What You Can Learn from the Grateful Dead 

By Evan Rudowski

It might be difficult to imagine that a former San Francisco hippy rock band could offer much insight for publishers of content websites, but alongside their psychedelic musical explorations, the Grateful Dead pioneered some of the winning techniques in product marketing and community-building that work effectively on the web today.

Here are five key techniques that were successful for the Dead and that can also make your website business come to life:

1. They gave their content away for free

At every Grateful Dead concert, one could see a forest of microphones in the audience linked to portable tape decks carried in by dozens of fans. The Grateful Dead encouraged the recording of their concerts; fans could duplicate and share the tapes as much as they wanted, on a not-for-profit basis. Many a fan was introduced to the band by a friend who handed them a tape of a particularly cherished performance.

In this way, the Dead over the years built a devoted following of paying customers. By the 1990s, they were the highest-grossing live musical act in America year after year, despite having rarely had a hit song on the charts. Had they strictly enforced their copyright, refusing to allow taping and trading of their shows, it’s unlikely they would have achieved such sustained popularity.

In a similar way, your website should offer fresh, new and useful content to visitors on a regular basis, at no charge. Don’t place all the good stuff behind a paid barrier. Over time, the free content will prove the value of your offering and help your website build a loyal audience of interested visitors. Some may become paid subscribers, and the total audience may be of interest to advertisers and marketers who would like to reach them.

2. They created a vast historical content archive

In addition to the tapers in the audience, the Grateful Dead themselves recorded and archived nearly every one of their more than 2,000 concerts across 30 years of performing. Even though a particular concert may have been merely a few hours long, the Dead understood that the performance could have enduring value.

Today, more than a decade after the band ceased performing following the death of their lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, they continue to release archival recordings of classic performances. Each release is eagerly purchased by the thousands on disk or via digital download.

A historical archive of relevant content is a valuable resource that your audience will be willing to pay for to search and access. Such an archive can also be mined to create new content products in new formats. If you already possess a substantial content archive, then you start with one of the critical ingredients of website success. If you don’t have an archive to begin with, building one up over time is an important objective to set. Keep creating content and adding to it.

3. They built a huge contact database

On a 1971 album release, the Dead included a post office box address and a simple invitation to “Dead Freaks” to write in and add their names to a mailing list. Over the years, the Dead sent regular newsletters, keeping in touch, promoting their brand and expanding their relationship with their audience – their community. Members of the mailing list became the first to learn about new scheduled concerts and other plans. Over the years, the list grew into the millions and began to incorporate newer communication methods such as email. Today, that same list is still used to market the band’s archival recordings and current projects of the surviving members.

If you start out with a mailing list of target customers interested in your subject area, you will have a tremendous lead on the marketing needed to grow your content website. If not, one of the first things to do is build one. Create a sign-up box on your home page and start taking email addresses. Begin to send regular, useful and informative updates to your list. Never violate your audience’s trust – make sure that the people in your database can always count on you to send correspondence they’ll want to receive.

4. They controlled the means of distribution

In the 1970s, the Grateful Dead started their own record label so that they could release their recordings without being beholden to the requirements of a big record company. They also began their own ticket sales operation to allow them to offer loyal fans a chance to get the best concert seats at a fair price. By cutting out the middlemen, the Dead served their audience better and kept more money for themselves.

Starting your own content website is a way to reach your audience directly and keep the lion’s share of the revenues. Previously, content creators had to rely on publishers to market and distribute their work, and had to surrender the majority of their revenues to these distributors. This is no longer the case. Publishing over the web brings the production and distribution cost way down, making it possible to profitably reach smaller, niche audiences.

5. They created ancillary products built on a strong brand

The Grateful Dead created a unique brand identity and imagery – including the famous skull and lightning bolt, skull and roses and dancing bears – that became an enduring part of popular culture in the United States and were arguably more familiar to many people than the music itself.

Using their database and their ceaseless touring (the Dead’s method of content creation), the band promoted these icons and marketed them on t-shirts, posters, bumper stickers and other products to the tune of millions of dollars in ancillary revenues. In later years, as their audience aged, this translated into a best-selling line of men’s neckties, children’s clothing and other products.

Having a strong, trusted brand or personal reputation in your field of expertise is an important factor in the potential success of your content website. If you start out with such a brand or reputation, your path to website success will likely be easier. Your opportunity
to create and market multiple products under this trusted brand will be greater. If you don’t start out with a strong brand, you can do what the Dead did, following the techniques above to build momentum, community and success.