Flutter, Flutter, Sizzle: Marketing Like a Moth

At the end of July, the three H’s (hazy, hot, and humid) make New Jersey into some kind of moth paradise. By the millions, moths feel the mysterious pull of lunar tides or orgonotic flow or whatever they groove on and all descend on my front stoop, waiting patiently for one of my kids to hold the screen door open just a little too long…

I don’t mind, really. These fascinating little creatures have taught me more about marketing than all 18 of the Fortune 500 combined.  You see, when they’re not vaporizing themselves in the gas flame under the kettle or smashing their cute little bodies repeatedly into the plastic fluorescent light cover, it turns out that moths navigate in incredible simple yet effective ways that we can all learn from…

What Does This Have to Do with Marketing?

In marketing, in strategic planning, in virtually all aspects of our business and personal lives, we can learn a lot from moths.

The Metaphor I’m Not Going to Dwell On

I’m not going to make a big metaphor out of the "hey, let’s all die in this flame" thing they have going. They think it’s the moon, and for millions of years no moth has ever gotten a bloody nose by bumping into the moon, and so they use the moon (or flames or certain types of electric light) as a constant point of reference for their location.  If it weren’t for us humans and our dangerous artificial moons, it would be a fine strategy.

All I’ll say about it is, make sure the big picture goal you’re orienting all your actions around truly is where you want to be, and isn’t a big flickering sucker-punch masquerading as something you want. I know too many people with "Is This All There Is?" Syndrome to think that moths are the only creatures foolish enough to navigate their lives toward destruction.

How Moths Find Love

I want to talk about a lesser-known aspect of moth navigation, one I try to emulate myself in my own business and with clients.

Moths don’t have a lot of time to fly around in their lives.  A few weeks only, after weeks of crawling around in the dirt as caterpillars, hiding from birds and preying mantises and my son with a stick. So their main objective during the summer is to find a mate and then, well, mate.

Just like our main business objective is usually to find a new prospect and then, well, mate.

Male moths never fly in a straight line when they’re looking for love. They zigzag, bouncing around the air in seemingly random patterns. They’re using their sense of smell to seek out a mate.  Here’s how.

Male moths are attracted to the pheromones (lead generating advertisements) put out by female moths of the same species. These pheromones linger in the air for a while, gradually becoming fainter after the moth who released them has flown away. The seeker plays a game of "hotter-colder" to find a mate.

The male moth flies to a particular spot and assesses the pheromone density of the air. The moth knows that a female has been here, but doesn’t know where she’s gone since. So he zigs to a second location and compares it with the first.  If it’s more pheromone-dense, he’s on the right track. So he zags to a third spot and compares it with the second. If it’s not, he zigs back to the first spot and tries again.

Small, controlled, single-variable tests! The gold standard of good marketing! How cool is that?

How Marketers Find Business

Direct response, "Leads into Gold" marketing is all about testing, about zigging and zagging until you find what works. A client of mine is sending a flyer into his neighborhood via some friendly newspaper delivery people. We’re split-testing two versions of the flyer, one with a logo and one without. 250 of each, and we’ll code and track response to see if it makes a difference.  The winner becomes the control, and the next test will try some other small change. We’ll always keep the winner, and always try to beat it.

If you’re looking to increase your web traffic, you can apply this principle to one of the two main pay-per-click search engines, Google’s Adwords. You can run two versions of the same ad and compare how many people click on each. Keep the winner, and replace the loser with another ad until it becomes the new winner.  Constant testing, constant improvement.

My ads for Leads into Gold now have a click-through rate of 2.4%. When I started with Adwords two months ago, the best ad I could write had a click-through rate of 0.3%. I’m eight times better now than I was in May! Did I improve 800% by studying, by thinking, by maturing? Ha! I improved by testing, by tweaking every ad and keeping the better of the two.  I’m no different from the moth flying back and forth in space, always comparing the pheromone density of the last two places I’ve been. No smarter, and no dumber.

One more point about this method of moving forward. It rewards action, any action, even misguided and wrong action (up to a point). Imagine playing the "hotter-colder" game and not moving, because you’re afraid of making a bad move. Could you ever win?

Now start the game by moving in the exact wrong direction. What happens? You find out you’re "colder," and you move in another direction.  Within a few seconds, you’re heading for the hidden treasure.  Being wrong in a small, correctable way is far better than waiting to be completely right.

So making a small commitment to a wrong direction actually gets us to the right direction faster than standing still and thinking ourselves to perfection.

So let’s all get out there and market like moths! After all, we’ve only got a summer to find love.


Only a fool tests the water with both feet.
– African Proverb

I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.
– Thomas Edison

Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome.
– Samuel Johnson

Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God you learn.
– CS Lewis

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
– George Bernard Shaw

A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.
– Stephen Wright

Marketing Motivators on Marketing Like a Moth

1. The next marketing piece you send out to 50 people or more, try a split-test. Come up with two very similar pieces, and change one thing you’re wondering about. If you’re not sure, start with the headline – the first message people see, the one that helps them figure out whether to pay attention or not. As randomly as you can, divide your list in two, and send Version A to one group and Version B to another.  Keep track of who gets which one, or insert some tracking device into the response mechanism (different email addresses, department numbers, secret code words for special deals, etc.).

2. At first, it can be hard to think of things to test. A partial list, in addition to headlines, includes placement of items – call to action, testimonials, Q & A, etc; form of the piece – tri-fold, postcard, letter, box with toy surprise, etc.; the "guts" of the offer – discount, bonus, special deal for first 50, special deal until next Friday, etc.; and design – font type, font size, paper color, use of highlighting, margins, etc.

3. Sign up for http://adwords.google.com and play around for a while. Be careful of your spend – the dollars can quickly get away from you if you’re not paying attention.  Check daily for the first two weeks and see how much traffic you’re getting and how much money you’re paying.  For every ad group, use one keyword and two rotating ads. After roughly 30 clicks per ad, you’ll know which one is the winner.  Replace the loser and keep comparing.
4. If you’re serious about learning how to use Google Adwords, sign up for my friend and mentor and colleague Perry Marshall’s free 5-part email mini-course: www.perrymarshall.com/google.

Bonus Quotes

When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.
– Mae West

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
– Oscar Wilde

If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.
– Stephen Wright

User: The word that computer professionals use when they mean "idiot."
– Dave Barry

My wife thinks I’m too nosy. At least that’s what she scribbles in her diary.
– Drake Sather

How can you tell when a moth farts? It flies in a straight line.*
– George Carlin

*I know it’s not very professional, but I couldn’t resist.

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