But one question stumped even the butler how to expand Ask Jeeves' declining market share in the ferociously competitive search space against far larger rivals Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and a renewed push by AOL Search? That question may get at least a partial answer: Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp acquired the fifth-ranked Jeeves for $1.85 billion in stock.
Though Ask Jeeves was an online pioneer and the Web's first popular search engine (emerging before the rise of Google), it accounts for just 2 percent of Internet searches, according to comScore Media Metrix search engine ratings. With a new owner, Ask Jeeves will need to confront brand identity and market share issues more than ever.
The root of Jeeves' dilemma, says Greg Ott, director of marketing at Ask Jeeves, is that even though millions of Web surfers have heard of Jeeves the butler, they don't know the full extent of search tools that the site provides for its users. Originally launched as a "natural language" search tool capable of responding to full sentence queries (for example, "Who won the World Series in 1976?"), the site has become known as a one-trick pony and not a rigorous search tool like its rivals.
Subject to Interpretation "Ask Jeeves does a lot more than just address simple questions," Ott explains. "It can do keyword or key phrase searches as well as any search engine in existence. In addition, we've significantly improved our technology to insure that it gives users faster, fresher, and more directly relevant results to search queries than they'll get from our competitors. But we needed to get that message out."
The brand partnered with Omnicom Group's TBWA/ Chiat/Day San Francisco, to develop an advertising campaign that deployed print, online, and TV creative to get Internet users to take a new look at Ask Jeeves. "We realized that in order to make our product and services truly top of mind among search consumers we needed to use multiple media [to be more aggressive and] concerted than we had in the past," Ott acknowledges.
In January, Jeeves launched a major print campaign that touted changes and improvements to its search technology, particularly its ability to find more precise answers to queries than the competition. Ads were bought in 17 publications including Forbes, People, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and Us Weekly.
"We looked to find publications that had a wide national audience but also a sharp focus on a single subject matter, be it business, fashion, sports, or current events," says Joe Kayser, creative director at Chiat/Day.
"When people buy a magazine about a certain subject, it means they're pretty serious about finding information on their topic. So that's a good time to explain to them how the next time they go online, Ask Jeeves can get them more of the information they want about the subject faster, and more directly than other search engines." The agency developed an approach it dubbed "Half and Half." Ad pages were split in half with one side of the page devoted to explaining how Ask Jeeves can answer queries posed as a question, and the other side detailing its prowess in searching by keyword or phrase.
An ad placed in Newsweek, for instance, addressed the topical issue of stem cell research, outlining how readers can find more information about the subject by simply asking, "What is stem cell research?" Or by using a series of keywords such as "Embryo," "Ethics," and "Politics." Another ad targeting celebrity-conscious readers of Us Weekly showed how Jeeves can help locate photos of their favorite celebrities by asking questions like "Where can I find celebrity photos?" or typing "Hollywood Maps," "Telephoto Lens," and "Stars."
Print ads emphasized Jeeves' features, while TV spots took a comedic approach. In the TV spots, Kayser says, "we were out to convey the same message about how Ask Jeeves is the place to go to find the most relevant information about your topic of choice. But with TV, we realized we needed to convey that in a far less cerebral and more humorous way than in print."
Ironic TV Given a limited budget, Ask Jeeves decided to forego traditional 30- and 60-second ad lengths, using 15-second spots instead. This meant "that we had to dramatize our point very quickly by using ironic juxtapositions that really get people's attention," Kayser explains.
In February, Jeeves debuted six TV spots which ran for two months in heavy rotation on national cable, primetime, and syndicated TV. Spots were placed on popular Fox shows such as "American Idol," "Arrested Development," and "The OC." Spots also ran on "Will and Grace" episodes in syndication and cable channels VH1, E!, and Comedy Central. "With TV," Ott explains, "we wanted to go for the broadest cross-section of Internet users we could afford, skewing in the direction of younger people, as they are the heaviest Net users."
Each TV spot featured the tag line "Ask Jeeves and Get What You're Searching For" and a person asking a question of a comically inappropriate celebrity source. For example, one spot shows an elderly Asian man sitting on Santa's lap, asking a befuddled Santa for information about arthritis medications. "Don't ask Santa. Ask Jeeves, and get what you're searching for," says the voiceover. Another spot shows a Japanese sumo wrestler running into a fancy food emporium where "cheese monger" Allen Berger presides over a gourmet cheese tasting. The wrestler asks a startled Berger where he can find fantasy baseball league information, to which the cheese monger responds, "Smell my aged cheese."
"Our 15-second spots are visual gags," Kayser says, "but they make the serious point that to get the right information you have to search in the right place."
The campaign's online component used banner ads to prompt Web users to try the search engine as they surf. The ads targeted specialized sites such as Screensavers.com, HowStuffWorks.com, and WhitePages.com and featured the copy, "Searching online can be like solving a puzzle, Ask Jeeves and get what you're searching for."
The ads invited visitors to lifestyle and pop culture sites to conduct sample searches using both question and keyword queries to learn more about their favorite celebrities. WhitePages.com users were also encouraged to compare Ask Jeeves directly to their current search engine for coming up with information on local news, businesses, people, and weather.
"When people are online they don't really want to be entertained by an ad like with TV. That's too distracting from what they're already doing," Kayser observes. "And we don't need to explain Jeeves' product benefits to them like you do with print because they can try it out right there. So our online approach is more utilitarian." Campaigns in all three media ran through March. "By running campaigns in each medium simultaneously," Ott reflects, "we're finding that not only can we reach more people, but we're also able to reinforce our core message in different ways."
Though results from the campaign weren't available at press time, early feedback indicates that Web users are beginning to see Ask Jeeves in a new light. The company reports that key metrics including total search hours per month, search minutes per day, and searches per day have increased. Perhaps even more importantly, proprietary focus studies show that the ads have increased awareness of Jeeves' search features and benefits beyond expectations. They're also causing regular Google and Yahoo! search users to visit the butler. The company expects to double its market share this year.
"It's never easy being an underdog," Ott acknowledges. "But search is a strange market. There's a really low switching cost for consumers who decide to change products or to try an alternate product. We believe this campaign shows that even though we don't have the budget of some of our competitors, we can chip away at their market share," he adds.