Monetizing March Madness

As the dust settles on this year’s March Madness, many in the marketing community will be wondering if they made the most of the massive consumer attention that the tournament generates.

Last year for the first time, CBS SportsLine launched NCAA March Madness on Demand free of charge and the results were impressive. With more than 19 million video streams and 5 million visits, the site was a considerable success. This year was no different, particularly as CBS’ reach was further extended following a distribution deal with YouTube.

This year big names such as Courtyard by Marriott, Dell, AT&T and Kraft tapped into the tournament with ever more sophisticated and interactive campaigns. In fact, compared to last year, ad sales doubled with CBS getting up to $1.2 million for the championship game, held April 2.

In addition to CBS’ efforts, a growing number of schools have begun to use the success of online video by partnering with companies to help them stream their own games live, manage ticket sales and monetize content on their dedicated fan sites.

As more and more colleges and universities launch dedicated fan sites over the coming years, the online advertising potential around the event will really begin to take hold.

Marquee schools such as Duke, UCLA and the University of North Carolina already have dedicated basketball sites on which they sell banner ads, although their monetization efforts are still fairly modest. Smaller schools such as Creighton University also have fan sites but like their counterparts have not realized their full monetization potential.

While colleges’ initial efforts to monetize in 2007 have been successful, the question still remains: How can these college sites capture more of the advertising dollars ploughed into March Madness and what are the main challenges they face?

Arguably the biggest challenge is that of resources, an issue that is also mirrored across sites in more traditional business sectors. Building a Web site is one thing, but having the resources and expertise required to manage ad sales can be more of an issue. By definition March Madness-related sites are ephemeral and, as such, traffic volumes can be hard to predict, making selling ad inventory less than straightforward.

Advertising networks can help Web site owners tap into large numbers of advertisers, freeing up resources to focus on content creation and traffic acquisition. Pay-per-click is one of the ad formats offered through networks, and there have been some interesting innovations in this model recently that could play into the hands of smaller March Madness-focused sites.

A new advancement is the launch of InLine or in-text ads, an ad format that allows pay-per-click ads to be placed within actual site content. With InLine ads, keywords within content are hyper-linked and when users mouse over the ads, a floating pay-per-click ad appears.

On the one hand, this more subtle form of advertising can help sites appear less overtly commercial. While, on the other hand, the ads require no site real estate, freeing up colleges to broker deals for other forms of advertising.

Regardless of which ad formats schools and colleges employ, increasing site users can mean increasing revenue. Relying on an ‘if we build it, they will come’ mentality may not provide adequate payback for the effort that goes into site development and maintenance.

As such, as schools and colleges ramp up monetization efforts over coming years, they also will need to consider marketing the sites themselves to help further increase page impressions.

Running pay-per-click campaigns to attract people searching the Web for March Madness-related information is one strategy, as is link-building and working on search engine optimization for sites in the run-up to the tournament. A carefully planned, integrated strategy will help increase impressions and drive revenue.

A real opportunity exists for schools to tap into the potential offered through the March Madness tournament in the coming years. There is already a large and highly receptive online audience as proven by CBS’ success. For colleges, however, this audience is going largely untapped. A strategic look at online marketing could provide an important new revenue stream for colleges — a valuable lesson that also can be applied to more traditional business sectors.

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