Over the next few years, the Internet will look like a very different place. More than 1,000 new top-level domains (TLDs) are now joining "heritage" domains, such as .com, .info, and .org.

Retailers will now be able to take advantage of branded TLDs (like .nokia), geographic TLDs (like .vegas) and generic TLDs (like .shop). For example, consumers might buy new phone chargers from "charger.amazon" rather than "amazon.com/chargers" and jewelry from "necklace.tiffany" instead of "tiffany.com/necklaces."

That transformation will have a profound impact on how people find and use websites. The change also likely will impact brands beneficially by luring customers away from fragmented social media applications and back to branded environments.

The Problem with Social Media

In a survey of brand managers who have applied for new TLDs, 83% said they felt the engagement opportunities available with a branded TLD would be more effective with consumers than with a third-party environment.

In addition, 41% said they would reduce their reliance on traditional social media to reach end users once the new branded domains go live.

Though it may seem like an odd move for brands to rely less on the large current audiences served by social media networks, the problem is that networks like Facebook and Twitter are not keen to give up the valuable data and insights on their users—data that can help brands make better decisions on production, marketing, and promotion.

For example, all the brand interactions that occur via Twitter happen in a contained environment controlled by Twitter, so brands are limited in their ability to get insights that could be gained from those interactions. Brands are no better off than the public and must rely on the minimal analytics provided by Twitter or those than can be pulled using third-party resources.

By developing a way to entice customers to a branded experience within a new TLD, retailers will be able to cultivate conversations in a space where there is a unique opportunity to engage users, share messages, and convert prospects to customers.

The Challenge for Retailers

The challenge that marketers and brand managers will face is convincing customers to abandon popular social media networks and engage with the new branded social media platforms.

Recent trends suggest that this might not be as difficult as it would have been a few years ago. One recent estimate suggests that more than 11 million young people have left Facebook since 2011; the company itself has even publicly stated it has seen a decrease in daily users, specifically among the highly coveted teen demographic. Teens retain a huge amount of purchasing power; approximately $208.7 billion is spent each year on and by US teens. Brands must capture their attention.

The Solution

Many brands struggle to create an online presence that is both relevant and memorable, which is why there are so many quirky Internet brand names—Tumblr, Twitter, etc. The current expansion of TLDs allows for greater creativity and a stronger brand presence online, making directing customers to relevant content easier.

Today, a malicious third party can easily create a seemingly credible "brand" page in a social network but then link that to a website selling counterfeit goods, hosting malware, or misleading potential customers.

Though some sites like Facebook and Twitter have sought to change how easily that can happen, the problem will always be outside of the control of the targeted brands. Customers directed to a "dot brand" address can be assured that the site adheres to a strictly enforced code of conduct—protection unavailable on a .com site—because the brand controls who is allowed to use the domains and what they can do there. For example, only .tiffany management can decide who has a .tiffany address, and what products and/or services they can offer there.

The TLD expansion presents the first major opportunity for brands to establish a more controlled online presence that is easier for customers to remember and safer for them to interact with.

Brands can take this opportunity one step further by building their own social networks, whether based on location or interest or other shared criteria. Nike, for instance, could easily use a branded domain like "plus.nike" to create a networking site for runners where they could compare stats, trade stories, share routes, and discuss their favorite products. Even if the amount of users was less than the number of Likes on Facebook, Nike would have direct access to the insights to be gained from the online behavior of some of its most passionate customers.

What Are Retailers Doing With the New TLDs?

Many retailers are planning how they can best take advantage of the marketing opportunities provided by the TLD expansion.

For instance, retailers such as Wal-Mart and Nokia have been investigating how best to employ the availability of Internationalized Domain Name script TLDs like Chinese and Cyrillic—another new innovation for the Web under the domain expansion—to attract non-English speaking customers. Wal-Mart has applied for the domain .oneshop in various languages, and Nokia has applied for its name in Chinese.

* * *

The benefits of the TLD expansion for retailers are just beginning to be explored. Brands with customers who are experiencing social media fatigue should take advantage of this significant change to unify their online presence and create relevant online communities through the new TLDs soon to be available to them.

Brands that did not apply for their dot brand TLD in this round should begin now to prepare to apply when ICANN (the authority that runs the Internet's naming system) opens the next round of applications, which could be as soon as next year. After all, if your competitor has a branded TLD, you don't want your customers to think that they are more innovative than you.

Regardless of whether you applied in this round, you should closely monitor the evolving relationship between brands and social networks. The pace of change is accelerating, and you will need to understand this changing landscape to continue being successful.

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What the New Top-Level Domains Mean for Marketers

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image of Roland LaPlante

Roland LaPlante is CMO of Afilias.

LinkedIn: Roland LaPlante