10 Social Media Lessons From The Grateful Dead

I hope you like your social with a side of simile. After a nine-year run as a Search Insider, where I compared SEM to everything from selfies to sports, I’m now pointing my prose at social media.

To kick off this tour, I thought I’d begin with the end of the Grateful Dead. This past weekend marked the final three shows the four remaining members of the original band will (supposedly) ever play together. I was fortunate to go to the last hurrah on Sunday night — and, among other visions, found inspiration for this column.

For all intents and purposes, the Dead helped create the first social network. By building a community and connecting it through technology, the band helped people around the world share their passion for the music and communicate with each other to trade tapes, tickets, etc.

So, without prolonged ado – aka drums and space – here are 10 things we can learn from the Dead and apply to our social media practice.

1. Recognize it’s a long, strange trip. The Dead went through many iterations as a band, continually adapting their style (and members) to internal and external forces. Similarly, in social media, consumer habits will change and different players will emerge to engage them. From Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Instagram, the dominant platforms have changed through the years, as have the organic and paid marketing opportunities therein. Heck, the Dead even had an official Snapchat account for their 50th anniversary shows. Talk about embracing a new generation!

2. Don’t be afraid to improvise. As the original jam band, the Dead were infamous for veering off script and operating without a net. Sometimes in social media, you have to make things up on the fly – especially when it comes to testing new formats or capitalizing on real-time events. In fact, some of the most successful executions are clearly not polished pieces of marketing, but instead a timely creation or curation of content.

3. Focus on community. The Dead did not have fans. They had family. That mindset bred a loyalty (and lifetime value) that most brands can only dream about. From meals in the lot to rides to shows to miracle tickets, Deadheads took care of each other and created an alternate universe surrounding the band. Think about how you can create emotional resonance at this level. Think about how you can cultivate a community that does more than make you a lifestyle brand, it makes your brand a lifestyle.

4. Foster creativity within limits. For years, the Dead ran their own mail-order ticketing service with exacting specifications, while encouraging people to decorate their envelopes — and some of the best designs were immortalized in the archives. Standing out in a sea of 60,000 envelopes is no different from breaking through the clutter in a social media feed. You have to find ways to be creative while adhering to the platform specs.

5. Repurpose great content. Man, those dancing bears are everywhere! It just goes to show that if you find something that works, don’t be afraid to plaster it everywhere, in every format.

6. Monetizing doesn't (have to) mean selling out. A lot has been made about the high costs of tickets and merchandise for the final Dead shows. At the end of the day though, it’s merely the laws of supply and demand at work, and most people agree the band stayed true to its brand. So, too, a lot has been made about Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms generating revenues in an effort to appease shareholders. The key is balancing the user experience with the need to make money. As long as you can find ways to do both, your brand love will not fade away.

7. Innovate or die. The Dead were always pushing the limits when it came to, well… everything, but especially technology. The Wall of Sound experiments were legendary and just go to show the importance of pushing the boundaries. For marketers, staying on the cutting edge of social media means never being satisfied with the status quo, always seeking ways to further “amplify” your brand.

8. Sometimes you need a different perspective. As for how you can expand your mind and come up with ground-breaking (re)inventions, I’m not suggesting that you conduct your own acid tests — but find a way to get out of your head and see things from a new angle.

9. Stimulate FOMO (fear of missing out). Every single Dead show is different. No two songs are played the same way. By creating unique experiences and continually crafting new highs, the band planted an insane level of FOMO among its install base. And, in turn, this FOMO drove mass social chatter. “Were you at that show?” “Did you catch that Terrapin?” Whether it’s through exclusive content or gamification strategies, find ways to allow people to engage with your brand at different levels, planting some healthy FOMO among your constituency.

10. Recognize when it’s time to move on. Just as Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann knew it was time to put the final punctuation on the Grateful Dead, social marketers must realize when its time to wind down a particular program. That hub you built your brand around. That celebrity endorsement play. That crowd-sourced creative contest. Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime if you don’t lay ‘em down.

Thanks to my Robert Hunter, Jason Schwartz, for collaborating on this list, and thanks to all of you, my new community, for participating and engaging. Fare thee well….

4 comments about "10 Social Media Lessons From The Grateful Dead".
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  1. Janel Laravie from Chacka Marketing, July 8, 2015 at 2:10 p.m.

    Wow, this truly is your best comparison list yet! Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Aaron Goldman from Mediaocean, July 8, 2015 at 3:09 p.m.

    Thanks Janel! Trying to reach new "highs" :)

  3. Glenn Jewett from Services1223, July 9, 2015 at 2:03 p.m.

    One thing this last two weeks drove home is the penetration into mainstream that had taken place by Dead Heads, which started with the fascination of new age media that a couple of nights music by a half dozen aging guys could cause a blip on the social media graphs. I have to ask, was this your first show? You managed to get all the buzz words in but I'm trying to put your experience into perspective and there is no wrong answer.

    When the shows were announced, and almost every pre-order ticket money order was returned, I knew this was a promoter's idea with little concern for the "Dead Heads" themselves. After the ink was on the contracts the band did exert some bargining "muscle" with the addition of the two Santa Clara shows. That dampened what was shaping up to be a virtual uprising by fans who had discovered that the pre-ordering was futile and as their money orders were returned scalpers were already posting tickets for over $6,000.

    Then with well crafted publicity and some quieting of the fan base, the Pay Per View rollout was embraced as a "next best" solution. I must say, the technical execution would have pleased Owsley and probably Garcia as well. But what was your impression? Garcia said, "We're like licorice, if you don't like us, you don't like us at all, but if you do like us, you like us alot." Are you a "licorice" lover or an "I'll pass"?

    The Santa Clara shows were generally pedestrian as to be expected and the true high point was the gathering of the tribe. The homage to Jer during the set break evoked tearful faces smiling at this "final" live chance to share a place in time together again.

    Then came Chicago and the reappearence of the "X factor", that moment which can't be explained or forced, but suddenly the energy of the audience creates a feed back loop and a concert slides to a new level of kinetic synergy. The boys themselves can't "make" it happen and therein is the understanding of why we'd catch as manny shows as possible, not wanting to hear that the next night, the one we hadn't gotten to, was "the" night for a run of shows.

    It's really grate that a generation of social media technophiles got this exposure to what after all is a pinnacle showcase of "social" success. The basis for that success is probably best described by Jerry, who on the Dick Cavet show, appearing with Gene Simmons of Kiss, responded to Simmons observation, "I went to a Dead show once and don't see what the fuss is about." Without a second's hesitation, Jerry looked over and said, "Most of our fans don't come to see us, they come to listen to the music."  

  4. Aaron Goldman from Mediaocean, July 9, 2015 at 5:20 p.m.

    Great insight Glenn! Fare Thee Well was my first time seeing the "original" band but I'm definitely a licorice lover and have been to plenty of iterations over the past 20 years... Furthur, the Dead, Ratdog, Phil and Friends, Rhythm Devils, etc. That said, I grew up with Phish and identify more as a Phishhead than Deadhead so having Trey in the lineup was the best of all worlds for me.

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