Monthly Archives: January 2008

Strategic vs. Tactical LifeTime Value

Jim answers questions from fellow Drillers
(More questions with answers here, Work Overview here, Index of concepts here)

Q: I’m working with IT on building a new database and at the same time hope to build in new query capabilities to allow me to understand our customer lifetime value and build it accordingly. I’ve been tasked with putting some math examples together for IT so they can understand what I’d be looking at and how CLV would be calculated.

A: I’m sort of lost on this because it sounds to me like you are looking to forecast LTV; reality is that LTV is really only known after the customer has defected. So, you can go back in time and say “the LTV of customers acquired through this campaign is X” a year or two after the fact and use that info going forward in the business.

Q: In addition to your Drilling Down book, I also have read Sunil Gupta’s “Managing Customer as Investments“. One thing that stands out for me is that Gupta stressed the importance of allowing for a discount rate and I don’t see any mention of discount rate in the examples your provide in your book.

A: Yes, a case in point for my comments above.  The reason I don’t mention NPV is I favor a relative LTV approach; I just think it’s more practical, and in my experience management is not really interested in the NPV approach when discussing Marketing, they want to know about “cash I make now”, not cash you are forecasting in the future.

Said another way, to use NPV you have to have something to discount to the present, meaning you are making a forecast of absolute LTV, and this forecast will probably be wrong because there are too many unknowns that will occur, at least in B2C.

Q: This is the request from my IT rep….which leads me to believe that she may have missed that Absolute vs. relative LTV conversation which we had – or maybe I’m missing something. Once I have these examples we will be ready to begin our modeling. Here is the formula I was going to provide IT for LTV:

(bunch of equations and data)

A: Again, far from me to play IT expert here, but what I would concentrate on when creating a new database is making sure you have all the data you need, making the acquisition of that data as clean as possible, and creating a database that is as flexible as possible. I don’t really understand why you need to provide any “LTV formula”, because if the data and structure are right, you can run any formula / query any time you want. You can both go back in time and forward in time, and use different equations for each, the big difference being back in time is “actual” and forecast is “predicted” and adjusted with NPV.

What I am thinking here is there may be some confusion on both sides about the difference between using customer data / valuation for Strategic versus Tactical purposes, so perhaps some more info on that will help you and IT communicate on this project more effectively.

A Strategic use of customer valuation would probably be fairly stable and something that could have static formulas created for reporting purposes at the CEO level.  You would probably use the NPV approach and forecast absolute (a number) LTV.

For Tactical use of customer valuation in campaign management and driving Marketing ROI, you are better off not messing around with NPV and looking at LTV from a relative (is it getting better or worse) perspective.  Let’s see if I can give you some practical examples of what I mean.

The Gupta formula:

CLV = m(r/1+i-r)

m=customer margin or profit per period (year)
r= retention rate
i=discount rate

is a marvelous macro equation to describe LTV when you are trying to make strategic customer investment decisions.

He also provides modifications to this model for different scenarios where retention rate or profit are variable, with a final result that on average, the LTV of a customer is between 1 and 4.5 times the current period profit.

This is probably shockingly low to some people, but you have to realize that at a 60% defection rate only 2.8% of customers are left after 7 years; put another way, with a 12% discount rate and 90% retention, the multiple on current period profit is just 4 for LTV.

This is a perfectly competent analysis and especially powerful in it’s simplicity; I use this kind of thing when talking to CFO’s, CEO’s and other financially-oriented, strategically-focused individuals.  The plain fact of the matter is because of the discount rate, any arguments about “how long a customer is a customer” become moot, because the incremental value of the out years is very small.  This realization generally kicks C-Level people in the gut and gets them thinking about “doing something”.

Strategic customer value, in case it’s unclear, would be used for decisions like this:

* What lines or services should we add?
* What marketing mix is optimal?
* Should we implement a loyalty program?

Formulas like Gupta’s are also often used to value companies for sale or acquisition.

However, on a practical, tactical level, we know the dangers of making database marketing decisions using the “average customer”, knowing there is a lot of behavioral skew, and that there is a huge profit difference between best and not so good customers.

So, when you’re developing targeting ideas and just trying to see where you make the most money so you can optimize customer  campaigns, I think his model is really overkill.

