March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year. Across men’s and women’s basketball, the NCAA Tournament offers fans 126 games in the span of just about three weeks. While millions of people fill out brackets, marketers know there’s more to the tournament than just buzzer beaters and slam dunks. There are a lot of strategies and insights to keep an eye on throughout the event. Here are five marketing lessons brands can learn from March Madness.
Prepare and Plan Ahead
The travel around March Madness is intense. A 2015 report from the NCAA revealed schools logged a combined 214 chartered flights, 467 bus trips, and more than hundreds of thousands of miles. Between the travel parties for men’s and women’s teams, the NCAA Tournament accounts for 20,923 air passengers.
The NCAA has largely automated the process to make it easier on schools, but there’s still quite a bit that goes into preparation. Schools are assigned a travel agent to help book their flights or bus trips, and the operations team works diligently to ensure everything is accounted for.
“We enter everything onto a spreadsheet and it keeps tabs of everything for you. However, we still had to go through and get all that information,” says Elliot Bloom, Director of Basketball Operations at the University of Purdue. “How many saxes and trumpets? How many cheerleader signs and megaphones? Everything down to the weight of each person and their bags. You have to get it down to a science.”
Schools often start preparing their travel arrangements around the turn of the year, despite the postseason being more than two months away. Additionally, teams don’t find out where they’re playing until the bracket is announced on Selection Sunday. The first games start anywhere between two and five days after the announcement. With such a quick turnaround, schools have to plan for everything that’s in their control.
“Teams that go for the first time, it’s always a big story. I think that’s great and they’re thrilled, but whoa, they’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bloom says. “I would think an all-nighter would be in store for them, but it’s a great kind of busy. It’s an exhilarating time, and you’re running on adrenaline.”
The Lesson: Whenever you’re putting on an event—no matter if it’s an in-person launch, a live stream, or a webinar—prepare for all different kinds of scenarios. You should know what you’re presenting, but you’ll also have to plan for other situations, like follow-up questions or customer complaints. Creating a message response tree and simulating the event beforehand can help ease the pressure when it comes to the actual day of the event.
Be Available to Your Customers
At the turn of the century, access to March Madness was sparse. Your local CBS channel would air only one game, despite the fact there were up to four games being played at once. If something exciting was happening near the end of another game, the broadcast might cut away for an update, but those moments were few and far between.
Now? It’s a completely different story. You can catch the action anywhere. NCAA Tournament games are broadcast on four television channels, online through the NCAA website, and on the NCAA’s official March Madness Live app.
Each element has some fun features, too. For example, besides being able to quickly switch between games, viewers watching on the NCAA website at work can hit the “Boss Button.” This pulls up a harmless-looking presentation filled with humorous tips on how to get away with watching games at the office. Your boss will have no idea you’re enjoying exciting action instead of finishing up that report.
The Lesson: Chances are your customers aren’t following you on every platform, so make your content available in multiple places. The user experience should be seamless, whether someone’s accessing it via a desktop browser, tablet, or mobile app.
Highlight Your Stars
The NCAA does a great job promoting the big names of its tournament. For example, 2019 was all about Zion Williamson, a larger-than-life tank of a freshman with a fun-loving personality. Williamson was a star the moment he stepped on Duke’s campus, and everything he did made waves, whether he was hammering home a huge dunk or breaking his shoe.
Throughout the tournament, Williamson and Duke were highlighted at every turn. Footage of the star walking out from the locker room would cut into other games, Williamson’s face appeared on promotional items, and fans loved it.
Meanwhile, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards came into the tournament with much less fanfare. However, he quickly dazzled viewers across the nation with a series of big performances, eventually breaking the record for most three-pointers during a single NCAA Tournament, hitting 28 in just four games. The NCAA quickly capitalized, packaging up Edwards’ highlights into a video for people to share and enjoy.
At the end of the tournament, the NCAA releases its “One Shining Moment” recap, which features some of the top moments from the tournament. It’s the perfect way to highlight its stars, whether they were expected or a surprise hit.
The Lesson: You likely have a product or service that performs better than others, or you may find increased interest in a particular item or two. While you don’t want to ignore the lower performers entirely, don’t shy away from boosting your stars. That can take many forms, such as cross-promotion with related businesses, sharing feature videos on social media and in newsletters, and running deals for your top item.
Stay True to Your Voice
There are about ten times as many D-I basketball schools as there are NBA teams, which naturally leads to some schools—and their respective social media accounts—being more popular than others. The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is the opportunity for smaller schools to shine. And when they get that opportunity, they better be ready to pounce, both on the court and online.
In 2018, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers found themselves in an interesting position: they were a No. 16 seed leading the overall No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers in the second half. To put this in the proper context, no 16-seed had ever beaten a one-seed before. By the time UMBC and Virginia tipped off, 16-seeds were winless in 135 games.
UMBC didn’t back down, though. They continued making shots, growing their lead over the remainder of the game. The Retrievers, who were 20-point underdogs, instead won by 20 points, and their Twitter account was having a blast.
The internet took notice. The school jumped from 5,000 to 30,000 Twitter followers over the course of the game. By the time of their next game, they were already at more than 80,000 followers. Zach Seidel, Director of Digital Media for UMBC Athletics, said his approach didn’t change, despite the growing audience.
“That’s how I always tweet our games, whether it’s a 3 o’clock Wednesday afternoon women’s lacrosse game or a 2 o’clock Saturday baseball game,” Seidel said. “That’s how I tweet from our account. That’s just normal me. It just happened to be a bigger stage, but I didn’t change anything.”
Staying true to form not only made for an entertaining adventure during the game, it also helped introduce new people to the university.
The Lesson: If you suddenly get an influx of new customers or followers, it can be tempting to make changes. But remember what got you here in the first place—your unique story. Don’t stray too far from your brand voice and you’ll be okay.
Don’t Ignore the Data
On average, 60 million people fill out a bracket during March Madness. You may complete one (or several) just for fun, or your group of friends or office may host a bracket pool for money. However you fill one out, you’ll want to put your best foot forward.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the college basketball season this year (or any year, really), don’t worry. You can just look at the data from previous years to ensure you’re on the right track.
For example, data can tell you that those No. 16 seeds have now lost 139 of 140 games against No. 1 seeds, so you probably shouldn’t try to pick another UMBC-esque upset. A more reasonable upset pick? A No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed, which has happened on 50 occasions since the tournament went to its current seeding format in 1985 (about 36% of the time).
The data also shines a light on later rounds, like how more than 40% of those 12-seeds have won an additional game, making them underrated picks to advance to the Sweet 16.
Of course, you can always ditch the actual basketball data and just focus on fun things like mascots and team colors. In that case, the smart pick is on a team that has blue as an official team color; such teams have won 15 of the past 16 tournaments. Feel free to double down and pick a feline or canine winner, as well. Five of the past decade’s champions were either Wildcats or Huskies.
The Lesson: Data can tell you a lot of things, but make sure you’re analyzing it in ways that are best for business. Was that influx of website traffic a statistical anomaly or the result of something new you tried? Using A/B testing, such as sending out different subject lines for the same newsletter or running two separate images for a social ad campaign, can help reveal new insights.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske