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Domain Development: Chris Sheridan Details Why the Weebly Way Keeps Gaining Ground

By Ron Jackson

When I entered  the domain business back in 2002 there were three ways to make money with domains - 1) sell (or lease) them, 2) park them and hope to make pay per click (PPC) revenue from type-in traffic or 3) develop them into full-blown websites that could produce revenue in a number of ways depending on the business model (e-commerce, direct advertising or paid subscriptions being among the many options). All of those options still exist but in recent years PPC revenue has fallen dramatically forcing many domains to put greater emphasis on sales and/or development. The problem with the latter option is that, especially for the technologically challenged, it has just been too hard to do.

One thing about technology though - it keeps marching on - and new solutions have hit the market that have made domain development much easier than it used to be. Platforms like WordPress, Weebly, Wix and Squarespace are among the enticing website building options domain owners now have to choose from. While they can all help you get the job done, the degree of difficulty varies considerably between them so it will pay to look carefully at the differences between them to best match the platform with your own capabilities. If you know nothing at all (and all of us have either been there at one time or are there now) some platforms were built with you in mind. If you already have some knowledge and don't need a lot of hand holding, there are options that will speed up the process for you too.

From the standpoint of domain investors interested in developing, there is a guy I've known for a long time who is extraordinarily well qualified to provide advice on the intersecting needs of domain owners and website developers - Weebly's Head of Strategic Partner Sales, Chris Sheridan. Chris spent 17 years as a leading figure in the domain industry while serving in management positions at Verisign and eNom, before moving into the websitebuilding arena with Weebly in 

Chris Sheridan
Head of Strategic Partner Sales

January 2015. A lot of time has passed since I last looked at the latest trends in the development space, so when I had a chance to catch up with Chris at the 2018 NamesCon conference in Las Vegas I made arrangements to get together with him after the show for an in-depth interview on the topic to share with our readers - a discussion you can read in full below.

DNJournal: Development has always been considered to be hard, time consuming work but powerful website building platforms have arisen in recent years to shoulder some of the heavy lifting. Weebly is always one of the select few companies mentioned in this field, along with platforms like WordPress, Wix and Squarespace. Having spent many years as a leader in both the domain and website development fields what do you see as the key features that make your company's platform the right choice for domain owners who want to take the next step and start building sites?

Chris Sheridan: I have been fortunate in my career to have worked on both sides of the domain business. On the registry side with VeriSign, working with the top domain com/net domain registrars and on the registrar side, as VP of business development with eNom.com. The approach around developing domains as a monetization strategy is continuing to evolve as the domain industry has changed since my first days at VeriSign. As other monetization platforms have become less lucrative and domainers become more innovative, I’m seeing a shift toward the authentic development of domains into full websites.  And for this audience, there is no question that Weebly Cloud is the ideal platform.  Here is why: 

1)   Many under one:  To put it simply, Weebly Cloud is an enterprise platform built for people who manage multiple sites.  This fits perfectly for domain investors who typically own multiple domains.  As they are developed into websites, domainers need tools to manage these sites at scale, examples include adding team members, site permissions, copy site functionality, etc. These type of features enable growing at scale and allow a small team to manage a big portfolio of websites.

2)   Professional with no coding required:  Domainers want results, and Weebly Cloud makes it possible to build impressive-looking, modern websites quickly without any coding knowledge.  No quality is lost and it is a great platform to quickly train others to create these sites on their behalf. Our platform is striking a balance between speed and quality.

3)   Ability to drive traffic:  The heart of monetization is traffic, so a key feature of Weebly Cloud are functions that help make this happen – from SEO tools (metatags, keywords) to integrating a Google Analytics account. In addition, our partners can leverage over 250+ apps available in the Weebly App Center. Conversely, if a partner has a custom app they want to upload to their site, we support the creation and management of custom apps as well.  

DNJournal:  Among the competing solutions, WordPress, is an especially familiar name having been on the scene for many years and now and reported to power over a quarter of all websites. If the choices boiled down to those two what would your argument be in favor of Weebly?

Chris Sheridan: It’s a great question and one I get all the time.  Weebly and WordPress are two great solutions, but they serve different markets. At a high level, WordPress targets a savvier customer who has experience with coding, plugins, extensions, graphic design etc. They are managing their own server.  They can code.  They are adept at handling plug-ins.   

Image from Bigstock

The Weebly customer is different.  Our research tells us that about 50% of small to medium businesses (SMBs) in North America don’t yet have a web presence.  This is who we are targeting with our DIY education campaigns because this audience really wants to get online, however doing that can seem overwhelming due to a couple misconceptions: 1) SMBs believe they need to hire someone and pay a lot of money to get a site built and 2) They are under the impression that building a website takes a lot of time that they don’t have (because they are busy running their business)

In short, offline SMBs typically have no coding experience but they want to be online. Our goal at Weebly is to continue to educate the market that Do-It-Yourself tools exist. These tools

are easy (think, drag ‘n drop editor) and they can produce beautiful high quality sites. As discussed this specific non-coding offline market is big. The reason registrars, hosts, and telcos are using the Weebly Cloud platform is to target this market with a competitive solution that directly addresses the time and pricing misconceptions in the market. I think it is also worth noting that the Hosts we work with are using both Wordpress (WP) and Weebly to tackle the market. It doesn’t come down to using one over the other. WP is a perfect solution for the savvier tech customer and Weebly is perfect for those SMBs with no coding experience but a big desire to get their business online and also leverage other basic services from hosts like a professional domain name and business class email service. In these basic SMB focused bundles, we have a lot of success with our Host, Registrar, and Telco partners.

