Marketers score big during NCAA Tournament

The championship game, climaxing a turbulent college basketball season, featured lopsided action on the court, sassy ads and plenty of shining messaging moments.


Villanova romped to victory in the championship game Monday night, but the NCAA itself was arguably the basketball tournament’s biggest winner.

Despite a season clouded by scandaland a rising outcry over massive profits generated by the talents of unpaid student athletes—this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was a smashing success. There were stunning upsets, Cinderella stories, thrilling finishes, admirable examples of losing with class and, of course, Sister Jean.

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The Big Dance has become big business, to say the least, generating close to a billion dollars in revenue for the nonprofit NCAA. Much of that cash comes from an $8.8 billion TV deal with CBS and Turner—which is locked in through 2032—not to mention more than $1 billion in tournament TV ads.

According to WalletHub, the average 30-second ad cost $1.5 million during the 2017 title game, and the 2016 tournament’s four biggest sponsors spent $266 million on March Madness ads.

This year’s tournament was chock-full of brands trying score marketing coups. Little Caesars captured buzz by delivering on its promise for free pizza if a 16 seed beat a No. 1—which happened when UMBC took down Virginia in the first round.

Wendy’s also promoted giveaways throughout the tournament, which led to a big boost in social media activity. Sherwin-Williams, Hanes and Powerade also enjoyed massive lifts in “positive sentiment” and social media engagement after running tourney-tied TV spots.

Tech titans Google, IBM and Intel tried to capture the March Madness marketing zeitgeist, too. Google grabbed headlines with its ads for Cloud that made real-time “data-educated guesses on stats such as rebounds and shot attempts.”

March Madness tips for communicators

Now that the tournament’s over, here are four takeaways communicators can glean from this memorable edition of March Madness:

1. It helps to find your Sister Jean. The 98-year-old chaplain for Loyola-Chicago’s underdog squad captured hearts as the Ramblers blazed to the Final Four. With all due respect to Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo and Michigan’s Moritz Wagner, Sister Jean was the breakout star of the tournament.

True, there aren’t tons of sprightly nonagenarian spiritual advisors out there, but Sister Jean’s rise to fame is a reminder for communicators to dig to find emotional backstories, inspirational characters and lovable personalities of compelling cloth.

Highlighting fascinating figures is almost always a win for your brand, and it might be nice for your subjects, too. Sister Jean has landed a new gig.

2. Timing is everything—but you can’t please everyone. Twitter was lousy with people complaining about the championship game’s late tipoff.

It was late for folks on the East Coast, but what about people in Denver, San Diego or Honolulu?

When it comes to scheduling your next event, webinar, conference or online chat, try to be as inclusive as possible, but tailor your timing according to the target audience that truly butters your bread. You can’t please everyone. However, your signature event probably shouldn’t tip off after 9 p.m. on a school night.

3. Freebies are an easy way to boost buzz. Looking for a quick publicity fix? Giving stuff away will get people stampeding to your doors—or, as in the case of Little Caesars and Wendy’s during March Madness, skyrocket your social media engagement.

4. It’s wise to home in on “one shining moment.” Whenever you write a story, article or blog post, whittle down your main themes and calls to action. Simplify content for your readers.

Instead of asking your audience to track several competing storylines, zero in on one big idea. Ask them to do or digest one thing at a time. Pick a single shining moment, and build a compelling story around it.

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