Top level domains, such as dotBerlin or dotParis, can become power marketing tools

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Top level domains to become
powerful city marketing tools

By Dirk Krischenowski

21 May 2010: The internet has become one of the most important marketing and branding tools for cities worldwide. In an age when Google search results often determine marketing success or failure, cities must find unique selling propositions (USPs) on the net to safeguard their global digital competitiveness. In this article, Dirk Krischenowski examines how future city and regional top-level domains (TDLs), such as dotBerlin or dotParis, can become powerful marketing tools.

| Introduction | Central thesis | Virtual city identities | Communities and human identity | City branding | Criteria and costs | Top-level city domains | The dotBerlin initiative | Risks and opportunities | Additional thoughts |

From 2011 onwards the US-based internet administration organization ICANN will introduce new generic top-level domains. It is expected that cities and regions as well as companies and other organizations will apply for extensions like .berlin, .quebec, .canon or .hotel.

Top-level domains with a city focus like .berlin, .nyc or .paris (so-called city-TLDs) will allow intuitive domain names such as, or to become a reality from next year. The United Nations internet Governance Forum dedicated a workshop solely to this topic at its annual meeting in Rio de Janeiro in November 2007. It is expected that the localized domain names will enhance communication, ease interaction, and make a city’s resources more readily accessible for people in that city and worldwide.

Additionally, the city-TLDs open up profitable opportunities - not only for the digital city branding in terms of touristic destination, business location, and habitat. They also fit into the pattern of creating uniqueness and a modern image for a city.

As they will be used for domain names or in email addresses by inhabitants, companies and administration, the city-TLDs have the potential to generate long-term, growth and sustainable attention and a positive attitude for the respective city name globally. In this way the countable contacts with the city name could easily reach the vast figures of billions a year.

This makes city-TLDs a powerful city branding and public diplomacy tool. Being used as a part of a city’s internal branding strategy, a cityTLD is expected to create and support local identity for enterprises, institutions, and individuals and may result in a stronger sense of community.

It is feasible that the particular city’s external marketing strategy and the creation of a maximum branding value could be substantially supported by communication activities which include domain names of the type or

In the context of public diplomacy a cityTLD may be used to emphasize and sustain political aims in foreign publics by an own identity and voice on the internet. City governments could support the goals of their local communities by communicating digital leadership, economic prosperity or cultural and linguistic ideas and ideals within a globalised world.

The following central thesis describes and assesses the opportunities and risks of the forthcoming city-TLDs and will summarize how city-TLDs will shape the (digital) face of cities:

Central thesis
1) With worldwide enhanced internet access the importance of digital branding and the marketing of cities will grow strongly in comparison with other existing communication tools and channels. Public diplomacy is also affected by the changing environment.

2) Top-level domains signifying cities - so-called city-TLDs - are an emerging but important development for the global and local internet society. Their impact will become visible from 2011 onwards. Cities, regions, cultural and linguistic communities will in particular lead the development.

3) In their being used for domain names or in email addresses, city-TLDs have the potential to generate more contacts with the name of the city in question than any other communication channel. By this means, city-TLDs can become one of the most important devices for digital city branding and a powerful instrument for all over city branding.

4) Cities will be able to generate a significant advantage and create a unique destination proposition in the worldwide competition of places by using a cityTLD in their strategies. city-TLDs will not offer all cities similar opportunities, since cities known worldwide will profit most.

5) City-TLDs offer significant opportunities for the branding of cities and public diplomacy issues because of a broad spectrum of possible applications. By their flexible nature city-TLDs can be easily integrated into existing city branding strategies and support them.

6) Through their strong local identification character top-level domains have the potential for outstanding acceptance and usage in the respective city community. This makes them an ideal instrument for internal city branding.

7) In public diplomacy city-TLDs may be used to emphasize and sustain political aims in foreign publics by an own identity and voice on the internet. By taking advantage of city-TLDs, city governments will be able to make use of a powerful tool to support local community goals in communicating digital leadership, economic prosperity or cultural and linguistic ideas and ideals within a globalized world.

8) The tremendous long-term and sustainable benefits that city-TLDs offer for city branding and public diplomacy by far outweigh potential and often theoretical risks and threats.

9) City-TLDs are more a bottom-up than top-down city branding tool, since it is the people and their organizations that make up the success of the city-TLD for a particular city because they are its ambassadors.

