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Social media madness at the Final Four: Digital dominance enhances fan experience

As we get ready for the Final Four and the crowning of college basketball’s national champion, I thought we’d take a look at the social media activity surrounding one of the country’s most watched events.

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a unique sports event when it comes to new media. The month-long tournament, with 67 games that are on for up to 12 hours a day at times, is perfect for online and mobile watching.  Add in the strong emotional – and betting – connections to the viewing experience and you have a perfect storm for social media discussion and sharing.

This year, Turner Sports, which manages the NCAA’s digital assets, expanded its March Madness Live (MML) app to include more social media components, as well as the ability to clip and share in-game highlights. The app, available for $3.99 for the entire tournament, is available on iPhones, iPads and Android smart phones.

As we head into the final three games, here are some results of the app’s success so far:

  • MML was the No. 1 app in the sports category throughout the opening week of the tournament
  • MML was the No. 1 app in the iTunes store on the first full day of the tournament (March 15)
  • The average time spent mobile streaming was up 40% (March 15-16) and 36% (March 17-18) vs. last year
  • The time spent on the iPad was up 20% during the second round and up 22% for the third round vs. last year
  • During the first Thursday-Sunday (March 15-18) of the tournament, total visits across mobile apps were up 19% and mobile streaming hours were up 11% compared with last year
  • The opening week of the 2012 NCAA Tournament games across the four partner networks generated over five million comments via social media (Source: Bluefin)

Social media was an integral component to the app, not an add-on novelty.

“March Madness is as much a festival as it is a sporting event. So, it was important to get that conversation, that buzz, into the live digital products,” said Michael Adamson, Turner’s Vice President of Sports New Products. “Whether you were watching on your computer, your iPad, or your mobile phone, ­you could be part of it all.”

The four teams competing in the Final Four have used new media to tout their on-court accomplishments. I wrote about Kentucky’s social media skills two weeks ago.

This week, I reached out to Andy Pawlowski, a former college basketball player who now writes a terrific blog on sports and social media, Digital Hoops Blast.  His posts this week include “Facebook timeline allows schools to showcase Final Four bids” and “A visual look at the NCAA Final Four as told through athletics websites.”

Here is my Q & A with Pawlowski:

Q: Which of the Final Four teams has the best social media and online presence?

Pawlowski: “While there are elements of all four schools whose presence inspire me, my favorite approach is from Kansas.”

Q: What did they do that you like the most?

Pawlowski: “Kansas puts a focus on access and conversation for their fans and recruits, and the result uplifts their brand and brings the chatter about their program into the world.  Coach Bill Self has used his Twitter page to have conversations with fans.  KU uses their YouTube channel to post all access videos that let us get more of a feel for their players.  Facebook is a place where they provide us with intimate visuals from places that most of us don’t get access to, like courtside (or on the court) on game day.  All of this comes together on their digital site, which is a hub of all of this activity.”

Q: As you looked at what college basketball teams are doing in social media, what trends stand out the most?

Pawlowski: “Facebook’s Timeline visual will make it easier for teams to tell the story of their season, or seasons, across sports.  This will accelerate the importance of teams creating customized communities for each program, rather than having one page for all programs.”

Q: What do you think will be popular in the coming year?

Pawlowski: “I believe more teams will bring their coaches into Twitter – offering opportunities to follow the lead of programs like Kansas and let fans interact directly each week.  The best will start to see Twitter as a destination for postgame or post-practice Q&A with fans – challenging how we define a press conference!”

Have you seen any other cool examples of college teams or coaches engaging with their fans via social media? Send me your suggestions to ronnieframos@gmail.com and I will spotlight them in a future column.

Enjoy the Final Four, however and wherever you watch.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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