SBJ/20090629/This Week's News

Ask’s next question

Ask.com made the call last December to throw nearly all of its marketing resources into NASCAR in the first half of 2009, making it one of the rare brands to invest during the heart of the recession. Up against search-engine titans Google, Yahoo! and MSN, the company’s leaders decided they had to be aggressive, harsh economic times or not.

Six months later, a new head of the company is facing a new decision: Whether to stay in the sport.

Examining the early returns, and despite the late start and a short 65-day window to conceive an activation program that launched at Daytona in February, the decision to leap into NASCAR seems to have paid off for Ask.

Nielsen Online data shows that Ask’s market share has grown from 1.9 percent to 2.2 percent from January to June, although Ask remains fifth in the category behind ever-dominant Google, Yahoo!, MSN and AOL. Another Internet measurement company, comScore, has Ask fourth in the category.

“We’ve seen very strong results,” said Ask President Scott Garell. “It shows the activation is working.”

Ask also has seen double-digit growth among NASCAR fans in usage, according to a Brand Image Monitor study from January to March that was commissioned by the search engine. Ask’s only marketing change this year has been its entry to NASCAR as a team, league and track sponsor, and a major ad buyer on Fox and NASCAR.com.

Now halfway into the year, Oakland-based Ask is evaluating the rest of 2009 and 2010. Its deal to sponsor Bobby Labonte’s No. 96 Ford at Hall of Fame Racing and its official status deal with NASCAR are for 2009 only. Most of Ask’s sponsorship and activation spending of about $10 million, according to industry analysts, was against the first half of the year.

The deal with Hall of Fame Racing cost a little under $4 million for the primary position in 18 races, sources said. While that’s far cheaper than the $20 million or more many sponsors spend on the top-tier teams, Hall of Fame Racing offered a bargain as a bottom-rung team that has struggled to compete.

Even without the performance, Ask’s broad activation across team, league, tracks, TV and the Web has made an impact. “We have every intention of being back next year,” Garell said.

Garell took over leadership of Ask Networks in May after former CEO Jim Safka left the company for personal reasons. Despite the leadership change in the midst of its first major sports marketing effort, Garell said the program hasn’t skipped a beat.

Garell was integral in the decision to leap into NASCAR, and because he was with Safka on most of the calls in December, Garell expects renewal talks to go smoothly with Ask’s partners, even though he brings a different style. While associates describe Safka as a shoot-from-the-hip gunslinger whose energy drove Ask to develop a NASCAR plan, Garell is considered more analytical in his approach.

The good news for NASCAR is that the metrics are in its favor.

Ask.com’s investment put racing on its page
and its logo all over televised races.

The Brand Image study shows among NASCAR fans that Ask.com usage is up 12 percent, awareness is up 43 percent and positive impressions are up 14 percent. NASCAR fans also visit Ask.com more frequently.

“They’ve had blanket coverage,” said Brett Jewkes, managing partner at Taylor, which partnered with Ask in December to help form the marketing and public relations plan.

In addition to its team and league deals, Ask developed a special NASCAR.com toolbar, spent big with Fox on the first 13 Sprint Cup races and activated at the track with its team of Ask Ambassadors. On the cause front, Ask partnered with Web Wise Kids to create an Internet safety program.

Ask, which had no previous exposure to NASCAR, wanted the national platform the sport offered for its first deep venture into a sports marketing campaign.

“We selected NASCAR because of its famously loyal fans and because we thought we could create the best search experience for the fans on the Web,” Garell said. “We were looking to appeal to audiences, not so much on a product level, but on a fan experience level.”

Search engine market share
  June 2009 January 2009
1. Google 63.20% 62.80%
2. Yahoo! 17.20% 16.20%
3. MSN 9.40% 11.20%
4. AOL 3.90% 4.00%
5. Ask 2.20% 1.90%
Note: ComScore’s numbers from May ranked Ask fourth at 3.9 percent, behind No. 3 MSN (8.0%) and ahead of No. 5 AOL (3.1%).
Source: Nielsen Online

Safka was new to the CEO job in 2008 and it was late in the year by the time his feet were solidly on the ground and the company had decided to pursue a sports property. Safka attended NASCAR’s season finale in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 16 with Tom Garfinkel, a co-owner of Hall of Fame Racing, which was struggling to stay in business at the time.

Ask had 65 days from the time it decided to jump into NASCAR on Dec. 12 until the Daytona 500 in February to orchestrate a program that normally takes six months to plan.

“Even much bigger brands hesitate to bite off that much at first,” Jewkes said. “But Ask came in very aggressively and took advantage of the opportunities that were there because of the economy.”