When I look at campaigns, I basically look at “breakeven” – will the net margin after all costs pay for the customer acquisition or the incremental sales generated from the customer as a result of the campaign?  Once the customer segment hits breakeven, then it’s all upside profit from there, right?  As long as you don’t do something to destroy value (which is certainly possible), LTV should remain the same or increase and since you are past breakeven, financial liability is zero.

And that’s when you start looking at the relative value – one segment beats breakeven by $2 per customer, another beats by $20 per customer, then all else equal, I invest more in the campaign that beats by $20 and let it go – it really doesn’t matter what the end or “terminal” LTV of the customer is.  I made the right decision by allocating towards higher ROI so I don’t need to know absolute LTV, do I?  I’m in the black.

Put another way, I’m optimizing a system, trying to make it better and better at generating profits. The end, absolute numeric value number is really not relevant to me. If what I’m doing is always adding incremental value, absolute LTV will take care of itself and can be measured as a separate exercise – if you have resources.

Next, we know these relative valuations can change over time. To monitor further, you use a simple “sales to date” analysis to see if LTV is still growing and a “% Recent” index to predict if sales will continue to grow.  Based on this longer-term idea, you make further adjustments to your campaign allocation.

So for example, let’s say the net $2 customers above are late bloomers and the net $20 customers above are fast starters; you do this sales to date / Recency analysis at 3 months or 6 months and find out the $2 folks are now $30 with great Recency and the $20 folks are still $20 with terrible Recency. So you adjust your campaign allocations to reflect this change based on the real data, not a forecast that has been discounted with NPV.

I mean, you have the actual data, why mess with a forecast?

The above is an example of why I’m not clear on why a “formula” needs to be solidified or why you would want to strap yourself into that kind of inflexibility – unless, of course, there is something going on system-wise that I am (obviously) not competent to comment on. None of these queries are complex formulas, but you do need all the source data to keep track of the campaign populations and go back and query them. That’s why I stressed the data and flexibility above.

Now, if we’re talking about a resource issue, as in you live in a is a “set it and forget it” type of environment where the ability to run custom (though very simple) queries on the data is lacking, and you need a “formula” approach, I would use the LifeCycle Grids from my book to replicate the idea above. If you don’t recall this idea, the Grids are similar to the pix I used in this blog post.

Once the data collection and output for one of these Grids is programmed, all you need is the ability to run a Grid for each campaign – and that should be super-easy to set up, even as a self-service thing.  For example, you go into a menu system and select:

Run LifeCycle Grid –> Choose Campaign Code –> Choose Date Range

and run your own reports. They could be set up to run overnight or on weekends if system resources are an issue.

Then, you could just visually compare the Grids or have them output to spreadsheets and perform calculations on them. It should be very obvious which campaigns generate higher relative LTV using this method – over both the short term and the long term.  If dollars are more important than number of transactions, use dollars instead of Frequency in the Grids.

If you really want to get to a “net net net” LTV number (and you should!), have that number carried in the database cumulatively as opposed to created in the query each time and use that number instead of Frequency in the Grids.  This further reduces the need for custom work.  In other words, if the system knows margin and cost of campaign, have the net net net calculated during updates and stored in the customer record.

Basically, all you need to know is the margin on the product and the cost of all campaigns, which would come from a promotional history table – cost of all promotions (and any discounts) the customer received. This net LTV number could be updated on a weekly or monthly basis.  If you want extra credit, also net out the cost of customer service calls using the customer service history or use an average per customer during updates.  Then when you run the Grids, you will be working with net cash, which is always a good thing.

Look, I think the Gupta book is fabulous and have reviewed it on my blog. But you always have to ask yourself, why am I doing this analysis, and what kind of action will be taken?  His book is largely about strategic customer analysis (the idea of a “portfolio” of customers), and I’m guessing you are looking for something more tactical because of your focus on campaigns in the data.

His approach is long-term and planning oriented; mine is short-term and results oriented. Neither conflicts with the other, they operate on different time horizons for different purposes, and ultimately the short-term tactical results for relative LTV should roll up to the long-term strategic forecasts of absolute LTV.

That is, if the forecasts are accurate!


