Marching into Madness
March madness is one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. A significant portion of America watches the tournament unfold - and advertisers invest large sums to access that audience.
The attraction of the NCAA tournament is its freshness, unpredictability and fast pace. Yet the associated advertising seems familiar, predictable and staid by the time the Sweet Sixteen, much less the Final Four, rolls around. Media and advertisers must "stop the madness" by reconsidering how they are addressing audiences. CBS, as you would expect, has realized the stakes and has already started to change the rules of the game. CBSsports.com has made it easy for fans to access games by providing one-click access, allowing link distribution across other sports sites (espn.com, si.com, Yahoo Sports, etc.), and offering the "Boss Button," which, when clicked, creates a fake spreadsheet on the screen and shuts off the volume, making it easy for viewers to watch games at work.
The results speak for themselves. Over 3 million viewers watched online in the first four days of the 2008 tournament, and advertisers spent $23 million on interactive, targeted and measurable new ad formats to attract and capture those viewers.
So, kudos to CBS Interactive. But here's the challenge. Three million online viewers still pale in comparison to the 19.5 million viewers who watched the game on tv, and $23 million in online ad sales represents less than 5 percent of the $545 million spent to advertise on CBS. Moreover, the cost of distributing the content in a unicast versus a broadcast model is, by definition, a more expensive proposition. It's tough math. So while there is no question that online ratings for the NCAA games will continue to grow and more money will be poured into online advertising, tv will continue to capture most of the advertising spend for the foreseeable future.
Advertisers know that television, especially during major events, remains a great opportunity to reach large audiences. Moreover, in uncertain times, tv is a comforting staple. It's good defense. But defense alone doesn't win games, and repeatedly placing standard creative into big media events is a bit of a long shot. Nowhere are engaging, relevant messages more important than in a high frequency, short time-period event like a sporting tournament where the audience is yours to lose.
CBS understands the importance of maximizing the value of live event inventory. For particular advertisers and circumstances, they will make exceptions to accommodate last-minute changes and copy swaps that increase engagement by referencing tournament standings, scoring statistics or evolving story lines. Manually customizing tv messages, however, can be difficult, expensive and error prone. Why aren't advertisers clamoring for targeted television technologies that make dynamic messaging scalable?
Other networks have rolled out technology to streamline dynamic, targeted advertising and retain the attention of tv viewers. FOX offers a "live advertising" application in which ad characters comment on plays in the football game. MTV Networks offers the ability to automate real-time creative changes year-round across all of its major networks. So why hasn't CBS jumped on this technology? It's because advertiser interest and adoption continue to be sporadic rather than universal. Until advertisers demand - and embrace - advanced advertising capabilities on television, opportunities will remain fragmented, much like their audiences.
We may not be able to get back the many dollars in lost worker productivity that result from the Boss Button. But if advertisers are able to increase ROI by switching from defense to offense in their use of targeted television, March will certainly be a more productive time of year.