ICANN started accepting applications for the new top-level domains: The dot-whatevers were suddenly available for applicants who could make the most compelling case from both a business and technical standpoint. And here we are. Now Taylor Swift is buying porn domains.

The idea here, of course, is that Swift doesn’t want anyone diluting her world-renowned brand by snatching up adult-themed domains that could be used to host videos of people engaging in all manner of unwholesome acts. Or, worse, delivering payloads of hard drive-crippling malware to people’s computers. Similarly, no brand–be it a corporation or a celebrity–would want their name attached to some unauthorized dot anything, even if all the imposter site is doing is sucking up SEO juice.

You don’t have to be a pop diva to be concerned about things like this. Indeed, for years, companies have defensively purchased variations of their brands in domain name form, whether to preempt the launch of hostile sites or to account for common misspellings. Facebook, for instance, owns a ton of these “mistype” domains–like facebok.com and faacebook.com–some of which they’ve had to purchase from squatters.

“Companies like Apple and Facebook have been all over this for many years, but if you’re an up-and-coming startup or a midsize company, it may not be the first thing on your mind,” says Greesnstein. “And the first time you may hear about it is when a customer complains that their credit card was stolen or they didn’t get a package.”

It’s not all bad news. By and large, the proliferation of new domains opens up a world of new branding opportunities for companies. For a dentist who has long lived on page five of Google’s search results because of some convoluted, bottom-of-the-barrel website domain, the option to go with jimmysmith.dentist could have a very real impact on foot traffic.

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This sort of payoff is already happening for some companies. When domains under the .club TLD became available, a startup called Coffee Club was quick to snatch theirs up. Even though they were already operating under the enviable domain coffee.org, they recognized coffee.club as an even more to-the-point and descriptive domain name. They were right.

“We were able get ranked in Google much more quickly with terms related to ‘coffee club’ and ‘coffee subscription’ than we were with the previous site,” says Gabe Roberts, president of Coffee.Club. Within 30 days, the new website rocketed to the coveted number-one result for the search phrase “coffee club” on Google, all without the company needing to spend a dime on some SEO guru.

Still, for every wild success, there’s bound to be at least one potential horror story. Now that the new TLDs are rolling out, defensive domain registrations are poised to surge. More than 4.7 million of the new domains have been purchased, according to data from DomainSkate. And the new domain extensions are just going to keep coming.

When the new .nyc domains went up for sale late last year, to take just one example, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg went on a domain name shopping spree. Site names like ScrewMikeBloomberg.nyc, GetALifeMike.nyc, and even MikeIsAShortJew.nyc were parked, alongside hundreds of others that may have been used to mock the former mayor (or at least rack up a few ad impression dollars). Heck, some guy in Queens even snatched up FastCompany.nyc before we could (whatever, dude).

Perhaps the most controversial new TLD is .sucks. Touted as a way to encourage criticism and free speech, the new extension has a lot of brands fretting. Virtually nobody wants their name next to the word sucks. To be fair, anybody could register suchandsuchsucks.net, but it lacks the concision and novelty of suchandsuch.sucks. And unlike existing TLDs, .sucks is practically a blank canvas: So many .coms are taken, but these domain options are brand new. And on June 1, the .sucks domains will go on sale to the general public.

It’s not just the negative sentiment of .sucks domains that has companies concerned. It’s the pricing structure: The domains cost between $10 and $249 per year, but registered trademarks will command an annual fee of $2,500.

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Greenstein thinks companies need to be aggressive about registering these new domains as they become available. Granted, he has his own financial incentive for making that suggestion, but the fact remains: If companies don’t buy them, somebody else likely will. The squatters and spam-peddlers aren’t sitting around and waiting, either. On the day of Apple’s smartwatch announcement a few weeks ago, nearly 500 different domains with the words “Apple Watch” were registered. They did not come from Cupertino.

There are some built-in protections in place. When domain names under these new TLDs become available, there’s typically a 60-day “sunrise period” during which brands with registered trademarks get first dibs. Meanwhile, ICANN runs something called the Trademark Clearing House, which lets businesses claim their names (provided they have an officially registered trademark). It won’t prevent cybersquatters from snatching up their branded domains, but those that do try to buy them will be notified that the domain they’re purchasing contains a brand that belongs to somebody else. Then when the trademark holder realizes what’s going on, the process of regaining control of the domain will be much easier.

But all the commotion over new domain names overlooks a bigger question: How much does it even matter? In 2015, there are so many other ways for an organization’s good name to be impersonated or diluted online. It’s one thing to have your company’s name sitting on a parked, porn ad–plastered website that few people will visit on purpose. It’s quite another to have somebody masquerading as your brand on Twitter or Facebook, interacting with actual people and trolling would-be customers.

With new TLDs, social networks, and apps cropping up constantly, claiming your name everywhere becomes a routine part of doing business. But it’s really only a tiny piece of the online branding puzzle, says Beth Viner, CEO of Interbrand, an international branding consultancy.

“Yes, you should defensively snatch up those domain names,” says Viner. “But it shouldn’t be the focus of what your brand organization does. If what you’re focused on is protecting and defending your brand, then you’re focused on the wrong pieces.”

Instead, Viner says, companies should be investing their energy in a more proactive way: empowering people within the organization who are closest to the customers to get creative and create a frictionless, memorable experience.

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She cites Warby Parker. Its reputation as a brand is impeccable in large part because of how the company engages customers in unique and interesting ways. Shipping out glasses frames to try on at home for free, for instance, is an additional cost that eats into the company’s bottom line. But it’s one of the things that customers most often point to when singing the company’s praises. Warby Parker is also known to respond to customers via Twitter in the form of customized videos that let them see the frames they want in action.

Companies like Warby Parker clearly put a lot of effort into creative branding strategies, and it pays. Is its reputation really going to change much if some disgruntled former customer launches WarbyParker.sucks and plasters a bunch of ads all over it? Probably not.

“This whole idea that brands are something to be coveted or protected, that they’re like a glass house that is put on a pedestal–that’s just not relevant today,” says Viner. “This whole idea that you have to control and create consistency for a brand through that protective layer no longer holds true. Brands are these dynamic organisms that shift and change.”

So in other words, sure, buy up those unsavory domain names when they become available. But rather than losing sleep over which .sucks domains to buy, perhaps it would behoove companies to channel their energy toward something a bit more effective: not sucking in the first place.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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