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Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead

What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History

By: Brian Halligan & David Meerman Scott

Reviewed By: Bob Ruffolo

The Grateful Dead is one of the most iconic bands in history. Even if you can’t recall a single song they’ve recorded or you don’t know what they look like -- you know the name and the legend.

Against conventional wisdom and the advice that everyone was eager to send their way, the band found unlikely success by breaking all of the rules that other bands follow. They had a different approach in mind -- one that greatly resembles today’s inbound marketing methodology.

They had a mailing list long before the email list was hailed as the most valuable marketing asset, gave away free content when blogs weren’t even an idea; What’s more, they put their fans first.

They truly understood how to attract an audience, keep their attention, convert them into lifelong fans, and delight them.

In Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead, world-renowned marketer, David Meerman Scott, and HubSpot’s founder and CEO, Brian Halligan set out to study this groundbreaking band and share the marketing gems that led to their success.

While there are many lessons that businesses can learn from in this book, we’ve condensed them down to the major takeaway points. The following are 3 most important marketing lessons that brands can learn from The Grateful Dead.

#1. Create a New Business Model

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book is that The Grateful Dead was immensely successful because they didn’t do what all other bands did. They created their own business model.

Most bands, then and now, focus on selling albums. Record sales become their primary income source, which in turn affects their marketing strategy.

Rather than focusing on selling albums, the Grateful Dead focused on selling concert tickets -- selling an experience

The Grateful Dead created a concert experience that was unmatched by any other band. While their competitors were altering their sound to sell more records, built a revenue stream that didn’t compromise their art. They created a cult-like fan base that carried its band to superstardom.

To do this in your industry, first, you have to look at where everyone is competing the hardest and where the revenue streams are.

Where are the opportunities that get overlooked?

A classic example is how Netflix put Blockbuster out of business.

Originally Netflix offered a monthly subscription service that delivered DVD rentals to your home. They had some success, but couldn’t gain significant market share in an area that Blockbuster completely dominated.

It wasn’t until they offered live streaming, and later dropped DVDs altogether, that they created the model that would ultimately change the industry.

#2. Cut Out the Middleman

Inbound marketing gives individuals and businesses an opportunity to cut out the middleman and market straight to their target customers. Interestingly, The Grateful Dead was doing this at a time when it was believed to be impossible.

They did something that most artists don’t even do today -- they completely controlled their own ticket sales.

Rather than using intermediaries, such as Ticketmaster today, tickets were only sold through their in-house ticket agency.

To accomplish this, before email and the internet, they created a mailing list for their fans. 

Rewarding Their Fans

The loyal supporters on the Grateful Dead's mailing list got first notice of upcoming concerts and were given first access to all of the tickets in the front rows.

This ensured that their biggest fans (their evangelists) and best customers were getting the best concert experience and customer service possible.

In return, The Grateful Dead didn’t need to hire marketing agencies or PR firms; Their community spread the word for them.

Rather than trying to define their marketing message, they simply took care of their loyal fans and the community defined the band for them.

Thanks to social media and blogging, companies now have the opportunity to do all of their PR in-house and adapt their marketing message to their growing customer base.

With fewer middlemen involved, brands and customers are more connected than ever before.

However, as powerful as social media is, it pales in comparison to having an earned email list.

Today, your company’s email list is your only sure-fire way to communicate with your loyal customers. Social networks come and go, your account could get shut down, your website can crash, but no one can take your email list from you.

Before you fall into the trap of only seeing your email list as a source of revenue, remember the important lesson that The Grateful Dead teaches us -- put your best customers first.

Your email subscribers are most loyal to your brand, they spend the most money on your products and services. Make sure they know how much they are appreciated.

#3. Give Your Content Away

Most bands have a strict policy against recording at their concerts. Of course, they don’t mind two-minute blurry cell-phone videos, but they have a problem with anyone using professional equipment.

Taking the opposite approach, The Grateful Dead actually encouraged their fans to record their live shows. They even set up designated “taper sections” for fans that wanted to tape their shows.

Conventional wisdom says this would hurt their business because people would have access to those recordings for free and wouldn’t need to purchase their albums, but, the band’s generosity actually helped spread their music to new fans that they would’ve never reached.

Those fans then bought the music because they wanted to support the band and they wanted the studio albums.

Inbound marketing uses this same strategy that employs the law of reciprocity -- which basically means, people are more willing to do someone a favor if that person has already done them a favor first.

By giving away free content, potential customers are more likely to do business with you because you’ve earned their trust.

When you give things away, you prove that you’re experts in our industry and are interested in providing value and education, not just making money. 

If there’s one thing your brand can learn from The Grateful Dead, it’s to not be afraid of freeing your content. Your current customers will spread the word and potential customers will take notice.

The goal is to get people thinking: “if their free content is this good, their products/services must be incredible!” -- just as a new Grateful Dead fan would think: “this tape sounds good, but I bet their concerts are amazing!”

It's word-of-mouth marketing at its best.