Exposure online goes both ways
I hope that you are having a great week.
Today I would like to talk to you a bit about some of the issues that we resolve for clients when it comes to the online space – where infractions can be particularly egregious and often difficult to keep track of.
I think there is something to this, insofar as those looking to make a quick buck online see social selling and online marketplaces as a place where they can quickly scale and operate behind somewhat of a veil of anonymity.
It is something that I tend to repeat a lot – but exposure to online marketplaces not only means rapid opportunity for businesses but also risk – and it can be all too easy to focus on the former and not the latter.
Regardless, online is where the money is made these days, and as such, it is self-sabotage to turn a blind eye to the space when it comes to bad actors who can quickly emerge and have a significant impact on a business’s revenue and reputation.
The maturing of the web
The year is 2023, and we’re living in an online-first world.
This is nothing new.
What is new and constantly shifting are the avenues and tools available to leverage the online space – for good and for bad.
There are several malicious activities that business owners need to be aware of and actively monitor proportionate to the significance of their online presence.
Ultimately, the more you rely on the online space (as we all do) the more you are exposed to the risks.
It is also important to remember that bad actors are professional, and as such the ways and means they make use of are increasing in sophistication year on year.
Here are some of the kinds of things that we see regularly that you should be aware of.
Cybersquatting and website duplication
Probably the most obvious and well-known online horror story. Someone, clones a website wholesale, and through redirection or the capture of web domains that are similar enough to the genuine domain – captures traffic and, for all intents and purposes hijack prospects and leads from the genuine provider.
What's worse, they often operate behind a veil of anonymity and can be difficult to pin down.
The damage here is not only financial, with a proportion of revenue now being diverted to the bad actor – but moreover, reputational as the copycat service is typically subpar and seeking to maximise profit without providing a good service.
This hijacking can happen for some time, and only typically comes to the attention of the genuine provider should enough complaints find their way back to them – which have no relevance to goods or services rendered. By this time, a lot of damage has already, typically, been done.
Domain name capture and traffic hijacking
This one is quite similar to the above, albeit without a cloned website, or one that seeks to directly impersonate the genuine goods or services provider.
Instead, it is a rather cynical approach which uses similar domain names to redirect traffic to alternative providers or sites which may be detrimental to the genuine owner.
In many cases, this may simply be “domain name squatting” where someone grabs a host of domains around an established brand to try and sell them to the genuine owner at a premium.
In other cases, it is more insidious and is more geared towards negatively impacting the genuine owner, and often undertaken by a competitor or malicious actor rather than an opportunist.
Web, Listings and Sales Copyright infringement
Something that we see quite commonly in online sales of larger ticket items and services e.g., windows, home heating systems, as well as product listings on social selling sites and online marketplaces.
Ultimately these web pages tend to drive sales through the use of compelling and persuasive marketing copy – which competitors may often take as “inspiration” (or wholesale) in order to attempt to replicate the success of a market leader. (And it tends to be the web layout and copy rather than the images typically as if switching them out makes it a completely different site!)
Of course, as soon as the market leader finds out, they can quickly launch a copyright infringement claim in order to address it. But again it’s important to have a deterrent in place and be aware of the issue as soon as possible so that it does not impact your competitiveness.
Social selling product “smash and grab”
It takes very little time in the era of drop shipping for a successful exemplar product to be recreated in a cheap manufacturing setting and plastered all across the social selling marketplaces.
This can utterly take the wind out of a product’s success, and can only really be remedied by the pre-existing product being of a quality and recognisability that the copycats are seen for what they are – cheap knockoffs which have nothing to do with a genuine quality product.
Spam, deception, and interception
One which a lot of people miss and can ramp up quite quickly. Engaging with spam and the resulting vulnerabilities that can result – can result in the impersonation of key individuals within a business.
Should your networks be compromised, emails or messages from business leaders may be sent resulting in significant reputational and financial damage.
Typically, messages are sent internally to team members from key stakeholders which can result in payments being made – but the worst case scenario in such instances is a data breach leading to engagement with clients and customers by a bad actor using credentials which appear genuine from a business owner or key stakeholders.
Trade mark capture in international jurisdictions
One of the risks inherent in achieving international renown at a quick pace is exposure to multiple international markets. Again, on the surface of it, this would be something any business would be very happy about, as sales and conversions rack up from across the globe.
Despite this, there is the risk that trade marks for the product/service may be captured in certain countries by a third party who may be able to hijack the brand entirely.
In some countries, trade mark registration operates on a "first come first served" basis. As such, it is important to move quickly in these jurisdictions.
This may take the form of an exact like-for-like registration of a word mark – or one with a degree of similarity that clearly seeks to benefit from the reputation e.g., a translated or phonetically similar mark in the language of the jurisdiction.
It can be quite onerous for a business owner to be required to register a number of trade marks across multiple jurisdictions at the outset (e.g. USA, Canada, Australia, India, China) – but not doing can quickly impact a business’ fortunes as the rapid growth of reputation becomes landlocked to countries where protection is in place.
This can often have the effect of quickly grinding to a halt any rapid international growth, as the brand is picked off in key international markets.
Five tips to avoid the pitfalls
So, what can be done for the up-and-coming international business?
Ultimately it is about staying ahead of the curve and understanding that the greater the exposure you have to an international footing and making sure that you are conscientious of where the risks may be.
Some tips to set you on the right track
- Stay vigilant and monitor your space - Most of the time, bad actors are opportunists and once caught will quickly move on to the next target. As a result, actively monitoring the key places where you could be at risk offers you the opportunity to nip any infractions in the bud.
- Make sure that your offering is high-quality and has a unique and protected look and feel - When you bring a product to market, it is important to know that when it is a success, others will look to piggyback off it. In fact, the more successful it is, the more there will be an attempt to capitalise. That is why it is key to make sure that your genuine version is of the best quality and has a distinct brand appeal that cannot be siphoned off. This means that when you bring something to market ahead of everyone else, you also stay ahead of the pack as no one else looks and feels quite like you.
- Domain names are cheap, make sure you grab some defensive registrations - Large businesses can always benefit from securing a range of different domains around their key domains. There are some which should be registered as they are typically a source of phishing and spamming, and others which simply make sense to not let anyone else have. A small yearly budget can bring a lot of peace of mind in this space – and it is advantageous to speak to specialists about exactly where the risk lies.
- Stay on top of your cybersecurity - Internal cybersecurity is important, and small breaches tend to signal to bad actors that a target is ripe for stress testing. As stated above, this can lead to some absolute worst-case scenarios where bad actors spoof your email accounts and reach out to customers and clients – with devastating effects on your reputation and trust. Making sure that your organisation is equipped and well-drilled in cybersecurity reduces this risk significantly.
- Allocate resources for growth to protect your emerging markets - Finally, if you’re a rapidly growing business, it is a smart move to allocate a percentage of your profit into safeguarding your growth. At the beginning, this may be spent on things like trade marks which can provide you with a foundation of brand protection in the markets you are gaining a reputation in. Later, once you have consolidated your successes, you will find that these assets are in place and can be the foundation for further growth. This stops you from getting locked out of markets early as you find yourself suffering from success.
So that was a bit of a whistlestop tour as it relates to some of the key things we see in the online space.
I hope that you’ve found it useful.
As stated above, the big problem that many people face is getting too big too fast online, and being exposed to a whole host of different markets and audiences that includes some people who will look to take advantage.
Ultimately success draws a target on your back – you just have to be ready to fend off any unwelcome attacks.
What do you think? Have you or anyone you know experienced any of these issues?
I would love to hear from you about this, you can get in touch with me the usual way.
Have a great week.
All the best,