10. The areas where city-TLDs are most beneficial include internal and external city branding as tourist destinations, business locations, and habitat. Then there is public diplomacy, e-government, community self-esteem and the creation of local value chains.

Virtual identities for cities
Domain names are the main place to maintain a permanent identity in the internet today. Companies and individuals, as well as political parties and civil administrations, rely on domains that are easy to communicate with, are as intuitive as possible and are semantically comprehensible - for the internet has long become a fundamental channel of communications.

The number of domains required increases as the number of users increase and as the internet spreads - currently in excess of 15 per cent per year globally. The namespace for the German community under the top-level domain .de now includes over 13 million domains and has thus become somewhat "crowded", as each domain can only be issued once. This is no surprise, as everyone would like (as with personalized car number plates) to have a domain which is short, descriptive and easy to remember. However .com, by far the most popular top-level domain with over 84 million domains, also offers a global identity for hundreds of different languages and communities.

At the same time, with increasing emphasis on regional, local and personal aspects of the internet, a mega trend has developed which provides a natural counterbalance to the dreams of globalization from the internet's early years. Regional self-confidence and independent regional administration are growing in significance, both in developing countries and industrialized states. These trends are reflected in economic, cultural and socio-political aspects and encompass many business models and value creation chains. Local searches and location-based services are good examples of this “hyperlocal” development.

With this emphasis on cities and regions, a natural need arises for local addressing, which means local domains and namespaces. The extensions of the internet’s namespace, also called the Domain Name System (DNS), is in this context one of the major challenges presented to ICANN (the internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the administrative organization responsible for the management and approval of top-level internet domains.

Communities are the basis of human identity
 “Everybody wants to belong to a tribe.” This is an essential human truth. But while city and regional communities have replaced the tribe, the notion will always apply to any group that develops common aims and understandings, shares experiences, and either possesses or develops its own identity. Communities benefit from the fundamental idea that all members make a contribution to its success by active participation.

At the same time, whether intended or unintended, everyone is a member of multiple communities. For example, someone may be a Berliner, a German, a European, a party member, a member of a football club, a dog owner, an Audi driver and today has a profile on Xing or Facebook. In many communities, people have to use their correct names. It is, however, in our nature (as we do in carnivals) to wear a disguise and to adopt a new identity. The space created by the internet offers numerous opportunities, which users exploit happily and in many different ways. One may thus be called LonelyStar15 at YouTube, have a private, second identity with, communicate for work using and have one’s own family homepage under

Top-level domains can be an attribute which endows identity and which contributes to the shaping of a community and its members and to further develop it. If top-level domains are introduced to the respective community members in an intelligent way, they integrate the top-level domains into their daily lives. This can result in strong feelings of identity, of pride, and of being at one with a community - as can be seen with the top-level domain .cat introduced in 2005 for the Catalan language and cultural community.

City branding in the information age
By marketing throughout the entire world, top-level domains can create a product with a clear brand. New York shows how brands can help to extend the identity of a city with slogans like "Big Apple", "I love NY" and perhaps soon .nyc. The values externally associated with a city can cover both modern and traditional aspects: sustainability, variety, self-fulfilment, openness, potential and opportunities.

In the information age, the city is home to the so-called creative class, whose creativity and innovative powers are essential for economic prosperity. Planners, engineers, marketers, artists - in general, people with ideas form this social class. For a city like Berlin, which lost great parts of its former industrial base through the Second World War and the divisions of the Cold War and globalization, they are critical to its survival. The norms of the creative class change society as a whole – with individuality and openness for diversity at the core instead of conformity and homogeneity.

Competition for the creative class is global. According to Thomas Friedmann and Richard Florida, one old rule no longer holds good: people once went to the cities to find work, but now the creative class go to cities because there they find cultural offerings, restaurants, clubs, a tolerant climate, or even bicycle paths. Studies have shown that cities with a well developed brand such as New York and Paris grow because of their diversity. Yet, such success is not planned but has grown organically. Successful cities have an interesting history that has allowed change, progress and diversity. A good relationship between the citizens and their respective administration is also characteristic of successful city brands. This is helpful, considering the fact that each citizen is a walking advertisement for the city. The active presentation of its positive attributes strengthens a city brand. A city domain extension that is being used by a city’s citizens and institutions in their everyday communications can aid significantly to this process.

