Grateful Dead Content Lessons

In the 1960s, the Grateful Dead pioneered many social media and inbound marketing concepts that content businesses use today. The band made a series of difficult and often unpopular decisions in order to differentiate itself from its competition. But those choices-made completely against accepted record industry "best practices"-turned the Grateful Dead into one of the most successful content creators in history. The band performed more than 2,300 concerts from 1965 through 1995, generated billions of dollars in ticket sales, and produced many gold and platinum records.

For the past year, I researched the business practices of the Grateful Dead as I wrote (with co-author Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot) a book published by John Wiley & Sons recently called Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History. As I was preparing the manuscript, I was struck by how many lessons apply to content businesses of all kinds.

I first heard the band's music just before I started high school. My next-door neighbor (a college student) played Grateful Dead music, loudly, and I could hear it coming from his bedroom window all summer. The music grew on me, and I saw my first live concert on Jan. 17, 1979, in New Haven, Conn. I was hooked for life. I collected live concert tapes, saw the band another 41 times, and integrated the ideas into my work, culminating in this book project.

The lessons from the Dead are an important tool for content companies to understand the new marketing environment in language and examples that are familiar to all. The Grateful Dead is one huge case study in contrarian content marketing techniques.

Rather than the accepted practice of focusing on record albums as a primary revenue source (with touring to support album sales), the Dead created a business model focused on touring. This concept applies to today's internet, where the cost of distribution of electronic information is zero. Now, entire new opportunities emerge for those willing to challenge established content business models. The Grateful Dead teaches us that business model innovation is frequently more important than product innovation.

Unlike nearly every other band, the Grateful Dead not only encouraged concertgoers to record the live shows, the band actually established "taper sections" where fans' equipment could be set up for the best sound quality. When nearly every other band said no, the Grateful Dead created a huge network of people who traded tapes in pre-internet days. The broad exposure to free content led to millions of new fans and sold tickets to the live shows. As many companies today experiment with offering valuable content on the web, the Grateful Dead teaches us that when we free our content, more people are exposed to it and, eventually, will want to purchase our premium content. Yes, free content sells content.

The Grateful Dead created a mailing list in the early 1970s with which it announced tours to fans first. Later, it established its own ticketing office, which provided the most loyal fans with the best seats in the house. The Grateful Dead teaches us that building a community and treating customers with care and respect drives passionate loyalty. But I see the exact opposite with so many content companies where new subscribers get the best deal-the really cheap magazine subscription offered to new subscribers for example-while loyal customers pay the most.

The Grateful Dead let its audience define the Grateful Dead experience. Concerts were a happening, a destination where all 20,000 or more audience members were actually part of the experience. Making fans an equal partner in a mutual journey, the Grateful Dead teaches us that our community defines who we are. In an era of instant communications on Twitter, blogs, and the like, we learn that companies cannot force a mindset on their customers. Those content companies that encourage customer interaction on blogs, forums, chat rooms, and the like bring their customers along on a mutual journey leading to success in the marketplace.

The more I study the Grateful Dead, the more I realize that the ideas pioneered by this group of scruffy 1960s hippies are the same ones that make many content companies successful today. Smart companies continually develop strategies similar to those used by the Dead, shifting focus away from products to customers in order to create demand. In an era when it's difficult to make money using the content business playbooks of the past, it's fascinating that the counterculture ideas of the Dead may hold the key to the future.