Walking the Line Between Google and Hooli: Ad Tech Naming Trends and Tips

Jacqueline Lisk
Jan 31, 2017 · 5 min read
Photo Credit: HBO

The digital media and marketing ecosystem is notoriously complicated, with hundreds of niche vendors competing against each other, as well as industry juggernauts like Google and Facebook. For ad tech start-ups looking to stand out in this crowded space, names matter. There is a fine line between a clever, memorable brand name and what sounds like a punchline on Silicon Valley, HBO’s spoof on the zany world of tech startups. The show’s fictional companies, like Pied Piper, a promising file compression start-up, and Hooli, an established, Google-like mega-company, are so convincing you almost think you have heard of them before.

So how can you ensure you land on a name that is bold but not off-putting, creative but not, well, asinine?

Below are two trends in ad tech naming that can help you create names without resorting to meaningless coinages like Hooli.

Double Barrel Name

Many ad tech companies fuse two words to create coined words that, although unique, have intrinsic meaning, like Facebook or Youtube. Or take AppLift. Its name is both descriptive and aspirational, and it speaks to its function as a mobile app marketing solution. Other examples include MediaMath, Wordpress, Evernote (a five star app brand name, indeed), to mention just a few. When creating these kinds of names, pay attention to the visual of the name. Only inter-cap the second word if it is needed for pronunciation clarity. Otherwise, use lower case.

In addition to a higher probability of clearing trademark issues, double-barrel names also have a higher probability of an exact match dotcom. To create a true double-barrel name, avoid obvious adjective and noun combinations, such as BigStory. BigStory is a descriptive name with flair, but it doesn’t have the uniqueness of two nouns or a noun and a verb artfully joined.

Metaphorical names

Some ad tech start-ups opt for allegorical names that allude to their mission. For example, the programmatic marketing company Rocket Fuel launched with the vision of using big data and artificial intelligence to power growth for digital advertising companies. The name conjures a sense of upward trajectory, as well as modernity and innovation. Or take Thunder, formally named PaperG, a creative management platform that helps users “rise above the noise.” The name is impactful and memorable, and it takes on new significance as you learn more about the company.

Evocative ad tech names often embody the innovative tonality that is so important to the space. Tech companies are often more likely to take risks than other businesses and sometimes embrace names that sound irreverent or almost silly. Or consider Oomph, a digital publishing platform. The name is fun without being silly and instantly suggests that it is a company that possesses that special little something.

The domain name workaround

With so many tech companies in the marketplace, it is hard to come up with a name that is original, effective and available. Since a company’s digital presence is such a crucial component of its success, particularly in this realm, businesses must consider their website URL as they assess name choices. Even if a fantastic name is available for trademark, the corresponding domain name may be taken, or for sale at a hefty price tag.

Tech companies have responded by getting creative (although some walk a fine line between “creative” and “lazy”) and embracing workarounds that keep words and meaning recognizable but are more easily patented and “dotcomed”. They drop letters (Scripd, Flickr), they add letters (Digg), they add periods (Visual.ly, Last.fm, About.me), they add “ly” (Bitly, Contently), and they misspell (Lyst, Unbxd, Sqwiggle).

If you must have an exact match dot com, these approaches can be quite helpful. That said, avoid ‘ly’ or ‘fy’ like the plague. While these additions were once fresh and original, they are now trite and overused. Also be careful about alternative spellings — unless you must have the exact match dotcom, natural spellings are best. The exception is when the alternative spelling or dropped syllables adds to the name — e.g. Flickr’s dropper ‘e’ makes the word ‘flicker’ and the added ‘g’ in Digg can suggests deeper digging.

Beyond considering the tone and construction of the name, here are some more tips to help with the development process.

Add boundaries to your brainstorming process.

To help you and your teammates brainstorm more effectively, create categories to work within. For example, perhaps you’d consider names that allude to your company’s origin or include a keyword for SEO purposes. Set parameters to give you a starting point and help guide your work.

Don’t pigeonhole your business.

The ad tech space changes quickly. You’ve devised a business that will change with it or, better yet, be a change driver; so be sure not to limit yourself with a name that only speaks to your business’s immediate offerings. Also avoid marketing buzzwords that could be passé in a few years.

Weigh facts and feelings.

Consider how the name makes you feel. Say the name out loud. Examine how it looks written down and in typeface. Ask a small handful of people who don’t know about your business to share their impressions, but avoid name selection by committee — never a good idea!

Additionally, do your due diligence. Consider how the name fares in the competitive landscape. Check for domain names and trademark issues. The Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) is a good place to begin, but it is far from comprehensive. Your best bet is to do a preliminary and/or full screening with a qualified trademark lawyer. Your name may “feel” right and meet marketing considerations, but if it is not legally defensible, it is a non-starter.

Of course, a name alone is not responsible for a start-up’s success. A valuable product or service coupled with expert branding can make an offbeat name seem venturesome and memorable. Google is now a bona fide verb. It is so etched into our collective consciousness that it is hard to objectively evaluate the merits of the name alone, but it’s derived from “googol”, which is a large number — 1 followed by 100 zeros. How clever! Hooli, on the other hand, is just a made-up word.

Hopefully, these tips will help you find a name that satisfies board members, entices investors, attracts customers and maybe, just maybe, sounds like something destined for an IPO. But if you find yourself stuck, don’t be afraid to turn to the experts. It is worth the investment. Packaging and promotions can come and go, but a name can be forever.

Bio

Jacqueline is the President of JR Lisk and partners with River + Wolf on naming, messaging and mission stories. With more than 14 year of professional expertise, her work has appeared in dozens of publications and newspapers, including Inc. Forbes, USA Today, Washington Post, Entrepreneur, AdExchanger and AdAge (just not always under her real name, as she ghostwrites for executives). Past clients include Twitter, Xerox, Campari, MODCo Creative, H&M, Monster.com, Las Vegas Tourism Board and Regions Bank.

Jacqueline Lisk

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Content marketing expert. Writer, consultant, mom. Founder of https://jrlisk.com/, contributor at http://riverandwolf.com Believer that there's no time to lose.