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Lessons from March Madness for Scoring Big with Live TV

While bosses and managers go insane over the productivity losses wrought by March Madness, advertisers had plenty to cheer about. The time spent filling out brackets (70 million of them!), watching the 64 games and trash talking on social media throughout the 21 days of the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Tournament may be anathema to companies trying to get the most out of their workers, but it’s a slam-dunk for the marketers trying to reach them. Here’s our three-point takeaway on the action.

Live TV is Still the Top Seed in the Marketing Lineup
Ad revenue for March Madness was up 6% this year, with total spend expected to reach nearly $1.3 billion, a pattern we continue to see with marquee events, and one that underscores the continued relevance of live to TV to marketers seeking great returns on big investments. What’s interesting about March Madness, is that viewership continues to rise as well, up 4% this year, a fact that serves as an ankle-breaker of sorts to the running narrative around the demise of live TV.

While it’s true that the Super Bowl, Olympics, Oscars and other live showcases have been drawing smaller audiences of late, media reports tying those declines to a lack of interest from younger viewers may be vastly oversimplified. When offered viewing options beyond the traditional living room screen—as the NCAA has done with coverage across CBS, TBS, TNT, truTV and March Madness Live—audiences are tuning in at record numbers and with high receptivity to marketing messaging.

Hoops-Focused Creative to Drive Positive Sentiment
We know that March Madness audiences are uniquely open to advertising content by the off-the-charts engagement that the best ads are earning on social media. According to a Forbes analysis of 4Cinsights data on brand lift, March Madness TV ads produce, on average, 25 times more engagement on social platforms than other TV ads. But that engagement doesn’t happen simply by virtue of an advertiser’s presence during a game. Marketers that tailor their creative to the event, and vary their offerings during the three-week time period are the ones pulling in the highest scores.

Capital One, as Forbes reported, saw a massive 2,573% lift in the mentions, retweets, likes and comments that followed its “RoadtoOne” episodic ad campaign starring Charles Barkley, Samuel Jackson and Spike Lee in a road trip to the Final Four playoffs. With different spots that riff on Barkley’s penchant for colorful wordplay that basketball fans know well from his Inside the NBA persona, the campaign has earned high marks—and engagement scores—by keeping things fresh and focused on the game.

Multi-Platform Drives Engagement and Action
Positive sentiment for a brand only goes so far, so Capital One—along with the other most strategic March Madness advertisers—developed multi-platform campaigns that not only tapped into the audience passion for the games but also into the outsize social media presence of official March Madness. Twitter and Facebook official accounts generated over 77 million impressions at last count, which is 16% more than the same period in 2017.

Take these three examples: Wendy’s launched interactive brackets, promotions and branded retail items designed to drive food sales along with brand engagement. Pizza Hut pushed its Pie Top sneaker buttons again, which utilized mobile geolocation abilities, making it easier to order pizza without missing game action and Buffalo Wild Wings used social and discount cards to push customers into restaurants during game days.

These examples of March Madness campaigns are only the tip of the iceberg, of course. But they underscore the long-term value to advertisers of using the reach and immediacy of live TV to heighten positive connections with a brand and then using cross-platform strategies to go for the win.