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3 Superfan Strategies From Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam hasn’t released a music video in 15 years. It doesn’t do endorsements, commercials, or — heaven forbid — musicals. Yet its Ten Club is widely regarded as the most loyal and rabid superfan base in the music industry. Here’s what a 23-year-old grunge band can teach us all about building customer relationships that last.
Pearl Jam superfan strategies
photo by Kerensa Wight

Imagine your iTunes library as a business analogy.

Radiohead represents the experimental, and sometimes head-scratching Google. U2 is the Nike-esque marketing powerhouse. The Beatles exemplify the game-changing Apple.

OK, but who’s our rock ’n’ roll Zappos? That band who treats its fans (and employees) like family? Pearl Jam.

When it began back in 1991, Pearl Jam’s Ten Club was an ordinary fan group that sent newsletters and exclusive singles to card-carrying members. Four years later, all that changed.

After boycotting Ticketmaster for anti-competitive and monopolistic practices, Pearl Jam launched a totally independent tour that used the Ten Club to put the best tickets into the hands of its biggest fans instead of resellers. For many reasons — food poisoning, venue cancellations, and hailstorms among them — the tour was an unequivocal disaster. It should have mentally and financially sunk the band. But it didn’t, and Pearl Jam thanks its fans for that.

“We learned a lot about the importance of looking after fans and our members when it came to ticketing,” Tim Bierman (@10CTim), manager of the Ten Club, tells The Build Network. “We also learned how challenging it would be to achieve our goals.”

Over the past 18 years, those goals have developed into a strategic superfan operation with roughly 200,000 active members.

“The band now packs arenas for two, sometimes three, nights in a row, thanks to thousands of intensely dedicated fans who call themselves the Jamily and travel hundreds of miles to sing along with every word,” writes Whitney Pastorek in Entertainment Weekly. “Pearl Jam has unexpectedly morphed into a modern Grateful Dead, and it just might be their saving grace.”

Here are three guiding principles of Pearl Jam’s superfan strategy:

1. Invest in your superfans, and they’ll invest in you.
For the vast majority of its live shows since 2000, Pearl Jam has reserved the best seats in the house for Ten Club members, who pay regular ticket prices in exclusive pre-sale events. To keep up with demand, Pearl Jam developed an in-house digital ticketing system that’s integrated into its password-protected Ten Club site. “We didn’t really look at it as an investment in capital, as much as an investment in our fans,” Bierman says. Last year, Pearl Jam took it a step further by partnering with the third-party technology company Modlife on “a new membership-based ticket ‘lottery’ system” that prompted the fastest concert sell-out in the history of Wrigley Field.

2. Trust your superfans with your brand.
Contests, giveaways, and reward systems are nothing new. But in 2012 Pearl Jam gave one of the Ten Club’s founders the ultimate thank-you: total control over the band’s set list. Brian Farias, who had seen Pearl Jam in concert 108 times, was flown to Amsterdam to attend a few shows and meet the band. There, frontman Eddie Vedder invited Farias to choose the songs Pearl Jam played live. “Forty to 50 drafts later, Farias created a set list that many fans are calling ‘the greatest’ Pearl Jam has ever performed,” writes Aylin Zafar in Time. “The band brought Farias out for a bow at the end of the show, an unbelievable moment for the superfan.”

3. Never act like a rock star.
“The band leads by example,” Bierman says. “Whether it’s a concert promoter, an usher at a show, or the fan in the back row, they are treated with respect. When you see that happening night after night, it becomes engrained in your day-to-day work. Respect for our fans is the guiding philosophy of Ten Club.”

Superfans are not your average customers; they're the brand zealots who willingly and passionately recommend your company to others. How do you grade your company’s relationship with its superfans?

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The Rolling Stones tested the loyalty of their most diehard fans when, a day before the launch of the 50 & Counting tour in early May, the band released 500 heavily discounted tickets, including some for prime seats held in reserve to reportedly keep them out of brokers’ hands. “I understand the economics between flex pricing and keeping more revenue from the brokers, and [I] agree with it in theory,” wrote a livid fan on Billboard.com. “However . . . the ticket purchasing method [the band’s promoters] employed ultimately punished those fans who purchased early. As someone who purchased at the $600 level on the day the tickets went on sale, this is beyond frustrating and shameful.”

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