Who’s Bowled over from the Super hype about .co?

February 4, 2011, 8:16 PM UTC

By Daniel Roberts, reporter

Go Daddy's yet to be revealed .co girl

Remember the excitement in years past when various country code domain extensions like .tv (Tuvalu) or .me (Montenegro) became available to the public? No? Then you’re not alone. Despite an ever-increasing number of alternatives, .com is still the heavyweight extension for Internet websites in the U.S.

Yet, the marketing wheels for another new option are spinning again: In July, the extension .co became publicly available, and this time, hopeful domain retailers insist, it’s going to be different.

“We’ve already started to see this catch on,” says Jeremiah Johnston, COO of Sedo, a domain marketplace that specializes in auctioning off premium domain names (for example, in 2006 Sedo handled the $3 million sale of vodka.com). Johnston acknowledges that some of the past extensions have “failed to catch,” but says that part of this was due to lack of marketing. He believes .co is the extension that, at last, will service all those who have been shut out by .com, and not just individuals, either: “The .com market is very saturated. It’s hard to get the domain name you want,” he says. “I think a lot of companies out there have had to settle, and now they have an opportunity to get that name they couldn’t get before.”

The release of .co comes amidst ongoing industry expectation that any year now, ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) will release a wide range of TLDs (top-level domains) in one fell swoop, making anything from .clothes to .music possible, as well as city extensions (like .nyc) or brand extensions like .coke. For now, Johnston reasons, .co is the closest one can come to .com because unlike some TLDs that fell flat in the past, .co reads as a generic commercial extension. It doesn’t have to specify business like a .biz, or video content like .tv signifies.

The main spark that domain retailers are hoping spurs .co’s success is the marketing campaign to go with it. Go Daddy, the domain seller that has become known for its cheesecake Super Bowl ads and sexy poster girls like Danica Patrick, will be devoting its big ad to promoting the .co extension. “I think our .co ad, which will run in the first quarter, will be one of our most special ads,” says Bob Parsons, the company’s CEO. “Especially when we reveal our one and only .co girl.” Reports are that advertisements shown during this year’s Super Bowl will cost upwards of $3 million. Retailers and domainers alike are licking their chops in anticipation of the business they hope the ad will bring.

The Go Daddy commercial may be coming to the game a bit late. Page Howe, an entrepreneur with the company JoeDomains.com, says that, “Not only the early adopters, but the early, middle, and late have already gotten on board with .co, so a bunch are bought up. But there are a lot of words in the English language.” Howe does believe the Go Daddy spot will be a big help in showing the masses how to discuss .co: “Just by, say, enunciating it “dot co” they’ll be helping so many people understand. Because people right now might not even agree on one way—some say it ‘dot see oh’ and some just call it ‘co.’”


Go Daddy’s teaser ad for their still-secret .co spokeswoman.

It isn’t just the Go Daddy commercial, but the .co registry itself, as well, that’s pushing .co domains. “Past TLDs like .biz failed to catch on because the registries did nothing to support them,” says Parsons. “The people at the .co registry have a different perspective and are all about marketing it.”

The registry, which only opened in July, began its blitz by awarding every company on Deloitte’s 100 Top Brands list its .co domain for free, though most have not used them. The list includes giants like GM (GM), Canon (CAJ), and Gucci. Following this was a “sunrise period” during which other corporations were given the opportunity to purchase their .co domain before they became publicly available.

Now that they are all public, anyone can buy a .co domain. 600,000 have been sold, even though a new .co costs more than a .com ($29.99 a year, versus $10.99). An individual can even buy a specific brand name with .co as long as they don’t use it to sell the same product. By way of example: a private citizen named Franklin Fox could buy fox.co and use it as his personal site. Franklin Fox could not, however, use fox.co as a news and media website.

Lori Anne Wardi, director of the .co registry, says that .co names have already been bought up by some key brands. In addition, potentially appealing names have been bought, which creates a secondary market, and that’s where a company like Sedo steps in to auction a name off. GoDaddy, though it also resells, focuses on the brand new, never-used domain names, which go at the lowest base price.


Free shipping, stock tickers, and Twitter marketing?

One company that Wardi and other .co flag-wavers tout is Overstock.com, which bought o.co and has made a concerted effort to brand that separately. When you visit o.co, you now see a slightly different landing page from overstock.com. CEO Patrick Byrne suggests that o.co could seem more appealing than overstock.com to some brands and buyers. “We see it as a low-risk extension of our brand at this point,” says Byrne. “To help people remember, we’re giving free shipping if you go through o.co.” But whether repeat customers will remember to type o.co instead of overstock.com, even with that incentive, is questionable.

[polldaddy poll=4501226]

In addition to o.co, Wardi says the registry has just closed a deal with Cisco to sell them cs.co, which matches its stock ticker (CSCO). LaSandra Brill, Cisco’s senior manager for social media marketing, says that the main draw of .co was social media outreach. “We have a very active engagement with our customers on Twitter and Facebook,” she says. “Every character counts on Twitter, so I do see other companies jumping on this.” Cisco will use the cs.co to share videos, new products, or show off the most shared Cisco links of the moment.

Twitter has also helped bring cred to .co by purchasing t.co early on and using it as the network’s URL-shortener. Politico and Angel List have done the same with politi.co and angel.co, respectively.

Still, it seems doubtful that big brands—with some exceptions—would invest much money or effort in a .co if they already have an established .com presence. Wardi counters: “We are in no way trying to convince major corporations that they should switch their brand. We are saying ‘Hey, that’s fantastic you have your .com domain name, but you can expand your web presence with .co.’”

So is .co going to sell like hotcakes? Sarah Perry, VP of SimpleDomains.com, says it won’t. “Anything other than .com, .edu, or .org are nothing more than money-making schemes for people that own the [domain name] industry,” she says. “They make money for the people that sell them, so from their perspective, they’ll do fine. But from a user standpoint, they’re worthless.” Perry contends that people are naturally inclined to only think in terms of .com, and that it’s unlikely that mindset will change. “Nobody legitimate is going to spend their resources trying to brand the .co, because .com is conditioned to be the one and only extension.”

Perry does see the likelihood that some companies will buy their brand on .co, but thinks it would be merely a defensive measure. “It’ll sit on a shelf and you’ll never hear about it again,” she says.

Sedo, Go Daddy, and those at the registry hope skeptics are wrong, but the current junkyard of other top-level domains makes a compelling case for doubt. There’s a place for .co, but it’s probably as a marketing gimmick and not a replacement for .com. It seems implausible that anyone buying a domain name will go for a .co if they can obtain, or already obtained, their first or even tenth choice with .com at the end. Not even a “.co girl” is likely to change that.

More from Fortune: