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How ICANN can leverage influencers to make new Top-Level Domain extensions successful

What is the role of influencers and the media in ICANN’s TLD global awareness campaign? How ICANN can create a strong value proposition with new TLD extensions to benefit Internet users?

Today’s hyperconnected business environment is considered quite complex to navigate through since technology constantly experiences disruptive changes and new transformative innovations are introduced in the marketplace. Adapting and re-invention is key to business success and sustaining a competitive advantage. What happens when you mix both the ICANN process and expanding the web with new top-level domains? The mixture creates new opportunities for innovation but the complexity on executing such a major undertaking is not fully comprehended by many. The problem with the new ICANN generic top-level domain program is the pervasive lack of understanding of its potential benefits and shortcomings by many, especially key influencers and the media that deliver the message to the masses.

There are three goals a new top-level domain company should focus its energy on: creating economic value, bringing a new host of benefits to Internet users and society as a whole as well as making a difference that truly matters for the evolution of the Internet. A new approach to unlocking new opportunities under new TLDs, such as enhanced branding and economies of scale and scope, can accelerate the pace of innovation and value creation for Internet users.

However, such an undertaking does come with avoidable pitfalls and misrepresentations. The biggest problem with many ICANN critics against expanding the namespace with new extensions is the tendency to rationalize outcomes using weak key performance indicators as references. Extensive research is required to conduct a thorough analysis of the benefits and shortcomings of such a complex program of introducing new TLDs. Inevitably, the execution of a successful strategy depends on the credibility of that data and how it can be translated into something practical, value-generating, sustainable and adaptable. Even with understanding all the nuances of executing a carefully-thought out TLD strategy, in the end the market will judge whether a TLD is a success or not.

Most of the media has an inclination to oversimplify TLD issues and “dumbing them down” for ordinary people to understand. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the media is on a tight schedule to deliver an article and insufficient research has been conducted. Another reason is the limitation of the size of the article that confines the depth of TLD coverage. It is a common occurrence that uninformed critics of ICANN are not only imprecise with their assessment, they are also painting an unproductive, negative picture of ICANN and its multi-stakeholder community that has spent years on addressing key issues surrounding new TLDs. To make matters worse, most critics have not even attended a single ICANN meeting or contributed in the form of public comments to let ICANN know their concerns. As a result, this lack of effective communication, misinformation and over-simplification of a complex new TLD program creates more problems than it solves.

ICANN’s global communication awareness campaign on new TLDs falls in this category as well. ICANN’s marketing approach is inconsistent with the realities of launching new TLDs and operating within the ICANN system. ICANN’s marketing approach is to deliver “broad and simple communications that will raise basic awareness across the board.” Being too general and simplistic does not represent what the new TLD program is about. There are trade-offs in ICANN’s communication outreach campaign. Consistency is key. Make no mistake, ICANN jargon is technical. Why not give potential applicants a dose of reality and not merely lure them in by using over-simplified messages focused on gaining attention and interest in a program that requires a significant learning curve to participate in.

Ineffective communication is not a productive mechanism to adhere to and ICANN’s marketing team is walking a tight rope by not properly informing the public the true nature of the new TLD program. ICANN’s strategy to advertise using simplified marketing messages to explain a complex process will backfire because it misrepresents reality and ICANN culture. Are new entrants expected to learn the intricacies of ICANN in a few months and expected to submit successful applications? This is impossible since the learning curve is high. While this creates business for TLD management companies such as MyTLD, it does invite many disillusioned, potential applicants who have unreal expectations about what is required to run a new TLD, not to mention applicants with no business model, no differentiation and no clue how to tie in new TLDs with their existing businesses.

My company has consulted with literally dozens of potential applicants with unrealistic expectations who we had to turn away since there was no value generation potential in their proposals. The number of less-qualified applicants with no business plan will only increase as a result of simplified messaging. Furthermore, ICANN does not grade an applicant’s business plan or require a proof of demand. This is a significant mistake because a business plan requirement would force applicants to better assess the viability of their TLD and think through all the steps in a more efficient manner as opposed to focusing on technical requirements and financing exclusively. How about actually having a strategy, finding a solution to a problem and executing it? This is my biggest criticism of ICANN’s new TLD program. It is irresponsible for ICANN not to take this important component into consideration.

While business plans do create a “beauty” contest, they would better prepare applicants and increase the odds of success. A business plan requirement would help applicants prepare a feasibility analysis on their plan to launch a new TLD. However, ICANN does not award any points in the most important section of the TLD application that involves disclosing the TLD’s mission statement and how value will be created for the Internet and society as a whole. This paints a distorted picture that launching a new TLD is an easy task and that ICANN does not want to be involved with assessing business plans. Why not align the realities of launching new TLDs with an effective global outreach campaign that clearly demonstrates these complexities?

