Your game plan to win March Madness email marketing: 5 strategies + 4 brand examples

Email marketing
February 13, 2024
In sage font over a lavender background on the left, the words "5 strategies" are stacked 3x. On the right side of the image, which fades from a background of sage to lemon in the lower right corner, black text reads, "your game plan to win March Madness email marketing".

In 2023, 12.6M people watched the women’s March Madness tournament during peak viewership.

The event smashed expectations: Forbes reports that the finale was the most watched women’s college basketball game to date.

And even though viewership dropped by 15% YoY for the men’s March Madness tournament, almost 15M people tuned in for that, too.

All of this is exciting news for ecommerce brands. Historically, March Madness was primarily marketed toward men. But last year’s viewership numbers reveal a much more inclusive reality. Your audience opportunities for March Madness have basically doubled this year.

Whether your customers are die-hard basketball fans or just folks who like your products, March Madness marketing campaigns are a smart way for your brand to increase sales or even just build more loyalty with your existing subscribers.

A word of caution before you read on: The NCAA trademarked “March Madness” and plenty of other phrases associated with the college basketball tournament. That’s why, if you want to use the sporting event to promote your products, you’ll need to get creative. (To avoid a fine, stay away from using the NCAA’s trademarked terms.)

If you need some inspiration for that creativity, you’ve landed in the right place. From subject lines that pique interest to some truly unique email design, this article will teach you everything you need to know to nail a slam dunk on revenue.

1. Win the jump ball with an intriguing subject line

The subject line of your email is the first thing your readers see. Think of it as the start of the game or the tip-off.

Here are a few examples of well-crafted March Madness subject lines:

  • “Go for the win with free shipping on your order!”
  • “You’re in our Elite 8 🏀Claim your rewards now.”
  • “Filled out your bracket yet? Madness is almost here.”
  • “Slam dunking into your March inbox with a Madness sale!”
  • “Don’t miss out on the Madness 🏀 Get exclusive offers now!”

Not sure where to start? Check out Klaviyo’s Subject Line AI. It can help you improve your subject lines, streamline your campaigns, and customize your message based on your brand and goals. Just plug in verbiage around “March Madness” and watch it upset your expectations.

Brand focus: Farmhouse Pottery’s subject line gets them on the board

Farmhouse Pottery appeals to their audience and manages to avoid NCAA fines with their subject line, “MUG MADNESS SALE”.

Image shows an email from Farmhouse Pottery which kicks off with teh headline “10% OFF SELECT MUGS” and a CTA button that reads, “SHOP THE SALE.” The email then goes on to stagger product shots of various mugs from left to right, each one paired with the name of the mug, a short description and link to shop, and a circular sticker that says “10% OFF.”
Source: Farmhouse Pottery

The brand’s email also announces an enticing discount in the headline and alongside each product shot.

2. Turn March Madness content into a game

During March Madness, people are typically looking for ways to support their favorite teams and celebrate the tournament. They’re not only watching the games at home—they’re gathering in bars, placing friendly bets, and razzing their colleagues when a favorite team gets knocked out.

One of the most popular ways to make March Madness your own—without infringing on those aforementioned trademark laws—is to turn your email content into a game.

Whether it’s a bracket, a competition, or just an infographic, your brand can evoke the same feeling of hype that comes with being a basketball fan.

Brand focus: Beardbrand’s elite email demands attention

Beardbrand’s email is beautifully designed with a March Madness-style bracket of famous men with mustaches. The only call to action (CTA)? To vote for your favorite mustache.

Image shows an email from Beardbrand, titled, “WHO HAS THE GREATEST MUSTACHE?” The email copy explains, “We started with 64 mustaches and with your votes, have narrowed it down to 8 in the Greatest Mustache Ever Tournament.” Beneath a neon yellow CTA button that reads “CAST YOUR VOTES,” readers can view the actual tournament bracket, split into four categories: contemporary, history, music, and sports.
Source: Beardbrand

This is an interesting, somewhat risky move: There are no product shots, no discounts offered, and no obvious path to purchasing—even after the user clicks “CAST YOUR VOTES,” they don’t land on a product page.

But the experience is fun. It’s the kind of activity someone might forward to a friend or use as an excuse to check out from work for a few minutes. It’s also memorable, and we think this email does a lot to establish brand awareness and build trust.

3. Score some bonus points with clever copy and promotions

Short on time or resources? You don’t have to go as far as creating a tournament bracket concept to ensure you’re making the most of March Madness.

Instead, consider what small tweaks you can make to your email campaigns in order to stand out to raving sports fans.

Brand focus: Olive & June subtly alludes to The Big Dance

To the naked eye, this email from Olive & June follows their typical brand formula: highlight a variety of nail polish colors to inspire shoppers to make their next purchase.

But with one headline choice—“March Mani Madness”—Olive & June successfully nods to the famous tournament without uprooting their entire content marketing strategy for the month.

