Why Facebook would not exist without .EDU

What was Facebook’s most disruptive killer strategy to dethrone Myspace and become one of the most dominant players on the Internet? Some credit Facebook’s success on their superior platform, tools, options and apps, while others blame Myspace’s demise on their lack of innovation, corporate culture and focus on serving advertisers rather than their members after their acquisition by Newscorp. However, the most overlooked secret ingredient to Facebook’s success is no other than a top-level domain extension.

How Facebook leveraged a trusted top-level domain to beat Myspace and become a market leader

What was Facebook’s most disruptive killer strategy to dethrone Myspace and become one of the most dominant players on the Internet? Some credit Facebook’s success on their superior platform, tools, options and apps, while others blame Myspace’s demise on their lack of innovation, corporate culture and focus on serving advertisers rather than their members after their acquisition by Newscorp. However, the most overlooked secret ingredient to Facebook’s success is no other than a top-level domain extension.

Most start-ups fail because the product or service they launch is not perceived well or championed by fickle and demanding Internet users. What separates companies such as Apple from their competitors is captivating a targeted, highly engaged and loyal following that is addicted to a compelling product or service that is worthy of word-of-mouth buzz. Facebook would not be what it is today without leveraging two seemingly unrelated entities:  the highly targeted, loyal and engaged U.S- based student body, and the .EDU trusted top-level domain that exclusively represents U.S- accredited educational institutions.

To their detriment, Myspace did not verify members for authenticity. Its membership registration policy and process invited the proliferation of anonymous profiles, fake celebrity accounts and the common practice of unwelcome solicitation by bands continuously asking members to listen to their music. On the contrary, Facebook only allowed U.S students to join. Facebook’s member registration eligibility policy was a disruptive killer tactic that harnessed trust, credibility and authentication. Since only U.S-accredited educational institutions could manage a .EDU domain, Facebook made sure all members were validated using their student .EDU email account. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s tactic was launching organically through student word of mouth and built credibility and trust within the Facebook social network.

The strategy was simple: Start with a niche student audience; then build a passionate and engaged following around exclusivity, authenticity and belonging to a highly targeted and engaged group; then expand globally by leveraging the network effect of those trusted individuals. Facebook leveraged the TLD network effect that the .EDU extension mobilized to perfection.

Facebook and Youtube are classic examples of disruptive innovation that was unleashed by tapping into niche audiences. Many question the value of new Top-Level Domains (TLDs) and whether they will spur innovation, increase competition and offer more choices for Internet users. As the 80-20 Pareto rule illustrates, most new TLDs will not be success stories. Becoming an industry standard or enjoying mainstream adoption is reserved for the TLDs that will truly innovate and make a difference that truly matters for their target audience.

There is no such thing as the status quo on the Internet. The reason why ICANN was created in 1998 was to effectively implement important changes affecting the Internet in a timely manner. As Clinton administration Internet czar Ira Magaziner stated in 1998 about ICANN’s creation: “Government is too slow to keep up with the digital environment.”

Internet users are used to using keywords in their search behavioral patterns. New keyword-themed top-level domains that represent niche audiences are the natural evolution of the Internet. Legendary bands like Kiss, Queen and Eagles will agree. They don’t own Kiss.com, Queen.com or Eagles.com respectively. How does a .MUSIC top-level domain (TLD) powering Kiss.music, Queen.music and Eagles.music not add value? How about the under-representation of non-Latin alphabet scripts in the form of Internationalized Domain Names in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese or Korean? Why is the growing non-western world not represented with URLs in their native langauge scripts?

The Internet requires less dependence on Google, Bing or Yahoo search. Publicly-traded companies should not rule the Internet. Extending into new innovative services and possibilities will be a catalyst for new value generation, such as search engine optimized top-level domain extensions and Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs). Why not let the marketplace and the traditional economic rules of demand and supply decide?

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