ICANN’s resources should all be spent on educating influencers and the media reporters who transmit these messages to the masses. The $750,000 advertising campaign will be a waste of resources and be ineffective because an effective global campaign in a highly fragmented media space requires more than $750,000. Our responsibility as ICANN community members should be focused on educating and helping people understand the process and deal with the complexities of the program efficiently. A deep understanding of the intricacies of the new TLD program and its objectives will yield better results and answers as opposed to excessive criticism based on lack of comprehensive information or hidden biases or agendas. A solid business plan and proof of demand would also help, even though it is not required by ICANN.

Measurement is key and setting the appropriate key performance indicators will make or break the ICANN new TLD program. Unfortunately, most critics and many ICANN community members are not only measuring the wrong processes, they are measuring them in the wrong manner. Predicting the future and the guesswork of economic studies is a waste of resources and time, but can be useful academic exercises. Most innovations that occur in technology are not predicted, they are created. If it were so simple, every company would be an Apple, a Google or Facebook. Time to take a step back and realize that even experts can not determine the future, but the expectations of something beneficial will certainly materialize since one thing is common in all successful launches: serving a niche community and a targeted customer.

The problem that many critics have with extensions such as .BIZ and .INFO was that they were too generic and did not stand for something or revolved around a community or an engaging theme. They were quickly pronounced a failure because they did not enjoy the success of .COM. However, the numbers do not lie. The .INFO extension has enjoyed over 8 million registrations. Many critics point to .ORG as a success story but fail to mention that .ORG has the same number of registrations as .INFO. Does this mean the volume of registrations is the only key performance indicator for TLD success?

Unfortunately critics are obsessed with numbers but fail to realize that their measurement is faulty. For example, Netherlands has a population of about 17 million and their .NL ccTLD extension has 4.6 million .NL domain registrations. The .NL penetration rate of 27% is phenomenal. Germany’s .DE extension has 14.5 million registrations with a population of 82 million. The .DE penetration rate of 18% is very high but it is nowhere near as close as Netherland’s despite having larger volumes. Does the fact that .COM is not the de facto leader in these regions mean that .COM should be relegated or be considered a failure? Absolutely not. The context of extensions is the critical distinction here. There is more than meets the eye.

Extensions should be assessed based on their context and the relative results they achieve. Under the same note, ICANN should attach its processes to a desired outcome that can be measured effectively. Key performance indicators should be aligned with that outcome and be truly representative. The human-tendency to over-rationalize and oversimplify complex issues produces an erroneous and detrimental linkage between “cause and effect” and a biased, subjective conclusion that in most cases distorts our ability to implement effective solutions that can produce the desired outcome we are all striving for. What the ICANN multi-stakeholder community has to focus on is utilizing their resources in a manner that maximizes positive outcome. More importantly, ICANN needs to distinguish which activities do not improve desired outcomes and eliminate them altogether or participate less in areas that will not potentially add value.

A united vision of shared success, responsibility and co-operation will be integral to ICANN moving forward. Unfortunately, the ICANN community has been divided over many key issues but the vast diversity of thought under the multi-stakeholder model is what will create progress if decision-making is representative and fast in execution. Co-operation is not about getting along. Every constituent has different objectives to accomplish and is operating under divergent constraints. This is where true value can be derived. Fruitful co-operation that would yield higher productivity can be achieved by expanding the responsibilities of each stakeholder beyond what they have full control of and have them participate in coming up with realistic and practical solutions in a timely manner. In essence, complexity can unleash greater value by resolving trade-offs rather than ignoring them or criticizing them, which in turn can be counter-productive and detrimental. While the thought of accepting and embracing complexity to create effective solutions and transformative processes to spur innovation can be counter-intuitive, it is how complicated issues such as participating in ICANN affairs and launching new TLDs can be leveraged to produce desirable outcomes and ultimately benefits to Internet users.

As outlined, the significance of exposure to diverse opinions and innovative, integrated solutions is paramount to ICANN’s success. Opportunity lies where there is no diverse opinion or perspective. Creating diversity in the namespace will spur innovation by offering more options and solutions to Internet users. Internet users and the public interest ultimately win as more entrepreneurial companies and technology players enter the space to fill in the gaps and introduce transformative efficiencies. Competition will ultimately drive the market and then the full potential of the Internet can be realized. However, ICANN must ensure that the right types of applicants are targeted and that their business plans are strongly considered as part of their evaluation grade and not be rendered meaningless.

ICANN can certainly improve in many key areas, but the ICANN community needs to be aligned with those objectives by sharing common values and purpose, in the best interests of the Internet community at-large. Communicating those values should become second-nature to all of us. Responsibility, accountability and transparency are often misused as buzz-words in the ICANN community but make no mistake, the underlying objectives of ICANN have to be aligned in a manner that can be effectively measured upon and more importantly lead to productive decision making and policies. The diverse multi-stakeholder model, coupled with diversifying the namespace with new innovations is ICANN’s mission. Security and stability are important ingredients to a safe TLD launch but it would not be complete with a true value proposition that creates a platform for progress and social benefits.

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