Lessons from a Busted Bracket

How’s your bracket looking?  Mine’s a wreck, thanks to a wild weekend of upsets.  All the same, I couldn’t be happier that the tournament is back this year.  The win or go home nature is what makes it so great, and the perfect platform for bracket pools.

However, the truth that real basketball fans know is that a single elimination format is a lousy way to identify the best team because 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 to identify the best team the format would include an NBA style multi-game series.  Over multiple games the best team almost always prevails.

But that’s ok, because the NCCA tournament isn’t designed to identify the best team.  Its 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 measure success matters, particularly as the industry is flooded with data.  The NCAA created a platform to maximize excitement by perpetuating the notion that on any given night the underdog can prevail.  Identifying the best team is a potential outcome, but not the primary objective.  This is understood by all tournament stakeholders.  And it has worked exceedingly well.  March Madness is second only to the Super Bowl in the pantheon of American sporting events.

As marketers too often we fail to align all stakeholders on what defines success causing us set up measurement systems that don’t match our objectives.  As a result we draw the wrong conclusions, which causes confusion, frustration, lost productivity and wasted expense. 

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.

If you’re still alive in your pool, good luck this weekend.  Let’s hope the buzzer beaters and no-one-saw-it-coming upsets stay on the court and away from our marketing plans.

You can watch a video version of this blog post from 2020 here.

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