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Example: Messaging for the Apathetic

So I look at the mail yesterday and there’s a catalog from Bliss.  If you don’t know Bliss, they are an online / catalog / storefront multi-channel retailer.  The tagline on the book is “beauty by mail from new york’s hottest spa” – yes, no caps at all.  So you pretty much know this book is positioned for younger – or want to feel younger – gals.

The book had a wrap on the outside with a message for the Apathetic.  This is a great technique to use because you can do it “in-line” with the rest of the mailing, which saves a lot on postage.  The Engaged just get the catalog, the Apathetic get the catalog with this special wrap around and they all are processed inline and enter the mail stream together. 

It’s one of my favorite catalog tricks, check out the piece:

Bliss Catalog Wrap

Let’s do the copy thing:

You can see on the left spine the macro message of “we want you back” – again, no caps.  This is an acknowledgement of the state of the relationship – we’re not sure if you like us, but we still like you!  This is a classic Date message tactic, it sets the proper tone and pulls the customer into the conversation.

Then they just come out and say it:

We haven’t had an order from you in a while and – what can we say? – we miss you.  We feel lost without those 3 a.m. ‘beauty’ calls and the sweet, soft sound of your mouse clicks.

Yes, they’re great copywriters, but there’s a bigger point I think you should take away: you couldn’t possibly get away with copy like this if you had not set up the personality of Bliss in the first place.  They can speak like this because they have spoken like this to the customer in the past – all over the web site and throughout their catalogs and hopefully in customer service phone / e-mail.  Consistently.  Everywhere.  That’s a Brand in remote retailing, that’s how Brands are built.  Theatre of the Mind is the best weapon you have.  Copy.  Art.  Get it?  What about your web site?

This is probably the most common retail problem on the web today – web sites / businesses that completely lack any kind of personality.  Catalogs know how important this idea is in remote retailing and have been using it for a very long time.

So, in a totally shameless attempt to woo you, we’ll send you a Free full-sized bottle of our clog-dissolving cleansing milk (a $28 value) when you order $75 or more from this catalog or at

The classic Dating offer, complete with a threshold ($75) as explained here.  They’re testing.  The importance of the words “full-sized bottle” you don’t know about but I do; about 4 weeks ago we received another “we want you back” effort that offered a trial size.  They’re essentially starting small with the offers and when we remain Apathetic, they up the offer. 

This approach drives down the cost of the average customer reactivation; the strategy is called The Discount Ladder.

(If that’s not a great excuse to arm yourself with our all-out flab attack kit (p. 49) or smooth yourself citrus with our lemon+sage set (p. 09), we don’t know what is.)

This is just very smart merchandising, it is persuasive because it directs you to a specific place rather than giving you a lot of choices – by the way, how many different offers do you make in a promotional e-mail?  The choice of products promoted here may have been customized (not sure of my wife’s buying history) or they may simply be very popular products with a high conversion rate to lapsed buyers on catalog covers.

I would bet the latter; that’s how I would play it because after all, she’s a lapsed buyer.  She’s stopped buying because she doesn’t want what she has bought before.  Do you make offers based on what customers have bought before?  Why is that?  Why not offer the products that convert people like the targets?

Unless you have specific evidence that “people who buy this also buy this” I’m pretty sure that outside of certain niches, you depress response by making “forced offers” to customers – especially lapsed ones – to buy a specific item or category just because they bought it in the past.  Think about it.  “Buy anything over $75” is a lot stronger offer than “Buy these specific things we are promoting”.

A lot to test there as well…

To take advantage of this special offer, just order something from us before March 1, 2008.  Our land of lotions and lip gloss just isn’t the same without you.  Bliss on, the entire bliss team

Par for the course here – a deadline and an “in personality” close.  Urgency and persuasion.  If you’re busy, you probably keep the book at least to check out p. 49 and p. 09…

P.S.  If you’ve been getting your Bliss fix somewhere other than our catalog or web site (it happens), don’t forget to keep up with our latest and greatest by signing up for Bliss beaut-e-mails at

Ah, the beaut-e of multi-channel done the right way.

