6 Content Marketing Plays Inspired by Basketball Madness

CMI is jumping on the bandwagon. Though my bracket may have busted (thanks UMBC, No. 16 seed, for making NCAA history by beating No. 1 seed Virginia), I offer six basketball-tournament inspirations for your content marketing strategy.

Every March, basketball madness infiltrates offices, bars, restaurants, and even a cable-channel wedding dress show.

That doesn’t mean people are interested in every slam dunk, 3-point shot, or flagrant foul in the 63 games being played over a few weeks. Some of the millions who pay attention to the annual tournament are more interested in being part of the watercooler conversations, betting pools, viewing parties, and other general excitement around the games.

Build a bracket

An estimated 70 million brackets were filled out this year. Why? A lot of people hope to win some of the estimated $10.4 billion expected to be wagered in 2018. But many pick their bracket because it’s a fun way to engage with their co-workers and friends. Plus, it gives them a personal stake in games they wouldn’t normally care about.

Background: In case you’re unfamiliar with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, check out the bracket below. Sixty-four college teams play single-elimination games (the team that loses a game is out of the tournament) until two teams are left to play the championship game. (In recent years, the NCAA has added a pre-tournament tournament, but I’m ignoring it for this blog.)

2018 NCAA Brackets

Take a page for your content marketing playbook


To get your organization thinking more about how your content measures up, set up a bracket competition – ask the staff (those who aren’t directly involved in analytics) to guess the winning content.

Here’s how it could work: Pick 16 articles published in four of your primary categories. Then randomly fill out the “games” in each of those categories to create your first-round brackets. Pick the metric (i.e., conversions, clicks, time on page) to be judged in the tournament.

Now, it’s time to play. Ask the staff to pick the winners in each contest, guessing which piece of content earned the higher metric until they’ve completed all 63 “games” in the content marketing brackets. Announce the game winners round by round over a few days or weeks and award a prize to all who guessed the “championship” piece of content.

This exercise allows your staff to have fun while learning how well the company’s content performs based on your primary metric. It also gives you insight into who (outside of the analytics team members) may have the best insights into your top-performing content and what best engages your audience.

TIP: If you’re concerned the staff may dig into the analytic files to win the competition, make it a one-time activity such as a staff meeting or brown bag lunch-and-learn session.


Take the contest to your audience members. Be creative in what you want them to guess – make it interesting for them so they want to participate. Remember to design it to generate helpful insight for your company too.

For example, instead of a boring survey asking your audience to pick what topics and formats they want to see, do a bracket competition.

Select 64 sub-topics (teams) and pit them against each other in one-on-one match-ups (games). Ultimately, you’ll identify the one topic they want the most (and you’ll have great data on what else they would rather read about).

Or select 64 pieces of content (with varying formats) and create one-on-one contests so your audience picks their favorites. When the most popular champion is crowned, republish it.

TIP: If you’re selecting full-length content (not just a few-word topic), pace the tournament. Don’t ask them to fill out the brackets in a single viewing – launch a new round each week.

Or you can do a product comparison-type bracket such as this one created by TLC show Say Yes to the Dress in which viewers vote for their preferred gown in head-to-head competitions:


Or here’s another fun bracket idea from Digital Third Coast, which created a bracket based on the domain authority of each college’s site to determine a champion:


While brackets are an easy go-to lesson from the March basketball tournament, more subtle inspiration exists too.

Don’t go with 23

In the 1960s and 1970s, “anyone with a cursory knowledge of college basketball could pick a tournament winner” from the 23 teams.

Yep, you read that right – 23. I’m not sure who thought an uneven number for a basketball tournament was a good idea. (Short explanation: Nine teams were given byes in the first round – they didn’t have to play a game to advance to the next round.)

What fun is it to pick winners when your friends are picking the same winners? You never get the opportunity to stand out in the crowd.

By 1975, the NCAA expanded the tournament to 32 teams and to 64 in 1985, bringing along not only more fans from the added schools but making a consensus on the winners almost impossible.

Take a page for your content marketing playbook

Give your audience a reason to engage with your brand’s content. If you’re writing on the same topics in the same way as dozens of other companies, you’ll suffer the “23” effect. Your potential audience may not notice your content. Even if they do, they’ll soon suffer fatigue and stop tuning in.

To cure the “23” effect, follow the advice of CMI founder Joe Pulizzi who encourages marketers to ask: “Is the content you create and distribute different than anything else out there?”

