Marketing Best Practices

JamBrands: The Grateful Dead’s Surprisingly Modern Content Strategy

Matt Wellschlager By Matt Wellschlager November 11, 2014

Cue the eye roll – yet another Deadhead wants to justify his strange addiction with some article about how it’s relevant to business. And yes – David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan wrote a whole book on it, and Halligan wrote a few pages about it in Inbound Marketing, but the recent deluge of Grateful Dead music releases, and their ability to sell them out completely, begs the question – how are these guys selling out a product that is 20-50 years old?

There’s an old sales adage in the form of a question – would you rather sell 1 million widgets for $1, or 1 widget for $1 Million? In a world of $1 singles on iTunes, or viral videos on Youtube, the Grateful Dead are managing to eke millions out of their relatively small base of loyal fans. These folks haven’t seen the band since 1995, and many not at all, including myself, and yet they get 100’s if not 1000’s of dollars per fan, per year. Wouldn’t we all love such a long tail revenue stream?

Here are a few examples of their success just to convince you I’m not making this stuff up:

1. They just finished releasing their second boxset from their Spring 1990 tour. It was a limited edition print of 9,000 sets, priced at $240, and they’ve sold 7500 already. That’s $1.8M.  Not bad for dusting off some tapes from 24 years ago.

2. They did the same thing last year with a different set of 1990 shows at the same price point and sold out the box set, netting roughly $2.2M.

3. Two years ago they released the ENTIRE Europe ‘72 tour for $450. 73 CDs. The limited print of 7200 sold out almost immediately. But demand was so high, that they’ve continued to offer a “just the music” version at the same price point for the last two years. 42 year-old recordings = $3.2M and growing.

4. Every year they’ve released 4 new releases of single shows, limited to 12000-16000 CD’s, all of which sell out.

5. They’ve done a box set like this every year or two for the last 10 years or so, with a price point consistently averaging above $100.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on about how they unpackage these sets and sell individual shows, or about how the strategy helps augment the individual touring members’ ticket sales, but the day is short. I’d rather talk about their multi-pronged marketing strategy to surround the sale on these box sets and identify the morsels of wisdom we all could garner. I guarantee you this – there is no other band or musician SELLING this much music on a per fan basis in the world today.

You could argue that it’s just the crazy fans – and it is, but it’s also the marketing strategy that turns these deadheads from $20 a year fans into $450 a year fans. The Grateful Dead has done a remarkable job of creating a customer-centric experience on their website and with their newsletter. It all revolves around creating a steady stream of returning visits to the web for all the free fun content they offer. This happens on a weekly basis, but when it’s time to sell something, they’re able to turn these channels with a loyal customer base into high-performing revenue generating sales channels. Let’s review what these look like:

Beginning in 2007, the Grateful Dead launched an exclusive Dead channel on Sirius radio. This is an ongoing constant stream of GD music 24/7 without advertisements, and includes three full length concerts played every day.

Once a year they do a movie meet-up where a Grateful Dead concert is brought off the shelves and shown in movie theaters around the country. This is usually on or around April 20th. Wonder why they choose that date…

The website is FULL of content updated weekly.  This includes:

1. A Jam of the Week – a long extended jam that only Deadheads enjoy, pulled from the archives from somewhere in their 30 years of recordings.

2. Tapers Section – a group of multi-song excerpts from various periods.

3. The Grateful Dead Hour – a weekly radio show that’s available for replay on the website.

Now when the box sets come out, these various channels start promoting the heck out of it.  The daily concerts on the radio are shows from the upcoming release, and those weekly channels of music start featuring and talking about the music from the upcoming release.


But that’s not all folks!  When it’s time to sell, they roll out the big guns.  They advertise the award winning journalistic content that comes with the boxset. They feature excerpts and interviews from the likes of noted Rock and Roll author Dennis McNally and David Fricke from Rolling Stone (who subsequently post related articles through their own channels). Then they take you down the path of what it’s going to be like to actually OWN this box set. They have weekly “Listening Parties” of the tracks on the website that they rotate through. They interview David Lemieux, the archivist, who walks you through his favorite tracks from the collection, why they’re so amazing, and talks you through the remastering process. They put together a collection of excerpts and make it available on Spotify.

THEN – they produce a video of what it’s going to be like to open the box set.  That’s right, equipped with a Spoiler Alert, they post a video recording of someone opening the box – the books, the prints, the individually packaged CD’s, all the excitement that could be yours for the low price of 100’s of hard-earned dollars.

So what’s really going on here besides general fan obsession? There’s a promotional strategy of creating an amazing pre-purchase experience and setting expectations for what the post-purchase experience will be. If all the promotion is amazing, then I definitely want to make this purchase.

This is the point Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah make in Inbound Marketing, and you can see it in the heart of Hubspot’s inbound strategy. If you regularly engage with Hubspot content as a non-customer, you will be successful. The content is expansive, and whatever problem you’re having as a marketer, their content can help you solve it well before you ever give them any money. But it creates a brand experience, implicitly setting expectations of what the experience of being a client is going to be like.

The other major point here is content everywhere, in all forms, and available in all ways, helps sell more. Just like the modern pedagogical movement is pushing the idea of children learning a the way that works best for them, modern marketers need to create content that individual prospects can engage with on their own terms. By leveraging web, email, articles, streaming music, radio, video, movie theaters, Spotify, and countless other channels, they ensure that somehow, somewhere you’re going to know what’s going on with the Dead.

What’s the point, you stupid Deadhead?!

For years I’ve sat around with marketers and salespeople to discuss which tactics win deals.  And the truth is, and has always been, ALL of them, as long as they’re customer focused.  Ubiquity of amazing engaging content, grasped at various levels and in various ways, keeps your audience engaged and happy, and they’ll be more than happy to reward you through buying more of what you’re selling.  Wouldn’t we all love to have such a deadicated customer-base?

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