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Your step-by-step guide to acquiring a gTLD

Josh Bourne
Your step-by-step guide to acquiring a gTLD Josh Bourne

By now, many brand owners have realized that they need to begin thinking seriously about new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) back in June. In light of the internet's domain name landscape expanding from familiar extensions like .com, .net and .co.uk to potentially hundreds of .anything extensions, all types of brand owners are going to have to rethink their digital marketing and brand protection strategies. For some brands, this will mean applying for their own branded gTLD.

The process of applying for and launching a new gTLD takes time, careful planning, and serious attention to detail in preparing the application and setting up the gTLD registry -- but if you do it correctly, it can be a piece of cake. Before you get started, you need to educate yourselves on everything that goes into applying for, using, and maintaining a gTLD. Gathering knowledge first is the best thing you can do to ensure that your new gTLD will be successful. So, I've pulled out my playbook and prepared a list of steps to guide you through the process of getting your new gTLD.

Setting the game plan
This article is meant to provide brand owners with a guide to getting new gTLDs. But the truth is, applying for a branded gTLD might not be the best course of action for all brand owners. Some business-to-business or non-consumer facing brands, for example, will not get much benefit from a .brand. Some may choose to apply for a different gTLD, such as a product name, or a category or aspirational term, while some may choose not to apply at all. To make this decision, you as a brand owner (along with partners -- see the next step) have to thoroughly analyze all the risks and benefits that owning various new gTLDs could present. This involves considering new gTLDs from marketing, brand protection, security, and budgetary perspectives.

This analysis should help you figure out exactly which new gTLD or gTLDs you should pursue (if not, you didn't analyze hard enough). Once that is clear, your next move should be to brainstorm different strategies to use the gTLD, and to develop business models around those strategies. The biggest decision regarding use is whether you want to operate your new gTLD as an open or a closed registry. By "open registry," I mean one that sells second-level domains to other entities (companies, individuals, etc.) through registrars like GoDaddy; by "closed," I mean those that do not sell domains to other entities and just use them for internal purposes, like for marketing URLs that redirect to pages you already have indexed in search engines. Closed registries can opt to give domains away if they want, though.

For many brands, the best choice will be to run a closed registry, with relatively few second-level domain names that they create and use primarily for marketing purposes (e.g., Cancer.GSK or Cookies.TollHouse.) But some may opt to use their gTLDs differently, or more extensively. It's up to you to decide what is best for your brand. You have to be savvy about how you lay out your plans for using the gTLD in your application because those plans will be hard-coded into your contract with ICANN.

This may seem intimidating, especially if you want the freedom to adapt your strategy for using your gTLD after seeing how other brands use theirs. After all, your contract with ICANN lasts for 10 years, and that's a very long time, especially on the internet. But according to ICANN's policy, you are completely allowed to make adjustments to how you use the gTLD, as long as you're sure to carefully word such flexibility in your application.

Fielding a team
The next step is fielding your new gTLD team. Your team will consist of both internal and external players.

Internally, you will need to gather key stakeholders, including marketers, IT staff, and legal counsel. They will play various roles in conceiving of how to use the gTLD, applying for the gTLD, and then implementing the plans. Because acquiring a gTLD is also a significant monetary investment, some brands will also need to bring members of the C-suite to the table, most likely the CMO, but also potentially the CEO, depending on the company.

Even though you've assembled an all-star squad of colleagues within your company, you are also going to have to bring in some outside partners for this undertaking. The fact is that your company has no experience operating a gTLD registry. But luckily, there are qualified partners to assist with preparing your application, handling any objections or string contention issues that may arise after you've submitted the application, handling all the technical functions of running the gTLD registry, and maintaining your ongoing relationship with ICANN.

As a brand owner, it is most likely the case that you already have a corporate registrar partner, and that partner may offer certain gTLD services like application preparation. While it may seem like an easy choice to stick with the registrar you know, it will be worth your time to look into other alternatives. Many registrars claim that they can handle all your gTLD needs, but upon a closer look, you will realize that they use a one-size-fits-all methodology instead of tailoring their services to your company's specific needs.

Playing offense
Once you have completed all the preparatory work and gathered your key players, it's time to launch your offensive. This means submitting your well-planned and carefully prepared application between Jan. 12 and April 12, 2012. In addition to writing the application and sending it over to ICANN, you have to prepare to respond to any objections or string contention issues that may arise around the gTLD you applied for.

Of course, all of this is going to require hefty sums of money. Beyond the $185,000 application fee, you will also have to provide a "Continuing Operations Instrument" by demonstrating that you have the equivalent of three years' worth of registry operating costs at your disposal -- roughly $150,000 to $350,000. That means that you have to either deposit that amount of cash into escrow, or provide a letter of credit in that amount.

If any objections arise, you will have to pay to respond to those objections. Fortunately, if you prevail, the fees will be refunded. But in the event that you and another applicant end up in a "contention set" and eventually in an auction, the price to stay in the game could soar.

Playing defense
Beyond just responding to any objections that other parties file against your gTLD application, you will also have to prepare yourself to object to any other applications that could pose a threat to your brand. As part of the new gTLD policy, trademark owners can file what is called a "legal rights objection" with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) if a gTLD that another party applies for infringes on your trademark.

You will also want to make sure to register your trademark in the Trademark Clearinghouse, one of the strongest trademark protection mechanisms brand owners can take advantage of to protect themselves against cybersquatting in second-level domains across new gTLDs.

According to predictions, more than 1,000 new gTLDs could go live within the next few years. In the same way that you protect your key brand terms across the existing gTLDs and country code domains, you will need to be sure to future-proof your brand by staking your claim in pertinent .brand, .category, and .aspirational term gTLDs to avoid brand dilution, customer confusion, or competitive disadvantage.

The post-game
It may seem like launching your new gTLD and locking down your brand in other gTLDs is the finish line, and once you've crossed it, you're done (and that you've earned a serious vacation on some tropical beach somewhere). But the truth is, the responsibilities do not end after your gTLD enters the root and you begin using your new domain names.

For one, you have to maintain registry functions. This includes ensuring that domain names resolve and that email addresses work, among other things. For most brand owners, this will be something you rely on your registry partner to handle, and for closed registries, this will not be a huge undertaking. Basically, once you get through the initial set up, you can sit back and let it run. For open registry operators, though, this will require a good deal of foresight. You will also have to maintain an accurate and up-to-date WHOIS database for your gTLD (again, this will be a simpler task for closed corporate registries than open ones, and another task your registry partner will handle).

As a newly minted gTLD registry, you will also have to maintain an ongoing relationship with ICANN. At the most basic level, this entails submitting regular reports on the technical functions of your registry. But you will also become a member of the gTLD registries constituency within ICANN's policy-making body. If you had the desire and the resources, you could take advantage of this new insider role to advocate for new policies that benefit your business.

Of course, now that you have acquired a new gTLD, it is also time to put all your plans for using it to work. Now you have the chance to really begin extracting value from the gTLD in terms of marketing, consumer engagement, and possibly even search engine rankings.

It should be clear that pursuing a new gTLD is no small task for brand owners, and it is not something you should jump into too quickly. But with proper preparation and the right partners, it can be worth it to help boost your brand's digital presence, either by establishing leadership or keeping up with the "digital Joneses."

Josh Bourne is managing partner of FairWinds Partners.

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