DNJournal: In addition to the Weebly retail product that the developer of a lone site would focus on, the Weebly Cloud product is a scalable solution that can be used in a couple of ways. Registrars and hosting companies can incorporate it into their offerings as a value add and any company/organization could also use it to develop multiple websites to serve various parts of their enterprise. At NamesCon 2018 you talked about the Weebly Cloud platform and what you have planned for it this year. Can you summarize what you told attendees there?  

Chris Sheridan: I had the opportunity to meet with a number of existing clients and potential new ones at NamesCon that is for sure!  What I found is that senior executives at these companies really responding to is the Weebly point of view that the website has become truly strategic and critical to the success of the domain and hosting business.  In other words, when I started at VeriSign the focus in the web hosting industry was selling domains and the “website” was literally a feature on a laundry list of feature benefits. Fast forward to today, websites have now become full blown living and breathing platforms (not static pages). Customers are basing their buying decisions on your website offering. If they decide to purchase from you, they will spend the rest of their time logging in to build, create, sell, market, and share this site. 

Hexonet CEO Jens Wagner (left) with Weebly's 
Chris Sheridan
at NamesCon 2018 in Las Vegas.

This type of engagement is powerful. Thus, the “website” offering has become the top of the funnel. The market has taken notice of this and is reprioritizing their engineering roadmaps, marketing plans and product decisions around this change.

We also discussed the other big growth driver in the SMB market - ecommerce. In the Weebly retail business we now service 50 million retail customers. One of the fastest growing segments of our business is ecommerce, the ability to sell your product online. Our partners also see this trend as well and want to ensure they are capturing their fair share of the ecommerce opportunity. On Weebly Cloud, we offer two ecommerce plans that directly target this growing market - the Business Plan and Performance Plan. We are working with partners to market the features that matter to this base i.e. real time shipping, gift cards, abandon cart emails, tax management, inventory management tools, etc.

My general conclusion from NamesCon is that the ecommerce customer is a big target for the registrar and web hosting markets. And it should be because these are higher value customers in terms of revenue. They will spend more on domains, security, marketing, SEO, SEM, etc. In 2018, it is important to me that we are enabling ecommerce success for our channel.

DNJournal: Nearly all domain investors own multiple domain names.  Would the Weebly Cloud product fit the needs of domain portfolio owners who ideally would like to convert as many domains as possible to useful sites - or would Weebly's retail product be a better fit?

Chris Sheridan: It really depends on the domain investor’s goal – just how much do you want to develop your real estate?  Like I said earlier, the decision to develop a domain name into a website depends on the monetization strategy.  Personally, I think there is a continuing evolution for monetizing domains, with many of them going from a short game to a long game. 

If you want to build out domains in your portfolio into authentic business, including ecommerce, then take advantage of the full horsepower of Weebly Cloud with features like mobile responsive themes and ecommerce tools that can give you efficiencies at scale.   

Image from Bigstock

DNJournal: The feature set of website building platforms grow every year. Now everyone is talking about the advances being made in artificial intelligence, virtual reality and cryptocurrency. How do you see Weebly evolving with the new possibilities being created by these technologies?

Chris Sheridan: This is a great question.  What is interesting to me is that I see a direct correlation between getting people online and the future of these new technologies.  In order for new tech to have impact and be relevant, people need to be online.  There are still so many who are not; and the more that they come online, and then the more relevant these new technologies will become and make them better.

For Weebly, our focus is to build the foundation to 1) bring people online and 2) help our ecommerce customers sell.  Think about it.  We have 50 million websites and thousands of Cloud partners and we are committed to their success; so if any new technology presents an

opportunity to make our customers better sellers and Cloud partners more competitive, we are in! The stronger the foundation, the more we can make it possible for new technologies like these to flourish.  

DNJournal:  Before we go, are there anything else interested in developing websites should know about Weebly and Weebly Cloud?  

Chris Sheridan: Coming full circle, early in my career I viewed this landscape from the perspective of domains first.  Now that I’m on the other side (i.e. the DIY and DIFM markets), I see an impending intersection between the domain industry and website industry in terms of driving growth.

Website development is a big market and is complemented by an expansive ecosystem (think apps, themes, mobile, ecommerce etc.): Taken together the website industry is moving the needle on getting consumers online. The industry has become the onramp to the web for personal sites, blogging, and stores.

This growth is key to the success of the domain name business from the registry and registrar level. Thus I envision deeper collaboration between our two industries this year. The website industry will continue to grow the market and bring new customer to the web. These customers will need domains, email and other online services provided by registrars. Our collaboration should focus on the following: Maximizing this growth, Continued education of the market on the value of websites and domains, and Continued innovation in our industry - to me that could be as simple as making it even easier to get online and get a domain or innovation that continues to remove friction on establishing your web presence. 


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