Thank goodness for Monday’s new gTLD draw!!! To date the process has been more of an intellectual exercise in marketing, technology, and strategic game thinking – it was getting a little boring. A business needs to see regular 'wins' to keep momentum and stay motivated. The presumptive lineup of new gTLDs has now been established which has giving most applicants (save those poor souls looking at 2015 as their launch year) a clear view of the starting gate.
Trying their best to stay busy and productive for the past 2 years, many of the applicants, primarily the new comers to the industry, have been busily meeting with the existing registrar sales channel. They weren't wrong to do so, but the timing just hasn't been right. Many accredited registrars are not ready and not especially interested in signing up new TLDs. They assume that aside from the closed or restricted names, they can sell any which ones they happen to like – and they are right.
Registrars March to Their Own Beat (and Timing)
Registrars will decide which names they wish to sell, when, and how they would like to present them. Lucky for names like .web, .app and .blog that will fly right to the top of the drop down menu. Sadly it appears most of those 'sell themselves' names could be locked in contention and not released until the very last has been evaluated (sound the alarm!). This means most of the best names won't come out until long after the world's attention span for new names has expired.
As to the the rest of the names, expect to be ignored until the registrars have decided; 1- they like and believe in your name, 2- have time to plan for your inclusion in their systems, 3- you are on a back end they are comfortable working with, and 4– they have the time to work you into their 3-6 months development cycles. Oh, and 5– you have presented them with an attractive and comprehensive marketing/sales kit that will take all the guess work and web design out of the equation for them. These are not exactly rapid roll-out odds for 20 new gTLDs a week.
Now that we know in theory who could be launched in the first group of new TLDs, and in which order (not withstanding any disturbances to The Force such as formal objections, GAC advice, failure to pass financial and technical tests, a glitch) the sales and marketing strategy begins to feel like something applicants actually have to think about. They would be wise to throw out all lessons of the past and think about what would work for THEIR TLDs and, more importantly, their actual resources.
The Wild World of the Registrar
The registrars have been to this show before—3 times in fact. Registrars have had a lot of practice launching new or repurposed TLDs. They know a little about what works, and a whole lot about what doesn't.
A Brief History of New gTLDs:
2001 – Round 1: The 7 Dwarfs That Would Take on .COM
In 2001 ICANN approved the very first new gTLDs, which we lovingly call the 7 dwarfs; .BIZ, .INFO, .NAME, AERO, .PRO, .MUSEUM, and .COOP, marked the arrival of two important new players, Afilias and Neustar, that were there to break up the Network Solutions (later sold to Verisign) monopoly of .COM, .NET, .ORG – where it all started.
It also market the introduction of the thick (vs. thin) registry – which meant the registrars (there were closer to 100 accredited registrars around the world at that time) were all wildly motivated to get on board with the integration and accreditation if they wanted to sell the new names. .BIZ, .INFO & .NAME spent a lot of money and time getting to know all of the registrars individually, holding their hands through the technical accreditation, and working on ways to help the channel market their names. It took 3-9 months for registrars to prepare and begin selling the names.
- Sunrise was a smashing success and saw around 300,000 new names registered in .BIZ and .INFO in the first days. Thank you IP community, indeed.
- Marketing those names over the coming years was an uphill battle of the registry rep pounding the pavement and keeping close relationships with the registrars they had managed to gain traction with.
- The 80-20 rule applied – doesn't it always? 20 registrars around the world mattered and sales volumes dictated where attention was spent.
- Germany was the strongest market for the new names in terms of growth rates and marketing power.
- The Anglo market began to understand there was something called…a ccTLD, and the domain space was in fact already very global.
- Enter: the repurposed ccTLD (.TV was the first venture in that space, .AS did very well in Scandinavia and can serve as a lesson to the marketers of the likes of .GMBH, .SARL and .LLC).
2005 & 2008 Rounds 2 & 3:
Over a period of a few years, several additional names were added to the root. Many were called 'sponsored' TLDs and were meant to satisfy a niche market online. We saw some interesting changes in how gTLDs were marketed:
- Registrars had learned their lesson – no need to add everything just because they were… launching.
- Sunrise was no longer a given and a select group of IP focused registrars had that market locked up.
