What did one Grateful Dead fan say to the other when the drugs wore off?
“Man, this music sucks!”
Jokes aside, no one can argue the cultural influence of the Dead and the legions of loyal Deadheads who continue to love the band. And a big part of how it happened was due to the band’s pioneering content marketing approach.
Instead of banning recording at concerts, the Dead actively encouraged audience taping and distribution of the band’s legendary live shows. This turned attendees into raving fans – a word-of-mouth marketing force that out-performed most of the contrived corporate attempts we see today in social media.
So what are the key differences that set the Dead apart from, well … the dead when it comes to content marketing? Let’s see what Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia had to say.
1. The Thing
And the live show is still our main thing. ~Jerry Garcia
Content marketing, in its simplest definition, involves giving away something valuable in order to sell something related. The Dead knew that its related “thing” was not the band’s recorded albums, or even the bootleg recordings of the shows, but the experience of the live show itself.
Rather than restrict recording and bootlegging, the Dead saw the practice as a gift from the fans, not a gift to them. The distribution of recordings from fans to future fans intensified and channeled desire for the authentic experience of a Dead show. Plus, getting people to the live venue fueled the other profit center for the band – merchandise.
If you’re still afraid to give anything of value for marketing purposes, you need to think long and hard about what it is you’re really selling. Telling people how to do something is not the same experience as doing it for them – so in that sense you’re not giving anything away. And yet the trust and awareness you build with valuable content is the essence of what a brand is, and that brand allows you to continue selling related things to people for years.
Give away the recording, but sell the show, the t-shirt, and the Cherry Garcia ice cream. There are many ways to do something similar in any business.
2. The Difference
You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do. ~Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead, Boston, and Nirvana were (and remain) all in the same business. They’re competing for the same customers, right? People who listen to and buy rock music.
But of course, they’re not. Positioning seems brain-dead obvious when you think of it in the context of musicians, doesn’t it? Those three bands appeal to distinctly different types of people despite being in the same general business category. It’s really not any more complicated than that with any other type of business.
Garcia had another take on this:
“Grateful Dead Fans are like people who like licorice. Not everyone likes licorice, but the people who like licorice REALLY like licorice.”
Don’t follow the herd, cave to consensus, or aim for the latest fad. If conventional “wisdom” says your approach is off, you might be on the right track.
3. The Goal
But my whole point was to inspire people to take action. ~Jerry Garcia
It’s easy to say the Grateful Dead were simply being cool by not prohibiting recording and distribution of its shows, but that ignores reality. By Garcia’s own admission, the Dead wanted their music and the live show experience to spread far and wide.
Remember, the fans were giving a gift to the band. And they did it because sharing the tapes helped fans feel like part of something much bigger than just another concert. Yes, the content still must be created, but the hardest thing for most content creators is to then get out of the way.
The more important point is that the Dead wanted action in a larger sense. It wasn’t just about money, or even just music – it was about a cultural shift the band and the fans participated in together.
Action requires motivation first and foremost. And one of the best ways to motivate people is to invite them to be a part of something bigger than themselves – with you, not for you.
4. The Payoff
Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. ~Don Henley
The payoff from content marketing is so much larger than the vast majority of traditional advertising. Much like the magical influence the Dead still have with fans and the broader culture, you too can wield industry influence that expands your brand almost effortlessly into the future.
You get that ironic sticker on the Cadillac, since your fans grow up and gain more wealth and influence along with you. But you also get the industry equivalent of that lyric from Don Henley’s 1984 hit The Boys of Summer – those who follow in your footsteps are not competitors, they’re disciples who pay homage to you with their own content.
Will it work the same way it did with mass media? No, but it won’t work that way for most anyone else, either. You only need to inspire and influence the people who matter to your business, and it doesn’t take mass awareness to achieve niche prominence.
The reason we use so many pop culture analogies on Copyblogger is simple – online content marketing is more about media production than it is about traditional marketing. Adopt the mindset that your company is a media company no matter what your “thing” is, and online marketing becomes less puzzling and more fun.
P.S. After writing this post, I discovered that my friend David Meerman Scott and HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan offer a free (registration required) webinar called Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead. I haven’t watched it and have no affiliation with it, but with those two involved, my bet is it’s good. Check it out to dig deeper into Dead marketing.