A brief performance marketing lesson from slime mould

How can we become logical and lean in a digital environment that is responsive, wasteful and often chaotic? Behave like slime mould, she says.

I never thought I’d find myself writing about organisms and marketing in the same breath but here goes…

I recently watched a wildlife programme featuring a mysterious slime mould, which looks like this:

As a Sci-Fi optimist I assumed it was an alien species similar to ‘Blob’ or ‘Flubber’ but I trust the biologists who are much smarter than me | Source: Giphy

For those who don’t know what slime mould is, it’s an amoeba (a single celled organism). Some species merge to form a super-cell made of mobile ‘protoplasm’, others cluster together. They can expand as quickly as 1.35mm per second to forage on forest floors. Technically, this means its jelly-like mass could cross a 100m sprint finish line in 20.5 hours — which for an organism as small as 2mm is pretty swift.

Source: Wired. Not only does slime mould have mutli nuclei, it’s multi-talented. Apparently it can sing too.

Slime mould has mastered the art of efficiency in order to survive and reproduce. While foraging, the organism extends into strands that split into more strands, each branching off to maximise its reach. When a strand detects vegetation, other strands join to capture and transport vegetation back to the source creating vein-like pulses. Unsuccessful strands return to be redeployed elsewhere. Once they’re big enough they release spores to reproduce. It’s fascinating, very logical and I may have got carried away with my research.

What’s the marketing link?

It got me thinking about how marketing tactics can learn from the slime mould’s engineered effectiveness. User/buyer journeys now resemble a toddler’s scribble rather than a tidy linear path. The touch points for a potential customer is growing and knowing where to focus efforts is a continual balancing act.

For example: should I be focusing on AI and instant messaging right now? or increase my AdWords spend? Is now the right time to invest £10K into a PR campaign or should I bulk up my video budget? Are these partners right for my brand? What about guest content and link-building? How do I respond to the new Google SEO changes? Is IGTV a fad?

It’s not feasible to test and monitor everything at once without accumulating waste and an analytical headache. We’ve all been there, lots of data and amnesia about what we originally set out to achieve. Marketing budgets are tightening and for any reputable marketer continual growth and creativity is paramount to stay on top.

Adopting a lean, tactical approach from slime mould has its benefits

We could all do with:

  • being less wasteful
  • being less complacent and open to change
  • willing to learn from failures
  • knowing when to kill bad ideas
  • being more flexible with budget shares
  • being agile instead of just talking about being agile
  • behaving like a network where everything interlinks

Let’s test this approach with a set of Q&As:

  • Q. Is your growth rate stagnant? A. Yes. Action. Identify and cull the weak strands to focus on how to scale the successful strands.
  • Q. Is your ROI for that strand consistently low? A. Yes. Action. Kill this unsuccessful strand an return to its source. Your budget could be better spent elsewhere. Or if in doubt reduce your spend and assess the impact. You may be able to achieve the same results at a fraction of the cost.
  • Q. Is your conversion rate reducing over time? A. Yes. Action. Investigate what has changed and adjust your approach accordingly. Perhaps this area of vegetation isn’t as ‘nutritious’ and is slowing down the rest of the organism’s progress. Perhaps you need to renew your tactics to match industry standards. Or perhaps it’s had its day.
  • Q. Did that strand perform long-term? A. No. Action. Check its short-term success. This tactic may be better suited for big bang campaigns that require instant engagement with a large audience.
  • Q. Are you experiencing drop-offs at the last hurdle? A. Yes. Action. At which point is it valuable for your strands to talk to each other to either avoid or catch drop-offs?
  • Q. Could your strand perform better with some external help? A. Maybe. Action. Call on other strands to help. Collaborate with neighbouring slime mould.

Hold everything to ransom with a zero waste policy

What slime mould is fantastic at is building efficiently engineered networks that transport the most food (or results) back to its source. It continually explores new ground and prioritises resources where routes are (1) the most promising and (2) require the least effort. So be critical and ask whether the strands you have deployed are living up to your expectations. If they’re underperforming, don’t be afraid to change tact or kill it altogether. Test first, then be ruthless. And keep testing and learning.

If like me you’re now fascinated about slime mould, check out these research projects using slime mould to map a Japanese rail network, navigate the quickest route through a maze and this Ted Talk about what we can learn from slime mould:

For the mega-enthusiasts, the Natural History Museum has digitised its data collection of over 50,000 slime mould specimens.

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