March is one of my favorite months of the year.
Because as an athlete and a CMO, March is when two of my great loves –basketball and the customer experience – collide, creating one phenomenally fun event: the NCAA college basketball tournament, one of the most popular athletic championships in the US. (In fact, the weeks-long tournament is so action-packed and the fans are so, well, “fanatical,” that the whole experience is now known simply as “March Madness.”)
Last year, I wrote about how brands leverage March Madness to connect with their customers in fresh and innovative ways. This time around, I’m sure companies will ratchet it up even more. After all, marketing success now comes from engaging with your customers, and relating to them on their terms. Today’s leading brands are finding ways to join in on conversations that consumers have already started. And what about the next few weeks? You guessed it. Many, many of those conversations are going to revolve around March Madness and all the “hoopla” that surrounds it.
Of course, most of that hoopla is relatively new – for both the tournament and for marketing. Over the years, I’ve watched both evolve, and looking back, it’s almost as though they’ve truly been on some kind of collision course all along.
The first NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament was played in 1939 and involved only eight teams. By 1994, the tournament included 64 teams and was well on its way to becoming the one of the nation’s preeminent sporting events. Coincidentally, that’s the year I started working on a PhD in Media Ecology at NYU.
Every single person I mention that to asks, “What’s ‘Media Ecology?’” So as an aside, let me mention that Media Ecology is the study of how technology impacts culture. But as it turns out, I didn’t continue down the PhD path. Instead, I opted for a job in IBM’s Internet Division, where I worked on launching IBM’s first “electronic commerce” payment product. Those were the early, early days of the digital customer experience, when creating your own “home page” at technology conferences like Internet World was all the rage. And coincidentally, once again, it was just about then that the NCAA created the first online computer page for the Final Four (1996).
Since that time, digital channels, social media and mobile communications have fundamentally changed the way consumers interact with brands, and as all that was unfolding, the NCAA continually evolved the “experience” of the tournament. What started out as a competition that involved only the players and those in attendance has become something of an annual national Spring-time ritual where anyone and everyone – from office workers to students to the President of the United States – can share in the experience . . . all the while driving value and loyalty back to the NCAA brand. These days, March Madness has grown into the U.S.’s second most popular sporting event for advertisers, second only to the NFL playoffs. Media coverage of the tournament now extends across four TV networks, along with scores of radio stations, websites, apps . . . and new this year, a chance to win a $1 billion prize?
Yes, the customer experience has evolved considerably since my days in the Media Ecology lab at NYU, and the NCAA has done a fantastic job of keeping pace.
Make no mistake about it, the future of marketing lies in the customer experience. And as any marketer who’s filling out a playoff bracket this week will tell you, you don’t have to look any further than March Madness.