Brand owners cannot afford to ignore the new domain name revolution heading our way this summer, and unregistered or dropped domains could provide a way in for cybersquatters. Understanding how and when to protect trademarks is the question of the day.
What does the future hold for brands looking to build their digital strategy in the brave new world of the Internet? The number of available domain names is about to get a shot of digital steroids and the sheer number of digital assets brand owners will have to protect is making them shudder.
However, it is not all bad. This is an opportunity for brand owners to rebuild their digital strategies, reclaiming some Internet space that many thought disappeared when .com and .net appeared on our screens back in 1985. So while the legal departments may be burying their heads in trademark applications for their sunrise registrations, the marketing teams will be plumping up the beanbags ready for a ‘wipe board’ session on how they can take advantage of a .rocks, .cool and .ninja.
If only it were that simple. Today, marketers sit in one of two camps. In the red corner, we have the search evangelists, pouring over the latest Google algorithm, and what changes they need to make to their websites to ensure they retain their rankings at all cost. To them, the launch of the new domain names is an opportunity to connect with new customers (.organic, .promo), differentiate some others (.london and .saarland) or keep some existing ones happy (.reviews or .sucks).
In the blue corner we have the new breed of digital marketers who believe that apps are the future, HTML5 is king and the power of the consumer is held in their palms on smartphones. To them, the new domains are nothing more than an inconvenient truth.
Who is right and who is wrong? As consumers of the Internet, our search habits have evolved over time. Just a few years ago, if we wanted to find anything on the worldwide web we would have to structure our search query very carefully.
‘Wood for the trees’ was a saying that was very apt to the success of our search results, having to trawl through pages of links to find exactly what we were looking for. Today it is all so different. The rapid adoption of Firefox, Chrome and Safari as our browsers of choice means we can search directly in the URL bar with our most bizarre questions.
In 2012, one of the most popular search terms in Google was ‘How to …’ Searchers then choose the most relevant answer rather than the most popular one. It doesn’t matter how much a brand may be spending on paid search, keyword optimisation and domain localisation, if the answer doesn’t appear within the search engine index. So much for a brand strategy.
Of course, if you sit in the Apple camp you will already be used to conducting your life via pressing an icon on your latest device. Apps are convenient, taking us directly to the content we need, when we need it, where we need it. There is no denying that they have allowed brands to connect directly with their customers, building brand loyalty through usability.
The cost of developing and then improving an app is significantly less than that of building a website to compete in an already crowded marketplace. The app acts as a direct window into the hearts and minds of a brand’s consumer.
“THE COST OF DEVELOPING AND THEN IMPROVING AN APP IS SIGNIFICANTLY LESS THAN THAT OF BUILDING A WEBSITE TO COMPETE IN AN ALREADY CROWDED MARKETPLACE.”
Despite the growth of smartphone ownership in the UK—Ofcom estimated it to be 58 percent of the UK population—brand owners cannot afford to ignore the new domain name revolution heading our way this summer. This is a once in a lifetime chance to build a new digital strategy, one which will not only allow marketing teams to differentiate their products and services in a completely new way, but also allow brand owners to strengthen the grip they have on their digital assets and protect against brand damage.
It is this last point that seems to be the biggest concern for brand holders, based on recent conversations I have had. While some can see the opportunities that the domain name universe expansion will bring, it is those threats that sit in the dark corners of the Internet that worry brands the most. They are faced with a dilemma on a scale they have never experienced before.
Today, many companies adopt a simple, reactive approach to protecting their critical digital assets, often deploying a ‘wait and see’ strategy and only reacting when they identify problems of brand abuse, often after their reputation has been damaged, legitimate traffic diverted and ultimately revenues lost.
The launch of hundreds of new suffixes per week, if we are to believe the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ ambitious timescales for the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) programme, will create confusion if brand owners are ill-prepared. The need for a clearlydefined domain name strategy has never been greater than today.
Knowing what domain names are being delegated into the Internet’s root, and when they are delegated, are two questions that should be keeping even the most proactive of executives awake at night. It is all very well for marketing teams to develop innovative plans to connect with new customers through the use of a .hot or a .cool, but it will be useless if a cybersquatter has already picked up a .sucks or .reviews and started directing traffic to a negative sentiment website.
So it is important for a company to stop and think before it sends the marketing team off to plan the new dawn of the Internet. While the number of new open TLDs has not been officially confirmed, as the ICANN evaluation, objection and contention processes are yet to be completed, we can be sure it will be significantly more than we have today.
This means that brand protection has to be first and foremost in the minds of brands now. Understanding how and when to protect trademarks is the question of the day, not whether to invest in search or app developments.
It is all too easy for a bad actor to quickly and very cheaply pick up a small part of any brand’s IP and to start profiting from it, diverting online revenues through fair means or foul. A common cause of brand abuse today arises from a simple dropped domain name. Whether it be through an oversight in renewing it, or a mistake by the domain registrar, a cybersquatter will see an opportunity to catch the dropped name and redirect it to a site that may contain malware or content that will damage the brand.
Unfortunately, the existing processes do not protect the interests of the brand holder well enough and so it can take months to recover the domain name, during which time irreparable online reputational damage may have occurred. Of course, there is a solution: money. The cybersquatter knows that many brands will simply offer cash to the perpetrator to quickly return the chattel.
There is some good news for brand holders, though. While the new gTLD programme may bring a massively increased threat to critical digital assets, it will encourage levels of brand protection that have never before been seen in the domain name world. Currently, firms have to look at purchasing external brand monitoring to pick up infringements before they can look at legal recourse. In the new world trademark holders will gain an automatic level of protection as part of their registration within the Trademark Clearinghouse.
By submitting registered trademarks into the Clearinghouse, a brand owner will get the opportunity to protect its brand in every one of the potentially 1,300 new TLDs as, and when, they start opening their doors to the new world.
If a company chooses not to secure its trademark as a TLD, the trademark is monitored for up to 90 days, so that if someone else registers the mark, they will be informed. While this is not the full solution many brand owners wanted in the programme, it is light years ahead of what is available today in terms of online protection.
But irrespective of whether legal or marketing employees are sitting around the table, the focus should still be the same. The new gTLD programme brings massive opportunities and threats.
On one side of the table, marketing should be busy planning their offensive strategy, how they are going to gain valuable market share, engaging with new customers and markets and differentiating themselves in a crowded online space. Sitting opposite them, the legal team should be using this opportunity to look at the defensive strategy, how they can protect their critical online digital assets and mitigate the risk of cyber crime.
Whatever side of the table you’re sitting on, you need to start thinking about how you keep yourself one step ahead.
Stuart Fuller is director of communications at NetNames Ltd’s parent company, Group NBT Ltd. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.
This article was first published on 01 April 2013 in World IP Review
domain names, Internet, cybersquatters