You know what they say about a rose by any other name. But Bill Sweetman doesn't believe it. He thinks calling a rose anything but a rose is a major marketing mistake.
Suffice to say Sweetman both knows and enjoys names, especially in the online context. A domain name strategist, he's the president and "lead ninja" at Name Ninja, a Toronto, Ontario-based boutique domain name consulting firm. Besides giving him the opportunity to enjoy a badass title, 18-month-old Name Ninja gives him a chance to indulge a longtime obsession with names and naming.
He said he's amazed at how many companies "still fumble the ball" when it comes to having a coherent domain name strategy ... and "wants to throw up" whenever he sees a big brand promoting itself using a Facebook URL instead of its own domain name.
Names Have Power
Featuring the tagline “lethal domain name consulting,” Sweetman said his firm helps companies acquire, manage, protect and profit from their domain names. Name Ninja offers a suite of domain name consulting services to three types of clients: startups, entrepreneurs and marketers; individual and corporate domain name owners; and new generic top-level domain (gTLD) registries and operators.
Before launching Name Ninja, he spent more than five years running the Domain Portfolio business at Tucows, one of the world's largest domain registrars.
We sat down with Sweetman recently to discuss naming strategies and his self-described “domain karate moves."
Sobel: You and I met years ago when you were doing promotion and marketing in the cable TV industry. You then moved into interactive media consulting and Internet strategy. But for the past seven years you've been focused on domain name consulting. Can you talk with us a bit about your journey?
Sweetman: My career journey has taken me from the content production world (film and television) to the marketing world (on-air promotion and advertising) into digital (Internet marketing) and now I’m focused exclusively on naming in this digital world. The funny thing is I’ve always been obsessed with names and naming going back to being a kid.
Naming things is a very creative exercise, and challenging to get right. When I discovered the Internet in 1994 I also became fascinated with domain names, was super curious about how they worked and were being used, and over time I became the go-to person friends and colleagues would turn to when they needed domain name help. I had an epiphany a few years ago that helping people with domain names is what I absolutely love to do more than anything else and I should be doing that full-time. That’s what led to the launch of Name Ninja, my domain name consulting firm.
Sobel: Lets talk a bit about the domain portfolio business. Domain Name Servers (DNS) are the Internet's equivalent of a phone book. They maintain a directory of domain names and translate them to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Is that correct or is there more to the story?
Sweetman: I tend to describe the domain name space in less technical terms. Domain names are the friendlier, easier-to-remember alternative to using a long string of numbers to reach a specific destination on the web. Instead of navigating to a website using 123.456.789 you simply get there by typing acme.com into your web browser. Domains are a navigation shortcut, very convenient and user-friendly, but they have also taken on a life of their own as brands too. Hotels.com, for example, is both a domain name and a powerful standalone brand.
Sobel: There has been lots of discussion over the years about the value of a domain name. I remember back in 1994 Josh Quittner, then with Wired magazine, acquired the domain name mcdonalds.com ... before Corporate America understood the power of a website. How have things changed over 20 years?
Sweetman: Corporate America has certainly made progress in understanding the importance of domain names as valuable business assets, but I am constantly amazed at how many companies still fumble the ball when it comes to having a coherent domain name strategy. By now I would’ve thought no major corporation would launch a major product or marketing campaign without owning the exact match .com domain name, but companies still make this Marketing 101 mistake all the time. I think this proves there’s still a lot of education yet to be done in the boardroom. Domain names should never be treated as an afterthought. They are your primary business address on the Internet. If you don’t get the right domain name, you risk losing customers, credibility and marketing dollars.
Sobel: There are lots of companies offering every imaginable type of service including packaging hosting, domain name registration and in some cases web design. On the other hand you have focused on the domain name side only. Can you explain your strategy?
Sweetman: I can’t say it was a deliberate strategy on my part at first, but over the years I’ve niched myself into a service area that I am extremely passionate about and — I’m told — quite good at. I’ve always been someone who likes to focus my attention on something, learn everything I can about it and then try to master it.
It turns out that’s domain names, and coincidentally, being as focused or niched as I am now makes it easier for me to market my service. In fact, I do almost no traditional marketing as I get the bulk of my business via referrals. Because I've positioned myself as a domain name specialist it’s easy for people to send business my way because when they bump into someone facing a domain name challenge they tell them, “I know just the guy for you…” People are always surprised to hear that I do domain name acquisition full-time; they can’t believe someone could build a sustainable business around that. Trust me, there’s more than enough work to go around.
Sobel: With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and a plethora of social media sites, is a domain name still important?
Sweetman: This is a great and loaded question. Companies certainly do need to consider the namespace beyond just domains, so that means looking at social media handles as well during the naming process, especially Twitter and Facebook. Keep in mind too that we are seeing an ever-increasing range of navigation options for consumers. We now have touch navigation, voice navigation, gesture navigation plus the search engines, so typing a URL into a web browser is not the only way for people to access content. That being said, hundreds of millions of people around the world still turn to domain names as their primary form of navigation on a daily basis, so domain names are still very important. The other thing I would mention here is that brands need to be mindful of owning their identities online and not giving control of these identities up to other parties. I want to throw up every time I see a big brand promoting itself using a Facebook URL instead of its own domain name (or a custom domain name). It’s the 2014 equivalent to AOL Keywords, and we all know what a fiasco that turned out to be.
Sobel: Name Ninja is a boutique domain name consulting firm that helps companies acquire, manage, protect and profit from their domain names. Can you give our readers some suggestions on what they need to be thinking about regarding acquiring a new domain name?
Sweetman: The bulk of my business is helping companies acquire domain names that are of strategic importance to them. Some of my clients come to me after they’ve painted themselves into a corner, which is never a good thing and probably could have been avoided. Here are some suggestions for how to make the domain acquisition process easier for all concerned:
Start the process as early as possible. If you’re going through a naming or re-branding process, have someone investigate the domain availability situation in the early days, not at the end of the process when it’s too late to switch names.
Have a realistic budget in mind for the kind of domain you want. It’s not 1995 and chances are the domain name you want is probably already owned by someone else, which means you’re probably going to have to buy it off them. Depending on the type of domain name you hope to acquire, you may be looking at an investment of anywhere from $5,000 to $5 million. There are fantastic domains available for all budget ranges, but the days of getting a one-word .com domain for peanuts are long gone.
Keep your options open. Don’t fall in love with one specific name because there is always the chance you may never be able to acquire it. It’s better to work with a shortlist of perhaps three to five domains that you really like just in case your first choice is not obtainable.
Finally, and this is going to sound self-serving, think twice about contacting the domain owner directly and revealing your identity and plans. You are far more likely to acquire the domain for a reasonable price working through a trusted intermediary who can shield your identity and has experience negotiating deals like this.