I must admit one of the main reasons I am so eager to go to DomainingEurope is the location. Valencia. Last time I was there it was a short and rainy experience but the people, networking and the food were amazing.
The other reason is always connected to what I expect to learn. During one of my first domaining conferences, back in 2009, a man asked me “So, what is your USP?”. This was around the time of the launch of .me as a domain and while the numbers were good and we had a marketing strategy developed, I was unready. Maybe even baffled. So I said “ME!” Just “ME!” (not referring to myself, obviously). He didn’t like it. It was a selfish and egocentric word, he said.
Similar conversations have happened at every conference I’ve attended, domain industry related or not. I expect to speak with people, to swap criticism and praise and exchange opinions, and return to the office to think about it, and build on it. However, this conversation, while frustrating was very valuable to us as a company because it caused us to focus more deeply on our purpose in the global Internet community. We began to work on our brand in a way that no one in the registry business had before. We stopped looking at our branding as a logo and a color, or even our domain as a commodity and focused on the brand assemblage. For us, this included the people behind the brand or, in our case, the people who make up the brand. This isn’t just our team, but also our users, because our domain is personal and without them, we wouldn’t have a purpose.
Based on these ideas, I began to work on my argument that ME doesn’t have to be an ugly word. The word ME, the idea of personalization, personal branding, and creating and owning your online identity are very necessary elements of living online. We were lucky in 2009 to be so connected to what was happening culturally in terms of the ME generation, Me-conomy, the ME selling proposition, the ME 2.0 etc.
While we were lucky enough to be immediately embraced by users, we had a bit of a harder time among our peers. It took registrars and other registries a bit of time to understand what we were doing as our methods, and presentation were (at the time) very far outside of what the rest of the industry was doing. Now that we are on the other side of that experience, we are experts in the full cycle of bringing something entirely new to market in the domain industry. As new gTLDs launch en masse, we have been watching many of our friends and colleagues going through the same challenges that we faced six years ago. And as we all know, most of those challenges are related to marketing.
No one could have predicted what was going to happen when new TLDs were released into the wild. Sure, we speculated endlessly to each other, on domain blogs, and on conference panels, but there was no precedent for us to measure what this would look like in reality. At this point, we can look back and say that lots of companies and individuals planned ambitiously for the possible reality of new TLDs, but that the final outcome was that 2014 was a turbulent year for all of us. While hundreds of new domains emerged, only tens of them have shaken the market with their marketing approaches in their fight to be successful. But we can also happily discount the predictions of doom that compared the launch of new TLDs to the dotcom bubble of 2000, or that the idea of new gTLDs would be completely rejected by the public in favour of .com dominance. Most of this can be attributed to sound ideas and effective awareness campaigns.
While, having once been there, I understand the vision behind the idea of many of these domains but I am not sure that we have, as an industry embraced this vision in the best way. The differences in approaches to marketing, occasionally going to crazy extremes, showed that not everyone was adequately prepared for the reality of launching and operating a new extension.
On the other side the older TLDs felt the impact too. I know how we in domain.me watched the market, especially during last summer, how we discussed the numbers of new TLDs every day, and the old TLDs every time we could find the proper statistics. Luckily, .me was ready to respond to the changes and to maintain our growth (if you check the numbers, you’ll see how it goes). However, I believe that even those older TLDs who had a decreased portfolio size in 2014, will recover if their brand is strong.
I didn’t have an opportunity to see any of the budget plans, but if you were only in a position to watch the faces of people who invested money in this industry, you knew the expectations were too high. Way too high. And there was a lot of disappointment. Some of the moves, especially in marketing felt off kilter. In some instances, the scramble to recover was devastatingly costly. It occurred to me that some of these growing pains could have been greatly eased, industry wide, if instead of closing ourselves off to one another and waiting for the nuclear bomb of new TLDs to decimate the industry, we shared our knowledge and as a group, benefitted from the increased awareness of our industry that these new changes bring.
On that note, this is my advice on new gTLDs:
On Building Numbers
Growing the sales by sudden strikes on the market, which doesn’t have a long-term strategy, is, well, short term planning. These short-term sales decrease the value of the domain. We have done this but with a long-term strategy in mind – suspending and deleting all domains that are recognized as spam. We already deleted thousands of domains because of that and don’t want our domain to be connected to the word spam. That’s a long-term strategy. We would strongly advise that new TLDs also diligently monitor their registrations.
We worked for years to build a brand that is recognizable and fresh. We use vibrant colors in our marketing, and are warm with our customers, eschewing the traditional corporate themes and hands off approach that were prevalent in the industry at the time of our launch. We wanted to be differentiated as a team of individuals creating a product for other individuals as opposed to a faceless business. We deliberately target everything that is personal as opposed to the corporate. When we launched some thought it was a mistake to take an anti-corporate, personal approach, but you can’t please everybody. Our best piece of branding advice is to be yourself and not worry about fitting into any previous mold that has been set.
We constantly look to do things differently, we test, measure and change according to the results. We are ready to push the boundaries and take risks. But we are always open and honest. We are transparent, speaking about our numbers all the time. We work hard to earn trust. We say what we do and we do what we say. We have nothing to hide and we behave responsibly. We invest in education. We recognize that we are people communicating with other people. We are passionate about what we do and we have confidence in ourselves. And that’s what would my recommendation for everybody would be, build your brand as a trusted source niche. You might have a great product but you can only build on it on long-term strategy by creating a brand. Be crazy but not only crazy in prices. Respect other people, and your community.
2014 was a year of big change in the domain industry and everybody has something to say. However, this is the first time I can publicly share my experience of launching a once new TLD and opinion about the changes current nTLDs bring to the market. I will be on the discussion panel about nTLD marketing on Thursday, April 23 and am eager to speak with all of the attendees and exchange ideas. I look forward to watching many more conversations like the one I had in 2009 that inspired our brand identity, take place. We need to learn from each other in order to grow and I am happy to share all of my experience with newcomers, because I think its time to stabilize the industry.