Criteria and costs
The Domain Name System (DNS) was developed in several stages and so far includes two categories of top-level domains (TLDs): “Generic top-level domains” (gTLDs) and "country code top-level domains” (ccTLDs), which are aligned to the ISO standard 3166. There is no technical difference between ccTLDs and gTLDs.

ICANN plays a central role in the creation of new top-level domains. One of ICANN's main tasks is to extend and diversify the namespace with new top-level domains. So far there have been two rounds of extensions, in 2000 and in 2004, where 14 new top-level domains such as .info and .tel were approved, though there were applications for more than 200 endings. In December 2005 ICANN decided to introduce additional top-level domains. Applications are expected to be accepted from the start of 2011. The first new city top-level domains like .berlin (spoken: dotBERLIN) should then go online towards the end of 2011.

The previous rounds of approvals have shown a tendency to develop the namespace in two directions. On the one hand, top-level domains with a generic nature (.info, .mobi, .job etc.) and, on the other hand top-level domains with a local, geographic or cultural nature (.eu, .cat, .asia etc.).

The application process for a city top-level domain is not a matter of course. Applicants have to meet a variety of technical, operational, economic and political criteria and must demonstrate that their suggestion has the support of the community concerned. Support or at least a statement of non-objection of the respective city government, as well as that of the relevant national government, is also mandatory for an application. In many cases the high cost of an application (around US$ 500,000 to US$ 1 million) and the annual operational costs for the top-level domain (around the same) means that applications for communities with a population of less than half a million people are scarcely economically feasible.

City top-level domains as the next big thing?
A domain name plays an important role in the online and offline communication of one’s own identity within the community to which a person belongs or would like to belong. However, the choice for 6.9 billion people, over 6,000 languages and cultures and numerous other communities at the top-level, is currently restricted to about 250 country codes such as .de and to about 20 generic endings such as .com, .info or .biz. Many communities do not find themselves adequately reflected in the internet addressing and thus find ways around it. In Germany, the term "berlin" is used in over 100,000 domains (such as so as to demonstrate that they belong to the Berlin community. The synonym "nyc" can be found in over 300,000 domain names.

Statistical data from the internet Systems Consortium (ISC) also demonstrate that a city like Berlin has many more registrations than over 150 countries having their own top-level domain. So far, however, neither Berlin nor other large cities, nor comparably large regions or cultural communities, have their own top-level domains.

These numbers make it clear why large cities such as Tokyo, New York or Berlin, but also conurbations such as the German Ruhr region, which has more inhabitants and economic power than many nation states, need their own internet address space. So-called GeoTLDs, in other words top-level domains using geographic or geopolitical terms such as .berlin, .florida or .bali, can develop an individual identity in the internet for the cities or regions concerned, providing new opportunities for development for individuals, companies and institutions.

This need for local addressing has led, for example, to the German borough of Rosenheim reaching an agreement with the operators of the top-level country domain for Romania (.ro), to be able to use this top-level domain for the internet presence of the public administration in Rosenheim ( - The city of Rosenheim has 60,000 inhabitants). Similar dual use can also be seen with the endings .la (used for Los Angeles) .by (e.g. as for the Bavarian tourism marketing board) or .sh (for the German federal state Schleswig-Holstein).

ICANN expects that the community top-level domains, and here particularly for cities, regions and culture and language groups, will play a major part in future applications.

The dotBerlin initiative
DotBerlin (.berlin) is a bottom-up initiative of Berliners for their own top-level domain on the internet, taking into account the interests of Berliners worldwide. The basis of the .berlin community is the people who identify themselves with the name Berlin. This includes citizens, companies and organizations from Germany’s capital city Berlin, other cities and villages with the name Berlin, people who were born in a Berlin or who work in a Berlin or its immediate vicinity. It also includes people with personal, social, cultural, economic or other relationships to a Berlin, as well as people with the surname Berlin. dotBERLIN GmbH & Co. KG (a Limited Liability Limited Partnership) has initiated this project and will apply for .berlin at ICANN in the name of this entire community.

dotBERLIN was founded in July 2005. Currently over 100 organizations and persons that represent the community of Berliners – for example, chambers, guilds, city organizations, ICANN-accredited internet providers, tourism organizations, hotels associations, SMEs and citizens, are partners or sponsors of dotBERLIN. dotBERLIN’s advisory board has a consultative and supporting position for the approval activities and for the subsequent operation of the top-level domain .berlin. The advisory board also helps to anchor, in a socially responsible way, the top-level domain .berlin in the Berlin community made up of political, commercial, cultural, social and individual interests. It also advises dotBERLIN on the issuing of domains, taking account of the various interests fairly and transparently. The heterogeneous composition of the advisory board can make use of a variety of experience, knowledge and contacts.

