Donor segmentation: When summary statistics don't tell the whole story

Elizabeth J. Durango-Cohen*, Ramón L. Torres, Pablo L. Durango-Cohen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Funding pressures amidst the slow economic recovery from the late-2000's recession have forced universities, as well as other not-for-profit organizations, to increase the volume and sophistication of their direct marketing activities. The efficiency of direct marketing strategies is linked to an organization's ability to effectively target individuals. In this paper, we present a finite-mixture model framework to segment the alumni population of a university in the midwestern United States. Much of the research on customer segmentation summarizes response data (e.g., purchase and contribution histories) via recency, frequency and monetary value (RFM) statistics. Individuals sharing similar RFM characteristics are grouped together; the rationale being that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Summary statistics such as RFM, however, introduce aggregation bias that mask the dynamics of purchase/contribution behavior. Accordingly, we implement latent-class segmentation models where alumni are classified based on how an individual's contribution sequence compares to those of other individuals. The framework's capability to process contribution sequences, i.e., longitudinal data, provides fundamental new insights into donor contribution behavior, and provides a rigorous mechanism to infer and segment the population based on unobserved heterogeneities (as well as based on other observable characteristics). Specifically, we analyze Markov mixture models to segment alumni based on contribution-behavior patterns, under the assumption of serially-dependent contribution sequences. We use the expectation-maximization algorithm to obtain parameter estimates for each segment. Through an extensive empirical study, we highlight the substantive insights gained through the processing of the full contribution sequences, and establish the presence of three distinct classes of alumni in the population (each with a discernible contribution pattern). The proposed framework, collectively, provides a basis to tailor direct marketing policies to optimize specific performance criteria (e.g., profits).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)172-184
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Interactive Marketing
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • Customer segmentation
  • Customer-based analysis
  • Direct mail
  • Expectation-maximization (EM) algorithm
  • Non-profit fundraising

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Marketing


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