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The Role of Trust in Determining a New TLD's Business Success

Thomas Barrett

Warren Buffet famously said, "It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it."

Like it or not, every Top-Level Domain (TLD) is a brand in the eyes of the consumer. So, just how important is trust in the success of the new top-level-domains?

I'm no branding expert, but I grasp that no brand, no matter how memorable, will fail to achieve its goals if it does not gain the public's trust. TLD's are no different. Several TLD's in the past have learned this the hard way by running pricing promotions that flooded their namespace with undesirable content or behavior. Once a TLD is tagged as having a distrust issue, it is difficult to erase it from the public's mind.

In the future, building trust will be an even bigger issue for those TLD's that implicitly make some sort of "promise" of the type of registrants who are using the TLD to promote themselves.

The public will approach new TLD's in one of two ways: those who begin their relationship with little trust which needs to be earned over time, and those who begin with trust freely given, but is forever taken away on the first sign of behavior deemed untrustworthy. Either way, trust must be established by the TLD or there will be no relationship.

So, how does a new TLD build trust?

We are working with several TLD applicants that have decided that their business success depends on checking credentials of the registrants up-front. These are typically TLD's that have chosen a string that represents some sort of recognizable community of special interests. Their rationale is simple: success of their business depends on building trust in their TLD. One of the best ways to achieve this is by checking registrant's eligibility for the TLD up front.

The ICANN Government Advisory Council (GAC) thinks that this decision should not be left up to the applicants that fall into one of twelve categories: children, environmental, health and fitness, financial, gambling, charity, education, intellectual property, professional services, corporate identifiers, generic geographical terms and inherently governmental functions.

Potentially, hundreds of new TLD's are impacted by this advice. Whether this last-minute intervention by the GAC would mean sabotage or rescue for some of these TLD's is an issue that will need to wait for history.

Let's assume that ICANN decides that vetting potential registrants is a business decision best left to the applicants.

Trust needs to be built in two key TLD constituencies: both registrants and visitors to the new domains.

Trust from potential registrants

Potential registrants of these new domains will assess the risk to their business or their personal reputation, in making an investment in the new domain name. The investment is not just financial, but also emotional as they will need to decide how far to go in their adoption of the new TLD.

Trust from visitors to these new domains

Success will also hinge on whether visitors to new websites on these new domains trust the website. If end-users consider a website to be suspect or somewhat shady, then registrants will abandon their investment in the new domains.

Hypothetical example:

At the risk of over-simplification, let's use a hypothetical TLD: .SURGEON.

Let's say the .SURGEON applicant has proposed an open and unrestricted namespace. Anyone who wants a .SURGEON domain name can get one. The applicant's argument for this is that although medical doctors might represent a significant registrant population of the TLD, there are also other people who consider themselves "surgeons", including the "Turkey Surgeon", the grandpa who carves the turkey on Thanksgiving Day; and the "Tree Surgeon", the chainsaw-owning brother-in-law who advertises on Craigslist. The argument is: If you restrict .SURGEON domain names just for medical doctors, then you disenfranchise these other valid uses of the domain.

Thus, no up-front review of credentials takes place for .SURGEON. Clearly, there is little potential harm of someone claiming to be a "Turkey Surgeon". To address more serious cases, such as medical doctor imposters, the applicant may propose community policing to catch these registrants.

But there may be another important question this applicant needs to ask themselves first: How important is trust to the success of my business? And can I achieve this trust without checking or otherwise policing the credentials of my registrants?

"But I have a really strong Acceptable Use and anti-abuse policy!"

EVERY TLD applicant is promising to be vigilant about policing for abuse in their TLD. The GAC has called for such safeguards to be mandatory in all new TLD's. I call these principles "Motherhood and Apple Pie". The problem is that they are reactive, as opposed to proactive. Once a TLD lets the wrong registrants in, it is likely that the public will encounter them before the registry is aware of the problem. And by then it may be too late.

What types of TLD's should care most about trust?

All new TLD's offer some sort of brand promise that will be delivered to registrants and visitors alike. There are a sub-set of TLD's that implicitly promise a lot more. Most, but not all, fall into one of the 12 categories identified by the GAC. Many of these TLD applicants have decided that their business success depends on building trust in their TLD by checking credentials of the registrants up-front. These applicants fall into three general categories:

  1. A well-defined community of people that share the same special interest, affinity or membership
  2. A well-defined geographical area that wants to give preferences to businesses and others living within their geography
  3. A highly-regulated profession or industry that requires some sort of credential, such as a business or professional license

Is leap of faith the TLD's sole branding strategy?

Every TLD applicant will need to decide how to build trust in their new TLD. The question is, how will they do it? Will you do it up-front or do you expect your public to take a leap of faith?

The right answer could be a combination of these two. But how this question is answered may well determine the business success of the TLD.

Even if the GAC advice is not made mandatory for the 12 categories it has identified, it may still make good business sense for this sub-set of TLD applicants who are planning to run completely open and unrestricted TLDs to take the extra steps to vet their registrants… unless these applicants can think of a better way to build trust in their TLD.

By Thomas Barrett, President - EnCirca, Inc
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The question is whether or not it Joe Davison  –  Sep 06, 2013 8:37 PM PDT

The question is whether or not it is an appropriate function of a registry to police its registrants. There exist laws already that prevent impersonating a licensed professional.

To follow your .SURGEON example, consider that anyone is free to register a domain like BrainSurgeon.com, with no vetting process at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.

Where the wrong could (potentially) begin is if the registrant purports to be a brain surgeon, when he is in fact not. But there are already laws to prevent this. In all jurisdictions I'm aware of, it is illegal to practice medicine without a license.

The drawbacks to requiring registry vetting of registrants are obvious: by requiring extra "work" on the part of the registrant, it erects another barrier that makes it less likely for the registrant to choose .SURGEON over .SOMETHING-ELSE.

I don't believe that it has been proven that "increased public trust" is present in any TLD's — even existing ones with restrictions — other than .EDU and .GOV perhaps, but those reasons are more of a historic artifact than the result of "branding" per se.

Some also argue that registrant restrictions are responsible for the very low market adoption of TLD's like .TRAVEL and .MUSEUM.

All of this is something to consider as new registries adopt their initial branding and market entry strategies.

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