Squirrel on fire: A new perspective on marketing mistakes


In our current economy, it’s easy for marketers to feel that survival depends on perfection.


Each broken link, mistimed offer, or lost lead seems like the difference between making your monthly goal and not making enough to keep your doors open. Right now, marketers are working harder than ever to avoid making strategic optimization mistakes.

Part of the current sinking feeling stems from the avalanche quality of error. Mistakes, once made, often have a way of piling up. Consider “For Want of a Nail,” the children’s nursery rhyme that starts with a missing nail from a horseshoe and ends with the loss of a kingdom.

Or this story from This American Life, about a rookie cop’s first day:

The young officer and his partner are called to a house. The homeowner says something is moving in the attic.

Trying to be nice, the rookie volunteers to scope the situation out. He climbs the attic ladder, hefting his police issue flashlight, and pokes his head through the crawlspace, only to find a squirrel six inches from his face.

And the error pile-up begins.

Startled police officer drops flashlight — right on the homeowner’s nose.

Startled police officer then falls off ladder — onto partner.

Squirrel hops down ladder, over the downed officers, and finds refuge under the sofa.

The cops try to herd the squirrel out from under the sofa and into a cardboard box.

Squirrel makes a break for it — instead of the box, chooses the (lit) fireplace.

Squirrels, as it turns out, are highly flammable.

So are sofas. Squirrel runs out of fire and back under sofa.

Trying to put out the fire, the policemen turn over the sofa, and give the smoldering fire access to all the oxygen it needs to turn into a first-rate blaze.

In less than five minutes, an evening, a face, a home, a little furry life and possibly a career are ruined.

The Parable of the Burning Squirrel

For marketers, there are a few lessons to be drawn from this story, including:

  • Have a backup plan ready in situations for which you are unprepared, unqualified, or uncertain about the situational environment.
  • After an initial mistake, pause to reassess the situation (or consult that backup plan) before plunging in with a quick fix.
  • Remember that short-term corrective measures can temporarily make a problem even more intense — and have long-term ramifications.

On the other hand, the most important idea came from the storyteller, the young officer, now no longer a rookie but a respected veteran. When asked if, thirteen years later, he would make the same mistake again, the officer replied, “Probably not…but there’s always new mistakes to be made.”

Yes, mistakes can be fearful, destructive, humiliating. But when we learn from them, and reduce their frequency and intensity, they can also be the foundation for some of our most productive successes.

That certainly applies to the process of testing and experimentation with marketing. And we hope you’ll join us as our team explores a related topic with our next free web clinic, Surprise Winners: How “wild card” tests achieved gains of up to 86% (No animals will be harmed in this clinic.)

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  1. Christy Wylie says

    This was an insightful article. I think the current economic climate is forcing people to think and work more creatively, and this message affirms that inclination.

  2. Anna Jacobson says


    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I hope you’re seeing good returns on your own creative efforts.


  3. Sharon Wilson says

    Excellent post. Very interesting and insightful. In life and business, we should not so much hate our mistakes, but learn from them.

  4. Anna Jacobson says


    You make a strong point. And, as the police office pointed out, there’ll probably always be a new mistake to learn from. Thanks for your comment.


  5. Anshuman Ankur says

    Excellent article Anna. I am very late to read this probably but thank you for exposing me to one of the small yet very effective strategy to counter our mistakes and grow from there.
    Thanks again.

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