Marketing March Madness

Zach Brooke
Marketing News Weekly
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Key Takeaways
​​What? March Madness is a highly followed annual basketball tournament

So what? Marketing can leverage that excitement by creating their own bracket challenge

Now what? Start planning your own bracket contest by determining if it will focus on predictions or rankings. If predictions, determine a grand prize. If rankings, start brainstorming ideas for the bracket.

March 11, 2016

How to build a bracket for your brand

To marketers, March typically means three things: St. Patrick’s Day, the arrival of spring and March Madness.

All three offer ways for marketers to promote their brands in uniquely relevant ways, but only March Madness, with its ubiquitous brackets, present the opportunity for a massive social media contest that can bring a growing number of users back day-after-day.

Brackets have become big business in recent years. This year ESPN is offering a $10,000 Amazon gift card and a trip to Maui for the person who collects the most points. In 2014, Warren Buffet and Quicken Loans teamed up to offer $1 billion to anyone who could correctly predict the outcome of every contest in that year’s NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament. Nobody won, perhaps because the odds were estimated as 1 in 9 quintillion, but the contest proved so popular it needed to be capped at 15 million entrants. 

Marketing game app developer Woobox is one company that offers marketers NCAA bracket challenges that can be embedded on Facebook and other social media channels. Woobox account executive Preston Nolan recommends customizing brackets with logos and images specific to your organization, and to require the least amount of user information needed to enter.

“Get as much information that is useful to you going forward, but recognize that the less information you ask for, the lower the barrier of entry. With social media contests, the lower that barrier [is], is always better,” Nolan says.    

Applying Brackets to Other Industries

Brackets don’t have to be tied to college basketball, or any sports or predictive contest. People love to argue about how to rank items in specific categories, such as pizza toppings, and brackets are a great way to facilitate that argument.

“I personally think you can settle just about any argument with a bracket. I think it’s one of the greatest decision-making tools ever devised by man, Nolan says “That extends from sports to trying to figure out the best pizza toppings, cats versus dogs. If you have more than four options and you want to figure out what the best is, toss them in the bracket.”

Having a bracket contest that ranks items based on personal opinions often creates a high degree of personal investment on the part of entrants that keeps them coming back to follow updates. If your contest allows comments, ranking contests can even create a sense of community between customers commenting on the outcome of individual bracket contests.

“On top of the actual machinations of coming in and voting, you do end up fostering that level of debate and discourse that you hope will continue on down the road. People become accustomed to having those interactions with other enthusiasts of your product,” Nolan says.

If you do a predictive, or contest, bracket, think hard about what prizes you will offer to entice people to play. Just as important as staying within your budget, is offering a prize that ties back to your brand, promoting a sense of desirability among contestants, Nolan says.

“My best recommendation is also to have something that corresponds with your brand,” Nolan says, “The most successful contests I’ve seen haven’t necessarily been the highest dollar value prizes. I’ve seen autographs and CD giveaways just explode, and I’ve seen a week-long cruise bomb. So it’s about finding something that’s worth people’s time as it relates to your brand.”

Brackets 101

For those unfamiliar, a bracket challenge looks like this:

Source: Wikipedia

Essentially, it's a tree diagram that pits competitors against each other in a knockout tournament. In the example above, the bracket starts with 16 different spots for contestants. The first row has eight separate contests, which will knock out eight entrants while the other eight will advance. This is repeated, with the pool of remaining contestants shrinking continuingly, until there is one entrant left. This is the winner.

Brackets can be created with as little as four challengers, but to maximize user response to a game, it’s best to run the contest over several days, which means more entries. The NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament includes 64 teams. Brackets consisting of 32 or 16 teams are also common.  

In order to keep the strongest contenders from competing against each other until near the end of the tournament, many brackets start out by seeding contestants—that is, assigning them a position based on their perceived strength. In the first contests, the highest seeds will play the lowest seeds, allowing the powerhouse entrants to march toward to the goal line, where they will have to face opponents of similar strength. This arrangement can also create a huge amount of drama if a high seed gets upset by a lower seed. 

For predictive contests, be aware that the odds of someone correctly the guessing the outcome of each match grows exponentially more remote the more layers of challenges there are. So consider awarding points for every correctly predicted contest, the way ESPN does, to ensure that someone will be named a winner even if no one guesses every contest correctly. 

Author Bio:

Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer at the American Marketing Association. He can be reached at
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