The Making of March Madness: Chris Dion Dishes on Digital and Social for the NCAA Tournament

Welcome to March Madness. The annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has now been a staple on the sports calendar for decades. But only in recent years has digital and social media become an integral part of the tournament – allowing more channels for storytelling and reach than ever before.

Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss digital and social strategy for the NCAA, particularly around March Madness, with NCAA Assistant Director of Championships and Alliances for Digital and Social Media Chris Dion. [listen to the interview here]. Below are excerpts from our conversation, discussing social media voice, content strategy, March Madness prep, analytics, setting goals, and more:

On the content and messaging mindset of the March Madness social media accounts

The March Madness account is probably 80% basketball and 20% off the court brand stories…that is not because we choose to not put (off the court stories) there, it is that there seems to be more of a desire to talk just about basketball…

One of the ways we pride ourselves about the brand is we try to mix as much messaging in there, so that the casual fan starts to consume NCAA branding and messaging without really knowing that they’re doing it…We present them a nice story and, before they know it, they’re consuming NCAA content.”

“We live and die by analytics”

We live and die by analytics…I use analytics to help guide my team [and] guide my choices. If something is not working and the numbers show that, there is no reason we should continue doing it. If it’s a resources discussion…we have to make better choices, based on analytics.”

The fans are part of it, the other part of it is what story are we trying to tell?…We start with goals…and then we build measurable goals. If you can’t measure the success of a good feeling…let’s not put good feelings as goals. Let’s put things that are measurable…Then we’ve got an opportunity to say if we’ve had success or not.”

From goals and assets to platforms

We work on a strategic story for the year…Then we start to talk about a content mix. What is our content going to look like? What are we going to try and find later? Then what are we going to try and innovate? We always try to innovate something new every year…to the best of our ability…

Lastly, our strategy comes down to platform…the last thing we think about is platforms. Goals lead the conversation and platform comes last.”

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Measurable goals that matter

“Our measurable goals are really simple. It comes down to audience growth. It’s important for us to understand that year-over-year, we’re growing…Followers should never be a key goal, but it should be a good barometer of the health of the community…Engagement is number two…What are our video views [and] content engagement, link engagement, standard engagement?…Then, lastly is reach. Reach is something that allows us to compare ourselves to TV or other media. It’s one of the ways that allows us to comparatively have conversations that don’t fall under social…Reach allows us to have a metric that allows us to compare it to print, to out-of-home, TV, to radio…It’s not a true measure, but it’s close enough that we can help people understand what we’re trying to do.”

March Madness prep starts long before March…and a lot of it can get ‘thrown out the window’

“We spend so much time planning…one of the ways we do that is with content calendars..shot lists…and daily production content…We don’t know (daily results)…what we do know is we have to be ready for every single outcome…The way we do that is we go over a game…and we throw it all on a sheet of paper and then make sure we have (all assets and content we need)…our March Madness prep started in…September. We turn that dial up to eight or nine in January…Now (Februrary), we’re at about ten…

We’re planning with our broadcast partners, with all our corporate champions partners…our media coordination and statistics team…We’re not just telling the story from the day the brackets are released, we’re telling the story from the first conference tournament…I think you have to be a planner in social…and you have to be prepared to throw that plan out the window. When you throw that plan out the window, that is when you become a better person in social. Because then at least you have that remembrance of the road you were trying to travel down.”

It all comes back to getting fans emotionally invested

The NCAA is full of awesome stories. Not to mention what happens on the field…There so much emotion…For a lot of student athletes, this is the farthest they’ll achieve in their sport and what they put into it deserves to be (hyped)…(We want to get) people invested in the story.”

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