That's the approach Jim Lanzone, CEO of Ask.com, has taken in his efforts to boost the profile of the search engine that, on good days, ties with AOL for fourth in market share. Although there's no touching Google's monthly searches (5.6 billion in August compared to Ask's 438 million, according to Comscore), the opportunity to become a larger part of the consumer search mind-set is still quite palpable.
Previous integrations with reality competition series such as NBC's "Treasure Hunters" and MTV's "Road Rules" both succeeded in driving traffic in real time as the show's search-based plotlines unfolded. But recent months have brought a bigger push in fictional entertainment, with Ask.com buying integrations in everything from Showtime's "Weeds" to MGM's indie flick "Lars and the Real Girl," which opens in theaters Oct. 12. And starting tonight, Ask will go after the celeb-savvy searches via a new segment on "Entertainment Tonight's" "The Insider" that will highlight the top three celeb searches on Ask.com.
Although Ask has boosted its TV ad spending over the last two years -- first to spread the word about the rebranding from AskJeeves.com, now to promote the overall Ask.com search experience -- Mr. Lanzone said integrations have become the most effective part of his overall media strategy.
"Product integrations, in my mind, perform a different task than a pure advertisement," Mr. Lanzone said. "An advertisement is part of a larger brand campaign where you control the message and you control the creative. With product integrations, it's more of a real-life example of your product in action, which has the positive of actually demonstrating the benefits of your product."
The negative side of fictional integrations, however, comes with surrendering your product to the show's producers and writers. "If those two things are not congruent you can wind up paying for a meaningless integration," Mr. Lanzone said. Case in point: Larry David was seen carrying an Ask.com shopping bag in an episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last season, despite the fact that Ask doesn't have any stores.
"As a fan of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' my reaction was, 'WTF?'" he said. "Being a virtual product, things like that aren't going to help in the short- or long-term."
Natural popularity of searches
The direction Mr. Lanzone wants to take his next integrations is one that follows the natural popularity of searches on Ask.com. The "Insider" deal, for example, came out because celebrity- and gossip-based searches had grown as sites such as TMZ and Perez Hilton ("a big Ask fan," Mr. Lanzone noted) exploded. "['Entertainment Tonight's' viewers] are using search engines during the day. We're simply reflecting that back as a foundation for a segment for their show."
Another previous integration, for A&E's "Miami Ink," was derived from learning "tattoo designs" has been a top-20 search on Ask.com for the last 10 years. Other consistently hot searches? "Dictionary," "maps" and "How can I tell if I'm pregnant?"
So start calling Mr. Lanzone now, producers of ABC's baby-themed "Notes From the Underbelly." He'd be happy to work with you.