Scaremongering. Project fear. While we don’t want to be accused of adopting the rhetoric of some of the UKs more visible public figures of recent weeks, this is a serious question. Are you heading for brand suicide? Even worse – are you doing so without even realising it? We’re not talking about #Brexit – but potentially something that will have just as many repercussions for your business, and it comes down to this: Have done enough to lock down and secure your online brand?
It’s no joke. On September 29th 2015, a Google employee, Sanmay Ved, was scrolling through a list of available domain names and found that ‘google.com’ was available to buy. So he did the only sensible thing – he bought it! It was all swiftly and amicably resolved – as the purchase had taken place on a Google registration service, Google were able to send a cancellation notice, and additionally, made a donation to a charity of Sanmay’s choice. It’s a shame the same couldn’t be said for Microsoft which lost its Hotmail UK domain, and was unable to cancel the sale… It’s not just domain names either. Imagine the trauma Sean Combs suffered when he realised he no longer wanted to be ‘Diddy’ and revert to ‘Puff Daddy’ but realised all the Twitter handles had gone true story– as you can imagine this contains ‘language’.
Back to basics for those of you who may be new to all this – or perhaps those who need reminding. Kissmetrics defines ‘Online branding’ as “… a way to get more exposure for your brand on all levels of online marketing, especially search and social.” It’s the totality of how your business is presented online – your website, social media, pay per click advertising. And given that a majority of purchasers conduct research online before splashing out (in 2014, Adweek suggested the figure was a staggering 81%), your online brand really matters. Your online brand matters whether you are operating in the B2B or B2C sector; whether you’re in commercial or not for profit sectors. Whatever area you operate in, the majority of your customers will be online and using online resources to check you out.
In light of the paragraph above, it would be tempting to say “Do we even have to answer that?”. On the other hand, and particularly when we regularly meet businesses who resist any form of online presence, it’s worth stressing the point that we live in a world focussed on the virtual. Like it or not, the majority of your customers will own a smart phone or a tablet, and will spend many hours (happy or otherwise) online. In a world where Google has effectively replaced the Yellow Pages, and people often spend more time communicating on social media than in the real world, how your business comes across online – your online brand – is a crucial part – many would now say the most important part – of your marketing efforts.
Even if your business isn’t yet online – or if it’s online but your web presence extends to a website and nothing more, you still need to focus on digital, and take steps to secure your online brand to save disappointment down the business road when you do have the time, inclination and head space to make the move online. It will mean that no one else can use ‘your’ brand identity, it will avoid customer confusion and at its most serious, prevent activity that devalues your brand. Imagine how galling it is for Moonpig, the online card and gift retailer, to know that there’s someone out there tweeting as @Moonpig, while they have to make do with @moonpigUK. Not only that, @Moonpig isn’t always ‘on message’… With your online brand secure and as you want it to be, you can develop brand authority . Lastly – but by no means least, a comprehensive online brand incorporating domain names and social profiles will add value to your business if you decide to sell it.
We’re actually talking about is fairly abstract – losing something before it was even ‘yours’ in the first place; but it’s true. As more and more businesses make the move online, buying domain names, setting up social profiles, it’s more and more likely that if you haven’t already done so, your business will lose out – the domain name that you thought would work for you? Someone else has already bought it. The clever Twitter handle? That’s gone too. Moonpig is in good company – poor Lego has to tweet as @LEGO_Group, while a self-styled, San Francisco based “Art Nerd, City Cyclist, Urban Crawler and Fun Finder” revels in owning @Lego.
The reality is that you can lose your online brand before you’ve even thought about it. Even if you have taken steps to trademark your brand name, if someone else has purchased the domain name that you were planning to use, or registered their social media profiles using a name (or a variant) that you wanted – well tough. If it’s a genuine business that has already got in their first and is building their own brand, they are unlikely to give it up. Alternatively, it may be that ‘your’ names have been bought up by a ‘cyber squatter’ – someone who will simply make money by charging to sell the names you want back to you. This can be expensive.
Hopefully, even if you don’t want to develop your digital profile and build your online brand authority you’ll appreciate the importance of making sure no one else is effectively doing the same in your name – causing at best confusion, and at worst, a loss of business as people go to your competitors. Remember that you don’t need to do anything with these profiles if you don’t want to (although we’ll tell you how to manage this effectively later on) – but securing them for your business is vital.
You can search for domain names easily through one of the many online services. You’ll be able to find what’s available. If you can, we’d urge you to buy both the .co.uk and .com version of your company name. You may also want to consider purchasing other domains – .net, .biz, .wales etc. If possible, even purchase the domain names that incorporate the main service or product you provide.
Top tip: When you buy a domain name, do so for an extended period
When you buy a domain name, you’ll have the opportunity to purchase for a fixed number of years. We suggest going for at least 10 years. The Google ‘bots’ will know you’re serious about your domain name. And while it may seem over the top, buying not just .co.uk but also .com, .biz and .net, remember that it’s not just about you using your brand name, the one that took you ages to come up with, the one you love – but it will also stop other people using it. If you buy more than one domain name it’s pretty straightforward to redirect the domains that you aren’t using to the domain where your website is hosted.
