I continue to be fascinated by Ask and its mix of innovative ideas (Ask X, Ask City) and guts (the “information underground“). I have often put myself in CEO Jim Lanzone’s position and tried to think how one might get consumers’ attention and grow usage. It’s a very challenging problem and I don’t envy him.
Today, the Wall Street Journal (sub req’d) writes about the forthcoming Ask ad campaign:
The multimillion-dollar campaign, which follows a similar effort last year, is expected to last a year and is designed to raise consumer awareness about what the company considers its secret sauce: Its algorithm, or the formula a search engine uses to determine which Web pages are most relevant to a particular query.
Ask, which is owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp of New York, plans to drum up interest in its algorithm through the ads, in which people slip the word into casual conversation with phrases such as “Do you have a lame algorithm?” or “I was all algorithm-ed out.”
Algorithm “is a funny word that people don’t hear every day,” said Jim Lanzone, chief executive of Ask.com. This phase of the campaign won’t go into details about how the algorithm works, he said. “The point is to introduce technology in a nontechnical way.”
But some observers wonder how widely the ads — designed by Crispin, Porter + Bogusky of Miami, a unit of MDC Partners Inc. — will appeal to consumers. The concept of an algorithm may be too nerdy for the average consumer, said Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research. “Most people would not know what an algorithm is,” she said.
I’ve been seeing the billboards for several weeks in the SF Bay Area: “The algorithm killed Jeeves.” While industry insiders know what an algorithm is, Forrester’s Charlene Li (quoted above) is absolutely correct — ordinary people do not.
As he did in this Forbes Interview, IAC’s monetization guru Peter Horan would say:
We’re already noticing the marketing efforts. There are billboards on the Highway 101 in San Francisco that say “The Algorithm Killed Jeeves.” Across the country there are signs that say “The Algorithm is from Jersey” and “The Algorithm Constantly Finds Jesus.” In the U.K. there are signs supporting a mock uprising against an unnamed dominant search engine. It’s hard to tell, but these are all from IAC. What’s it all about?
Horan: The thing we’re trying to address is that people are sleep-searching. They’re not thinking about which search engine they’re using, and of course that benefits Google. We want to cause consumers to think about another option. The campaigns here and in the U.K. was designed to be intriguing and disruptive.
We want to highlight our search algorithm because somewhere, deep in the heart of a search engine, is a difference. Ours is fundamentally different from Google, and we want to put the spotlight on that. What you’re seeing is the first few weeks of a longer-term campaign. It’s typical to start a campaign with a teaser phase. That’s what this is. The branded elements are coming soon. Soon we’ll go heavily into answering these questions. It’s the opening shots of a war.
As Horan and Ask CEO Lanzone point out, this is designed to get attention, which it does, before going on to other claims and arguments. That part of the campaign will be interesting to see because if it tries to say that Ask is better based on some “technical” arguments it’s not going to work.
Depending on the market segment being addressed the messaging has to be adjusted, but it all must be clever, funny and simple. Anything that gets into the mechanics of search will be lost on consumers.
Everyone over 30 might want to see how using Ask is more effective or efficient or simpler; basically how it “works better.”
Anyone under 30 (maybe 25) would probably be more persuaded by emotional arguments that go to self image (think of the old Apple “Think Different” campaign).
Speaking of Apple, Ask can take a lesson from Apple’s current commercials (vs. PC), which are very entertaining and reinforce the Mac’s image of simplicity and effectiveness. They do so by personifying the Mac and PC and putting them in very humorous discussions and situations. There’s also demographic messaging in the ads.
They just work and they don’t really get into any “under the hood” debates. If they do touch on mechanics, they do it in a simplified and amusing way. Ask should take a page from Apple’s playbook and do something similar. However the ads have already been shot and the media buys made. We’ll see if they are effective.
Related: IAC announces Q1 results.