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  • Writer's pictureLisa Williams

Concerts, Content, Customers and Culture: 8 Things I Learned from Phish's Baker's Dozen

Phish, a four-person jam band launched in 1983 recently embarked on a record-setting residency at Madison Square Garden to perform 13 shows in 17 days. A series they called “Baker’s Dozen".

Every show was dedicated to a donut flavor (cinnamon, sprinkles, strawberry, glaze, Boston cream, etc.) and in total they performed 26 sets and 237 songs without repeating a single song.

As a digital and content strategist, I’ve been impressed over the past few years with how Phish engage their audience differently than any other band. While viewing all 13 shows, I was often reminded that Phish is not only a talented band with a dedicated following, but they are exceptional marketers of the content they create.

Here are a few things I learned I can apply to my current role as a health care digital strategist and, even if you don't love jam bands, there may be something you can apply to your own digital strategy.

1. Own your storytelling and content strategy

From a content strategy perspective, Baker’s Dozen is a nearly perfect example of a content pillar.

A content pillar is basically a plan for content efficiency.

One single body of work (the residency) was broken down into many different formats to be consumed as parts of a whole.

  • 1 residency

  • 26 sets

  • 13 concerts

  • 237 songs

  • Hundreds of videos and social posts

Once you've crafted that content pillar, you need to decide which channels you'll use to distribute your content. Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose, both best-selling authors, keynote speakers and content strategists host a weekly podcast called PNR: This Old Marketing. They constantly circle back to the reality that, regardless of your business model, the cornerstone of your content efforts must include exceptional content to a dedicated audience in a channel you own.

Phish beautifully owned this process. Though they did allow content sharing in multiple channels, their biggest commitment was executed in the channels they own (their concerts and their own web site).

  • In person: Go to the concerts (one or many)

  • LivePhish: Purchase CD’s (separately or as a set)

  • LivePhish: Purchase the webcasts which expire in 24 hours

  • YouTube: Watch clips available for free the following day

  • Facebook: Watch select clips on their LivePhish Facebook page

Developing an audience for your content can include many channels, but never forget the goal is for that audience to have connection and loyalty to you in your channels. There's never a guarantee that channels you don't own won't change or leave and take your audience with them. Your storytelling and content strategy needs to be unique to you and owned by you.

2. Use process to drive creativity

Phish famously makes time and space to explore creatively together.

Phish was uniquely positioned to challenge some of the top performers at Madison Square Garden in the number of shows performed and the number of shows performed in succession. They didn’t just decide to challenge the record, they spent years spinning out an idea (a mashup of Boston and Cream songs) that culminated in an incredibly creative approach to tackling that daunting effort.

Their process commanded commitment, practice and vision. They spent time working towards playlists in different locations playing certain songs over and over again, some of which weren’t even played at the shows.

Their accomplishment was a culmination of years of planning.

In our efforts to be creative, it’s easy to get stuck in the “thing” that commands our creative attention, but what are we really poised to accomplish?

Improving the health care experience digitally is a challenging balance between what we do today and how we prepare for tomorrow.

Mayo Clinic has launched an app that embraces the health of a person in total. They are poised to meet a person where they are; as a current patient or someone who wants to live a healthier life or someone trying to make an appointment or someone trying to find a location at the hospital. They are poised to impact the lives of those they serve in the Mayo Clinic system and they are deeply understanding the needs of their audience and serving up that content on something they own. They've even partnered with Amazon's Alexa to deliver first aid content.

That takes a lot of work, a lot of collaboration and a lot of investment. That’s not possible without a creative vision that commands alignment. For Phish that alignment happened because they have a lot of trust in each other and the vision was solid. For health care, it’s incredibly complicated, but spending time truly understanding the patient journey and their needs is the right place to start.

Creativity isn’t just about the creative. It’s about problem-solving with joy and care that desperately needs diverse thinking, commitment and integration.

3. Commit to the strategy, but be fluid

Crafting a plan is important, but adherence to that plan at all costs doesn’t always garner true progress. Band member and Phish lead Trey Anastasio notes that months of planning went into each playlist but that every night once they cross a line (it’s truly a physical line) they surrender to their expertise, to connection with each other and to connection to their audience. They don’t adhere mindlessly to the plan, they adhere to the spirit of the plan. They choose to be exceptional, invest in expertise and lead with authenticity.

