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June 21st, 2018

Branded Links in Action — The ‘Evolved Link’ Part #3

I’ve talked a big game recently about links — about what links actually are, how we use them, and how important brand recognition and trust are when using links to connect to customers.

But let’s put this into practice and see what a holistic link strategy that will stand the test of time looks like in action. But before you do, make sure you’ve read the previous posts in this series to get all the context.

Part 1: What actually is a link?
Part 2: Why your links must be branded in the future

Chapter 1: Links in action – advertising

Consider the countless places today’s brands advertise:

• Digital, programmatic and pay-per-click (PPC)

• Social media

• Affiliate marketing and partnerships

• Catalogues and product guides

• Factsheets, brochures and publications

• Television, radio and podcasts

• Billboards and other out-of-home (OOH)

This is just a snapshot of the locations that companies place calls-to-action in order to engage their customers.

Now, brand and awareness campaigns are pretty cool most of the time, and sometimes a direct call-to-action isn’t needed. Certainly not all ads are created to drive someone to the website. But more often than not, the goal of advertising is to make consumers undertake a specific action. And that requires giving them a ‘link’ to use to connect with you – wherever the end destination may be.

When these links are created in a haphazard manner over time and not considered holistically, it’s hard to ensure consistency and a recognizable structure in your links. So if a customer is seeing a different variant of your brand every time they’re exposed to it, how are they to know what is trustworthy, legitimate and worth engaging with?

For example, at this year’s Super Bowl, Toyota ran an advertisement around its Paralympic Games sponsorship, featuring the campaign domain MobilityforAll.com. While this ties into the campaign messaging perfectly, it includes no mention of the Toyota brand.

From a branding perspective, surely it would have made more sense for Toyota to have aligned their brand to the intended customer behavior – for example, asking users to visit a URL like toyota.com/mobilityforall.

Chapter 2: Branded links in action – social media

Similar to the advertising elements mentioned above, social media is also packed with links. And some platforms have very specific requirements for how links are formatted – such as Twitter’s historical character limit, which led to the widespread use of URL shorteners to allow more space in each tweet.

However, in using one of these shortening tools, the original URL – often from a company’s branded website – is almost always lost.

That’s how we’ve seen the evolution from generic or unbranded link shorteners such as bit.ly; to ‘vanity URLs’ that contain approximations of branded links using other domains (such as Pepsi’s pep.si or the New York Times’s nyti.ms).

While these do a good job of ‘mimicking’ a brand to make links more recognizable, they’re clearly a version of the organization’s brand that is either incorrectly presented, or interrupted by the dot. The irony of this is that we’d never let our brands be presented like this in a brochure or on the side of our building for example – yet for social media (which has arguably the most visibility these days) we think that’s acceptable.

Chapter 3: Links in action – customer communications

In this catch-all category, I’d include all the places we use links to connect with people, but don’t necessarily perceive it as a ‘link’ in the traditional sense. For example:

• SMS messaging

• Email addresses

• Internal systems and documentation

• Recruitment systems; offers, job descriptions and ads

• Newsletters

• Spoken word; at conferences, etc.

• Business cards

• Invoicing and financial documentation

In my view, this is where there is exceptional potential to be more strategic with how we brand our links. Let me give you an example to illustrate.

Recently, I raised a customer support case with my telecom provider. After speaking with a representative on the phone, I received a text message with a reference number and a link to track my case history. This just appeared as a shortened link in the SMS message – which used a shortened URL that was an ‘approximation’ of the company’s brand – like I discussed in relation to social media above.

The difficulty for brands here is that these links are sent out in huge volumes. They’re automatically generated and often need to live on a separate platform than the company’s main website – hence the shortened URL.

But because this doesn’t match the company’s corporate web address, how am I really to know that this came from a trusted source? Sure, it looks a bit like their brand, but there are plenty of other ways the same brand could be mimicked. I can’t help but think there must be lots of people who get this SMS and think they’re being directed to a fraudulent site!

The same logic applies to email addresses, recruitment and any other form of communication that we do each and every day. Consistency breeds recognition, recognition builds trust, and trust is what ultimately makes a consumer confident and willing to engage with you as a brand.

An ace up the sleeve: .brand TLDs

The reasons for reconsidering how we use links are rooted in Marketing 101. Brands want to reach people, build a trusted relationship with them, and prompt them to take action. And marketers know that branding is key in this process.

There is an elite group of brands around the world that has an added advantage when it comes to branding links across their organizations. Around 550 global brands, many from the Fortune 500, are dropping the .com and using their recently secured .brand Top-Level Domains (TLDs). This basically means they control a domain namespace with their brand on it; so they can create links that end in .google, .microsoft, .apple and so on.

(To see loads of these in action, check out the .brands Showcase on MakeWay.World.)

To illustrate the power of these fully branded domains, Amazon Web Services launched a major out-of-home advertising campaign using a domain name as the CTA (rather than a social hashtag, search term or no CTA at all). It also incorporated its .aws TLD to keep the domain short, memorable and branded – despite being based on a campaign slogan.

The clean, simple and branded link was the domain name — buildon.aws — which was placed on billboards all over the U.S. to great effect. Clearly a better strategy than what Toyota undertook during the Paralympics.

In the world of .brand domains, there are countless examples of organizations using their branded TLD to build recognizable branded links in all customer touchpoints. We at Neustar use our .neustar domain across all of our links – including our email addresses. Mine is tony.kirsch@team.neustar just in case you like this piece and want to say hi, BTW!

.brand TLDs are also opening previously closed doors in social media links too, delivering advantages including increased security, ease of implementation and reinforcing brand presence in social.

Examples of this include retailer Zara, which uses go.zara in their social media and financial powerhouse HSBC, which uses grp.hsbc throughout its Twitter posts.

So what does this mean for links and brands in the future?

In a world where trust is the most important element of a customer’s view of your brand, anything you can do to highlight the brand and the product/campaign/intention as simply as possible will redefine the brands of tomorrow.

Personally, I truly believe these forward-thinking companies are about to set a new standard for digital brands of the future, which is exciting for marketers and customers alike.

*This article was originally published on Medium on June 20, 2018.

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