New research from registry services provider Afilias has suggested that the launch of branded generic top-level domains (gTLDs) may start a decline in the number of brands relying on external social networks. However, the policing challenge will remain the same, if not increase.

By polling gTLD applicants and industry experts at the recent London-based Digital Marketing and gTLD Strategy Congress, Afilias found that:

  • 83% believe that branded domain names (like ‘.nike’ or ‘.tiffany’) will be more effective in engaging customers online than social networks;
  • 41% believe that businesses will reduce their reliance on social media marketing; and
  • 71% stated that they intend to phase out their old ‘.com’ and ‘.net’ extensions in favour of new branded domain names.

“Brand pages on social networks may enable brand/consumer dialogue, but third-party sites —whether Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest — also own that interaction and information. One of the key advantages of a ‘dot brand’ gTLD is that businesses will be able to take back control of their online presence and reduce reliance on social networks for online conversations,” said Roland LaPlante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Afilias, in a press statement.

While brands previously entered into the realm of social media with some trepidation, its use is now seen as much more than just PR and marketing and instead is a core tool in building brands. Afilias’ research comes as Instagram is named the fastest-growing social network among marketers worldwide; brand adoption of the network is up 80% in a year; and brands now account for 40% of the top 1,000 most-shared posts on the site. WTR has reported that members of the Fortune 500 have increased their social media footprint in a University of Massachusetts study. While in another recent report, eMarketer determined that one in four people worldwide will use social networks in 2013.

LaPlante told WTR that “social media will continue to be popular with consumers for interactions where security is not important. However, when awareness begins to turn into interest and purchase intent, security concerns will become more important — just ask anyone taken in by bogus reviews on a social media site. dot Brand sites have a built-in security advantage — they control both registrant eligibility and content — and can eliminate the risk of counterfeiting. As awareness of this type of dot Brand benefit expands, consumers will migrate to the safer alternative.”

Asked whether brands are therefore likely to create social media in their ‘.brands’ and whether their customers will likely engage in this way, LaPlante responds:  “Yes, I believe brands will create social media within their dot Brands, but I suspect that type of social media will look and act differently than how third-party social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest operate today.”

However, consumer adoption will be critical to a migration away from established social media. As to whether this is likely, LaPlante argues: “The innovations and benefits like security and exclusivity that dot Brand owners will be able to offer their customers will quickly begin to outweigh the use of traditional, ad-laden social media for consumers. In general, consumers will choose the best product that meets their wants and needs. I suspect the types of interactions that will grow out of dot Brand domains will be that ‘best product’.”

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the survey polled those with an interest and – in many cases – an investment in the gTLD expansion. Consumers will have the ultimate say on how far brands migrate away from traditional social media and the challenges that social media poses to brand owners will not change. If major brands start to scale back their social media footprint in favour of gTLDs, they will still have to police the space carefully. And trademark counsel will also have to monitor new branded social media, adding to the policing burden.

This blog was first published in World Trademark Review on 21 November 2013