It’s the start of March Madness and college basketball enthusiasts around the country are rejoicing.

Although picking the perfect March Madness bracket is nearly impossible, millions of people complete the legendary ritual each year and tune into the live games. The famous NCAA tournament draws in die-hard fans and bandwagon supporters alike.

And what would March Madness be without brands getting in on the hype? This year, a 30-second spot during a Final Four game is up to $2 million, with total ad spend breaking away above $1 billion.

The impressive investments mean the stakes are high. So, whose March Madness marketing strategy is enough to go all the way? And who risks being knocked out? We turned to Sprout Social’s Advanced Listening tool to find out.

Let’s dive into the results and a few tips to help your brand stay in the game.

Let the games begin

First, we wanted to uncover how many people use social media to join the March Madness conversation.

In the first two days of the tournament alone, March Madness-related topics reached over 576,000 engagements and 1.57 billion impressions on Twitter. Volume peaked after 6 p.m. CST both days while the First Four games were played.

During the First Four, Sprout Social listening revealed interest in March Madness reached 576,600 engagements

From there, online fandom continued to intensify. By the end of the first round (March 17-18), total engagements surged to 2.3 million and potential impressions climbed to over 5.8 billion.

During the first round, Sprout Social listening revealed interest in March Madness reach 2.3 million engagements

During the second round (and first weekend of play, March 19-20), engagements fell slightly to 1.92 million, while impressions dropped to 3.84 billion.

During the second round, Sprout Social listening revealed interest in March Madness fell to 1.92 million engagements

We also scoped out which states and regions were most active. The states with the highest total engagements from March 14-21 were New York, New Jersey, Texas, Indiana and North Carolina. Not surprisingly, the fan bases in those states align closely with the teams headed to the Sweet Sixteen.

Overall, the social performance is remarkable and reinforces the opportunity for marketers who invest in March Madness. But what did some of the best brands do to break away from the competition?

Hashtags power brands forward

To hashtag or not to hashtag? That’s the age-old question. For some marketers, hashtags are an essential part of their March Madness playbook. Different brands approach their content in unique ways—some use their own hashtags while others stick to #MarchMadness. So which strategy is the most effective?

Wendy’s: #ForTheWendys

Wendy’s created #ForTheWendys to promote their annual Twitter event, Wendy’s March Madness Pick ‘Em. They used the hashtag to remind their community to share their team picks so they can win prizes. From March 14-21, #ForTheWendys received roughly 1,000 engagements—including 934 likes—and 4.35 million potential impressions.

FanDuel: #MarchMadness

On the other hand, FanDuel used #MarchMadness to caption their Twitter posts, which have been some of the best memes of the tournament. Like Wendy’s, they received about 1,000 engagements March 14-21. But their potential impressions reached 22.29 million, super-seeding Wendy’s by several million. FanDuel also received a shout-out from their partner, the Phoenix Suns, helping them generate even more awareness.

Using hashtags maximizes your potential impressions and other key metrics by getting in on the existing March Madness action. While both brand specific and general hashtags will help connect with your community, #MarchMadness is the essential hashtag for generating impressions and creating awareness. If that’s your goal, try incorporating it into your content and focusing on posts that feature memorable tournament highlights.

Name, image, likeness (NIL): A new marketplace of influencers

A historic Supreme Court decision last summer allowed collegiate athletes to get paid for their name, image and likeness for the first time. In the past year, a multimillion dollar-industry has emerged. Student-athletes are partnering with everyone from local college town restaurants to major brands like Nike. During March Madness, brands are taking these partnerships to the next level.

Dollar Shave Club x Drew Timme

Move over influencers, here comes the “chinfluencer.” Dollar Shave Club partnered with Drew Timme—the reigning king of facial hair and power forwards—to be the spokesperson for their Noticeably Smooth promotion. The campaign parodies influencers and gives Dollar Shave Club the Drew Timme twist that his enormous fan base loves.

Dollar Shave Club used #DrewTimme on Twitter 33 times from March 16-21. With this hashtag, they were able to successfully get in on the overall conversation about the Gonzaga star. Out of the 52 million potential impressions from Tweets mentioning Timme, the brand captured 4.91 million.

#Chinfluencer, their brand specific hashtag, fell short by only generating 160,000 potential impressions—which accounts for less than 1% of impressions surrounding Drew Timme. This proves the advantages of joining existing March Madness conversations, even if you want to start your own.

Bose x NCAA athletes

With Bose noise canceling headphones, these college basketball stars can’t hear their haters—or anything for that matter. To boost their #RuleTheQuiet campaign, Bose partnered with Aliyah A. Boston, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Duren and Wendell Moore.

The campaign contributed to over 576,000 total Twitter engagements and 1.57 billion impressions about the athletes, Bose and #RuleTheQuiet from March 16-20.

Partnerships with NCAA athletes is a sure way to tap into a captivated fan base and boost your social metrics. Tagging the players and using their hashtag will catapult your success farther than relying on your brand’s hashtags alone.

How your brand can pull off the upset

With a massive event like March Madness, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. But there’s still time to adapt your strategy.

Start by keeping up with what your audience is talking about and the hashtags they’re using. Employ large-scale hashtags like #MarchMadness to improve your brand’s awareness and join conversations about the athletes (even if you don’t have a partnership—yet).

Looking for ways to connect with your community during March Madness? Learn more about how social listening can help you identify what matters to your audience.