The Impact of Branded TLDs, This Year and Beyond: NamesCon 2017

l-r: Jothan Frakes, Stacy King, Matt Serlin, and Cole Quinn

A panel of experts—including decision-makers from two of the internet’s largest brands—discussed the impact that branded TLDs will have in the year (and years) to come. Taking the NamesCon 2017 Keynote Stage were Stacy King (General Manager, Amazon Registry Services), Matt Serlin (VP of Global Services, MarkMonitor), and Cole Quinn (Senior Program Manager, Corporate Domains and TLD Portfolio, Microsoft) sat down with NamesCon co-founder Jothan Frakes to discuss the present and future of engagement with dot-brands.

Playing Defense

Some brands approach the domain space as a defensive measure, said King, while others actively seek opportunity. “We look at each of our TLDs as a separate business, and we have a separate business model for each of them.” Serlin also saw the fear with which clients would approach the world of domains. Quinn said that Microsoft had a highly defensive approach, mostly wanting to make sure nobody else could buy, say, .BING. “What I did was quickly pivot on that,” he said, wanted to give Microsoft a more data-driven outlook for visualizing potential TLD use cases.

Serlin encountered the same phenomenon: “Number one, establish a set of policies” around the company’s TLD strategy. Then, he added, make sure you’re enforcing those policies. It’s not realistic to expect everyone in a global mega-company to be compliant each and every day, he said, so you gotta be vigilant. Besides her own group, King said that Amazon has a company within the company that acts as their registrar, and another that manages the domain portfolio. Quinn said that Microsoft is both a registrar and registrant, with a portfolio of over 53,000 domains. gTLDs were the turning point in how Microsoft approached registration—their defensive strategy would not be able to scale. He framed it as risk management: It was no longer practical to invest those dollars on the front end to prevent hypothetical infringements; rather, getting in on the back end and being able to monitor actual wrongdoing was a better idea.

However, noted Serlin, the dawn of the new gTLDs was not often met by companies with increased resource allocations. This affects even the biggest dogs: Quinn said Microsoft maintains a “relativity weight” to prioritize the domains they plan to buy. “We still are buying some defensive names, but it’s a lot more manageable,” he said; but don’t get any ideas—he added, “We still register ‘Microsoft@anything-we-can-get!”

Change is Slow (for Now)

“The way Microsoft views brands has evolved over the years,” said Quinn. “Our thinking changed more from a poker hand to a dartboard.” The sheer number of use cases for a domain name was too big to stick to the same strategy.

King said that Amazon has brands such as .AWS; as well as category TLDs, such as .BOOK. They also have call-to-opportunity names. For example, Amazon would market .HEART (which they don’t actually own) to doctors, stent manufacturers, and other in the healthcare vertical. The goal is to develop an authenticity around the gTLD. “That’s the more experimental side,” she added.

“A lot of use cases will start to take shape,” Serlin said; to which King added, “These things don’t happen tomorrow. […] We don’t know where this space is going to be.” Frakes described .COM as “a 30-year-old Michael Jordan”: still pretty strong, but the new gTLDs are up and coming, hungry for their own moments of glory. (Oh, hey, another NBA reference here at NamesCon.)

King agreed, describing 2017 as the new 1994 in terms of domain-name maturity. Serlin saw it in terms of the television industry: the days of having the equivalent of a 24-hour golf channel are well ahead of us. 2017, he said, will be about people dipping their toes into the water. The next round of gTLDs will most likely see far greater uptake, said Serlin.

Overcome Your Fear

Frakes said fear of technological change is also a factor: no CTO wants to lose her job because the site doesn’t load on the CEO’s iPad. King noted the huge amount of digital infrastructure that has to change in order to start working at scale with new gTLDs. This is why companies who have gotten their dot-brands haven’t totally migrated over to them yet. Quinn mentioned the geographic trend: in Europe, migration to dot-brand is faster because they’re not as married to .COM the way North American companies are. Frakes said that we’re seeing more dot-brand uptake in the film industry, where studios are using bespoke TLDs to market the next blockbusters. Technology shifts have been going crazy since 2007’s gTLD initiative anyway: who out there is still using Friendster?

“A TLD is not just a domain name,” said King. It’s not just for building a website. “We’re moving into a different space that’s going to have a lot of different business models,” she said, noting that it’ll cause a lot of shakeup. Quinn said it’ll be interesting to see what people to the right of the dot, compared what can be done to the left. Serlin noted the value of a trusted namespace: you’re typing in the brand you’re interacting with specifically from the get-go.

(Note: The anecdotal tidbits in this talk should not be taken as official policy positions from any of the speakers’ companies.)

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