Image shows an email from Olive & June, featuring a spring color palette with a pastel green background, outlines of flowers in white and pastel yellow, and fonts and CTA buttons in pastel pink. The headline of the email says “MARCH MANI MADNESS: WHAT WE’RE PAINTING THIS MONTH.” Next to a close-up of a hand wearing the brand’s “KMC” color, email copy reads, “FEELING LUCKY? Celebrate St. Patty’s with a sage green mani,” along with a CTA button that reads, “SHOP KMC.” The email continues with a section on the brand’s pastel colors: “Soft and bright and always right.”
Source: Olive & June

If you look closely, the only language that aligns with the basketball tournament is in the headline at the top. If there’s a tip to take from this example, it’s that you don’t have to overdo the allusion. One small acknowledgement is enough.

Brand focus: Freshly Picked dangles a slam-dunk discount

Freshly Picked sent this March Madness marketing email with a code to get 20% off. The email starts off with a subject line that touts their “BIGGEST” sale in March, then goes on to reference the basketball tournament in several places—the discount code is “PLAYOFFS” and the copy below the product shots nods playfully to the season.

Image shows a March Madness-themed email from Freshly Picked, which begins with eyebrow text that reads, “FP Madness Playoffs between bags, moccs, and more!” Under the brand’s logo and links to product categories is a pink banner that reads, “use code PLAYOFF at checkout for 20% off.” The email body consists of a 9-part photo grid featuring various products, with a large circular pink sticker in the lower right corner that reads, “20% OFF! CODE: PLAYOFF.” Beneath the photos are a pink CTA button that reads, “SHOP SALE.” The email closes with copy that reads, “March has been full of sale madness! We’ve reached the ‘playoffs’ which means not just one product but an entire collection is 20% off! Save big on diaper bags, moccs, accessories, and more!”
Image source: Freshly Picked

“March has been full of sale madness”: this copy essentially explains what the subscriber can get as part of the promotion, using March Madness terms.

4. Study your audience to personalize your plays

Every player and coach in the NCAA tournament watches hours of film to learn everything they can about their opponents, giving them the best chance of hoisting up the national championship trophy come the end of March.

Your customers may not be opponents, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn everything you can about them. Knowing your subscribers—and segmenting them by their interests—will help you send more personalized, relevant email campaigns.

One of our favorite segments for March Madness is geographical location, so you can send emails that are personalized to the team people are likely rooting for. To gather the information you need before the event, use a welcome email series or a sign-up form.

If that doesn’t feel like an authentic move for your brand, use your subscribers’ location to make an educated guess about which team is their favorite.

Image shows two steps of creating a segment in the Klaviyo dashboard. The first is labeled “Segments>Create a segment,” with a dropdown menu called “Select a condition” highlighted in yellow. Beneath the menu are the options “What someone has done (or not done),” “If someone is or is not within the EU,” “Someone’s proximity to a location,” and “Predictive analytics about someone.” The next image, titled “Segments>SMS only engagers,” shows the “What someone has done (or not done)” as the dropdown. Under that is a row of options that says “Clicked SMS,” “at least once,” “in the last,” “30 days,” AND “opened email,” “zero times,” “in the last,” “60 days.”
Source: Klaviyo

For example, you might create a segment of everybody who lives close to Durham, North Carolina, then send them emails with a Duke University theme.

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5. Optimize your offense with A/B testing

If you run the same play over and over again, your competition is going to catch on—and you’ll start to lose. A/B testing your subject lines, preview text, and email content helps you optimize your email strategy to help you send winning emails game after game.

Here are a few things to try:

A/B test your subject lines

Getting off to a good start can make or break a basketball game. Similarly, the subject line of your email is a great place to start A/B testing because it’s the first thing your audience sees.

You can test a lot of different approaches, like:

  • Emojis: Using emojis in your subject line adds personality to your emails. Try testing to see if a basketball emoji works in your March Madness campaign.
  • Discounts: Are you running a March Madness promotion? If so, see if mentioning the discount in your subject line helps increase open rates.
  • Word count: Experiment with shorter vs. longer subject lines to get a feel for the word count sweet spot that piques your readers’ interest enough to read the subject line all the way through, but also open the email.

A/B test promotions

Including a discount in your emails can make the difference between someone purchasing or not.

It’s a good idea to A/B test different types of promotions in both your subject lines and your content to see which ones move readers to open and purchase.

Try testing the following promotions:

  • Dollar-based discount
  • Percentage-based discounts
  • Free shipping
  • Free gift(s)

A/B test email content

March Madness gives you a unique opportunity to test creative, fun, singular content. By testing different versions of an email with a split audience, you can identify what content resonates the most with your audience and produces maximum engagement.

Not sure if March Madness will resonate with your audience? Test your March Madness email campaign with your audience against generic content to see if it drives clicks and conversions.

Use the results to inform whether you double down on a similar campaign next year or spend your time on other ventures.

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Phil Weltman
Phil Weltman
Phil was formerly on the marketing team at Klaviyo. Prior to marketing, Phil spent a year on the growth team helping lead the charge to build a digital marketing platform for nonprofits and fundraising organizations.
Tiff Regaudie
Tiff Regaudie
Tiff (she/they) is a writer and content consultant who specializes in marketing, health, and the attention economy. Before devoting herself to freelance writing full-time, they led content teams at various startups and nonprofits in Toronto, Canada.