Mason Cole directs public relations for Oversee.net and its operating divisions and is responsible for Oversee’s relationships with ICANN, trade associations, and partner companies. He directs the company’s intellectual property efforts and has secured seventeen patents in the United States, Canada, and China. He joined SnapNames in 2001 as Vice President of Marketing and was editor and publisher of the respected State of the Domain industry analysis newsletter. His previous experience includes marketing and public relations responsibilities in agency and corporate roles. He lives in Oregon with his family and enjoys traveling, aviation, and competitive swimming.
Q. Noting that you first joined Oversee’s subsidiary, SnapNames, in 2001, this year then marks your 10th anniversary with Oversee.net. Can you briefly describe the ten-year evolution of the company from a startup pioneer in a fledging industry to its position today as the leader in monetizing, registering, selling and developing domain names, coined by Oversee, as Internet Real Estate(tm)?
A. I started with SnapNames at a time when very few recognized the inherent value of domain names as assets. Those that did have turned some of those names into formidable properties and businesses on the Internet.
SnapNames’ role was to help those people (and lots of others) acquire the domain names they were interested in. Oversee, which purchased SnapNames in 2007, began not long after SnapNames, and was founded by two men who very clearly understood the concept of online real estate. They had formed a very successful “monetization” service where domain name holders could provide relevant information and links tothose searching for specific data by using the domain name itself as the navigation tool.
By the end of 2008, when Oversee had put together a complete collection of domain name-related functions, the marketplace fully understood how valuable brandable words are in domain names, and the marketplace for these names was growing quickly. We had evidence of this, naturally. Oversee has sold or brokered single names for million-dollar figures. So we started talking about our capabilities and were attracting some business media attention.
The online real estate comparison was just an easy way for us to make a sometimes arcane concept understandable to consumers and businesses. In our relationships with the media, it let us describe what we did and why it was relevant in a way that got head nods from editors. Since then, we’ve talked about that concept very broadly, and it always helps bear fruit in our discussions, no matter who we’re talking to.
Today, Oversee is widely recognized as the industry’s thought leader. Our brands include DomainSponsor(r) (domain name monetization), SnapNames.com(r) (daily auctions of useful domain names), Moniker.com(r) (domain name registration and security), and the DOMAINfest(r) series of conferences in the U.S. and Europe. Those companies help customers buy, sell, broker, auction and monetize domain names. We also own and operate several vertical market-focused businesses, including LowFares.com(r) (travel), CreditCards.org (consumer finance) and ShopWiki.com(r) (comparison shopping).
Q. Can you discuss the many positions/responsibilities that you have held at Oversee over these ten years and how your view on marketing has evolved over time?
A. I joined SnapNames to handle communications and PR, and to edit and distribute an industry newsletter titled State of the Domain. The newsletter became popular beyond our expectations. At that time, it was the only tool anyone had for monitoring the growth and development of the domain name industry. I spent a ridiculous amount of time getting the statistics together, verified and ready for publication, never mind also writing and editing the articles. Once we published, which was monthly, I was on the phone for another solid week talking about the numbers with the investment analysts trying to understand what they meant for the markets, and with reporters, trying to understand what they meant for this burgeoning industry. It was great credibility for SnapNames and it attracted both customers and partners, as we were the only company speaking with any industry-wide authority status.
I was simultaneously handling PR for our products and services. By 2004, SnapNames had endured a layoff and some management changes, and we were preparing to update our service offering to meet some challenges from competitors. State of the Domain was taking a disproportionate amount of my time as well as of a few of my colleagues, so we elected to stop publication. It was the right move. We had established our credibility (not just through that publication), and others were getting into the stats game. We needed to focus on managing the company.
I continued handling communications and PR, but our management team was running lean. In a previous life, I worked for a Congressman in Washington, and industry regulatory issues were moving to the fore, so I began monitoring legislation and establishing relationships in Washington. Our company testified before both, the House and Senate, on Internet governance issues. Our industry is closely coordinated by a quasi-government non-profit (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers-ICANN) that meets three times yearly, and I have attended those meetings since 2003, addressing the non-government side of industry regulation.
