A Case Study in Building Community

Most don’t know this, but Phish has one of the most active and passionate communities of fans, not just among bands, but also brands in the world.  How did it all begin? Jam bands, dating back to the Grateful Dead have always been defined by the constantly changing and unpredictable nature of their live performances.  Simply put, it wasn’t the records they periodically produced, it was going to see them live that made these bands and the genre what it is today.  A mainstay of this culture involved fans recording live shows and sharing them with friends, a practice that has been going on for decades.

In the 80s, these individuals became known as “Tapers.”  An entire subculture emerged of people who traveled to concerts to record them, share them and trade them with friends.  Naturally, this made a deeper analysis of each performance possible, while generating social groups that revolved around this discovery and learning process.  Eventually, this ability to more attentively listen to and discuss the music of these bands coupled with the always evolving nature of their performances, grew into a more rabid and loyal fan base.

So, after looking at this history, one that many brands would salivate at the prospect of having as their roots, musicians and bands in more mainstream genres still don’t seem to understand the power that experience holds in developing active online communities of fans. So, I chose the band Phish to show how these powerful sub-cultures harnessed by a sound digital strategy has been turned into not just a revenue source, but a means of constantly fueling support and loyalty for the music itself. is the online hub for all of the band’s live performances.  That’s right, every single show is professionally recorded and posted on the site for purchase and review.  Concert-goers who attend a live performance use the code on their ticket stub to download the show for free on the site – an incredibly easy and cheap way to engender ongoing loyalty and support for the music.  But, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  The community space also boasts a radio station, streaming live shows 24-7.  Each individual’s profile stores their downloaded shows and makes them accessible to stream via a mobile app.  Select HD videos from every show are released for free, as are periodic mix tapes, crafted by insiders to showcase specific musical achievements throughout the band’s history.  The space also has ways of luring consumers back in.  For example, I got an email from the band a few months ago, on the 11th anniversary of my first live concert experience, offering me a free download and encouraging me to add my thoughts to the comments board.  Seriously, the 11th anniversary?  Who would have thought!  They literally made my day with this.  Okay. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The result is droves of fans constantly listening and re-listening to performances while discussing their thoughts with the larger community.  Simply put, Phish built the fireplace and continually supplies it with wood.  Their fans are simply the spark that makes it burn.

All brands can learn something from this.  First, they must create community spaces for advocates to share their thoughts and opinions about the products, in some sort of directed fashion.  But, it’s not just about putting a blank page up.  The music, which is the lifeblood of is also the content which fuels the dialogue.  Without it, informed and passionate discussion becomes more challenging.  Additionally, the band is using what they know about me based on my purchase history to keep my informed with targeted content while making me feel special on dates like my anniversary (a solid CRM strategy).  To summarize for brand builders, the question you must ask yourself is, do my customers have a communal space that: is supporting relationships, enhancing the value and experience of the product, and allowing me to create and contribute in my own way?


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