In late August 2000, Hill and Knowlton was approached by Afilias LLC, an international consortium of domain name registrars seeking to submit a bid to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in response to a request for proposals to operate new top-level domains (TLDs). The winning applicants would launch the first new TLDs since the introduction of .COM, .NET, and .ORG in the early 1980s. Hill and Knowlton pulled sister-agency OgilvyOne into a pitch against Burson Marsteller, Porter Novelli, and Shandwick to serve as the consortium’s marketing arm. The team’s first task was to develop an integrated marketing communications plan for inclusion in the ICANN application due on October 2. Immediately thereafter, Hill and Knowlton drew on the strengths of the individual consortium members to position Afilias as an industry thought leader and conduct a corporate positioning program and focused media relations campaign to help Afilias communicate the strengths of its application. Ultimately, the public relations and marketing plans developed by Hill and Knowlton and OgilvyOne were cited in the ICANN staff report as one of the major strengths of Afilias’ application. On November 16, the ICANN Board awarded Afilias the right to operate the only unrestricted TLD: .INFO. Hill and Knowlton and OgilvyOne continue to work closely with Afilias on preparing the global launch of .INFO later this year.
CHALLENGES & OPPORTUNITIES
Hill and Knowlton faced a number of challenges, including:
The prospect of quickly turning around a global research project that would serve as the basis for the selection of Afilias’ proposed TLDs
Quickly understanding a volatile marketplace in order to develop a marketing and public relations proposal to globally brand the new TLD
Evaluating the strengths and value propositions unique to Afilias’ 19 member companies to develop a sound communications platform to promote the strengths of Afilias and its application
Drowning out special interest groups that vocally opposed Afilias in over 150 negative messages posted to the ICANN Web site
Minimizing the effect that an arch rival had on Afilias when it built a parody site that slandered Afilias, personally attacked members of the consortium, and positioned the organization as a monopoly
In light of these challenges, Hill and Knowlton conducted research that served as the basis for positioning and messaging beyond the application process. Hill and Knowlton executed a tactical program that helped control negative messages through the development and proactive distribution of key messages which successfully portrayed Afilias as one of the strongest contenders. Members of the press came to rely on the spokesperson for Afilias as an industry expert and reliable source.
The introduction of a new TLD is akin to establishing a new product category since the existing generic TLDs have never been marketed. Therefore, Hill and Knowlton advised Afilias to commission sister-agency Lightspeed Research.com and Yankelovich Partners Inc. to conduct market research to help determine market preferences. Lightspeed conducted an Internet-based research study throughout the WPP global network, generally comprised of Web-savvy users, and Yankelovich obtained data from a random sample of American adults including both Web-savvy and non-Web users.
Contrary to the widely held belief that .WEB was the most preferred new TLD, the findings concluded that:
On an international basis, the most preferred new TLD was .INFO with 21%
Of those respondents most likely to register a Web site name, .INFO was the most preferred with 22%
Overall, respondents preferred a self-explanatory TLD to a more abstract TLD by a margin of 4 to 1
More than 79% of Internet users said they liked .INFO at least a little, 39% said they liked it a lot
33% of Internet users said they not only liked .INFO but would register it if it were made available
Not only did the research findings alter the direction of the communications program, the insights gleaned also provided important contextual data for Afilias to cite in media interviews and communications materials.
Parallel to developing a long-term marketing plan with OgilvyOne for inclusion in the ICANN application, Hill and Knowlton prepared a short-term communications plan to launch Afilias, promote its bid, and monitor media activity surrounding the selection process. Several members of Afilias were invited to a positioning workshop in mid-September 2000 to jointly develop a communications platform and key messages which were then inserted in all communications materials. An aggressive timeline was established to meet both ICANN and self-imposed deadlines within the proposed $165,000 budget.
The following communications objectives were developed to achieve Afilias’ business objective of winning the right to operate an unrestricted TLD registry:
- Win the support of three prime target audiences: ICANN, registrar community, and press.
- Demonstrate its understanding of the marketplace and its ability to drive international demand for the new TLD amongst registrars and registrants
- Protect Afilias’ reputation by communicating that its open business model promotes growth and competition within the Internet community
- Promote the new TLD as a non-US centric, multi-purpose global identifier to be used by anyone
Hill and Knowlton developed a strategy that set Afilias’ application apart from the other 46 contenders by creating a unique sales proposition: the introduction of a truly global TLD that would bring the Web to the masses. First, working closely with Afilias’ member registrars, a communications platform that would function on an international basis was established. Hill and Knowlton relied on the strengths of the individual members as well as the strengths of the organization as a collective whole to formulate key messages for use in all media relations. Next, Afilias was formally launched to the media in an international tele-press conference. Immediately following the launch, the emphasis of the corporate positioning and media relations program focused on developing clear and consistent messaging to maintain Afilias’ position as a strong applicant and effectively communicate facts amidst vocal opposition from special interest groups.
