Recently, we got an email from the domain registration service Hover touting the fact that new hipster domains are available. Non-traditional top-level domains — such as .io, .co and .guru — are truly a 21st century problem; as little as 20 years ago, very few Americans would have recognized a .com domain. With the pool of desirable .com domains drying up (a former employer of ours paid $15K for a seven-letter .com domain), what's a brand to do but choose one of the newly released alternatives?
Over the past few years, there's been a surprising amount of controversy out there regarding opening up the space for more top-level domains. For some, it's a Western corporate power grab; for others, it's been about the morality of porn-related domain names. Most pertinently to brands, perhaps, is the fear that it will put a huge burden on brands protecting their intellectual property and trademarks.
However, as Hover's announcement above shows, the scene is set and these domains are here to stay. So what to do with them?
How do these domains hold up from a consumer behavior standpoint? Fortunately, some past experience helped with this problem. When working on [a large software company] in the past, our research found that people did't care as much about the .com, and that it didn't really affect findability. Most people would google the name and then click on a link. After that, the browser autocomplete would take over, so when they would go back, they'd type three or four letters and choose the right link from the autocomplete drop down. Consumers rarely had to remember a full URL.
Then we tested this, somewhat by accident. In researching the creation of unique product names (specifically we were talking about Soylent), we ended up at http://soylent.me. All we had to do was type "soy" into the browser's address bar — we'd been there before, and arrived on the page without even thinking about it.
So why worry then? Let's move the site to rp3.io, right? Not so fast. The issue for brand managers occurs in non-digital mediums. Just like twenty years ago, when many people didn't understand what that .com URL was, today big brands avoid non-.com domains like the plague because — in out of home or on the radio — there's a lot of fear that consumers won't recall domains ending in .co, .io or .brand.
Evidently, this poses less of a problem for digitally native brands and services that don't feel the need to advertise in "traditional" channels. In fact, many of those brands employ "spelling hacks," such as Bit.ly and Ti.me. Where links are the medium of choice — either in banner ads or through sponsored tweets — there is far less impetus on the consumer to remember them, giving the brand greater freedom to experiment outside the .com space.
The fear of non-.com domains by brands that are more dependent on traditional advertising is interesting, because it mirrors usability issues with other attempts at connecting traditional media to online properties (I'm looking at you, QR codes). The rather massive failure of QR codes as a consumer capture technique is multifaceted; everything from a lack of vendor technology adoption to a lack of human readable affordance in the codes to poorly thought out environmental planning (putting them in the metro where there's no mobile reception) made them a poor intermediary for connecting the analog world to the digital. But will brands that go the .guru route suffer the same fate?
If a .com address is Midtown Manhattan, is your business hip enough for a .io address that's more akin to Brooklyn's Williamsburg?