Ask.com hopes to find the right answer in latest ad campaign

Here’s a key question for Ask.com: Can it find a way to compete against the likes of Google and Microsoft’s Bing?

The 16-year-old Internet search company, which repositioned last year into an online question-and-answer service, is starting to tell its story (again) through a series of no-nonsense TV commercials and metro bus ads which feature how people can get answers to their everyday questions.

Instead of a broad-based national TV campaign, Ask.com is showing the ads in Seattle,  LA and San Francisco in hopes of connecting with a tech-savvy, early adopter audience, said Valerie Combs, vice president of communications at Ask.com.

“Historically, we’ve done a lot of really big, flashy, extremely expensive, massive, national ad campaigns. The company is well known for that, in fact,” said Combs.

But those campaigns didn’t really work, and now Combs said their current effort is “more of a rolling thunder, market-by-market approach.” You won’t see a Super Bowl ad from Ask.com this Sunday, she said.

That’s in contrast to Microsoft, which just this month rolled out a big-budget campaign during the NFC football championship game titled “Bing is for doing” featuring American snowboarder Kevin Pearce and other winter sports stars.

In the past, Combs said that Ask.com looked very similar to other search engines. But with the new focus on blending search results with questions and answers, she said the Oakland, California company is trying to move in a new direction.

“We said it is time for us to really give users what they want and stop trying to look or be like everyone else,” said Combs. (Long gone are the days of Jeeves, the company’s fictional animated butler who appeared in many ad campaigns during the dot-com boom days).

Will the new focus actually work?

Well, Ask.com, a unit of IAC, continues to hold just a fraction of the search market at 2.9 percent.  (Microsoft stands at 15 percent, and Google at 66 percent).

Combs said they’ve seen good results from the new campaigns in Seattle and San Francisco, though she declined to disclose how much they are spending or specific results.

Here’s one of the Ask.com TV ads: