By George Farris and Anthony Farris
Each year, small colleges all across America work hard to recruit new students. Their marketing teams set up displays at college day forums, host open houses, send direct mail to qualified prospects, post clever and inspiring billboards. They appeal to their alumni to encourage their children and their friends to consider the place that gave them their starts.
A small college may spend anywhere from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand dollars on these enrollment/recruiting campaigns. They also need to make capital improvements to update facilities and come up with funding to add staff and course offerings. Finding budget dollars for those campaigns and improvements is often quite a challenge.
So what’s the best marketing strategy for colleges and universities that want to increase their enrollments and attract donations?
If you wanted the best results, you’d worry less about direct mail, open houses and billboards. You’d realize the smart move is to focus on winning basketball games. Winning works wonders. And for universities across the United States, big and (mostly) small, there is no better marketing tool than March Madness.
Yes, March Madness. The bracket-busting, work-skipping, couch-occupying NCAA basketball tournament that is watched by close to 100 million people, has secured the future and finances of many institutions of higher learning – colleges that were once struggling for enrollment and funding.
In 2013, little-known Florida Gulf Coast University had an improbable run to the tournament’s “Sweet 16” after back-to-back wins over much higher-seeded opponents. FGCU’s on-court success generated close to $1 million in revenue for its athletics department, while enrollment applications increased by 39%. That’s what you’d call a “win-win.”
A 2018 trip to the Final Four saw Loyola-Chicago’s national exposure explode. Donations to the university increased by 660%, according to ESPN.com. Not coincidentally, the following fall saw freshman class enrollment reach an all-time high, with nearly 3,000 students.
Loyola’s student newspaper, the Loyola Phoenix, quoted athletics director Steve Watson as saying: “It’s been fantastic, not just for the men’s basketball team, but for the entire athletic department and the university as a whole. It’s changed the way people look at Loyola University Chicago.”
What’s the publicity and promotion worth to a school? The March run in 2019 at Murray State led to that college receiving an estimated advertising value equivalent of more than $277 million in earned media coverage and publicity. Advertising value equivalency (AVE), places a monetary value on earned media received through mass media.
The Chicago Tribune reported that after George Mason University had an early-2000s run to the Final Four, freshman applications increased by 22% and merchandise sales at the campus bookstore reached $800,000 during the month of the tournament.
Even a school like Villanova, a perennial basketball powerhouse (with NCAA championships in 2016 and 2018), benefits from a successful run through March Madness. Following its 2016 title, applications to the university rose by 21%, with website traffic increasing 108% (per Forbes).
The bottom line is this: Success (as in winning) sells. It gets attention, differentiates you and adds value.
March Madness may be the extreme example. But it teaches us that success in one area can be transformed into success for the whole organization.
Of course, most organizations lack the option of putting a team on the court. But if there’s any way you can demonstrate that your product or service is ranked or rated No. 1, then we’d recommend you do so.
When your organization, products or services are recognized as the best, you’ll likely see better results from all your marketing – and that’s what we call a slam-dunk.