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David Meerman Scott Shares Marketing Lessons from The Grateful Dead

You can view it as an accidental by-product of stubbornly wanting to do things their own way but the Grateful Dead business model, which coexisted with the artistic ambitions of the group, was revolutionary. It also was prescient given a present-day world where creativity and social media must unite and evolve in order for commercial achievements to originate and flourish.

Following a successful webinar made by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan, the two longtime Deadheads and successful business writer and speaker (Scott) and website entrepreneur (Halligan) quickly developed the group’s core approaches into an easy-to-read book that includes photographs by Jay Blakesberg and illustrations by Richard Biffle. Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History focuses on the intersection of these creative and commercial sides.

In talking to Scott it’s clear that he’s committed to the ideas of using communication to unite business and customers in ways that are beneficial to both parties as much as he is to the music of the Grateful Dead and its numerous post-Jerry offshoots (he is on the advisory board for the University of California Santa Cruz Grateful Dead Archives). He also spoke enthusiastically about 7 Walkers and having tickets to the three-night Furthur run in Boston as well as bringing his wife and teenage daughter to shows over the past few years.

Our talk occurred during a break from his work writing the 3rd edition of his book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use Social Media, Blogs, News Releases, Online Video, and Viral Marketing to Reach Buyers Directly.

JPG: At what point did these marketing lessons come to you before you even created the webinar?

DMS: Brian and I have been fans for a long time. I saw my first show in 1979 when I was in high school. Brian soon thereafter, he’s a little younger than I am. We’ve both been marketing and business people for our careers. I was thinking about some of the analogies for a long time, many years, particularly when I started to write and speak about the new world of online marketing and social media marketing where giving away stuff away for free works great, where you give away a free video or a free white paper or ebook or something on the web. It’s just great marketing. I just drew the parallel between what I was seeing in my writing and speaking career and what the Dead was doing back in the day. Brian also was thinking various things as well separately too me. This is well before the webinar.

When we decided to do a book, right off the top of our heads without even thinking about it, we had more than half of the content already mapped out. And then just giving it a little bit more thought the other ones came to us. It was also good to have a co-author. Brian and I agree that we don’t think either one of us could have written it by ourselves. It took a couple of different perspectives on it to be able to come together.

JPG: Looking at it, it seems like two long couple pots of coffee sessions just to come up with it.

DMS: Exactly. And that was a part of it. We met in person…a dozen of times over the course of the time we were writing and a lot of was just that. We’d just banter ideas back and forth. Although we don’t indicate who, our writing style was that we each did the first draft of half of the chapters in the book and then the other one would edit each other’s work. And that worked out great, too, because we came at it from slightly different perspectives. That was also kind of like a tennis match because we were writing really quickly. It was written over six weeks. ‘I just did a chapter, check it out.’ And he goes, ‘I finished one, too. Check mine out.’ That was really fun.

JPG: In that method of going through each other’s work were you able to give it one Voice or was that done through the publisher’s editor?

DMS: We had to do that. That was really important to us. We relied on Wiley (the book’s publisher) to help us there because all writers little tics of words that we use. So, we tried our best to make sure that it was smooth throughout the whole thing.

My wife is translating the book into Japanese. It’s coming out in the Japanese language in about three months, being put out by Nikkei BP, one of the largest publishing houses in Japan. And my wife is Japanese so she’s working on the translation. As she was really digging in, heavy into the book I asked her, ‘Which chapters did you think I wrote?’ And she said, ‘There’s no question you wrote this one, this one and this one and Brian wrote this one and this one but I’m not really sure these ones.’ Most of the time she was wrong. So, we smoothed it out pretty well.

JPG: Overall, the reaction to the book has it been embraced by the business community, overriding any stigma of the band and the audience that was there?

DMS: Oh, amazingly well. In fact, a lot of people have told us in private emails or some of the blog posts we’ve seen and even some of the reviews people have started their comments with, ‘I never really liked the Grateful Dead…’ One of the blog posts I love was, ‘What can the business world learn from a bunch of dirty hippies?’ (laughs) So, what we found was that people who were initially skeptical because they weren’t fans of the band or they didn’t know that much about the lifestyle were converted when they read the book. Because it’s short people are willing to take a chance. A lot of people tell me that they read these books on airplanes if they travel for business by plane or trains if they commute by train. We designed it to be a one airplane read. If you’re going from coast-to-coast you can easily finish the book, probably read it twice. So, people are willing to take a chance on it, where they may not be willing to take a chance if it’s a much longer book. The other thing that came up that was really interesting was that there were a number of people who were a little bit reluctant or resistant because of the drug culture image. They would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know…LSD and drugs and hippies and all that…’ And they came away thinking, ‘Wow! There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on here. So, they were able to get over that initial trepidation around their stereotype of what the drug culture meant.

JPG: In regards to the band. When you put it altogether in the book it looks like a great model of art meets commerce or do you see it when you put everything in perspective as an offshoot of the Beatnik ways, life perspective, hippie movement, good timing and real cosmic accident in the past that we are able to learn from in the present?

DMS: I think it’s a little bit of both. We’ve had interactions with band members. We’ve had interactions with members of their management team and with their record label, Rhino, and people around the band, and what often comes up is a little bit of a smirk, ‘We’re not marketers. What are you talking about, man. We’re making this stuff up as we’re going along.’ While that’s true, a certain aspect of it was not planned. It’s not like they sat down and said, ‘I bet if we allow tapers to come in 10 years later we’ll be selling a lot more concert tickets.’ It wasn’t that kind of pre-planned approach. What also came out in all of those conversations, whether they were with band members or members of their current management team – we didn’t speak with anyone from the former management team, so I’m talking about people working with Phil and Bobby and Mickey and so on – it was, ‘You know what? We just did the right thing. Whenever the decision was between money to us and what was right for the fans, we would come down with what was right for the fans. More often than not, the money took care of itself when we took care of the fans.’

A lot of it is this sort of hippie culture, let’s be nice to people and why not give stuff away and make people happy and all that but in the end that’s what drove the success. And our whole thing in the book is every business can learn from that. If you’re doing bad and you’re trying to gouge people and you’re offering shoddy products and you’re being secretive and you’re not providing value, you’re ultimately not going to be successful.

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