What You Can Learn From a Pooping Sloth

We become much more effective marketers when we learn to identify and nurture the “vital few” lead sources that bring in most of our profits.

Meet Stella. She’s a sloth living in a rainforest in Costa Rica, and she’s considered one of the laziest creatures on earth. Stella spends all day hanging from a tree limb, languidly chewing leaves and twigs.


Not exactly Fast Company. But she’s got a trick or two to teach most businesses. Starting with …

Stella’s Curious Pooping Habit

You might think – and you’d be wrong – that pooping for a sloth is a simple matter of hanging on and letting fly from on high. Instead, Stella laboriously climbs down out of her tree, spending precious calories and risking predation, and digs a hole at the base of the trunk with her stubby little tail. Then she deposits her gift of recycled fertility and lumbers back up the tree for another week of slo-mo dining.

Nurturing the Modal Tree

Because Stella moves so, well, slothfully, she may spend her entire nibbling career in just a couple dozen trees. In fact, she has one “modal tree,” where she spends a disproportionately large amount of time. Over the course of a year, Stella will eat 10% of her modal tree’s total output. Keep that up for a few years and she can start calling her modal tree “stumpy.” It’s just not sustainable. Unless …


Unless Stella takes exquisite care to nurture her modal tree, by spoon-feeding, as it were, her own compost directly into the tree roots. Scattershot defecation from on high doesn’t even out the scales. Only a weekly pilgrimage to the base of the trunk allows the tree to continue to support the sloth.

“We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Modal Tree”

At first glance, sloths don’t seem to have a lot in common with marketers. Stella dines on the same branch for days. Marketers are always looking for new lead sources, new media, new opportunities to strut our stuff. Sometimes we get so excited about the huge range of our habitat, we make the mistake of thinking that we don’t have a modal tree: a single source that accounts for a disproportionately large amount of our visitors, leads, sales, and profits.

Nowhere is this thinking more prevalent than paid search, where the incremental effort of adding a few hundred more keywords is practically zero. Heck, I’ve managed Google AdWords campaigns with hundreds of thousands of keywords. That’s like having the entire Amazon basin as your feeding ground. It would be insane to lavish such care and attention on a modal tree in that circumstance, right?

Actually, the opposite is generally true. The more keywords, the stronger the likelihood of an extreme version of the Pareto Principle (known by anti-alliterators as the 80/20 Rule).

The Modal Tree of Search Marketing


Check out the AdWords screenshot below, taken from one of my personal accounts. In this campaign, 79% of the website traffic (clicks on an ad) has been generated by 5% of the keywords (6 out of 127).


Those six keywords represent the true scope of my feeding territory. And the single top keyword (cold calling, within the Cold Calling ad group) is my modal tree, accounting for 29% of all the visitors to my site. Most AdWords campaigns I’ve seen show a similar pattern: a “vital few” keywords produce most of the results, while the “unimportant many” contribute much less.

Caring for Our Modal Tree

In order to thrive in this market, I must take exquisite care of the traffic generated by this single keyword. We know how Stella does this, and I don’t recommend that search marketers follow her example literally. Instead, our job is to get to know intimately the human beings behind our modal keyword.

What do they want? Why are they searching? What do they do once they reach my website? How can I serve them better? How can I speak to them more authentically? Asking–and answering–questions like these turn out to be the key to paid search success.


How Our Modal Tree Nurtures Us

Whoever can extract the most value from a visitor gets to dominate the paid search bidding process. (More on this in a future article.) The more you make per click, the bigger your possible budget, the greater your share of traffic, the higher your visibility through superior position, and the faster your tests turn conclusive and allow you to repeatedly iterate and improve your results. The slight advantage cascades into a Winner-Take-All condition.

You can scale your efforts once you’ve achieved dominance of your modal keyword, just as a bed of sloths (yes, that’s what you call a bunch of them) can dominate an entire swath of rainforest in their quiet, methodical way.

Taking exquisite care of your modal tree can make the difference between having a mediocre “middle of the pack” business and a winner. As Stella teaches, what we nurture will nurture us in return.

No sh–.

Howie Jacobson, PhD, is co-founder of The PPC Agency, dedicated to redistributing wealth from Google to you. Request a consultation at, follow me @askhowie, or send me an iPad 2. It’s all good.


About the author

Howard Jacobson, PhD is co-author of Google AdWords For Dummies, and Emotional Intelligence & Empathic Inspiration Officer (EIEIO) for Vitruvian. When he's not playing guitar or Ultimate Frisbee, he's working on his permaculture garden in Durham, NC