What Brackets Can Teach Us, Even in a Year with No Tournaments

Below is written version of the video blog I posted on Monday, March 16 which you can see here.

My first draft of this post was written before they canceled the NCAA basketball tournaments.  Rather than kill the idea, I decided to revise it in an effort to still share the point I originally wanted to make about the tourney brackets.

Before doing so however I want to express how sorry I am for the players who are missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  The NCAA made the right decision, but it still stinks.

For sports fans normally the week after “Selection Sunday,” is filled with talk of office pools, bragging rights and potential upsets.  The win or go home nature of the tournament is what makes it so great, and the perfect platform for a bracket competition.

However the truth that real basketball fans know is that a single elimination format is a lousy way to identify the best team.

Anything can happen in one game.  With all due respect to my Villanova friends, does anyone really believe that in 1985 the Wildcats were a better team than Georgetown?  They were that night, but would they’ve won a 5, or even a 3, game series.  Highly doubtful.  If the NCAA wanted the best team to win they would implement an NBA style multi-game series.  In such a format the best team almost always prevails.

But that’s ok, because the NCCA tournament isn’t designed to identify the best team.  It’s primary purpose is to excite TV audiences and generate ratings.  The notion that any school, no matter its size or basketball pedigree, can go all the way has been captivating audiences for decades.

Make no mistake, I love the NCAA tournament and wouldn’t change a thing.  But there’s a lesson here for marketers.

How we define and the mechanisms we use to measure success matter, particularly as the industry is flooded with data.  The NCAA created a mechanism to maximize excitement by perpetuating the notion that on any given night the underdog can prevail.  Identifying the best team is a potential outcome of this mechanism, but not mandatory.  And it has worked exceedingly well.  March Madness is second only to the Super Bowl in the pantheon of American sporting events.

Too often we set up measurement systems that don’t match our objectives.  As a result we draw the wrong conclusions, which causes confusion and the misallocation of resources.

For example, is tracking click through rates or impression metrics really helpful when you want to know if the launch campaign for a new product is resonating with consumers?  Does it really matter if “brand awareness and affinity” increase if no one new comes to your website or stores?

It sounds like simple advice but too often it’s not followed:  all stakeholders must have a clear picture of what success looks like and how you will measure it before you start planning a campaign.  Identify the KPIs that drive success and create dynamic dashboards, visible to all involved, that track the leading indicators that point to success. This is how you avoid the troubling scenario of  internal partners, agencies and your boss having different definitions of “what success looks like” for your campaign.

The tournament will return next year, and with it all the exciting upsets and buzzer beaters.  Between now and then if you clearly define success and measure what matters your marketing campaigns won’t need nearly as much luck to succeed as your pick to win the 2021 tourney.



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