4 marketing lessons from March Madness

The yearly NCAA extravaganza offers plenty of guidance for communicators to glean. Here are a few tips to help you cut down the nets of messaging success.

Elections aside, name something else that brings together millions of Americans every year for more than three weeks.

March Madness is upon us. For one month every year, the country is captivated by college basketball. Sixty-four teams from around the country compete for “One Shining Moment.” What supposedly began with 80 people in a bar in Staten Island, New York in 1977 has evolved into a global phenomenon. In 2017, an estimated 70 million brackets were filled out, totaling $10.4 billion in bets. Television ad revenue alone surpassed the $1 billion mark in 2017.

However, it isn’t just the ad revenue that makes this event such a compelling story for marketers. What is it about March Madness that attracts millions of people (who don’t ordinarily care about college basketball) to fill out brackets and become obsessed with players, teams and compelling backstories year after year? What can we learn that we can apply to our own marketing strategies?

Here are four takeaways for marketers to consider:

Know your audience.

The NCAA knows the deal. Plenty of die-hard fans watch games year-round, but the vast majority of viewers are only along for this brief ride once a year. That’s why the marketing, advertising and communications around March Madness are designed to keep this fair-weather audience engaged and coming back for more.

As you craft content strategy for your blog and other communications channels, consider the audience you want to attract—not necessarily the audience you may currently be attracting. Keep those fleeting “passersby” in mind as you write each post and piece. What can you do to pique their interest, make their visit worthwhile and keep them coming back for more?

Take the time to create buyer personas (fictional profiles) to better understand your audience’s needs, goals, preferences and challenges, then determine how your organization fits into the picture.

Make it sticky.

Is your content strategy mostly “pull” or “push?” That is, do you mostly rely on outbound communications (social media posts, newsletters or notifications) to draw your audience in, or is your content compelling enough to merit return visits?

Your content strategy should act as a magnet that pulls your audience in proactively, without having to rely on push notifications and other outbound communications. We are bombarded with emails, texts, calls and app notifications, all competing for our attention. We are becoming desensitized to the deluge, so your content must truly stand out if it’s going to get the attention it deserves.

Yes, the NCAA uses push notifications to alert you to close games, upsets and buzzer-beaters, but it’s the design of the tournament itself that keeps people checking their brackets throughout the tournament’s run. It’s important to weave magnetic, irresistible touchpoints into the fabric of your campaign and content so people want to come back on their own, rather than having to be pushed.

Keep it simple.

You don’t need to attract 70 million people to your website to be successful. Consider your organization’s chief business goals, and brainstorm content and campaign ideas that are appropriate for the scale and nature of your business. Focus on objectives that dovetail with and support your intended outcomes. Hype, buzz and awareness are great, but qualified leads and revenue are better.

March Madness evolves with the times (online streaming, apps, etc.), but it’s still all about the games and the brackets. As you look to enhance your strategy, use your organization’s mission and values as a guide to keep you on track.

Cut down the nets.

Create your own version of “One Shining Moment.” You don’t need a sappy ballad, but you should take time to recognize achievements and celebrate internal successes.

Putting your audience first, keeping things simple and giving people a compelling reason to keep coming back will put you on a path toward the content marketing version of cutting down the nets.

Justin Gianninoto is director of digital strategy for Stern Strategy Group. A version of this post first appeared on the Stern Strategy Group blog.


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