16 February 2015Stuart Fuller

New gTLDs: Old habits die hard

Nobody really knew what to expect when the new generic top-level domain (gTLD) programme finally got off the ground in early 2014. After years of debate, legal wrangling and public outcry, the first new suffixes started rolling off the production line to not exactly a fanfare but a muted bark.

Our hopes of some real ground-breaking new TLDs being immediately put to use did not materialise, and while a few global brands did engage with the programme, many simply took a ‘wait and see’ approach. A year down the track and we are still waiting for that one moment, the compelling event, which will see the programme really take off. If this was an end-of-year school report it would certainly read ‘C+; must try harder’.

While registration numbers have topped 3.5 million in the first year, the .com and .net base grew by 8.6 million in the first quarter of 2014 alone. Despite there being new options for brand owners out there, it seems that many still default to the old way of trying to find registrations within the .com or .net TLD base. Is this the case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’?

One of the most respected thinkers on the subject of social psychology is Malcolm Gladwell, author of such works as David and Goliath, Blink, and Outliers. However, his 2000 work, The Tipping Point, is most relevant to the new gTLD programme. Gladwell argues that for something to gain huge popularity there needs to be “a moment of critical mass” or a “mysterious” sociological change. We often use the word “viral” these days not in a medical sense, but to describe something relatively modest that becomes incredibly popular, fuelled by the use of social media, spreading like a virus. That’s the tipping point.

We have yet to see anything close to a sociological change that would lead to widespread adoption of the new gTLDs among brand and trademark owners. There were some early cases of cybersquatting of some global brands, but even then the trademark owners didn’t seem to be too concerned.

In some ways the defensive measures put in place for the programme have stifled the creative opportunities. The Trademark Clearinghouse has proved incredibly cost-effective in deterring would-be cybersquatters. The number of trademark registrations is significantly below the original expectations, at just more than 34,000, but more than 110,000 warranty notices have been sent out to potential infringers.

"We have yet to see anything close to a sociological change that would lead to widespread adoption of the new gTLDs among brand and trademark owners."

With the additional layer of the Domains Protected Marks List blocking product offered by Donuts and Rightside Registry, you have an effective defensive strategy that matches the needs of many trademark owners.

The Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) anti-cybersquatting system was introduced to bring swift justice to brand owners whose trademarks were infringed. Since its introduction in late 2013, there have been more than 200 URS cases filed, the vast majority being ruled in favour of the trademark owner. It does seem that some brands, such as Nissan, Lufthansa and IBM (source: National Arbitration Forum database), have used the new dispute process on a regular basis as a defensive mechanism rather than a registration strategy.

Seizing the imagination

So what will be the ‘tipping point’ for the programme and when are we likely to see it? It is still too difficult to see which one or two new gTLDs will really fire the imagination. While .xyz can boast 11 of the top 15 websites based on Alexa rankings, none appears to be used for anything other than a parking page with sponsored links or redirectors. In fact, it is hard to find any websites using a new gTLD that appear in Alexa’s top one million sites. Despite some of the marketing messages pushed out, it is hard to see why, for example, brand owners would actually adopt a .xyz or a .link for any other purpose than defensive.

Another perfect opportunity to create some momentum for the programme went begging in the run up to Christmas, with virtually no major brand owner taking advantage of a .blackfriday or a .christmas to showcase their holiday season promotions.

The missing ingredient for the whole programme is still widespread brand owner adoption of new gTLDs. With more than 500 .brand TLDs due to launch over the next 18 months, it is hoped that these may breathe life into the programme. So far, few delegated .brands have brought their new internet presence to life.

Monash University, the first .brand to go live, has some big plans for its own slice of the internet and is already actively using its destination.monash TLD. The industry got very excited a few months ago when Chinese investment company Citic appeared to stop using its .com address in favour of its .brand. However, it seems the company has reverted to the old ways.

If one or two major global brands adopt their new gTLD as their main website and digital asset for branding and marketing, then consumers will start to understand how the domains work and feel confident about using them. That will be the compelling event, the tipping point that Gladwell wrote about. The fear and uncertainty surrounding new gTLDs is the same as when e-commerce first started to be adopted on the internet a decade ago.

Without a tipping point, we will simply see a parade of new TLD launches that all blend into each other. And years of work, millions of dollars in investment, and countless dreams of innovation will be lost.

Stuart Fuller is director of commercial operations at  NetNames. He has experience in brand protection, both in retail and corporate re-sale markets. He can be contacted at: stuart.fuller@netnames.com

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