What’s the value of a user on your site? Why it’s hard to calculate lifetime value for social network audiences
Who is this, and where can I find more pics??
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the photo above is of Christine Dolce, aka Forbidden, who is a famous MySpace celebrity (and will surely get her chance to star in a VH1 reality TV show). I can hear a rush of clicks googling her for pictures, so I’ll just provide you the link to her MySpace profile here. Let’s get back to Forbidden in a second, since she fits into a larger discussion.
LTV and the goal of infinite segmentation
The core of many marketing programs is segmentation – you take your core audience, identify differences between their motivations, spending patterns, and behaviors, and tailor your messaging to hit that audience. The better defined your segments are, and the more granular they are, the more opportunities you have to personalize your message when you reach out to them.
One way to do this segmentation is to look at "Lifetime Value" (LTV). Calculating lifetime value (LTV) of your customers is a great way to understand how they fit into the core of your business. Typically, your best customers will represent a significant amount of revenue, and you want to make sure they’re happy. Having a granular LTV calculation where you plug in a user’s historical data allows you to come up with infinite segmentation in terms of how you want to differentiate the experience high-value customers get versus low-value ones.
LTV for retail sites versus social sites
For retail sites, the calculation of LTV is pretty clear. In plain English, you might define it as:
The stream of all previous and future profits that a user generates from their purchases
So for a given user, you’d add up all their previous transactions and then add that to whatever model you’ve created about their likely future transactions. Part of what makes this work is that:
- Transactions in a retail setting are unambiguous
- Each individual makes an isolated impact on the system, in the form of a transaction
- Retail buying has a long established history of data, both online and offline
Now let’s look at social properties, particularly ones that have the characteristics that they are ad-supported, are heavily based on UGC content, and incorporate viral marketing. If you were *just* to consider the advertising portion, then it might be easy – the LTV of a user would be defined as:
The stream of all previous and future ad impressions that a user generates from their usage
So that seems pretty clear – if you’re a user who generates 100 ad impressions a day, you are worth more than someone who generates 10.
The problem is when you try to incorporate the value of the UGC that a user generates, or the users they help acquire (or retain!) as part of the LTV calculation. And for this discussion, let’s go back to talking about Forbidden.
Forbidden as an LTV outlier
The problem with a user like Forbidden, and possibly even more so Tila Tequila, is that only a small amount of value that they create comes from their actual usage of the site. Instead, they provide additional value through user acquisition, retention, and content creation that is poorly measured by the definition above.
Another way to think of this is that if you were to remove these users from MySpace, you would not simply be subtracting their LTV from your overall site’s value. In fact, it would be an outsized decrease in value, since users like Forbidden and Tila Tequila bring many millions users onto MySpace, and entertain millions of people, keeping them on the site.
A couple commenters of my LTV in casinos blog post said as much:PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups
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