Part Magic, Part Science: Marketing Tips from March Madness

March 30, 2017 Jonathan Crowl

marketing tips

Your bracket is busted? Join the club. In March Madness office pools around the country, most participants have given up hope as their Final Four picks have fallen early in surprising upsets. Only a handful of people will be optimistic heading into the final two rounds—which will culminate in a new NCAA men’s basketball national champion.

To everyone’s surprise, the favorite in your office pool managed to get three of four Final Four picks right, making her the most likely to win. The kicker: she doesn’t even watch basketball.

There are some marketing tips hidden in that scenario, if you look closely. Every March, college basketball is the top subject of conversation at work, even among people who have never professed an interest in sports.

As a basketball fan, you’re thrilled. As a marketer, you’re baffled: just how did the NCAA create a product that became this popular?

An Immersive, Connecting Experience

It all starts, of course, with the experience itself. Basketball is the on-court product, but that isn’t what draws fans in. (If it were, then the entire college basketball season would draw record-setting TV audiences.) March Madness is a cultural phenomenon for other reasons—starting with the experience of following along. As friends, families, and coworkers across the country fill out brackets and engage in friendly competition, there’s some serious FOMO among people who don’t have an interest in the basketball tournament.

For some, choosing not to participate means social isolation—everyone else is enjoying a shared experience, while you’re missing out. As the Washington Post reported, this shared experience relates directly to the way our brains are wired: through synapses known as “mirror neurons,” humans seek the ability to experience what other people are experiencing, both in their thoughts and actions. There is a direct relationship between this mirror neuron activity and the ability to have empathy, which means that shared experiences have a deep, important emotional grounding.

March Madness may be a trivial sporting event, but it taps into this desire for shared experiences. Non-basketball fans see a community taking shape, one that is willing to accept them as members. They don’t want to stand on the sidelines; rather, they want to participate. If the experience is good enough, this desire can be applied in any number of ways, from wearing a certain designer brand to visiting a popular tourist attraction, or even eating at a restaurant. Marketers make their own lives easier when they create an appeal for a certain experience, one that other consumers can’t refuse.

March Madness

Image attribution: USAG-Humphreys

Debate and Controversy

Marketers understand the value of consumer engagement. On social media, conversations and interactions are main drivers of a brand’s visibility and content ROI. This is another area where March Madness shines: its very imperfection is what makes it such an attractive annual tradition.

Throughout the tournament, debate and controversy repeatedly strike. Bracket seedings are criticized, with some teams seen as overrated and others regarded as disrespected. There are always a few unlucky teams who miss the tournament altogether, spurring on a couple days’ worth of griping and complaining from their fan bases, and from basketball fans at large.

Then people do the work of putting together their brackets. Again, debate reigns supreme: fans become consumed with their own bracket decisions, which create alliances and divisions with their friends and turn each game into a contest with grave implications.

Missed calls, injuries, bad decisions, and other universal sport complications have an effect on games’ outcomes (and, of course, the fate of your bracket predictions), which bring their own controversy and conversation. But even when your bracket is busted, you’re still able to bemoan the upsets that spoiled your chances. Each fan experiences March Madness in their own way, but they can find common ground with other fans because those unique experiences unfold in similar, relatable ways.

However this engagement takes shape, it offers a valuable lesson for content strategy: the experience is strengthened by consumer engagement.

Final Four

Image attribution: edwardhblake

The Variable of Chance

Earlier, I said that the popularity of March Madness has nothing to do with the on-court product. That’s mostly true, but there are some important distinctions to be made. The thrill of March Madness has something in common with the casino slot machine: most games won’t offer that historic buzzer-beating moment, but any one of them could become legendary. The on-court competition has something to do with this, since it’s the players launching these game-deciding shots.

College basketball players are exceptionally good athletes. And yet, in contrast with professional players in the NBA, they tend to be much less consistent. This is one reason why upsets are more common in college basketball than in the NBA playoffs: since the performance of a team can vary so much from one game to the next, anything could happen.

But there’s an even bigger reason why March Madness is primed for upsets and addictive moments of chance: Unlike the best-of-seven format in the NBA playoffs, college basketball is a single-elimination tournament. You lose one game, you’re out—even if the better team would have won nine times out of 10, all that matters is who wins that single matchup.

It is a thrilling premise for a tournament. As ESPN points out, an average of about two teams every year win at least two tournament games even though they were expected to lose their first one. This leads to so-called Cinderella teams reaching the Sweet Sixteen and the second weekend of play. A single team can build its reputation as a consistent underdog, with underseeded teams making stunning Final Four runs that befuddle fans time and time again—and set fire to millions of brackets in the process. This is an interesting lesson for marketers to consider: How can the variable of chance inform a content strategy? What sorts of content-based experiences can leverage chance to increase engagement? It might require the use of interactive content, mobile apps, or even augmented and virtual realities to implement, but brands shouldn’t discount chance as a tool for increased engagement, and as a means of delivering personalized experiences to every content consumer.

It’s unlikely that anything cooked up in a marketing campaign meeting will come close to touching the phenomenon of March Madness, but the tournament’s design offers innumerable marketing tips for professionals seeking inspiration. Hopefully these insights can numb the pain of seeing your bracket broken yet again.

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