Everyone knows that websites start with www and, if asked, most people would have made the connection that www abbreviation stands for worldwide web. Yet, although people understand that the 3Ws mean 'website', we're pretty certain that far fewer people know what the 3Ws actually do.
Yesterday I saw a genuinely lovely bit of warm and playful marketing when buying a box of chocolates in Thorntons for Mrs W. The warmth came in the form of a welcome message displayed on a chip and pin credit card machine that read: "Welcome to Thorntons mmm.thorntons.co.uk"
You may be forgiven for thinking that the use of mmm is merely a playful inversion of www, some kind of jape by a couple of geeks who work in Thorntons' IT department, because it may also surprise you to learn that mmm.thorntons.co.uk could actually operate as a fully functioning website. The mmm prefix is technically referred to as a sub-domain and, used creatively, a sub-domain can be a most useful marketing tool.
As I was taking a photo of the chip & pin terminal (which, I admit, does sound totally nerdy), the sales assistant serving me mentioned that Thorntons also used to have that mmm.thorntons.co.uk URL printed on their carrier bags too. Replacing www with mmm was a lovely bit of marketing yet the disappearance of the mmm from carrier bags suggests that, no matter how lovely, it wasn't particularly effective at and this is a real pity. My guess is that the subtlety of mmm was lost on the majority of people who don't know what a sub-domain does.
When an individual or a company registers a domain name, thorntons.co.uk for instance, they secure a kind of online digital signpost that they're able to use creatively and point in any direction. Once registered, email addresses can be setup; by putting someone's name and an @ symbol to the left of the domain name, email can be sent to a specific person and the same goes for sub-domains. By putting a sub-domain (such as www) to the left of the domain name then website visitors can be sent to a specific website. The website at mmm.thorntons.co.uk can be a totally different website to the one found at www.thorntons.co.uk. In fact, websites don't even need sub-domains but convention and habit dictates that www is nearly always used as the default address.
As an increasing amount of people browse websites using mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets so an increasing number of approaches are emerging to ensure that the right website is served. Visit Thorntons' website on your mobile and you'll see that you are sent to m.thorntons.co.uk - the website recognises that you're using a mobile and so it sends you to a dedicated mobile website because it knows the needs and requirements of the mobile user will differ from those of a user browsing with a desktop or laptop.
Your domain name is capable of so much more than you use it for right now and clever use of a sub-domain is the key that opens a door to a world of possibilities. Your domain name is a very valuable business asset and, the more you use it, the stronger your brand becomes. Using a sub-domain means that you are able to keep your website clean so that your core business proposition is laid out under the www website but that promotions, incentive schemes, surveys, competitions, blogs, deals and discounts can be managed under individual websites accessed simply with a corresponding sub-domain
Just as telephone number prefixes have had to change and grow over the years to provide more capacity, so too are domain names about to change to increase the capacity of the worldwide web. In the coming months a whole new batch of domain names will flood the marketplace and less than scrupulous salespeople will be trying to tell you that you must buy a .uk domain name to strengthen your brand and protect your business. Rubbish.
It's not essential to own every permutation of domain name and marketing multiple domain names isn't clever, it simply sends out mixed messages. Although people are still coming to terms with sub-domains, marketing with sub-domains is something people willingly use and accept and will not question in the same way that they'd question the difference between a .co.uk and a .com domain.
As domain names change and online competition increases you will need to adopt clever ways of marketing your business to differentiate it and make it stand-out from the competition. If you value the importance of a clean website that is easy to use then you'll understand how important it is not to try to cram everything into one webpage or website and will now appreciate the contribution that a sub-domain can make.