Also, SnapNames had filed for patent protection for its products, but for whatever reason, no one was shepherding the applications along. I’m not a patent lawyer, but I gave it a try and, with help from our firm, we have since secured 18 patents from the US, Canada and China.
We grew the business nicely for the next couple of years and then in 2007 were acquired by Oversee.net, a Los Angeles-based company with operations in all parts of a domain name’s life cycle-registration, buying, selling, auctioning, brokerage, lead gen, and monetization. I moved into the VP Communications and Industry Relations role for the parent company, managing the company-wide PR and government relations efforts, and have been there for the past four years. I also now serve as chair of the Registrar Stakeholder Group (RrSG, in ICANN lingo) within ICANN, a group that represents about 1,000 domain name registrars worldwide in the Internet policymaking arenas.
My view on marketing hasn’t changed very much, honestly. The tools of marketing have changed in the past ten years, to be sure, but the premise of marketing hasn’t. In my experience, authenticity is the key to success. If you have an outstanding product or service, it usually “speaks” louder than anything you can spin. To successfully market and communicate, you need to understand your market exceedingly well before you sell into it. When I was in agencies, I used to ask clients to talk only about what they understood about marketplace pain for the first hour of our initial meetings, then tell me what they had created to alleviate that pain.
Q. As today’s Vice President of Communications and Industry Relations for Oversee.net, how is your department structured in order to encompass the company’s many subsidiaries as well as the gamut of communication disciplines that include public affairs and also intellectual property (patents) interests?
A. We still run pretty lean. The PR team is my very talented colleague in Los Angeles, Corinne Forti and me (I’m in Oversee’s Portland, Ore. Office). We have an agency in Washington DC that is highly specialized in this industry and handles PR support, while also advising us on industry governance. Oversee has a very strong marketing team led by the highly capable Aaron Kvitek, and our departments work to support each others’ efforts and make sure messages are always in agreement.
Anyone managing a function like this one, would always like to have additional resources. Since I don’t for now, Corinne and I frequently consult with the business leaders to make sure we have good information flowing to us. We also make it a point to talk to the sales teams, resources which I believe PR practitioners should use far more often to understand what’s happening in customers’ minds. So even if we’re sometimes stretched thin, we have a great network inside the company that helps make things efficient
Q. In what way does your position interact/collaborate with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)?
A. I interact with ICANN very frequently. Even if I didn’t chair the RrSG, ICANN’s role has grown so large that it’s hard to imagine it could be ignored. The hurdle for participation at ICANN is very low, and the organization attracts all kinds of people, so it’s growing all the time and taking on more and more policy work-more — than it can thoughtfully manage, really. Even governments are understanding how valuable domain name assets are. They’re portals for economic growth, intellectual property protection, education, and other functions. They have significantly increased their participation in ICANN. So has law enforcement, as they’ve looked to the ICANN and the domain name system to help combat crime.
Increasingly, all kinds of varied interests are looking to ICANN to help satisfy their agendas, at least partly through the domain name system, that includes ours. So on Oversee’s behalf, we interact with ICANN in a way that sorts through those agendas and identifies ways to work inside the ICANN policymaking process to take advantage of opportunities and deal with threats.
Q. Since Oversee’s competition can come from many sources, how do you market against so many fragmented messages and voices in the marketplace?
A. It’s a good question. Actually, I think the fact that the marketplace is so full of fragmented messages, gave us an opportunity to speak clearly when others didn’t always. As the Internet ramped up, online commerce was a scattershot of providers, each one trying to get a message across.
When we understood we had a pretty complete collection of services, we stayed mostly out of the tactical “buy my e-mail service” or “our domain name registrar is better” kinds of messages and, in PR, talked more about where the industry was headed in a macro sense, and what it meant for businesses and consumers. It was clearer, less cluttered and easy for everyone to understand, and it made us stand out against the other guys.
Also, our operations and marketing teams are extremely diligent in what we learn from customers. We have a very good set of data from opt-in customers, and we’ve worked really hard to give them the information they’re looking for. So by executing very well across all our product lines, we not only have a good reputation with our customers, we deliver what’s extremely relevant to them at the right moment. We always try to validate a customer’s reason for doing business with us every chance we get. Talking about yourself is one kind of marketing. Doing something particularly valuable is the better kind.