Social media has come to play a key role in brand messaging, with the strong two-year climb of microblogging service Twitter adding a new twist: a 140-character limit. This restriction has pushed adoption of a few common ways to cram more message into less space. Apart from heavily leveraging the new language of texting shorthand born of the mobile SMS, the biggest trend in use is employing short URLs to save space while linking to other online content.
Short URLs are hinged on service providers like tr.im and TinyURL that allow people to generate unique links, usually formed of a small domain name followed by a hash and a series of apparently random characters that the service provider responds to with a redirect to the longer target link. For example, the provider tr.im may provide a link of the form http://tr.im/zpBD that points visitors to http://molecularvoices.molecular.com/category/data-and-analytics/, saving us 48 characters to talk about how insightful the latest blog post is.
The advantages to end users are clear enough, but the disadvantages to content providers are not. Cautionary tales of short URL service collapse have been floating around for years, but the message doesn't mean much to the people socializing those millions of YouTube videos and Flickr photos. The people contributing all that traffic to your site aren't as concerned as the marketing department with how long the link stays around; the internet zeitgeist waits for no one. As marketing professionals, here are a few things you should know to help you better understand short URLs and why you should consider owning your own short URLs to power your brand.
1. Find short domains that evoke your brand
Your brand is your company's face in the market, and the more exposure it gets, the bigger your potential audience. With social media, you're focusing on name recognition for you and your offerings. Much the same way you may come up with a smaller version of your logo for different ads to fit the space and medium, URL shortening provides you with a short link that drives users to the page with the full, long URL. For example, instead of using long URLs with user-friendly information, like http://www.amazon.com/User-Always-Right-Practical-Creating/dp/0321434536, you will be providing a short link such as http://amzn.com/0321434536
If you're familiar with traditional vanity URLs, the concept should ring a bell. In many cases, the domain will be your only branding opportunity, so you want a link that contains or reminds people of your brand. Readers will see it in tweets, blog posts, wall comments, you name it, so your short URLs should provide something that both connects users to the original brand, and is short enough for them to re-use. For example, Flickr has set up http://flic.kr/, a shorter alias that still evokes the brand.
Tips: First, find a good, as-short-as-possible URL. Make use of the long list of new generic and country-specific top-level domains. A good starting point is iWantMyName.com. The site searches dozens of domain providers worldwide. (While .com is global, .es for example is controlled by Spain.) Costs vary from country to country, and almost all are in the sub-$300 range, with the majority being around $50. Get creative. Think initials, stock tickers, you name it. Leverage domain name suggestion tools like Domainr. Set up the software to create short URLS automatically (those auto-generated random-looking bits at the end like http://tr.im/zpBD). Make your own short URLs readily available on every page of your site. Get them out there, and they'll be used. Every time they're republished as the content spreads, your exposure grows.
2. Third-party short URLs can short-change your measurement efforts
The problem with attributing traffic from third-party short URLs is that most take away the referrer -- the part of the request that tells your metric platform how the visitor got to your site. Depending on the vendor, you'll see either the redirection service or where they clicked the short URL, but not both, providing an incomplete picture. While they may offer the ability for you to view several measurements on their own websites, you do not have access to raw incoming traffic information, and aggregating the data from the mass of vendors out there can prove to be a challenge. What does this all mean? You can't tell where the bulk of your social organic traffic is coming from. For example, a report showing you top referring blogs is far more actionable than a report showing you the top short URL sites people used. The visitor paths -- that piece of the web analytics puzzle that shows traffic sources and behavior -- is too valuable to lose.
Tips: Consider implementing your own short URL feature on your site. This approach ensures you get that referrer information back. Once the feature is added, extend your analytics implementation to capture traffic on your short URLs. Although some third-party short URL providers share this data, you will have a more complete picture of user behavior on your site when you start tracking them at first contact (when they click the short URL), through to when they leave your site.
3. Keep your earned media
I doubt you have a service level agreement with a hundred different short URL providers. When the next one goes bust, there's a strong chance its redirects will stop working entirely, and all of that earned media will evaporate. According to Carat, earned media assets are "consumer driven. They include all word of mouth communications, social media, viral, organic search, fan sites and shared content. To some extent, these communications are Earned through doing Bought and Owned well, but they reflect on the brand's entire behavior."
The recent news about tr.im, a service initially slated to disappear, has taken a happy turn, and it is giving the service to the community to maintain and develop. I'd like to think the service's spirit was universal, but I doubt it. The service Cligs is currently dealing with similar business woes. Why find out how much of your traffic was coming through the next service to go bust?
Tips: Utilize your new branded short URLs in every social media channel. Make them so easy to use that it'd be more work to go elsewhere to generate them. Add an element to your site where users can copy a page's short URL to their clipboards with one click. For product or campaign pages, try out vanity short URLs like http://molecu.lr/Analytics to increase recognition.
4. Do it yourself
The most straightforward way to reap the benefits and data from URL shortening is to set up such a service yourself. Technically, URL shortening is a low-hanging fruit; it will take an average lone developer about a week to get a basic service programmed from scratch. Simpler yet, there is a variety of off-the-shelf open-source applications that can get you up and running even quicker. Free applications like Yourls, Shorty, or lilurl can be set up in a couple of hours on your server. There are also software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors who can use your domain and give you, for a fee, a variety of statistics and logs. One example is budurl.com's enterprise edition.
Tips: When setting up a URL shortening services yourself, there are several factors you will need to consider:
- Think of your audience. Is it going to be used company-wide, by specific team members, or provided as a service to anyone on the web? Normally, smaller audiences will require a simpler and thus cheaper setup, while larger audiences may require multiple servers and continuous feature development. Workflow is another aspect you might wish to explore. Think of how often the tool will be used and whether there will be a need to provision its use and associated approval chains. Also, be aware that it is critical for URL shortening services to act as a springboard to the destination page, imposing minimal delay. Test how well the server performs on your expected load levels.
- Create a bookmarklet. To simplify the creation of short URLs and increase the adoption of your service, the creation of a bookmarklet is recommended. Bookmarklets are browser bookmarks that will send the URL of the page currently being viewed in the browser and open a window and tab to your URL-shortening service. The page that will open will present you with the shortened URL. This way, a single click of a button can generate the shortened URL. You can also add a "Copy to Clipboard" widget on your pages (check out the lower left side: http://is.gd/4fPnx). Make it so easy to use your short URLs that it'd actually be more work to use a third-party provider.
- Redirect broken links. One more elegant feature offered by some services that could be of special value to marketers is the ability to edit and monitor the content that you are linking to. If a page on your website is removed, you can point an existing shortened URL to a new version of the content or to an alternative page . If the shortened URL points to an external site where the page is no longer available, you can detect that and react. Be sure to provide alternative content or present messaging to explain what happened. When you own your short URLs, you have a variety of ways to retain your earned media.
One organization that is already taking this approach is Coca-Cola, which set up a hosted short URL service called CokeURL.com. The service is at marketers' disposal and gives them the ability to share content on or off Coca-Cola web assets using short URLs. The URLs can be short (CokeURL.com/s) or descriptive (CokeURL.com/fizzyVideo).
We hope the choice here is an easy one. Providing your own short URLs that tell readers your brand is awaiting them after the click increases your visibility. Implementing a short URL service on your own site increases your web analytics value and guards your earned media against third-party failure. Social media is a deep and fast moving channel, so keep your head up.
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