If you can’t answer yes, stop and find your content tilt, like Australia-based health insurer HBF did when it chose to create content for new and expecting dads rather than the typical audience of new moms.


Find your Magic and Bird

In 1979, Indiana State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Magic Johnson squared off in the college tournament finals – more than 40 million watched the story unfold on TV (it was the most-watched American basketball game for at least the next 30 years).

“Michigan State vs. Indiana State felt like a heavyweight championship fight. Magic was black, Bird was white; Magic was a talker, Bird was stoic; Magic had the better team, Bird had the bigger reputation. We wanted to know how it all came out,” wrote Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News almost 20 years later.

“They showed us that the real romance of the whole thing is more than stars,” he continued. “The real romance of college basketball, and sports, is a team coming out of nowhere and shocking the world.”

In the end, Magic and Michigan State took the title.

Take a page for your content marketing playbook

Bird and Johnson weren’t national stars in 1979, but their stories drew the nation into the championship game. Don’t worry about getting stars to power your stories – let the stories power themselves.

Powerful storytelling shares these four elements: a human hero, a goal, resistance, and truth. Adapt those elements, explains Robert Rose, CMI chief strategy advisor, to tell stories that will engage and draw a bigger audience.

Pratik Dholakiya offers a three-act structure to successful storytelling – and the secret sauce, he says, is suspense. (That can be as obvious as who will win the game a la Magic and Bird, but it could be what’s the next step in a process.)

Mike Rowe, who gained fame with his Dirty Jobs TV shows, uses the power of a story in his YouTube series, The Way I Heard It. He simply tells a story from the table in his home. It isn’t star power that keeps the viewer hanging on to Mike’s voice, it’s the story – a different take on the people and events that you thought you knew, like this one seemingly about a father watching his daughter play ball.

Celebrate being No. 318

When the tournament expanded to 64 teams, it opened up opportunities for the lesser-known basketball-focused schools to compete. In 2017, the Northwestern University Wildcats played for the first time ever, becoming the 318th school to play in the history of the tournament (and the only college debuting that year in the national tournament). And, even better for the narrative, the Wildcats won in the first round.

Take a page for your content marketing playbook

What unique accomplishment in your brand’s history can you feature in your content? What story is unique to your brand? Tell those stories.

For example, Jeff Charles advocates for companies to tell their origin stories and points to High Brew Coffee as a great example:

High Brew Coffee

“Your story is interesting because it’s uniquely yours. Nobody else will have the exact same story as yours. This is what makes you stand out from the other companies,” Jeff writes.

Avoid playing back-to-back-to-back games

March may be the month of basketball, but the NCAA doesn’t play games every day. The tournament only sees action on 10 days over almost three weeks. It creates a hectic pace over the weekends, but then gives the audience (and the players) time to breathe before they start again. The schedule is the same every year, setting expectations for fans everywhere to plan their vacation time (or their vasectomies).

Take a page for your content marketing playbook

Set up your editorial calendar at a pace that works for both your content team and your audience. But don’t just focus on frequency, think about when to deliver content type and format too. For example, schedule two content centerpieces far enough apart that your audience will want to consume both. Or schedule your best content on your typically highest-performing days.

Don’t equate budget size with success

Although a higher budget can correlate with success, a smaller budget doesn’t necessarily mean less success. Consider the case of four top seeds in 2015. The University of Kentucky and Duke University ranked second and third for program spending to the tune of $16.1 million and $14.1 million, respectively. But the University of Wisconsin and Villanova University ranked 29th and 32nd, spending $7.5 million and $7.3 million annually.

Take a page for your content marketing playbook

Don’t assume a small team or budget can’t accomplish a lot. Write your best content marketing playbook based on the players and resources you have.

Want some inspiration? Dollar Shave Club had big competition in its early days. Razors are a $500 million industry (and men’s grooming is a multibillion-dollar industry.) In 2012, as Aaron Agius shares, the Dollar Shave Club founders spent $4,500 on a 90-second video and its related promotion. It generated 23,000 Twitter followers, 76,000 Facebook fans, 9.5 million views, and 12,000 new customers.


If your basketball brackets get busted (or if you haven’t even played), you can still win with these six content marketing plays. Whether you cheer for being No. 318, create your own bracket games, or find your Magic and Bird, the themes are universal: Tell great stories, engage your audience, and make the most of the resources you have.

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