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The Grateful Dead: Pioneering Inbound Marketers

Take a lesson from the iconic band by offering your content free of charge and then turning it into revenue

October 05, 2010
by Brian Halligan

People attending a Grateful Dead concert for the first time were often surprised to see the forest of professional-grade microphones rising to the sky from the audience. Tapers, as these Dead Heads were known, (lawfully) recorded Dead shows using their own equipment.

Dead fans had been taping shows since the early days of the band in the mid 1960s. Of the more than 2,300 shows the Dead played, approximately 2,200 were taped, but as the band’s success grew, so did the number of tapers, which caused problems. Concertgoers began complaining about the way microphones blocked sight lines to the stage.

Rather than banning taping, the band innovated by setting up designated taping sections at concerts. In return for sanctioning taping, the band requested that tapers refrain from selling tapes to other fans or using them for other commercial purposes—but it did encourage them to make copies to give away to their friends.
Viral Magnets

As a result, thousands of folks like me would return from a series of concerts with tapes of the shows. I’d pick the best show and make copies for all my friends. My friends would play these tapes over and over in their dorms and end up infecting others with a love for the music (and culture), which would turn hundreds of new folks into Grateful Dead ticket buyers. Each tape became a viral magnet that pulled in new customers. The more concerts they played, the more viral magnets sprang up.

Rather than prevent their audience from taping their concerts, as every other band did, the Dead set it free and encouraged tapers, hence sparking a revolution. You’d think giving their music away would have dampened their success; instead, the freebies propagated it. Even though people could get the Grateful Dead product for free, the band found itself playing in larger and larger stadiums as the fan base swelled and album sales accelerated: 19 gold albums, six platinum, and four multiplatinum.

What kind of marketing lesson can we take away from the Grateful Dead? While it’s true great companies have traditionally built themselves by pouring huge dollars into advertising their way into your office (cold calls), computer (spam), and home (TV ads), your marketplace feels increasingly sick and tired of being marketed to—and is getting better and better at blocking out interruptions with such tools as Caller ID, spam protection, and digital video recorders.

So how the heck can you reach your marketplace today if it’s shutting us marketers out? Potential consumers of your products may have stopped listening to your ads, but fortunately they have changed the way they learn about new products. They find out about them via search engines, blogs, and social media sites.
Make It Remarkable; Give It Away

To reach your target audience, take a page from the Grateful Dead’s playbook. Match the way you market with the way prospective customers do their shopping and learning. Create tons of remarkable, free content, such as blogs, videos, white papers, and e-books, and encourage your marketplace to share all this via social media.

Giving away free content sounds counterintuitive, but it works. Each piece of content you create attracts links from other websites. Those links send you traffic and inform Google (GOOG) how important you are and move that piece of content up the rankings.

Each piece of content acts as a viral magnet that attracts potential customers to your business. These mini-magnets are cumulative. The pieces of content you create never go away. They continue to get links and rank in the search engines and behave much like compounding interest in your 401k account.

One comment we frequently hear from smaller companies, especially those that sell ideas or services, is that if you give away your ideas “for free” (i.e. via blogs, white papers, videos, etc.), buyers have no incentive to do business with you. The exact opposite is true: When you give content or small pieces of your product away, it attracts more interest and opens up the top of your marketing funnel in a dramatic way. Businesses that lament they have too few leads will find that giving away content will generate more leads than they know what to do with.

Ultimately, the company that regularly produces content and makes it free for the taking sees its revenue grow as “followers” become customers. It worked for the Dead, and it can work for you, too. Here’s a to-do list:

1. Create a wonderful e-book about your industry (not your product) that people will want to share with others.

2. Create a brilliant video about how your industry will evolve over the next 10 years and post it on your blog and YouTube.

3. Do an industry survey to collect information about some interesting topic and create a remarkable report on it that your industry will love.

4. Find a low-cost developer (Rentacoder.com is one) and build some sort of an application for the iPhone (AAPL) or the Web that will give your market great pleasure.

5. Write a fantastic blog article once a week about your industry (not your product).

The Grateful Dead: Pioneering Inbound Marketers

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