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How March Madness Can be March Ad-ness

By Mar 11, 2008

As a Southern Methodist University alum, I don’t get the opportunity to support my alma mater in the big college basketball tourney. But office pools – for fun only, of course – and the inevitable Cinderella story always keep it interesting.

Whatever March Madness means to you and your brand, there’s no denying the economic engine it has become, from this weekend’s Selection Sunday through the April 7 championship game.

CBS paid $6 billion for an 11-year broadcast rights package that runs through 2014. In 2006, according to Reuters, CBS expanded its distribution, offering out of market games online for free and delivering 19 million ad supported video streams.

The result? Ad sales for March Madness on Demand in 2006 doubled over the year prior. In 2007, the network sold 30 second advertising spots for about $100,000 each during early round games and $1.2 million each for the championship. Big dollar corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, Cingular and GM also get involved. Make no mistake, March Ad-ness is very big business.

As recently as 2002, Super Bowl advertisers commonly overlooked the need to back up their multi-million dollar advertising spend with search engine marketing to capture some of the resulting attention. AT&T unveiled mLife that year with particularly vague, question invoking advertisements, and its mistake of overlooking search has been widely covered as anything from a missed opportunity to a major mistake.

In hindsight, search engine marketing itself has turned out to be quite a Cinderella story, the George Mason University or Bradley University of advertising, if you will. Back then, few advertisers gave search a seat at the table in efforts as large as advertising in the Super Bowl, let alone March Madness buys, which get much less attention. Today, integration is essential, and advertisers can lose jobs over these misinformed decisions.

Just like Super Bowl advertisers, March Madness sponsors willing to shell out $100,000 for a 30 second spot, let alone $1.2 million, had better back up that spend with online efforts. Broadcast advertising generates interest, leads to online information gathering and sends consumers searching. Competitors to game advertisers often try to capitalize on this sponsor-funded interest as well.

Search marketing helps advertisers capitalize on this March Ad-ness. Consumers use search engines to quickly secure information, but they specifically use them to “further learn” about a product or service they are considering.

In late 2006, my company examined this and other offline/online dynamics in its Touchpoints IV research. Consumers were almost four times as likely to cite the value of search for “further learning” than for “first awareness,” with 12% citing search as the way they “further learned” about their most recent purchase. Only two other sources were more influential in “further learning”—Web sites and store visits.

Clearly, advertisers shelling out big bucks should have a plan to capture the increased attention. Natural and paid search can help. Developing content related to the planned broadcast promotions and taking other steps to improve natural search optimization can pay big dividends.

On the paid side, advertisers should extend keywords well beyond the brand and relevant variations to include keywords relating to the theme, spokespeople, contests or other major areas of focus in the ads.

Christmas comes twice yearly for manufacturers and retailers of athletic apparel. Actually, advertisers of these goods cash in throughout the year, around a host of seasonal opportunities, including bowl games, championship tournaments, alumni weeks and much more. March Madness, though, provides weeks of opportunity and 127 games in the tourney alone, not counting the conference tournaments and simultaneous National Invitation Tournament.

March Madness also generates demand among consumers for travel services and accommodations to get to the various tournaments and get some rest while there. Bars and restaurants can target residents, traveling fans, business travelers and others looking for the best place to drink, dine and take in their big games.

March Madness deserves the attention of advertisers across a wide range of verticals. From those spending big bucks to buy ads and sponsor games to those looking to serve the huge influx of March Madness consumer needs, online opportunity abounds. Search engines and other online channels offer cost effective opportunities for the largest national brands and the smallest local advertisers to capture interest and/or foot traffic.

Have big March Ad-ness plans? I’d love to hear about them or brainstorm the best ways to back them up with online media in the weeks ahead.

Stuart Larkins is vice president of search at DoubleClick Performics (www.performics.com) and a monthly contributor to CHIEF MARKETER. Contact him at slarkins@doubleclick.com.