The impact has been even richer in NASCAR because so many other brands have pulled back during the recession. Ask’s league deal, team deal, track deals and media buys amount to $10 million or so, industry sources say.

In addition to the team deal at a little under $4 million, Ask has spent about $1 million on track deals, another $2 million or so on its NASCAR official status deal and NASCAR.com buy, and close to $3 million on its ad buy with Fox for the season’s first 13 races.

“The market was hungry,” said Mike Boykin, executive vice president at GMR Marketing, which has worked with Ask on strategy and activation. “Ask came in when nobody else was buying. There were opportunities to be had.”

The fully integrated program has made an impact, said one industry expert, Dave Grant, a principal and co-founder at Velocity Sports & Entertainment. He gave Ask credit for its timing, but wondered about its future.

“It’s a nice first-year program, but we’ve seen a lot of nice first-year programs,” Grant said. “Can they win over the fan base and maintain that fan base over an extended period of time? That’s the question.

“They definitely win Rookie of the Year, but MVP, I’m not so sure.”

Ask’s marketing strategy has
overcome Bobby Labonte’s
mediocre year on the track.

What impresses Grant is that Ask seems to have built a program that is “performance-proof.” Labonte went into last weekend’s Sprint Cup event ranked 28th in points with just one top-10 finish, but Ask’s thorough media and at-track activation has made the performance on the track virtually meaningless.

Ask knew that performance expectations would be low when it signed with Hall of Fame. In fact, the team deal was one of the last pieces to come together when it was signed on Dec. 30 at 11 p.m. Pacific.

“The performance isn’t there, but they probably didn’t spend a lot of money to be with that team, anyway,” Grant said. “Winning a race is irrelevant, which is refreshing. You can’t control the competition side. But what they’re doing is winning the hearts and minds of the fans because they see Ask out there competing.”

That Ask even had a program to launch in February at the Daytona 500 was something of a planning miracle. Ask’s employees and partners (Taylor, GMR) worked through the Christmas break and often deep into December and January nights to develop the company’s activation, Garell said.

The running joke in the Oakland office has become: “What’s for dinner tonight? Pretzels?” because of the occasions when they snacked on pretzels while working late into the night on the NASCAR program.

But, then again, little about Ask’s first venture into sports marketing followed standard form. Unlike many sponsors that begin with a team deal and build out — or don’t build out at all — Ask approached NASCAR nearly 180 degrees differently.

Many of the other complementary pieces — NASCAR official deal, NASCAR.com buy, track deals, Fox ad buy — were either in place or already planned by the time the team agreement was struck. Labonte still had to shoot many of the 36 15-second ad spots in January that eventually ran on Fox.

“When you talk about a fully integrated program, I think the fear is that you don’t have enough money to spend with everyone,” said Jim O’Connell, NASCAR’s vice president of corporate marketing. “You see some sponsors come in with just the team or just an official, they don’t get the results, and they leave. Ask came in and didn’t overspend with any one stakeholder.”

Knowing how small the planning window was, Ask went to Taylor first and then GMR for help navigating the space. Taylor and GMR have worked together on NASCAR programs like Gillette and Alltel, so they were already familiar.

“I got a call on a Tuesday (Dec. 16) and by Sunday we were in Oakland,” said GMR’s Boykin. “I thought, ‘Is this real?’

“From mid-December, to turn around a fully integrated program with commercials, a huge digital presence, an extensive PR plan, employee engagement, at-track — and we didn’t even know which team, for sure — I haven’t been involved in anything close to that. Not even remotely.”

“I was enamored with their confidence, but my brain is programmed to think these things take five or six months, maybe longer,” said Taylor’s Jewkes. “It was incredible the way Ask mobilized their entire organization.”

By the time Taylor coordinated the release of the news on Jan. 14, all the pieces were in place and Ask announced the full breadth of its program, not just the team deal.

“Announcing it all in one swoop was by design,” Jewkes said. “It’s so comprehensive, we wanted everyone to know that Ask wasn’t just sponsoring a race car. It underscores the whole strategy.”

Part of what made such a brisk turnaround conceivable was Ask’s structure, Taylor and GMR said. Safka and Garell were on most of the conference calls, so there weren’t layers of executives to navigate. Key decisions were made on the spot.

There’s also something about the fast-paced culture of a tech company that contributed to the rapid planning. In Ask’s office, results are measured daily. It’s in the company’s DNA to read and react quickly.

“It worked because their team is nimble, it worked because of Jim’s courage, it worked because there was no competition in this space from Ask’s category,” said Hall of Fame’s Garfinkel, who’s also COO of the San Diego Padres. “The timing was perfect.

“We told them that if they came in, they’d be the story. And they have been the story.”

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