Monthly Archives: May 2007

Customer Value: Who Cares?

With all the focus on Engagement in the Marketing Community (I’ve had 3 interview requests this week!), one has to wonder why Marketing Productivity concepts like LifeTime Value tend to be last on the list of concerns.  All the focus seems to be on Engagement as a short term idea, as opposed to over a longer run.  Why?  Isn’t a customer who sticks with you over time a truly Engaged customer?

A lot of times people blame the “complexity” of database marketing concepts on their lack of adoption.  This may be true at some level, but I think plenty of people understand the basics of these ideas.  I think some companies simply lack the incentive (for now) to implement marketing programs with a longer-term view, and there are some fundamental reasons why:

Business Culture

In large companies, where the rewards for performance are all tied to short-term goals – your sales today, beating the quarterly estimates, etc. – then why should anybody care about Productivity over the longer term?  This is the periodic versus customer accounting problem I detailed back in 2001.  There is no incentive to act with longer term customer profitability goals in mind in most companies, save those who were “born” with this culture.  If you think about it, this is one reason the smart money is chasing retail buyouts right now.  Many companies are undervalued based on these old “sales now” rules, and without the pressure of the public markets, they can focus on profitability, including long-term customer metrics.

Nobody in Charge

In large organizations, the rapid turnover in the CMO position (average 23 months tenure?) clearly speaks to why folks at the top of the Marketing Chain are not particularly interested in the longer-term consequences of their marketing actions.  But what’s the cause of this effect?  Is CMO tenure so short because they’re not interested in long-term results, or is it just job churn?  The results of the CMO Council survey seem to confirm the former, while placing some blame on hiring practices at the C-Level.  In other words, the CEO wants a CMO with a long-term view that can back it up with numbers – but can’t find one.  Too many RockStars, apparently.

Below the CMO, how many companies have a person in charge of Customer Productivity or Retention?  If nobody is in charge of it as a full-time responsibility, then certainly it is not in anybody’s best interest to chase the goal.  A Customer Experience Officer is not what I’m talking about here; being “Nice to Customers” doesn’t always pay out.  You need a full-time person in charge of any analytically-oriented area (including web analytics) to reap optimal benefits.

Not Desperate Yet

True for both small and large companies.  The fellow quoted in the first link above simply is not feeling the pain yet.  The longer you have been around, the more meaningful the pain becomes.  Symptoms: year over year sales go flat and then trend down, even though ad spend is increasing.  The company has hit the wall.

Some of the oldest web companies are starting to feel this now.  You can hide it for a while with acquisitions or going international.  But at some point, somebody asks, “How many best customers do we have now?”  And the answer is something like “20% fewer than we used to have”.  Then people go nuts trying to “fix” a problem by looking at what they did last month or last quarter, when what matters is what they were doing last year or the year before

If you have spent the last year or 2 generating customers with low Future Value, you’re stuck.  As Future Value becomes Current Value, there is hell to pay, because you just can’t change it in the Present, no matter what you do.  The only alternative you have is to start creating higher value customers now, so that sometime in the Future, growth will return.

Now, you can argue this slowdown effect is simply the natural cycle of a business.  And it is.  But I ask you, if you can slow the cycle or even minimize it, why wouldn’t you?  I suppose it’s much easier to blame the “competition” or the “economy” or whatever your favorite excuse is for a sales slowdown other than your own execution.

Interesting Fact: The demand for Customer Engagement / Productivity / Retention / Loyalty programs and services is counter-cyclical; demand always falls off when the economy is good and when the economy slumps, all of a sudden “everybody” wants a customer retention program of some kind.  This behavior is of course suboptimal, since the time to implement such a program is during the “good times” so you are prepared for the “not so good”.

Thoughts?  Does your company care about customer value?  Or do they just measure performance against “sales”?

If you’re not doing any serious Customer Analysis, is it because you have a challenge with getting the data / analysis?  Or is it a lack of interest / sponsorship / resources that is holding you back?

Waiting for Pareto

A Warped View of Visitor / Customer Analysis?

Many folks look at the world through the lens of the Gaussian Bell Curve when the real model they should be looking at is Pareto Power Law, as elegantly explained by John Hagel here(you really should read that post when you have a chance, another link provided at the end of this post). For the math inclined, as quoted from another source in John’s post:

Gaussian and Paretian distributions differ radically. The main feature of the Gaussian distribution . . . can be entirely characterized by its mean and variance . . . A Paretian distribution does not show a well-behaved mean or variance. A power law, therefore, has no average that can be assumed to represent the typical features of the distribution and no finite standard deviations upon which to base confidence intervals . . .

Yea, like he said. In English, that means when you are “optimizing”, you could be driving towardsa suboptimal result if you’re not paying attention to what you should be paying attention to.Witness all the discussion of sample sizeand standard deviationin web analytics lately -are we talking BellCurve here, folks? If youwalkthe Long Tail walk,you should talk the Pareto talk. Here’s a pic from the Hagelblog if you’re not following this idea:

Gauss vs Pareto

(Image originally byAlbert-Laszlo Barabasi, “Linked: The New Science of Networks”)

The bell curve average can kill you. The real results of your tests are masked because you are looking at the wrong outcome variables. Sure, go ahead and segment source; that’s where the idea of “there is no such thing as an average visitor” came from back in 2001, right? So fine; you have the initial segmentation correct, and if you are just optimizing for conversion, you haveit right. If you are optimizing for profit, you’re not even close yet. I’ve referred to this situation as the “Reporting versus Analysis” problem; here’s a math-ier view from John’s post, quoting McKelvey and Boisot:

Processing dots is appropriate to what we label the routinizing strategy. Processing patterns, on the other hand, better serves what we call the Pareto-adaptive strategy. Processing dots means processing data, a low-level cognitive activity. By contrast, processing patterns – pattern recognition – is a high-level cognitive activity, one that involves selecting relevant patterns from among myriad possibilities. . .

