5 Small Business Lessons from March Madness

Let the madness commence! The annual NCAA Tournament — also known as “March Madness” — is underway. The field of 68 college basketball teams is competing for their sport’s ultimate achievement: a national championship. Some small businesses can cash in directly on the three-week event. But you don’t have to run a sports bar to benefit; just about any business can cull some valuable lessons from the madness.

1) The underdog can win. Everyone loves a Cinderella story, and upsets rank among the tournament’s top appeals. As in the business world, the teams aren’t operating on equal footing. Some schools have bigger budgets, more talent, and better-known brands. Bigger isn’t always better; the tournament never plays out according to who “should” win. Just last year, for example, Virginia Commonwealth University marched to its first ever Final Four after barely making the tournament field.

2) Capitalize on your biggest events to draw in new fans. The tournament is one of those rare sporting events that attracts non-sports fans, thanks to the popularity of office pools, alumni groups, and other factors that engage a much broader audience. You don’t have to run a nationally televised mega-event to pursue a similar strategy. Use the biggest moments in your business year — product launches, events, charity drives, peak seasons — to connect with a wider audience. Smart, catchy slogans can certainly help. “The NCAA Tournament” sounds like a math tournament. “March Madness” sounds like a lot of fun with a dash of danger thrown in.

3) Embrace new technologies. The NCAA and its partners haven’t been content to simply stick with what has worked in the past. Like plenty of other organizations large and small, they’ve tapped into newer technologies to help connect with existing fans and find new ones. An example: You can now watch every game of the tournament on your computer, iPad, iPhone, or Android phone.

4) Some harmless controversy can produce buzz. The tournament kicks off each year with “Selection Sunday,” a TV event that announces the field. Inevitably, there’s a good bit of griping about snubs, seeds, locations, and so forth — giving fans and the media plenty to talk about before the first game has even tipped off. Some harmless “controversy” can be a good discussion starter and help build buzz around an event, product, or brand — provided it’s indeed harmless.

5) Cash in on momentum. Basketball, like business, can come down to momentum: Knowing when to take a timeout, riding the player with the hot hand, building upon short-term successes while pursuing long-term goals, and so on. When things are going well, don’t over-think it — make the most of the momentum and trust in your team. (And when things seem to be falling apart, call the small-business equivalent of a timeout to get a breather and talk things over.) 2011 champ Connecticut began the season unranked and didn’t crack the top half of its own league during the regular season. It then rattled off 11 straight postseason wins en route to the national title.

About Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey is a regular contributor here, at InformationWeek and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @kevinrcasey.
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