There are an ever-increasing number of social media platforms out there. Love them or loathe them, it’s where an increasing number of your customers will be. Try and secure profiles with a generic ending on all the major platforms: as a minimum, we suggest Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Instagram. You may also wish to consider platforms such as Pinterest depending on your business, and any industry specific forums which host business profiles. Profiles on blog sites such as Medium, Tumblr, WordPress and Blogger are also worth securing in your name.
As new platforms are launched, consider taking the time to set up an account – even if you have no intention of using it. It will prevent another business or individual doing so with the potentially detrimental consequences that we’ve already mentioned.
Top tip: Try and be as consistent as possible!
When you’re setting up your social profiles, try, as far as possible, to make them all the same. For example, if your company is called Left Handed Products Ltd you might consider a profile incorporating ‘lefthanded’ – such as @lefthanded or @lefthandeduk. Try and be the same across all platforms. Of course, this can be tricky if your business has a long name that’s tricky to spell or your products or services are hard to describe in a short snappy way. Spend some time trying to come up with something original and appropriate and that will be easy for people – your customers or clients – to identify. Once you’ve come up with it, secure it across the internet as we’ve explained. Mindful of the Moonpig experience we mentioned earlier, if you have the option of securing similar handles, you might be wise to do so…
If you’re setting up a number of accounts simply for the purposes of securing your brand and won’t be using them regularly, make sure you save all your access codes and log ins, and diarise a time to look in to the accounts at least every 6 months just to make sure everything is working. It’s not unknown for social media platforms to delete accounts for lack of use, either, so every time you go in and check, make sure you update the profile to show some usage.
Top tip: Make dormant accounts work for you
Even if you’re not going to use these profiles, they can work for you. Remember that you’ve gone to all this effort to secure your online brand. With the profiles in your ownership, it’s worthwhile populating them with your logo and brand images, relevant profile information (remember that Facebook page ‘About’ sections are indexed by Google) and details of how visitors can contact you. Ideally, this will be your website, but failing that, your phone number or other contact details. This is far more helpful to customers and potential customers than being confronted with a blank profile – which, in this social age, can actually put people off.
We reckon all this activity takes 1 to 2 days up front, and then half a day every 6 months or so to keep up to date and make sure everything, even dormant accounts, are secure and optimised.
So you’ve read all this and headed off to secure a domain name, a Facebook page and a Twitter profile only to find that this has already happened… and they aren’t available. Even worse, another business is trading using those names. What can you do?
To a certain extent, the action open to you depends how mature your business is.
We’d advise anyone thinking of going into business, or anyone developing a business idea, to get online as a priority and see what’s available in terms of domain names and social media profiles. If the one you had your heart set on has gone, you can approach the owners and see if they will hand them over, but you may well have to pay.
It may be that you can re-think your business name and branding and tie it in to something else that is available. Hopefully, if you are a new start up you haven’t already spent too much time and effort on this. Yes, it may be disappointing, but thinking longterm, if you can secure domain names and social profiles that are consistent and reflect your business and brand, it will be much better for your business. Beware too of going with something that is quite similar to a business with very well established online credentials. You may simply lose out if you end up being @_lefthanded273 instead of @lefthanded.
Discovering that your ideal domain names and social profiles have already been taken is potentially more problematic for a more mature business than it is for a start-up. We’ve already seen the potential for difficulty for businesses such as Moonpig and Lego. As we mentioned above, even with trademarked business names, recovering domain names in the face of businesses or individuals based overseas or seeking to recover your brand name through ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers which governs domain names – is simply not going to be cost-effective or even realistic for many businesses. There same applies for social media user names. Just because you have a UK trademark or copyright in a name doesn’t mean someone will simply hand it over to you – particularly if they have built up a following in that name.
Re-branding is a possibility. It can be expensive and time consuming but it might be something you were considering anyway – at the very least, your brand might be in need of a makeover in which case, this could be achieved to tie in with a suitable domain name and social profiles that are available.
If re-branding isn’t an option, then creativity is key. Think of alternative ways of looking at your business and services, in conjunction with what’s available in terms of domain name availability and social profile names. Perhaps add names of key members of staff and run the accounts from a more personal perspective: @lefthandedangus for example. If you’re based in one physical location and don’t sell online to a wider audience, you could introduce location – think @MoonpigUK or, perhaps, @lefthandedpembs. Or think even more laterally – @thetenpercent (because it’s estimated that 10% of people are left handed). Think about something that will appeal to the people looking for your products or services.
Finally, just to re-iterate something we mentioned earlier, if it’s impossible to get consistency between your domain name and your social profiles, or within the totality of your social media profiles, it’s even more important to ensure consistency in other ways. Use of images, key words and phrases will become even more crucial to ensure that your audience knows it’s looking at the same company across different profiles.
It may seem like a lot to take in – particularly if you’re now feeling like you’ve lost out. But remember that you can achieve a lot in a couple of days to move ahead with this. It’s certainly not something to leave any longer. The work you put in to secure your brand online will reap rewards for the future, whether you’re a start up or a more established business.
P.S. in case you were wondering, @lefthanded has already gone…