MBPT Spotlight: When It Comes to March Madness, Consumer Engagement Tips Off Early

What if there were something bigger than the Big Game?

We all know that in the pantheon of modern media, there’s nothing better than the big game. Sports are seemingly immune to time shifting, built around immediacy and engagement, and capable of tapping into consumer passion channels like some kind of magical marketing drug. On game day, everybody’s a fan!

So, to align your brand with the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Stanley Cup championship is to achieve a kind of brand-building nirvana…in an age where such a state is getting harder to come by.

At Spark, we’ve long had clients successfully investing across myriad sports properties. And this season’s signature “March Madness” has been no exception. In order to understand more fully consumer media behavior around the tourney, we teamed up with research vendor RealityMine, using a new methodology blending qualitative and quantitative methods to help us gain a better understanding of not only ratings, but engagement as well.

The key finding? Unlike many other major sports events, consumer engagement for March Madness actually tips off at a fever pitch right away, with respondents showing pronounced engagement across devices on Selection Sunday, well before any whistles are blown or alley-oops thrown.

This early “madness” is unique to the college hoops tourney, given its mass appeal. With 64-plus teams involved at its outset, not to mention the cultural pervasiveness of “filling out brackets” in offices, classrooms and households across the country, fan engagement is immediate and sustained, rather than slowly building to the championship. What we take away from the research is simple: When it comes to tourney time, brands have an opportunity to begin messaging early, and across platforms.

Our findings map nicely with the rising cultural attunement to “backstory,” to digging deeper into events and ideas that pique consumers’ interest. It’s a behavior that’s especially common among millennials, although it’s also seeped into other generations’ behavior as well. Consumers, once engaged, are living with “more is more” expectations for content, primary and secondary.

As such, we see a unique opportunity for brands to exploit the intersection of this early fan engagement, and the unique opportunity the vast tournament field presents for brands to provide context and additional content. Brands should also consider opportunities to take advantage of outsized interest in radio in the days following Selection Sunday, as well as the chance to program “second screens,” which in our study consumers turned to most during game broadcasts.

We also saw heavy interest in social media during games, with respondents diving headfirst into Facebook, messaging apps and texting to ensure connection with the most fellow fans. Twitter showed up, too, but with smaller numbers that aligned with its smaller installed base. Interestingly, casual fans seemingly turned to casual games as tourney companions, with Candy Crush use rising during game time.

What else makes the tourney such an attractive canvas for advertisers? Despite its name, March Madness is a time when the mass of respondents reported feeling “happy” or content, rendering the tourney an attractive backdrop for messaging against, where every brand can experience their own “shining moment” of success.

As senior VP/Human Intelligence for media agency Spark, Scott Hess leads the firm’s research and insights function and serves as the primary architect and catalyst for the next-generation media planning approach known as “Experience Planning.”