The application period for ICANN’s new TLD program opens in January 2012, but already many brands have announced or considered plans for their own .brand TLD. The new TLD program has faced many harsh critics, but despite the protests of groups such as the ANA and CRIDO, the initiative is moving forward. The next chapter of Internet history will be written by the pioneers of the new TLDs, and many visionary brands are hoping to launch to the forefront with a .brand campaign.
All of this change leaves brands asking the question: “How will we get our customers to recognize a new .Brand site, instead of .com?” The change will be huge in terms of communications, but with a strong strategy, communications and marketing plan, your brand can take advantage of the unique .brand asset.
Evaluate Current Online Brand Strategy
Every new strategy should begin with examining the old. In the age of digital metrics, brands should have access to a library of information about the online engagement of the brand, and the behavior of customers. Brands should being by examining the data about how customers reach your existing website. Do they use search engines and click on links? Or are they reading magazine advertisements and typing the URL directly into their browser address bars? Maybe the brand has a cadre of tech-savvy fans who use QR codes and mobile phones to access your site. When a brand determines the main pathways to their site, they can begin reformulating the paths to point to a new .brand site.
Brands should also look at their customers and online audience, and evaluate them in terms of segments: Innovators, Early Adopters, and Followers. Innovators are the customers that are always right on the edge, jumping onto every new trend even before it becomes a trend. Think of these people as the kind of Apple fan who wait in line for three days for the latest iPad. Early Adopters are forward thinking, but will wait for the first reviews and then go for a new product. Lastly, Followers are the mainstream market, the people who want to know something is good before they invest in it.
When you consider moving to a .brand, think about how many of your customers are Innovators, how many are Early Adopters and how many are followers. Innovators and Early Adopters will probably have the least resistance to a major change in your online address, but the bulk of your customers will probably be followers. So how can you communicate these changes without alienating your client base?
Planning and Communication
Any major brand who has experienced major customer backlash can tell you that when making changes, make sure to communicate with and prepare your customer base for the change. Think of GAP, Inc’s debacle in 2010 when it announced a major logo change and launched it without considering customer loyalty to its brand as conveyed by its current logo. Within a week of listening to customer protests, GAP withdrew the new logo and reinstated the original, even at the cost of trashing labels and materials marked with the new logo that had already been printed. When beginning migration to a branded TLD online, the brand must begin by engaging the customer, and letting the client base know that the change is coming.
Not only is a branded TLD a change in where the customers visits a brand online, it represents a fundamental change in how most people understand the architecture of the Internet. Many people outside the US don’t realize that there even exist other domains besides .com. In France, users tend to automatically type .fr at the end of web addresses, and many international users expect two levels of domains at the end, such as .co.uk or .co.au. As such, it is incumbent upon the brand to tell its users that after a pre-determined launch date, they should type .brand at the end of the address.
For the best success, brands will also communicate why they are making this change, and what the benefits are. The benefits can include security (a brand can add extra DNS security to its .brand domains), authority (.brand indicates that the site is authorized by Brand), and exclusivity (only Brand’s domains or selected affiliates can be found on a .brand domain). Any company launching a new product takes care to outline the benefits to entice consumers to buy, and the same principles apply to educating end users about new domains.
Preparation for Pushback
No matter how well a brand plans its transition, there will always be a pushback contingent of clients. And as each brand plans its communication strategy, it is of vital importance to include responses to criticism and concerns from customers. Self-publishing media, such as blogs, Twitter, and other social media outlets allow unsatisfied customers a huge platform to broadcast their unhappiness. If a brand wants to preserve its image, it will need to monitor these outlets and be prepared to respond to customer complaints. Knowing that someone at the company is listening to them mollifies many customers. Brands should never overlook this kind of input—it is a valuable barometer of how they are engaging their audience, and provides a guideline for improvements in marketing and communication.
Communication plans should include a designated team for responding to online criticism about the move, one that has been following online behavior patterns and will be able to tailor responses to individuals. The digital age pushes brands to personalize and customize interactions with consumers; form letters and boilerplate are poorly received in social media outlets particularly.
Harnessing the Power of Social Media
Brands seeking to migrate to a new .brand domain should take advantage of the link-based communications from popular social media sites, most notably Facebook and Twitter. These mediums provide limited content space, and users are used to clicking links in posts and messages to reach expanded content. When a brand has created a live site on a new .brand domain, social media networks provide an ideal outlet for posting new links to the site. However, brands should build an active presence on social media sites before link-directing to a new .brand domain—by providing content and a presence in these media, they engage consumers who will then be more likely to follow links to a new location.
Social media is a large and varied field, and those who succeed in marketing via social media are those who listen and absorb the content and the medium. It is also a fast paced environment; if a branded account doesn’t provide a consistent flow of content, followers and fans lose interest. A brand can add scheduled and pre-written content to a communications plan to ensure a steady stream of relevant content, aimed at describing the new domain change, and how to find the .brand TLD.
The hardest part of incorporating a .brand TLD into your online marketing strategy will be educating end-users. In the months since the new gTLD program was approved by ICANN, many marketing groups have decried the plan and some are actively working to repeal or stop it altogether. Most end users have responded to the news with confusion. It is a brand’s responsibility to be a resource of education to end users about the .brand TLDs and encourage them to participate in the migration process. User participation can make or break a .brand TLD, and it is responsibility of the brand to promote and increase the value of this new online asset.