What Marketers Should Learn From Internet Industry's Anti-SOPA Campaign

Plenty Of Internet Companies Will Feel the Impact of ICANN, But Marketers Haven't Engaged Them

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In case you missed it, January 18 was Internetageddon, the day some sites big (Wikipedia) and small went dark in protests over the Stop Online Piracy Act. By the end of the day, headlines spoke of sweet success: Sunk! How Hollywood Lost the PR Battle Over SOPA.

This euphoria was juxtaposed against a headline that ran just a few days earlier: ICANN gTLD Machine Grinds Into Action, providing sad testament to the marketing's industry failure to stop ICANN's rightly criticized new gTLD Program.

The contrast was startling and seemed to reflect a deeper malaise plaguing our industry as we evolve to leverage this technologically dense marketing landscape. Let's deconstruct what happened in each case.

I first encountered the topic of ICANNs gTLD Program via an impassioned email from the nonprofit CADNA. It asked my help to spread the word in the marketing industry since the stakes were high and brands/agencies seemed to be in the dark. I agreed to help because I appreciated what was in play (my Bell Labs experience was a distinct advantage).

I asked my marketing buddies at large multinational companies what they knew. Their answers revealed a lack of depth, which was troublesome since marketers would be saddled with figuring out what to do with gTLDs once acquired. I then called friends at the largest agencies asking what they were doing to help their clients with this. Their answers revealed an utter lack of concern. Some agencies told me ANA was handling it so it was not their focus. Others sent me their white papers -- shallow documents containing lots of inaccuracies, clearly reflecting the work of some unfortunate junior AE who got stuck with this assignment. The agencies' apathy was discouraging as they seemed content to stay out of the fray. ANA was largely on its own and so, it seemed, was I.

During August and September, I tried to get the ANA to take me up on my offer to activate industry support. My friends at large companies, themselves ANA members, lobbied on my behalf. None of us received a response and the reason was clear: ANA had a full plate managing its "all or nothing" campaign calling for ICANN to withdraw the program. It was a high-risk strategy given that ICANN is a global consensus organization not easily influenced by a single stakeholder organization (especially a U.S. one). Worse, time was not on ANA's side with the January 12 deadline looming.

By October, no visible progress was made, so I agreed to help CADNA organize a conference of its own with two goals: 1) educate the marketing world about gTLDs; 2) submit provisional changes to ICANN to mitigate some of the program's worst parts. Again, we reached out to ANA to participate "anyway they wanted" but again we received no response.

On November 1, CADNA held its "What's at Stake" conference with keynote Esther Dyson. More than 100 marketing and trademark folks were in attendance. I kept wishing ANA had come and that agencies would begin to support the community and ANA more overtly. Mostly, though, I kept trying to banish my gnawing worry: "What if the ANA fails?"

As December rolled around, ANA upped the ante with another muscle move, organizing many large companies to join them in a Washington bid to get politicians to back their efforts. While they did get a sympathetic reception, this effort failed: U.S. gov't official: ICANN plan should move forward.

That brings us up to date. Right on schedule, on January 12, ICANN's new gTLD Program kicked into gear. This whole episode left many marketers scrambling -- a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Now, let's compare this to the SOPA battle. In October, I first see a tweet about SOPA from Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group. By November, the thread is picked by the twitteratti, like Shel Israel, and media outlets such as TechCrunch. The momentum continued in December as other high-profile VCs like Fred Wilson sport an anti-SOPA banner on their Twitter picture (created by the BlackOutSOPA.org from Hunter Walk and Gregor Hochmuth) .

I note the lack of any overarching organization yet the groundswell noticeably gains traction. In late December, Ben Huh, CEO of the popular Cheezburger Network, declared via Twitter: "We will move our 1,000 domains @godaddy unless you drop support for SOPA." The story was picked up by TechCrunch and helped launch a migration of 37,000 sites from GoDaddy, causing CEO Warren Adelman to cry uncle. "We observed a spike in domain-name transfers, which are running above normal rates and which we attribute to GoDaddy's prior support for SOPA, which was reversed," he said. This was then followed by the aforementioned Internetageddon. It was a day of triumph.

Now one could hardly overlook the contrast in outcomes between these efforts, which is why I wanted to understand if the anti-SOPA campaign was as "ad hoc" as it appeared to be. I turned to Brad Feld, Fred Wilson and Ben Huh -- some of the most visible voices in this fight -- for answers. Feld explained: "I just started blogging about it, tweeting about it … I talked to law professors like Phil Weiser, Dean of CU Boulder, and head of Silicon Flatirons to make sure I understand what was actually going on. The more I dug in, the worse it got." I then asked Huh what he did to get TechCrunch to cover his tweet of protest; "I didn't do anything… They just wrote about it. I didn't find out until I was reading TechCrunch."

That's when I could put my finger on a key variable that helped shape the different outcomes. ANA was largely on their own. It fought the old fashioned way, using press releases and lobbying efforts of the "few" to impact behaviors of the "many" (in this case ICANN as a global organization).

The SOPA battle, by contrast, was fought and won by "the many" through applied pressure to the "few."

The takeaway was the reality that the older tactics are quickly giving way to a new order -- applicable whether you're promoting a brand or advocating for a cause. These two battles also provided a lens into how well (or not) our industry is acclimating to this new marketing world.

It's an urgent lesson we must learn -- and fast.

Judy Shapiro is CEO/ founder of engageSimply; a digital marketing technology venture and chief brand advisor at CloudLinux. Judy has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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