Big Branding News on the Internet Domain Name Front

ICANN logoIt was only a matter of time. Internet domain names are now poised to move to a new level of branding sophistication.

This past week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) decided to broaden domain name suffixes to encompass pretty much anything. Instead of being restricted to suffixes like .com and .net that we’re so used to seeing, beginning in January 2012, companies will be able to apply for the use of any suffix.

At one level, there’s a practical reason for the change in policy. As happened with telephone lines in an earlier era when a host of new FAX numbers and cellphones came onstream, the inventory of available web addresses under the original system of .com, .edu, .gov and .org has been drying up. Recent moves to authorize the use of .biz, .us and .xxx have been merely stopgap measures that have done little to alleviate the pending inventory crunch.

But the latest ICANN move will likely have ripple effects that go well beyond the practical issue of available web addresses. Industry observers anticipate that the new policies will unleash a flurry of branding activity as leading companies apply for the right to use their own brand names as suffixes.

In fact, Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of ICANN’s board of directors, believes the move will “usher in a new Internet age.”

It’s expected that major consumer brands like Coca Cola and Toyota will be among the first to nab new domain suffixes like .coke or .toyota.

It’s a natural tactic for companies to employ as a defensive step against unscrupulous use of their brand names by other parties. But it’s also an effective way to gain more control over their overall online web presence via the ability to send visitors more directly to various portions of their world in cyberspace.

Of course, we can’t expect these new suffixes to be acquired on the cheap. Gone are the days when someone could purchase an address like “weather.com” for a just few dollars … and then sell it later on for hundreds of thousands.

In fact, it’s being reported by the Los Angeles Times that the cost to secure a new domain will be in the neighborhood of $185,000 – hardly chump change. At that price tag, only well-established organizations will be in a position to apply – and those applications must also be able to show that they have the technical capabilities to keep the domain running. So no cyber-squatters need apply.

Bloomberg Businessweek predicts that leading companies may invest upwards of $500,000 each to secure their brand identities online and to prevent them from being “hijacked” by others. It certainly gives a fresh new meaning to the term “eminent domain”!

Companies are Concerned about the Risks of Social Media

As blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media tools have moved into the mainstream in a big way, managers at many companies are responding with interest … as well as concern. On the “interest” side, social networking is seen as having great potential for enhancing relationships with customers and promoting brand affinity. But there’s also “concern” that social media has the potential to damage a company’s reputation through the dissemination of information that is unflattering, taken out of context, or simply wrong.

Now, thanks to a July 2009 national survey of nearly 500 management, marketing and HR executives conducted by Minneapolis-based firms Russell Herder and Ethos Business Law, we have a more quantitative idea of the collective corporate thinking about pluses and minuses of social media.

Four out of five respondents in the Russell Herder/Ethos field research believe that social media can help build a company’s brand. In addition, nearly 70% see social media as a viable employee recruitment tool, while two out of three recognize its potential as a customer service tool.

But the survey also found that over 80% of respondents believe that social media poses a corporate security risk. Similarly, half of the respondents consider social media to be detrimental to employee productivity.

These findings show that senior company managers are somewhat ambivalent about social media. They see its positive potential … but at what cost? On the other hand, is shutting the door on social media a wise response (or even a viable one)?

One solution to this dilemma is to be found in dusting off an old standby – the employee handbook. In many companies, policies have evolved over the years to cover pretty much every kind of issue – from what constitutes approved and non-approved workplace activities, attendance policies, and conducting personal business during office hours to policies regarding alcohol consumption, gender/age/racial discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Why not incorporate new guidelines outlining the company’s philosophy toward social media and what constitutes appropriate company-related social media activities on the part of employees?

While it may also be a very good idea to conduct meetings or training sessions on social media as well, this a good first step that will give employees a sense of the “boundaries” they should observe when commenting on company-related issues in the social media realm.

The alternative is a “Wild West” atmosphere in which a problem is destined to arise sooner rather than later. And when that occurs, if no formal social media policies are in place, the company will have no cause for defending itself in the court of public opinion – as well as little recourse for disciplining in addition to counseling the employees involved.