Returns to TV, Cautiously

Limited market rollout and in-house production are hallmarks of low-key campaign

After an extended hiatus, is returning to TV advertising.

Online companies have a mixed history with traditional ads. Google famously resisted TV for years, but others have launched high-profile campaigns, like Go Daddy’s “Go Daddy Girl” commercials. Ask, which is now owned by IAC, spent several years firmly in the pro-TV camp, even becoming the “official search engine” of Nascar and running spots alongside Nascar races.

However, those efforts didn’t seem to stop Ask’s slide from relevance (comScore currently estimates that it has only 3 percent of the search marketplace), and the company hasn’t run any TV ads for about two years. Shane McGilloway, the company’s executive vice president of business operations, says the TV campaigns earned a bad reputation within the organization—one that isn’t entirely deserved.

“There’s a perception that they weren’t working,” McGilloway says. In fact, he says, those campaigns did drive traffic to the site. The problem was that while new visitors showed up, they didn’t come back. It wasn’t clear why they should choose Ask over Google.

In September, ended its TV hiatus, but McGilloway says the company is “being smarter” than it has been in the past. Rather than running a national campaign, it’s been limiting the ads to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Now that those ads seem to have successfully driven more traffic in those markets, McGilloway says Ask will expand the campaign to other locales.

The low-key nature of Ask’s return to television was also reflected in its production. Instead of using an outside agency, the spots were produced internally and shot by CEO Doug Leeds’ brother. The 15-second commercials emphasize the company’s new focus on fact-based answers to questions posed in everyday language, showing people asking things like “Where can I watch TV online for free?” and “Does speed dating really work?”

Except for the reduced cost, this feels like a familiar story. Back in 2008, announced a campaign with Hanft Raboy and Partners that was also focused on—you guessed it—people asking questions.

But McGilloway insists there’s a difference now—the product itself, which the company believes is vastly improved. Ask has been gradually rolling out its new Q&A service and mobile app. The former—itself a return to Ask’s roots with its human-powered, rather than algorithmic search—is now available to 100 percent of the company’s users. That gets Ask out of direct competition with Google in algorithmic search but pits it against a range of new competitors in the Q&A market, including Quora, Yahoo, and Facebook.

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