As health care systems create important experiences for health care consumers, we will need to rely on the expertise of our providers (clinical care) as our foundation while allowing some of our strategies to be fluid enough to adjust to needs as they change.

As fitness apps have flooded the market and data from those apps is showing mixed results, we need to ask ourselves what health care consumers really need. Do they need a list of the fitness things they accomplished or do they need to better understand how those behaviors impact their health? Do we need to better explain our services or also understand their health challenges?

Phish’s commitment to months and months of practicing playlists to grow expertise rather than memorize songs is a great example of exactness matched with fluidity.

4. Respect your industry

Phish’s record-breaking 13 straight shows at Madison Square Garden was not only commitment to their own music but devotion and homage to the talent they were honoring. Only Elton John and Billy Joel have performed more times at MSG and now they have surpassed both John and Joel in number of straight shows in a residency. They covered more than 20 artists in the residency including The Beatles, Prince, Boston, Cream, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

Having served as a digital strategist for 21 years, one of the things I love about the health care vertical (to which I am fairly new) is the fortitude it takes to do good work in an incredibly complicated industry. We have the unique opportunity not available in most industries to learn from and share with each other. We’re competing, not with each other, but with the clock to better serve patients.

5. Involve your customers in community

Fans of Phish feel a great comradery, not just to the band, but to each other. Their experiences become communal.

Health care digital strategists spend a great deal of time divining ways to improve the patient experience, whether that’s with improved UX for the website, or creation of content that helps patients better understand their diagnosis or finding stories that illustrate the excellence of the care we provide or stories of hope for those that sometimes feel hopeless.

One of the most powerful ways we can help our customers, whether they are die-hard music fans or patients, is to give them a way to connect with each other.

Phish galvanizes people around their music and then encourages their connection with each other and that deepens their advocacy and loyalty.

This can be difficult in health care but great tools are emerging to achieve the goal of community engagement.

A health care tool called Curatio helps bring together people, patients and caregivers to deliver private peer support, trusted information and personalized programs that make living with a health challenge easier, together.

Transparently has created tools that help health care consumers learn more about their providers, ask important questions to their health care system and more easily navigate health care information.

6. Do it differently

Though they didn’t invent it, Phish embraces multiple-shows at many venues and engaging their audience in more than one concert allows for connection with the music and each other in a way that’s difficult in a one night event.

There are a few digital and content strategists in health care I deeply admire. Here’s what they’re doing differently.

Brian Gresh – Brian is merging his University of Utah technical expertise with great content for which Cleveland Clinic is famous as the Executive Director of Digital and Content Marketing for a truly unbeatable combination of skills that deeply impacts the patient journey.

Amanda Todorovich – The content Amanda and her team creates is so helpful and thorough that it is they monetize the content.

Matt Gove – As the Chief Consumer Officer at Piedmont Health, Matt is constantly testing technology and content to hit the mark of getting patients the help and information they need.

Chad Mallory – As a team member on a deeply patient-centric organization, Chad works with his founders and team to further how technology, including light AI (artificial intelligence), can help patients as they navigate the complexities of the health care system.

7. Have deep expertise

Comradery and community don’t mean much if it’s not matched with expertise. Phish has played together for more than 34 years. They play individually and in other bands as well.

Brands and bands have very different types of expertise, but that excellence and deep expertise is always the foundation of community or audience engagement.

You can craft an exceptional digital experience for patients, but it wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t matched with the deep expertise of the doctors, nurses, physician assistants, researchers and others that provide the expertise of health care.

8. Be authentic

With steadfastness in their own life philosophies and a genuinely child-like love for the music, my favorite moment of Baker’s Dozen was Phish standing in the middle of the enormous stage having just played, “A Day in the Life” surrounded by tens of thousands of fans exuding simple, perfect joy in the music. In one of the country’s most-beloved venues or in their own garage, you imagine that joy is authentic.

As one of the most financially viable groups touring today, their journey as a brand and a band has evolved into a strong culture of dedicated followers and after 34 years it doesn’t appear they’re going anywhere.

According to some smart people I admire, if you get the culture right, the other stuff will take care of itself.

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