They probably don’t have perfect visibility between the direct channel (web and catalog) and the retail channel (who does?) so they are acknowledging that, telling you it’s OK, and then offering you a service so you can “keep in touch” – the general theme of “we want you back”.  They don’t want you to feel bad if you find their retail distribution more convenient, and at the same time they’re trying to re-engage you electronically and generate value from this catalog drop even if you don’t buy. 

I guess the channel managers are team players.  By the way, this relationship started on the web site…and in my experience, you can extend the LifeCycle by switching customers to another channel.  But you don’t want to force it, you let it play out the way the customer wants it to.  Test and look to the behavior; they will tell you what is right on an individual or segment basis through their actions.

bliss-ful job on the catalog wrap gang!

P.S. Well, almost.  A search for “flab attack” (phrase from the promotional copy above) on the web site returns this result:

We’re sorry, but your search for flab attack returned no results.  Please try again with a different keyword, or double check the spelling. (You’re not alone – we only learned how to spell ‘fuchsia’ properly a week ago.)

Gotta love that personality thing though…

Questions on this?  What do you think of this promotion?

Messaging for the Apathetic

Recall from the Messaging for Engagement post we generally have 3 states of customer in the database:

  • Engaged – highly positive on company, very willing to interact – Highest Potential Value
  • Apathetic – don’t really care one way or the other, will interact when prompted – Medium Potential Value
  • Detached – not really interested, don’t think they need product or service anymore – Lowest Potential Value

Combine this messaging approach with a classic behavioral analysis, (the longer it has been since someone purchased, clicked, opened, visited etc., the less likely they are to engage in that activity again) and you get different messaging for each group, what I call Kiss, Date, and Bribe. Click image to enlarge if you want…

Kiss Date Bribe

Please note “Months Since Last Contact” means the customer showing interest / taking action and contacting you in some way (purchase, click) not the fact that you have “contacted” them by blasting out e-mails. Behavioral analysis is about customer behavior, not yours.

We’ve already gone over an example of Kiss Messaging, so lets provide an example of Messaging for the Apathetic.

Recall the tactical background with Apathetics:

Apathetic – Date Messaging: We’re not real clear where we stand with you, so we’re going to be exploratory, test different ideas and see where the relationship stands.  Perhaps we can get you to be Engaged again? In terms of ROI, this group has the highest incremental potential. Example: this is where loyalty programs derive the most payback.

The most consistently successful (meaning profitable) messaging for this group generally looks at what their past behavior is and tries to drive it just a bit higher with a carrot / stick combo.

In commerce, if you were looking at a behavioral segment such as “No Purchase in 180 days” (month 6 on chart above), you find their average purchase price and then discount for purchasing over that average price threshold. So, for example, if a segment (or individual customer, if you can go that far) has an average purchase price of $80, you do a promotion like $10 off any Purchase over $100. This approach tends to preserve margin on the customer while driving new activity, thus setting up the customer to become re-Engaged on a longer-term basis.

Why re-Engaged? A new purchase moves them to the 1 month column in the chart above, so they have a much higher “natural” likelihood to purchase again. They are now Engaged again, and their messaging should change to Kiss, if you want to really leverage their state.

The values I have chosen above are not a “formula”, you have to test and optimize the thresholds and discounts for your business. For example, sometimes people don’t trade up to just over the threshold, they’ll respond to a $10 off purchase over $50 discount by generating an average purchase price of $125. Now you’re talking some severe latitude on your margins and you can try for incremental response with a higher discount or try to drive margin with a higher threshold.

The trick with Apathetics is this: unlike the Engaged, they probably need some incentive to act on.  But unlike the Detatched, they still have some Potential Value you would like to unlock – you don’t want to just all out bribe them because you’ll lose some of that Value.

After all, in an always-on sales environment like the web, some people are going to purchase anyway – without an incentive – no matter what segment they are in. For this 180 day case (chart above) a healthy portion of the 7% are “buy anyway” kind of folks. The more Recent the action, the more likely it is to repeat. That’s why you give ’em a threshold – to ensure you don’t give away more margin in discounts than you are making from the rest of the promotion.

Does this “threshold approach” depress response? Sure. But are you trying to drive response (gross demand) or profit? Those of you whose success is judged by ROAS don’t need to answer; profit doesn’t matter in your world. You’ve never used a control group.

If you were working on my business, I’d want you driving profit.