- You get two chances to make your mark with a new gTLD – Launch and Renewals.
- Registrars faced, and still do, an often-debilitating bottleneck of development cycles to keep up with the variety of names available for sale. Add complex policy restrictions to a name and you've asked them to go play in a maze instead of doing their jobs.
- The margins are slim and slimmer that can be eked out of domains as a product. The race for the hosting and domains market heated up and leaned even more towards a commodities business where price is the differentiator. We all know who took over here.
Rules You Don’t Need to Live By as a New gTLD:
The traditional thinking of don´t compete with the channel can and should be challenged. It´s been done indirectly and successfully by the likes of .MOBI. With a name that spoke directly to an industry not well served by the registrar channel (mobile) there was no choice but to be bold and try new things. With the likes of Google, Nokia and T-Mobile as backers, they had the resources and talent to re-invent the service bundle of a domain. .MOBI stood out from the crowd by creating and executing global marketing and PR campaigns themselves that funneled registrations through the registrar channel. They also developed complimentary products and services, directing primary sales of such via the registrar channel and aggressively developing non-registrar channels. They were also the first sponsored ‘new’ TLD to market and auction Premium Names to the public, raising millions of dollars in the critical early stages of launch. To date .mobi remains one of the world’s larger TLDs in terms of paid registrations.
Another recent example of how to change the game is .CO. The standard practice with gTLDs is to treat all registrars equally and provide the same base of services to the whole channel without preferential treatment. (Did you know the NEU of Neustar stands for Neutrality? This neutrality works for them in their telco business but has challenged them in DNS). .CO, (being a ccTLD not under contract with ICANN) decided to select only 10 registrars they thought would be most effective for their launch and focus solely on them. This model suits a lean and small team willing to build and invest in relationships. It´s a worthy model for most new TLD businesses to consider.
Round 4 –1000 new gTLDs in the Root Every Year. Really?
This is not a time to apply the traditional Registry-Registrar Relations channel management theories.
New players, you will need to carve out your niche and actively manage your sales channel strategy. No one will do this for you. And everyone, including all of your technical suppliers and partners, will be competing against you EVERY DAY. Do not compete on names, compete on niche markets by knowing yours best.
Find and Support a Few Close Reseller Partners
Registrars are increasingly HOSTING companies for the most part. Many of the largest players are actually resellers and not registrars. Take a break from Webhosting.info and look closer at your target market. What is your niche and who serves that niche currently? Aiming at the wedding community? Find the registrars or resellers who service that community through demographic/ psychographics. Use SEO, big data analysis, and affiliate and inbound marketing tools to find a way to support those registrars by driving the wedding buyer traffic to them. I promise you, they do not know, nor will they bother trying to learn your business.
Do Not Rely on your Registry Back End Provider
The big players were very good choices as your technical back end. You can depend on them to provide the connectivity to the full channel. When you find the right registrars for you, your technical provider will make sure they can actually sell your names. This industry is lucky to have some excellent providers in that area. But unless you wrangled a special deal they will likely not sell or market for you beyond polite goodwill statements of support. Many of them will be doing that for their own new TLDs. They will not pick up the phone and ask a registrar to sell your names. Ask them for help and advice, but know that they are not resourced to do more than that which your contract with them states.
The landscape is very different now from the days of registrar channel wide-eyed interest in new names. Many of the new TLDs don´t know where to start. Interestingly enough many of the registrars are entering as new registries. Some are making all kinds of assumptions that they can snap their fingers and get accredited across the board because they are friends with all of the players. But know this, setting up the channel with your new names is going to be long grueling work that will be largely based on personal relationship building. Registrars are NOT ready to launch all the names. They will chose their favorites, and then consider those TLDs who are well prepared and actively support their launch process with professional marketing material and tools tied with a pretty bow.
The new marketplace will see completely disparate approaches to how names are promoted and sold. Back end registries will now be competing with their TLD clients, registrars are becoming registries, and many players won´t bother with anything but direct and affiliate marketing.
The one thing that will prove consistent: it is critical to carefully map out a new TLD's channel path, chose the right registrars or resellers, and count on no one but yourself to establish and grow those relationships. Oh, and get cracking – it will take time.