The local addresses available with .berlin are concise and create an identity for citizens, companies and institutions. Those providing and looking for information, goods and services can thus intuitively come together. The .berlin domains strengthen the feeling of community among Berliners, improve communication and make interaction easier, thus providing a stimulus for innovation and development. Both for Berliners and non-Berliners, places called Berlin become more attractive as a place to visit, as a commercial location and as a place to live.

Risks and opportunities using dotBerlin as an example
Individual namespace. The limited number of domains that can currently be sensibly used has led to a unique competition. The increasing number of disputes about domains is an indicator that the top-level domains existing so far do not suffice to provide individuals, organizations and communities with sufficient choice. At least for the Berlin community, this need can be satisfied with a top-level domain .berlin and the theoretically unlimited selection of new domains associated with that.

Benefits to city marketing and the competitive advantage. Today, cities and regions compete with one another at national and international level in the fields of politics, culture, tourism, investment, export and population. A top-level domain for Berlin creates explicit attention. It is a flexible instrument of communication and as part of the internet infrastructure is an ongoing advantage for Berlin's external city marketing. Through web sites such as, or, what Berlin has to offer becomes intuitively accessible for people worldwide. Through the use of numerous .berlin domains, such as in email traffic, free branding takes place. By this a top-level domain can be a real “Unique Destination Proposition”, for which cities are searching.

Internal community branding. For Berlin and the Berliners .berlin offers a new space for expression and development and provides an independent voice in the global internet. The experience of a top-level domain .berlin can be an internal marketing instrument, leading to a strong sense of community, to a clear sense of identity and to more self-confidence within the Berlin community. It can be an independent brand, which is also supported by the population because all can use it in their daily lives and will see it in advertising.

Economic potential. With .berlin new competitive opportunities in e-commerce will be created for the local internet economy, especially through new portals for community- related enterprises and in areas previously linked to a generic or to a country top-level domain. would thus have a good chance of wresting a significant market share from or Importantly, the new namespace will lead to a value added chain within the community that includes registration services, technical infrastructure, web services, design, advertising and a domain after market.

Intuitive use and semantic comprehensibility. City top-level domains offer the opportunity of structuring a top-level domain from the bottom up. Through the opportunity of devolving domains of public or community interest, many of the common expressions can be used more intuitively and have a semantic meaning for the user. This includes terms from certain sectors such as or terms from the public sector such as Particularly for digital public services (e-government), an efficient naming infrastructure can be established with which individuals and companies can more easily gain access to administrative resources, and which can quickly be located by a regional, local and international public.

Opportunity for all to participate. City portals such as are single addresses for the city and its institutions in the internet. Companies, organizations and individuals cannot actively influence this city address owing to legal and regulatory reasons. In future, city top-level domains such as .berlin and the numerous resulting .berlin domains will represent an identity for every single inhabitant, and for its companies and organizations. The .berlin domains reach the entire community, right out to its most remote member. City top-level domains can open up a whole range of opportunities for all people to participate in the urban community and to engage in social networking.

Quality when searching. A structured city top-level domain can make easier navigation a reality. One example: every domain owner could have the option of entering their domain in horizontal and vertical categories at the city portal and to thus network with other domain owners.

Death of the city portal? The top-level domain .berlin is not a city portal. Nevertheless, critics have expressed their reservations that a top-level domain .berlin will make the city portal superfluous. However, the opposite is true. The city address will remain the first address for residents and visitors, as with the top-level domain .berlin, sensible infrastructure for residents will be created which supplements, making access easier via intuitive domains such as Apart from that, there is an excellent opportunity through the continuing cooperation between and .berlin for to broaden its base and to further extend its leadership as the metropolitan portal in regional, national and international circles. For, .berlin represents a unique opportunity to position itself in the innovative trend in city top-level domains by being a first-mover worldwide, thus setting new standards.

