QR codes and porn: Heinz learns a domain renewal lesson

As companies use more domain names, this problem will crop up more frequently

ketchup bottle

The slowest ketchup in the west, east, north and south may have retained the slowest domain renewal unit, too, and Heinz learned a painful lesson involving QR codes, Germany and a porn site. 

The lesson, though, is serious business. As companies use more domain names for specialized campaigns and other ostensibly short-lived events, this problem will crop up more frequently. The issue involves letting the domain names expire — or, more precisely, allowing your control over that domain name to expire — once the need goes away. The problem is that in today's age of search engines, YouTube and eBay recirculating marketing items, does a campaign ever really end?

Here's what happened to Heinz. The condiment conglomerate grabbed a German domain (sagsmithheinz.de) for a competition that in English meant "spread the word with Heinz" and that ran from 2012 to 2014. The campaign offered customized ketchup bottle labels to some people who clicked on the QR code printed on the bottles sold at major retailers. Heinz then opted to not renew the name, and the inevitable happened when the name was then purchased by a German porn site.

The lack of domain name renewal loosened the marketing ketchup from the bottle, if you will, but it was the choice to keep using a QR code on Heinz bottles that delivered mobile users to that now pornish domain where things got sticky.

One German ketchup user, Daniel Korell, used his phone to click on the code found on a bottle and was treated to some decidedly non-G-rated content.

"The bottle may be a remnant, but it is certainly still present in many households,” Korell told Heinz, according to a story in The Guardian in the U.K. “It is incomprehensible that you cannot secure the domain for at least one or two years. A .com domain really does not cost the world.”

Heinz then chose to publicly apologize to Korell through Facebook, and to offer him a free customized label and a free bottle of ketchup. 

There are two parts to this domain problem. First, as Korell pointed out, come on, people. Heinz had $11.2 billion in revenue last year and, potentially much more importantly, owes much of that money to being among the world's 100 most valuable brands. (OK, so they came in 96th, but they still made the Top 100.) Brand equals perception. I disagree with Korell with his 2-year argument, though. For bottles that can hang around in stores — or, for that matter, in the back of someone's cupboard — for quite a few years, not so sure that 10 years would be so out-of-line. When protecting one of the world's top brands, it's a decidedly cheap bill to pay.

But fair is fair. The domain registrars play a role here, too. For some ill-advised reason, many of these outfits tend to swarm corporate customers with renewal warnings long before the domain is due for renewal. What is the possible point? To trick some people into renewing early? Within IT circles and with many savvy consumers, this tactic does nothing more than encourage people to ignore such renewal notifications. Then, when the real notification arrives, it is also ignored.

The registrar answer to this is automatic renewals. But that is not always the answer. First, even in situations like Heinz's where the campaign was active, perpetual renewals are a terrible idea for enterprises. What is likely to happen is that personnel will change and the company will unknowingly be paying for a dead domain for many years until someone figures it out.

That change in personnel is a big issue. When someone changes roles or leaves the company, it's not likely that their farewell transition memo will include "and here is a list of domain names that need to be renewed over the next few years." The same hole that causes auto-renewed domain names to be paid unnecessarily for years also allows legit names to expire.

The other problem with automatic renewals is that companies today rightly will grab lots of domain names, many of which they'll never use. For example, the team may be considering a dozen different names for a potential product. A shrewd manager will use petty cash to lock down all of the candidates. But once a final decision is made, will someone bother to release the names that were not chosen?

There's no easy answer here. Someone in IT needs to know all such domain names and which ones are needed and which ones are not. Having a monthly review of all domain names is not a horrible idea. It sure beats sending your customers to a porn site.

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