The dissemination of consistent messages on an international basis served to promote Afilias’ mission of fostering communication, content, and community on the Web. By raising its profile in key markets around the globe, Afilias was able to demonstrate its ability to effectively manage and market a new TLD. Additionally, relentless monitoring of industry issues, identification of news opportunities, and consequent message development, enabled Afilias to communicate consistent messages that ultimately convinced media and opinion leaders that Afilias was one of the strongest applicants.
The corporate positioning and media relations program consisted of four phases.
Phase 1: Plan Development
Before drafting an integrated marketing communications plan, Hill and Knowlton organized a research project to yield critical information. It was then Hill and Knowlton’s task to incorporate this research into Afilias’ application and develop a solid marketing and public relations plan that would successfully brand a new product and tap the potential of a nascent industry. During this phase, Hill and Knowlton worked closely with OgilvyOne to integrate all thinking and plans. In addition, the marketing efforts were coordinated with the work of KPMG consultants who were engaged to develop the business plan.
Phase 2: Afilias Launch & Proactive Media Relations
Hill and Knowlton coordinated an international tele-press conference to formally launch Afilias to the public-at-large. Steps taken to ensure success included:
- Development of US and international media, analyst, and opinion leader lists;
- Development and distribution of a media advisory the day before the press conference;
- Pitch effort immediately before the press conference to secure press attendance;
- Follow-up after the press conference to encourage accurate and extensive coverage;
- Development and distribution of a press release after the press conference.
Hill and Knowlton helped Afilias maintain momentum in the marketplace by keeping abreast of and reacting to relevant discussions that occurred on Internet web sites, message boards, list-serves, and in chat rooms. The coverage of beat reporters was tracked and logged on a daily basis, as were inquiries from the general public. Hill and Knowlton created open lines of communication with several members of the press who began to regularly cover this event. As a result, a designated Afilias spokesperson, who was continuously trained by a member of the Hill and Knowlton team, was called upon numerous times by the press for comment and one-on-one interviews. The constant research and immersion into the domain-name industry enabled Hill and Knowlton to anticipate issues that required the development of additional messaging, and strong relations with the press enabled Hill and Knowlton to anticipate the media’s agenda and specific story angles.
Phase 4: On-site Support at ICANN Meeting
Hill and Knowlton provided on-site support for Afilias at ICANN’s annual meeting in Marina Del Ray, California on November 13. Hill and Knowlton built relationships with many of the beat reporters both through its on-site efforts and via its press office in New York. In an open meeting held on November 16, ICANN selected Afilias to operate the only unrestricted of seven new TLDs: .INFO. Hill and Knowlton immediately prepared and distributed a press release announcing Afilias’ selection to operate the first new unrestricted TLD since .COM, and continued reactive media relations activity surrounding the news event.
Summary of Results:
Hill and Knowlton effectively countered a ground swell of negative opinion generated by competitors which threatened to permanently mar Afilias’ reputation. As a result, ICANN approved Afilias’ application despite much controversy over the makeup of the consortium. The ICANN Staff report, released 6 days prior to the selection of the new TLDs, served as the basis for the Board’s review and selection of applications. In addition to analyzing the technical strengths of each application, ICANN also reviewed the marketing plans and listed each application’s overall strengths. The report noted that one of Afilias’ major strengths was “… a solid marketing plan developed by OgilvyOne Worldwide and Hill and Knowlton Public Relations…”
Hill and Knowlton fielded inquiries and managed delicate interviews with over 60 journalists, greatly exceeding Afilias’ expectations. Afilias was mentioned in over 1,100 news articles and broadcast segments, including leading international news outlets and a variety of top-tier U.S. outlets such as: The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Dow Jones, UPI, The Associated Press, Business Week, The Standard.com, Redherring.com, Internet World, Internet Week, CNet, ComputerWorld, Interactive Week, Techweb, Wired News. Afilias’ key messages were evenly distributed throughout this press coverage, and led many journalists to position Afilias as one of the strongest competitors in the bid for new TLDs.