How social are your brands?

30-04-2012

Kimberly Wahl

How social are your brands?

Social media platforms have grown explosively over the past few years, transforming our expectations of how organisations connect with their customers, build product awareness and cement brand loyalty.

Social media platforms have grown explosively over the past few years, transforming our expectations of how organisations connect with their customers, build product awareness and cement brand loyalty. Kimberly Wahl looks at the best approaches to take.

New social media marketing experts arrive on the scene every day—each with their own ideas of how companies can reap the benefits of social media with a well-placed blog, tweet, or video post. If it hasn’t happened yet, the chances are good that in the coming months someone at your organisation will ask you, “What are we doing with social media?”.

The trend shows no signs of abating, either. Social media investment continues to rise across industries, with a recent survey published by the research firm Advertiser Perceptions showing that two-thirds of companies sampled planned to increase their social media ad-spending in 2012, with a majority projecting an increase of at least 5 percent above last year.

Enthusiasm for the medium is justified: with little in the way of up-front expense, a robust social media presence can pay enormous dividends. Given the networking model at the heart of social media, consumers are in effect doing your work for you, and the return per effort can be extraordinary.

Success with social media requires more than enthusiasm, though, and many companies continue to overlook one of its most obvious necessities, namely the availability of brand- and trademarkspecific social media user names—the so-called ‘vanity URLs’ that are identifiably yours. Not only do these names allow consumers to reach your brands through direct navigation, they provide critical visibility and offer a central point around which to orchestrate your marketing efforts.

Regrettably, not everyone realises this. Otherwise why are sophisticated international companies still spending thousands, and in some cases millions, on product development, trademark applications and brand launches without taking the time to find out whether their marks are available on the most popular social media sites? Often they’re not, being owned instead by a third party with no particular goal in mind, or a ‘squatter’ looking to part with a name for a tidy sum.

Regardless of to whom they are registered, the impact of these ‘lost’ URLs can be devastating: wasted trademark filings, thwarted marketing efforts, and thousands spent on domain name recovery. Vanity URLs may seem like a small part of a social media plan, but the legal and marketing ramifications of not having them to support your brands are significant, and organisations that fail to recognise their value well in advance do so at their own risk.

Having a plan

Stewardship of a company’s brands and trademarks has long rested with the corporate legal team and more specifically, its intellectual property group. The process works something like this: marketing comes up with a list of brand names and passes them along to legal, which in turn researches them to find out which ones are available.

After narrowing down the list, legal begins the trademark filing process. For decades this arrangement has worked well enough, but it doesn’t translate well to the social media realm. Too many companies stubbornly cling to a pre-Facebook mindset and plunge ahead with trademark filings without looking to see whether those names are available on popular and emerging social media sites—exactly the opposite of how they should go about things.

“THE IMPACT OF THESE ‘LOST’ URLS CAN BE DEVASTATING: WASTED TRADEMARK FILINGS, THWARTED MARKETING EFFORTS, AND THOUSANDS SPENT ON DOMAIN NAME RECOVERY.”

At most companies today there exists no coordinated effort around user name registration.

Just as management of a company’s domain names was an institutional ‘hot potato’ a decade and a half ago, passed around from department to department with few willing to take full responsibility for it, now social media get the same treatment.

Managing social media is a hybrid function, one that requires a high degree of coordination between legal, marketing and information technology departments, and it is important from the outset to establish who is responsible for what, including registering and maintaining your company’s portfolio of social media URLs and creating a transition plan in the event that that person takes on a new role or leaves the company.

Along with their day-to-day value to your company, social media URLs are also a key component of brand and product launches. To meet this need, Corporation Service Company can help companies register vanity URLs in ‘stealth mode,’ allowing them discreetly to claim and maintain territory on social media sites in advance of product launches, then populate those sites with product information once the launch has taken place.

By doing so, brand owners can avoid the headaches, the expense and the risks associated with allowing their marks to fall into the wrong hands.

Avenues of last resort

In the event that your, or a client’s, vanity URL has been claimed by someone else, there are several means available for recovery. However, the social media world presents a unique set of URL recovery challenges. There is no equivalent to the Whois search in the social media world, meaning that brand owners are often in the dark about who has registered a particular URL at a social media site.

In addition, URL recovery is often complicated by the social media sites themselves. Each site has its own policies and terms of use, and their IP policies can be a little thin, offering few specifics about whether they honour trademark rights, and how they treat URL recovery attempts.

Unlike the traditional domains world, where arbitration mechanisms such as ICANN’s Uniform Domain Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) offer a proven way to recover squatted names, formal dispute policies are largely absent from the social media realm, where delegation of URLs rests with the site itself.

Brand owners whose trademarks are being squatted on social media sites often tread an awkward path of dispute letters and direct negotiations with the social media site, followed, in some cases, by expensive legal action. Even if they manage to demonstrate their rights to a user name, its recovery is not guaranteed. Some social media sites will not return a name to the brand owner under any circumstances; instead they’ll just remove it from use.

Recovering your, or your client’s, IP on social media sites also requires finesse. The built-in ‘ripple effect’ of social media means that companies that are heavy-handed in their attempts to reclaim a trademark from a third party can easily draw negative attention.

Anything you do or say as a brand owner can be socially transmitted by the URL’s current owner and magnified by sharing. Imagine a ‘Guess who just tried to strong-arm me?’ post on Facebook and how it might damage your company’s reputation. Things can get out of hand very quickly.

Without question, the best approach for brand owners is to know the availability of their brand and trademark names well before they need them. Organisations that hope to succeed in social media need to be proactive in claiming their names.

Registration of vanity URLs, whether on a defensive basis, in support of marketing objectives, or for the sake of future brand and product launches, should be accorded the same strategic weight as trademark filings and other IP necessities. These days, brand owners can’t afford to think any other way.

Four steps to social media user name success

  1. Audit: Find out where your trademarks and brand names appear on the top 100 social media sites. Make a list of which branded user names you currently ‘own’ and those that are registered to someone else. 
     
  2. Evaluate: Which of these names have value? How are they being used? You need to find out. It may not be worth trying to recover your names at more obscure social media sites, or in instances where they’re not being abused, but misuse of your marks in high-profile locations certainly calls for action. 
     
  3. Act: Register unclaimed names that have value to you and begin the recovery process for valuable names that are registered to third parties. 
     
  4. Monitor: Look for emerging sites that offer vanity URLs and claim your marks there according to your marketing goals. Continue to watch third-party use of your marks on existing sites—if you detect harm or lost revenue opportunities, it may be worth trying to reclaim them.

Kimberly Wahl is trademark specialist on the brand protection team at Corporation Service Company (CSC). The CSC team can be contacted at: cipservices@cscinfo.com

To learn more about these services and how CSC can help, visit www.cscglobal.com

This article was first published on 01 May 2012 in World IP Review

social media, usernames, domain names, ICANN, UDRP

Trademarks and Brands Online