Jennifer Laycock

Jennifer Laycock

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It's tough being the little guy...especially when you know you have a strong product that could likely compete with other companies, if only consumers would give you a chance. Ask.com has been playing catch-up to Google and Yahoo for most of the eleven years that it's been answering search queries and apparently, it's had enough. No more taking pot shots at Google via the Ask.com blog, this time it's all out war.

It's been a couple of weeks since word started leaking out about Ask.com's viral marketing campaign to convince UK searchers to try an engine other than Google and the consequences of that campaign are serving as a powerful reminder to businesses when it comes to putting together viral marketing campaigns. Be careful.

Nuclear Sledgehammer first spotted the campaign back on March 14th. He shared a picture of one of the ads from the London Underground and asked a compelling question.

They’re also on stickers on lampposts, on posters, and generally dotted around London. It looks like a grassroots campaign - but what grassroots campaign has the money to plaster ads on the Tube?

It didn't take much digging for him to discover that the web site being pointed to by the ads (Information Revolution) was registered to Profero, a digital marketing agency that had been retained by Ask.com.

The reaction from consumers was swift...and it wasn't pretty. Negative comments poured into the web site and blog began buzzing with negative reactions to Ask going on the attack.

The Wall Street Journal recaps the campaign in today's issue:

In the U.K., Ask.com's new spots began showing on major TV networks three weeks ago. They're designed to look as if rebels were hacking into broadcast networks, says Mr. Lanzone. In silent and grainy shots, a bearded rebel holds banners up to the camera. One says, "Is there an online information monopoly?"

On two recent nights, Fallon projected ads with the slogan "free the information" onto two London landmarks, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The agency also put up stickers around London, wrote slogans in chalk on sidewalks, gave away T-shirts and hired students in Che Guevara-like dress to hand out buttons.

The stunts haven't impressed Ben Werdmuller, a director of Curverider Ltd., a Web-software designer in Oxford, England. "The marketing certainly hasn't prompted me to use Google any less," he says. "If anything, it's made me question my use of Ask."

Ask.com says it's too early to tell whether the ads have increased visitors to its site. It's unclear what impact, if any, the ads are having on Google searches. But there is a financial benefit for the search behemoth: Ask.com has taken out ads with Google to drive interest in the campaign.

It's all well and good to launch a hard core viral marketing campaign. Quite a few companies have had success with them in the past. Even going on the attack isn't a campaign killer, as Apple has aptly demonstrated with their "I'm a Mac" commercials. But when your blog starts referring to the competition (i.e. Google) as "hate-filled propaganda artists" you start to run into the whole "Hello pot, have you met the kettle...and perhaps noticed that you are both black?" territory. In fact, the comments section of the Information Revolution blog is chalk full of negative comments from posters that range from mildly annoyed to all-out ticked off.

In other words, the people have heard the message and they don't like it.

One poster's single line comment sums up the danger of a big company like Ask using a viral marketing campaign of this style.

Oh. A big company pretending to have a grass roots campaign. A revolution no less. Sigh.

You see, while it's true that people are interested in counter-culture movements, they usually support them because they are actually coming FROM the counter-culture. I'd wager that if Ask had JUST launched their search engine this year and chose to go with a campaign like this, they'd be getting an entirely different response than they are getting now. The idea of an established search engine that hasn't managed to crack the top three over it's ten year existence suddenly trying to rise up and play the counter-culture role simply isn't appealing. It sort of plays like middle aged teacher that tries too hard to speak like his teenage students.

You can't force "cool." If you've got to try that hard...then it's probably not going to work.

I also think the campaign may have worked if Ask.com had been more transparent about the campaign from the start. Much of the backlash against the campaign seems to revolve around the fact that people feel duped. Had Ask.com been up front from the start, they may have had an entirely different reaction from the public.

It all goes to show that there's risk in a campaign like this. With the right sense of humor, it can be pulled off, but when things cross the line from being funny "ha-ha" to funny "weird" you start to lose people. It's sort of like a celebrity roast...it's ok to make fun of people, but there's a line that can be crossed that suddenly takes the audience from applause to tomato hurling.

For example, when Ask.com blogged about Google product failures, it was funny. In fact, the Google team even responded by sending the Ask team a new pen. It's was all done in good fun...even though Ask WAS taking shots at Google. When they blogged a week or so later about their new Earthquake Search, they took another shot. That one wasn't quite as funny. In fact, it left a bad taste in my mouth and I'm a pretty big fan of Ask.

In my opinion, the introduction of this UK campaign crosses the line. It takes it well beyond funny and right on into "Geeze....that's harsh."

The results of the campaign won't be known for months...maybe even longer. The backlash is heavy now, but it also has people talking about Ask.com, something that doesn't happen often. It's quite possible that when all of this dies down, people will actually go and give the search engine a try and when they do, they may find that they like it. On the other hand, Ask may have annoyed people badly enough that they'll have quite a job ahead of themselves to rebuild their reputation. After all, is it better to not be known, or to be known and disliked? It's certainly easier to remedy the former than it is to remedy the latter.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.


April 5, 2007





Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.







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