What is lifecycle marketing?

It seems like more and more companies these days (particularly software as a service or product-based companies in tech) are hiring for "lifecycle marketers" instead of "email marketers." Which is great! It means that more companies see the value of a personalized and multi-channel approach.

I've also noticed, though, that while lifecycle marketing roles have increased, the amount of other people in an organization who know what lifecycle is hasn't changed at all. One of the bigger challenges I've had at my last 3 jobs has been educating and explaining to the rest of the company what it is I do and why it's so important.

Part of this, I'm sure, is because email has a bad reputation (spam). But I also think it's because it can be hard to explain sometimes—lifecycle is like email marketing but is also often multi-channel, and really the key differentiator is that it's about serving your customer wherever they are with your product or service (though it's of course not always practiced that way).

To help provide some more detail on what lifecycle marketing is, I've put together this shortish explainer.

First, let's talk about salmon

When I think about the word lifecycle, I think about salmon. I am by no means a salmon expert, but I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so I learned a little bit about them in school.

The reason I think about salmon is because they have a very particular lifecycle. (If you run a Google image search for "salmon lifecycle," you'll be treated to loads of images portraying the cyclical nature of their lives.) I won't go into full detail here—this isn't a post all about salmon, after all—but here's the tl;dr:

  1. Little salmon fry hatch from eggs in a stream
  2. After they get older, they go through body changes (called "smoltification," which isn't something you really need to know but it's a cool word) that allow them to survive in sea water, and they head downstream and out to sea
  3. They grow and mature in the ocean
  4. They mature and start making their way back to the stream of their birth to lay eggs
  5. Then they die, their lives ending in the same place they originally hatched

This is why salmon swim upstream; they have to get back to their birth stream in order to complete their lifecycle and create the next generation of salmon.

There is, however, a problem. Over-fishing isn't the only threat to salmon—dams are. Dams are physically in the way and block migratory fish like salmon from finishing their lifecycle. Which prevents them from spawning the next generation of salmon.

I won't get into the complexity of the existence of dams here, because I know very little about it—less than I know about salmon—and don't want to make uneducated assumptions or state things I'm not sure of as fact. What I do know, though, is that experts out there have been trying to solve the problem of migratory fish and dams, namely how to get fish over dams unscathed.

Enter: the salmon cannon. Created by Whooshh Innovations, the salmon cannon is... well... just what it's called. Here's a video that helps explain it:

[Video description: Whooshh Innovations shows how their "salmon cannon" works. It moves fish through a flexible, pressurized tube, safely transporting them from one area to another. It gives them a boost over dams so they can swim upstream to spawn.]

Ok... cool story, Sarah... but why am I reading and watching a video about fish, and what does this have to do with lifecycle marketing?

The salmon cannon is, for me, an imperfect but useful analogy for explaining lifecycle marketing.

It's like this: you might have the coolest web product/app/what-have-you that you've ever seen—but even so, it's likely that there'll be something blocking your customer from moving forward. (If you feel yourself arguing here, remember: if there weren't blockers, your conversion rate would be 100%.)

It might be something directly related to your product, like a learning curve or a confusing interface, or something indirectly related, like time, money, or not being the business decision-maker. It might be something else entirely. The chances of every customer finding exactly what they need to start paying for your product in the first use are pretty slim.

Just like salmon and other migratory fish that need a boost to get over dams, our customers sometimes (often) need a boost to continue on their journey with our products and services when they hit a blocker.

In that way, lifecycle marketing is basically the salmon cannon for your product. And I mean that in a way that doesn't say I'm calling your customers fish (unless your customers are indeed fish, but then I don't know why you have to market to them because it's not like they have email.)

Sometimes when we think of lifecycle marketing, it's really easy to get bogged down in the business metrics, like trying to increase sales, and stuff like that. But really, that's not what lifecycle is about at its core. It's really just about helping your customer get what they need from your business.

We may measure success using sales, upgrades, or other business metrics, but the goal of your lifecycle marketing should always be to improve the customer experience. If you have an ethical business, serving your customer and prioritizing their needs should, in turn, serve the business.

So then what is lifecycle marketing?

Lifecycle marketing is communicating with your customer wherever they're at. Another way to say it is that it's 1:1 messaging at scale. That's pretty buzzwordy, though, so let's break it down.


Aka, talking directly to your customer. The channel through which you do it is less important here, but because we're talking about marketing, it's often email, but can also include in-app notifications, push notifications, and SMS, among others.

And even though I said we're talking about marketing, it's important to note that this doesn't just include traditional marketing messages but also transactional ones. This is definitely my bias showing, but I've generally seen lifecycle messaging be the most successful and cohesive when the same team manages and supports all non-customer support messages. And often, your transactional messages are some of the most important in the lifecycle.


Each message a person gets should, at the very least, make sense for what they've done or not done in your product. Basically, we're talking about personalization, which—as anyone who has done it knows—is hard. This is where logic and data analysis comes into things.

Use the data you have to understand where customers are at in their journey with your product. This can be quantitative data, like through actual behaviors with the product, and also through qualitative by working with a user research team to learn more about your customers directly. Once you know where they're at, figure out what they need at that moment to be successful.

At scale

Automate as much as you can. Manual processes take a lot of time. Even without perfect tooling, figure out where you can speed up your process, like in-tool automations or using Zapier, for instance.

Another part of the "at scale" thing? Not getting too nitpicky about personalization. Yes, messages should make sense and extra personalization can be a delight-adder, but you still work for a company in a capitalist system (I'm assuming), so be sure to balance it with the difficulty of implementation.

What lifecycle is not

If we're talking about what lifecycle is, it makes sense to also say what it's not. It's not:


A lot of times when businesses notice customers aren't doing a specific thing in their product, the first response seems to be, "Hey, just send an email about this." It's a tale as old as email time.

On the one hand, great job for seeing the value of lifecycle and email. But on the other hand: that's not a great strategy overall. If there's a problem in the user experience of your product, email isn't necessarily the sole fix. Sometimes it's not even a fix at all and is more like a band-aid.

Don't expect lifecycle messaging to pull more than its weight. It may help you get the proverbial salmon over the proverbial dam, but once they're over that dam it's not going to magically fix all of the other problems in your user experience... like rocks or bears...? My analogy fell apart here. (I told you it was imperfect.)

But it's also not a science, either.

This is maybe controversial, but as much as we like to pretend otherwise, marketing is not a science. Not even lifecycle.

While we love to run experiments, track results, and see if they're statistically significant, there are a ton of factors that go into whether a person does or doesn't do something—and we make a ton of conscious and unconscious assumptions about the data we get. I'm not saying we shouldn't keep running our tests and trying to do our best to get great metrics, but let's not take ourselves too seriously.


I hope this breakdown was helpful, even though I talked about fish for most of the time. I'm working on another post on lifecycle journeys and how to create your messaging strategy. Until then, feel free to ask me any questions you have on the topic via Twitter. 👋🏻