John offers his own “In other words” on the paragraph above:

In a Paretian world, surface events can become a distraction, diverting attention from the deep structures molding these surface events. Surfaces are extraordinarily complex and rapidly evolving while the deep structures display more simplicity and stability. These deep structures are profoundly historical in nature – they evolve through positive feedback loops and path dependence. Snapshots become misleading and understanding requires a dynamic view of the landscape.

I first saw the effect John describes above at HSN, where the surface (the TV show itself) appeared to be complete chaos but the deep inner structure (the customer) was smooth and completely predictable. Another way to say this is any one”snapshot” of time seems quite chaotic, but if you watch the whole “movie” over time, you see the stable inner core.

The reverse is also true: as you try to artificially “stabilize” the surface – in HSN’s case, by moving to a rigid or supply-driven programming format rather than a demand or customer-driven format – the core starts to destabilize. Marketing programs stop working as well as they did and the LifeTime Value of the customer erodes. Darwinian, sort of.

What all this means to you: Optimizing for conversion is fine, as far as it goes. But how do you know”the converted” are the best customers you can get? How do you know you’re not wasting resources optimizing the conversion of worst customers, for example? How do you know that buried in your conversion optimization – no matter how much segmentation you do on the front end – is a Pareto distribution that is skewing the actual results?


One of my earliest clients was a vintage 1998 dot-com that had a massive business in lead generation. They basically generated e-mail names through various niche interest content sites and then rented those names. Over time, they also started creating their own products and selling to the names they generated. Great business, killer margins. They were a massive buyer of all types of online media.

But then that media started to get much more expensive, and they had to start looking at Campaign ROMI as opposed to just sales, and that is why I was brought in. We were in the middle of a systemintegration that would provide a “ROMI Dashboard” to the media buyers when the word came down to kill off about 1/3 of the campaigns they were running. I begged them to wait for the data (we’re almost there!) but the “shoot from the hip”culture prevailed.

Pareto had his day. The campaigns killed were the ones with the lowest initial response rate – and as it turns out, these same campaigns also happened to generate about 95% of their most profitable customers. You just had to wait about 3 months after initial conversion to see the profit.

The customer value death spiral (Kevinuses the term file momentumtodescribe the same idea) ensued and they were never able to recover. Once this kind of best customer value erosion has completed,it is very difficult to survive long enough to rebuild the power of the database. Media costs rose as customer productivity fell and when these two lines crossed,the company collapsed.

This death spiral / file momentum idea is incredibly important in the Marketing Productivity area and somewhat difficult to get your arms around, so it’s worth helping you to visualize it (if you’d like audio with your visualization, try this).

Here we go:

Say that 20% of the customers you acquire are “best customers”and generate 80% of your profits. Inprofit terms, say this means $200 in net profit per customer over 6 months. Now, let’s say you change your customer acquisition methods and your new “best customers” generate $100 in net profits over 6 months.

The daybefore you initiate this change in campaigns, you still are generating best customers with a value of $200 over 6 months. So you have about 6 months before the profit effect of these customers disappears. And remember, these folks are responsible for the majority of your profits. Few in number, powerful impact.

So, you start generating customers only worth $100 over 6 months. You don’t even notice anything wrong, since the value plays out over time. Conversions are fine, and sales are fine – because you are still living off the $200 customers while you are bringing in the $100 customers. And the rest of your operations remain the same, so unit sales and so forth seem fine. We’re only talking about a change to a small group of customers, right?

About month 3, sales start to slip, out of nowhere. You’ve entered the wide mouth of the death spiral (cue the audio). You can’t explain it, you haven’t “changed” anything recently.Conversions of those new $100 customers are still coming in just fine, thank you. But after month 6, you startliving only on the $100 customers and sales are now3/4 what they used to be. You’re in the throat of the death spiral now.

Let’s say you do some analysis and “discover” your mistake. You kill the campaigns that generate the $100 best customers and start generating $200 best customers again. How long will it take to get back to where you were?

Right. 6 months – at a minimum. Problem is, the campaigns that generate $200 customers are twice as expensive as the campaigns that generate $100 customers, and you’re nowin thevortex of the death spiral. You spend like crazy but can’t make it up in time and at month 4, media costs outstrip cash flow and the company goes belly up.

Pareto plays a very tough game, eh? While you’re thinking about it, here again isa link to the Hagel post.

eMetrics Summit

Man, that was one marathon of a conference.

Not the conference itself really, but all the associated WAA business that gets conducted there makes it a double-overload kind of situation.  When I’m not is a session, I’m in a meeting of some kind, all day, every day.  Gruesome.  I’m still in San Fran reviewing some related analytical education opportunities…

I’m sure the other WA blogs have covered anything of significance that happened at the Summit – don’t know for sure though, have not had time to read any of them.

Anyway, the most significant thing going on there in my mind was the hard core  interest IT folks now have in the business side.  It was stunning – a pure geekfest just a few years ago, you now have a lot of these same folks attending and digging sessions on Marketing Strategy.  A real win on the analytical culture issue, methinks.

More later – another damn dinner to go to (just kidding Eric!)