RNNs vs Traditional ML for Predictive Customer Lifetime Value

At Retina, we build models to predict Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). Our data science team is constantly working to refine and improve upon those models, leveraging the best academic and industry research. This article describes our results from using Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) to predict CLV

Because Retina’s clients need both strategic and tactical insights into their customers, we build and test our models on both the macro (cohort-level) and micro (customer-level) purchasing patterns. We use this as the basis for evaluating performance as we continually strive for better models.

In this blog post, we will demonstrate how the RNN-LSTM (Recurrent Neural Network with Long / Short-term Memory) machine learning model can predict CLV nearly as accurately as other industry-leading models.


To build a predictive CLV model, we start with the transaction history of customers. The dataset we feed into our model might look something like this:

customer_id order_id order_date order_value
100022 100 2016-12-21 29.00
100022 101 2016-12-28 36.00
101046 200 2018-03-25 15.95

From this transaction table we can not only determine CLV, but also predict future transactions per customer.

We can visualize this with a Timing Patterns Graph:

The above graphs shows each transaction in our transaction table, as well as future, predicted transactions:

  • The vertical grey line marks today,
  • The horizontal grey lines represent individual customers,
  • Black dots are transactions in our transaction history,
  • Grey dots are transactions predicted by our model.

In addition to predicting the number of transactions, our models also predict the average revenue value of each of these future transactions. With both the amount and price of each future transaction, we can easily compute a customer’s CLV.

But how do we generate these predicted transactions and revenues? And more importantly, how do we know how accurate they are?

First, we split our transaction history data into two datasets. We do so by determining a date that falls somewhere about 80% of the way between the oldest transaction and more recent transaction in our data set. The transactions that happened before on or before this date are part of the calibration period, and the transactions that happened after are part of the holdout period. These datasets are named such because the calibration period data is fed into the model to “calibrate” it, while the holdout period data is deliberately withheld to test a model’s prediction ability:

If a model can use the data provided in the calibration period to accurately predict the data in the holdout period, then we know it is a strong model.

A common model used for CLV calculation is the Pareto/NBD model. The model that Retina currently uses is the Pareto/GGG model, an improvement upon the Pareto/NBD model. What makes Pareto/GGG such a powerful CLV model is that it creates three gamma distributions to determine customer inter-transaction time (ITT) and churn probability. You can read more about this model in the original paper or the BTYD package.

A newer model developed by the Retina team (and being compared against Pareto/GGG today) is the Long-Short-Term-Memory Recurrent Neural Network model (RNN-LSTM). This model takes in a sequence of events and uses patterns found in the events leading up to the present to predict the future. In our case, we feed the model with customer transaction history hoping it will learn future transactions.

In the Blue Corner: Pareto/GGG

In the Red Corner: RNN-LSTM


Let’s see who wins this CLV Match


By using our calibration/holdout technique outlined above, we were able to see the prediction strength of each of our models. We also included additional Pareto family models (BG/NBD and NBD) to provide context to our results. Here are the results from our experiment:

Model Total # of Holdout Transactions Deviations for Actual (#) Deviation from Actual (%) Mean Absolute Error (MAE)
Actual 28,224 n/a n/a 0
Pareto/GGG 28,749 +525 1.9% 1.56
RNN-LSTM 26,456 -1,768 6.3% 1.62
BG/NBD 28,733 +509 1.8% 1.70
Pareto/NBD 28,382 +158 0.6% 1.75
NBD 39,619 11,395 40% 2.33

By comparing the actual number of holdout transactions in our holdout period to the number each model predicted, we can see how well each fared. The above table is sorted by Mean Absolute Error (MAE), or the average per customer difference between the predicted number transactions and the actual number of transactions.

With the exception of NBD, the statistical models all performed strongly (less than 10% deviation from true values) on this metric. This means they are able to successfully capture customer purchasing trends at the aggregate level. Our RNN-LSTM model is the only model that underestimates the total number of holdout transactions.

The figure compares the accuracy of both RNN-LSTM and Pareto/GGG across different purchasing amount per customer:

What this chart demonstrates is that RNN-LSTM severely underpredicts churned customers (customers who did not purchase anything in the holdout period) and over predicts 3-4 purchase customers. Pareto/GGG also underpredicts churned customers and overpredicts 3-4 purchase customers, but to a lesser degree.


While Pareto/NBD at first appears to predict a near perfect number of transactions, this accuracy is due to the aggregate number of transactions predicted. As we seen when calculating MAE, Pareto/NBD  actually performs worse on an individual level than Pareto/GGG and RNN-LSTM. It is because of this strength in predicting purchases on the individual level that we have decided to focus our further analysis on these two models.

Back to our CLV Boxing Match: Pareto/GGG outperforms RNN-LSTM when using MAE… but not by much. These results are exciting because it not only demonstrates the superiority of Pareto/GGG, but also the validity of RNN-LSTM as a contender for CLV calculations.

There are two concepts that become relevant beyond our results that should be discussed when considering which model is superior: extendability and explanatory power.

What makes RNN-LSTM a strong option for CLV calculation is its extendability. Unlike Pareto/GGG, RNN-LSTM take in a larger number of features that can be customized and aggregated by the Data Scientist running the model. This means that RNN-LSTM can be informed by site visits, emails, even specific industry trends, to create smarter and smarter iterations.

What makes Pareto/GGG a strong option for CLV calculation is it explanatory power. Unlike RNN-LSTM, which is essentially a black box in terms of understanding why it made a certain prediction, Pareto/GGG allows the Data Scientist understand the underlying framework behind the predictions. If the model seems to underpredict churned customers, we can conclude that this is a function of an overly optimistic churn prediction gamma function. And when the model is accurate or better than others, we can be more confident about why it is a stronger model. We are not afforded that luxury for machine learning models.

Next Steps

There are several next steps that would be thrilling experiments to build off of these results. A few future iterations we are enthusiastic to try are:

  1. Predicting value of the transaction in the holdout instead of the number, and compare models on this metric
  2. Add additional relevant features to the RNN-LSTM model and see if the new architecture significantly outperforms Pareto family models
  3. Tune the hyperparameters of RNN-LSTM and see if more intelligent hyperparameter selection results in a superior model
  4. Modify Pareto/GGG output to produce drawn transaction sequences to create a direct comparison to RNN-LSTM’s forecasting capabilities

We hope this model comparison has been equally informative and entertaining, as we certainly enjoyed conducting the analysis.

Let’s connect and improve your LTV calculations!