Endangering the stability of the internet? In a well-respected study "Signposts in Cyberspace" from 2005, the US Congress had an investigation conducted into how many top-level domains could be approved without endangering the stability and security of the worldwide internet. The study concluded that the introduction of dozens of top-level domains per year presented no technical problems. In an interview at CNET, then ICANN head Vint Cerf spoke of 10,000 possible top-level domains. Former ICANN Board member Dr. Hagen Hultzsch told members of the German parliament (Bundestag), representatives of the government and EU representatives at a parliamentary event in February 2007 in Berlin that there was no problem with ICANN approving 10,000 top-level domains. The domain name system (DNS) today includes well over 180 million second-level domains below about 270 top-level domains. In theory, just as many top-level domains as second-level domains could be operated. By the way, top-level domains can have a length of up to 63 characters, so .oberammergau would present no difficulties.

Will the internet user be confused? It is constantly asserted that new top-level domains would confuse internet users. Representative studies across Germany in 2007 investigated this question for the first time and concluded that (particularly for descriptive top-level domains such as .info, .jobs or .museum) internet users would have a semantic understanding. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of internet users stated that regional top-level domains could help to allocate public services, businesses and other city resources much better than today. For .berlin, the majority of the approximately 8,000 people questioned presumed that internet sites under .berlin would be commercial or private websites relating to Berlin – that is, about and from Berlin and by Berliners. The question of confusion can thus clearly be answered with a ‘No’. Confusing the user by the abuse of official terms such as or can be prevented right from the start by reserving, and thus protecting, these terms for the responsible civic authorities.

Can the City of Berlin exercise any influence? The namespace created with the new top-level domain .berlin has a higher level significance, as far as sovereignty goes, as a lasting and sustainable internet infrastructure for the local authority of the City of Berlin, the Berlin economy and Berlin residents at local, national and international level. To take account of Berlin's multi-faceted interests, despite the legally required private commercial operation, cooperation is desirable to ensure that the process of assigning .berlin domains is transparent, free from discrimination and accords with the market. This should take account of the interests of Berlin and its institutions, the economy and tourism - in that corresponding domains will be exclusively reserved for those interests. It should also be ensured that as a preventive measure, domains that are suitable for use with a racist content or for content liable to corrupt the young or to incite hatred, will be excluded from being freely registered. It is not possible to completely prevent abuse. Damage to the image of the county and city is, however, not to be expected by this, as internet users (as with our country top-level domain .de) do not presume that this is administered by the state or by the local authority.

Will .berlin break up the hierarchy of the internet? A hierarchy only actually exists in that on ICANN's central computer, about 270 top-level domains have been entered and that all are at the same of hierarchical level. A real hierarchy does exist in the nomenclature of the domain itself e.g. as The ending .de is here top-level, "smith" is second-level and so on. In particular, the new domains whose endings mean something to the user (as, for example, with provide intuitive and semantic orientation. The internet does not break up at all.

Must one register a .berlin domain as a company? Whether one wishes to register a .berlin domain for one’s organization depends upon whether or not it is wished to associate the organization, its products or services, with Berlin. certainly makes more sense, probably less so. To take account of the interests of organizations within .berlin, there will be a priority registration phase for the owners of trademarks.

Is it only Berlin that wants a top-level domain? Just as Catalonia with .cat has set a trend towards top-level domains for cultural and language communities, .berlin is a pioneer for city top-level domains and is, with other initiatives such as .nyc (New York City, USA) or .paris, one of the driving forces for this new category of top-level domains.

Additional thoughts
Even in the age of Web 2.0, mass collaboration and the long tail, enough fundamental values of our society remain and can even flourish anew through the new tools. The effort towards an individual namespace is an outstanding example of how the basic force of communities can be developed on the internet. For city communities their own top-level domains are valuable devices for branding inside the community as well as for external marketing.

From 2011 there will regularly be new top-level domains. In our communications we will have to learn how to deal with them as we do with new websites, car brands or yoghurts, but with this small difference: top-level domains are basically designed for eternity.

Now there seems to be no doubt that the trend to individual namespaces for city communities will succeed. The opportunities clearly outweigh the risks and concerns. Whether and to what extent the new city top-level domains can create sustainable added value for the city communities themselves and for internet users worldwide will be revealed when the first candidates go online.

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