professional keynote speaker, author, experience strategy expert | making tech better for business and better for humans
Author: Kate O'Neill
Kate O'Neill, founder and CEO of KO Insights, is a researcher, consultant, advisor, speaker, and writer, primarily focused on how data and technology can empower meaningful human experiences. She founded [meta]marketer, a digital strategy and analytics firm, and previously held strategic and leadership roles at Netflix, Magazines.com, HCA, and a number of other digital startups. She is the author of a forthcoming book on meaningfulness in data, marketing, business, and life.
The “selfie emoji”/bitmoji feature in Google’s new chat app #Allo is well integrated and should drive adoption. The app also features AI in the form of its machine learning capability, encouraging users to interact with a chatbot assistant that learns and adapts. But to do that at scale requires widespread adoption, so they turned to Addictive Product 101: make it fun. :)
Well, we can think about the customer not merely as a customer, but as a well-rounded human being, who takes on many roles throughout the course of a day: patient, student, user, guest, citizen, not to mention friend, employee, parent, and so on. We can improve the human experience.
How can we improve human experience? How can we think about those many roles we all have in a business context, and why should we?
Those additional roles become dimensions of the person you’re trying to do business with. The more dimensional that person is to you, the more likely you’ll be able to offer them value. When you offer them value, you establish the basis of a meaningful relationship.
We always have to look for the human nuances if we want to build meaning.
Rather, the most interesting things about Pokemon Go have to do with connected experiences, and the sweeping changes these are bringing: new marketing models, opportunities with augmented reality, location-based marketing, and all the assorted issues with data privacy and security. The most interesting things about the Pokemon Go phenomenon have nothing to do with the game itself and everything to do with how different things are starting to be and are going to continue to be.
But since you can engage with the game through a camera view of what’s ahead of you, it’s actually possible to walk and play and still be at least somewhat connected to your surroundings.
Connected Experiences… and Your Business Strategy?
This is only the beginning of what’s to come.
On social media, people have been laughing at the businesses who are developing Pokemon Go strategies (and well, it does sound absurd), but honestly if they’re starting now even these are a little late to the biggest opportunity. The gold rush was this past two weeks, when everything was novel and players were entertained by the outreach. Even if the game’s popularity continues to grow, players will likely begin to be put off by overt attempts to capitalize on the game from late entrants. And if your business is still laughing, you’re missing out on time to think about how augmented reality and connected experiences stand to change the status quo.
Of course then there’s this:
PetSmart Exec: I saw a Digiday post that every company needs a Pokemon Go strategy. WHAT'S OURS? Marketing Manager: pic.twitter.com/8Zddyaqges
So I’m not saying to rush out and do something specific to Pokemon Go that has no alignment with your customers’ motivations or your brand. (Although if you have an idea for an experience that aligns and integrates your customers’ experience with the game in an organic, authentic, and/or memorable way, by all means do it, measure it, and publish a case study about it.) This is a call for strategic action about a macro trend, not mindless reaction to a micro trend. Trying to capitalize on the trend without strategy will probably come across to people like an attempt to manipulate the moment.
You need strategic planning (and do please note: I offer strategy workshops) that sets you up for success as the physical and digital worlds increasingly converge. There’s enough transformation taking place that there will be a relevant, meaningful way to make these opportunities align with your brand and your customers. Your job is to try to catch it.
The thing about the Internet of Things is it isn’t about the things; it’s about the people.
The “things,” for the most part, are designed to create more connected experiences for humans. And the data layer that connects the digital experiences to the physical world through our gestures and actions is our data.
The transactional data that connects the online and offline world happens largely through us, through our transactions and purchases, through our speech, through our attention, through everything we do.
In the course of analyzing, optimizing, and targeting, we can’t let ourselves forget about the humanity in the data.
You probably know, as most people do, that Netflix was all about renting unlimited DVDs before pivoting into streaming, but what you may not know is that before launching that DVD subscription program, they started out as a service to rent DVDs a la carte, just like Blockbuster, except online and through the mail. When they hit upon the idea of a DVD subscription model, they discovered that they had been working with a rapidly-aging notion of how customers wanted to interact with the physical world, and their new model simplified it. Of course their even newer model, of streaming video, simplified it even more. What are the wide-open opportunities to rethink the interactions with your customers and in your market?
The key thing to remember is that the convergence of physical and digital happens around the human experience. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the opportunities to adapt and offer more contextually relevant experiences are evolving all the time.
There’s a whole lot more about this in my new book Pixels and Place, coming out September 1st, 2016. You can pre-order the Kindle version here. Check back over the next few weeks, too; I’ll be posting more excerpts and giving away copies.
I got a ticket in the mail yesterday for running a red light. Well, it wasn’t a ticket, exactly. It was a “notice of an administrative fee” for a red light violation that allegedly happened while I was driving a rented car in my mom’s town the day before her birthday. The ticket itself apparently hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet, but the rental car company has a whole operation to process the administrative fees from traffic violations incurred by their renters, and they’re not wasting any time collecting theirs.
I bring this up here because it’s actually happened to me quite a lot. Nearly every time I rent a car, I end up getting a traffic ticket in the mail a few months later (and as a consultant and speaker who often travels to clients and events, I rent a lot of cars). You may be tempted to joke that I’m a terrible driver, but these traffic violations by mail never showed up when I was driving my own car and the discrepancy has become enough of a pattern that my mind, not usually given to conspiracy theories, started to formulate a hypothesis about how this could be part of a program to make money off of car renters.
Anatomy of a Scam Hypothesis
How could this be happening? Well, the rental car agencies could be selling their driver rental information to the companies that operate the traffic cameras. The traffic cameras could be scanning license plates and matching them against a list from the rental agencies. They could be issuing tickets on violations or close-enough-to-be-violations only when there’s a match.
I also notice that I never get more than one traffic violation per rental. The system could be set to throttle the tickets to one per rental period. Casual renters wouldn’t think much about it. “Oh well,” they’d think, “I got a ticket. I’ll just pay.”
But frequent renters, like me, start to notice a pattern. Why is it I owned a car all my adult life until late last year, drove all over the country, frequently taking my car on road trips, and have never once been issued a traffic-camera-ticket for any of those trips, yet when I drive in some of these same towns in a rental car, I get tickets mailed to me?
“Maybe It’s Just You”
Perhaps you’re skeptical, as we discuss this over drinks, and you offer that maybe instead of this elaborate scam, there’s instead a behavioral science element to all this: suppose we all drive a little more recklessly when we’re in a rented car. That seems a reasonable counter-hypothesis, I’d concede with a tip of my beer mug, but without supporting data or a compelling argument to convince me that there might be truth to this, I maintain that, whether I own the car or borrow it, I drive as I drive. And pass the peanuts.
Anyway, What About Due Process?
Most of all, whether the intent to conspire is there or not, surely it brings up questions of due process. If a police officer had simply pulled me over in each of these places, there’d be far less question of legitimacy. You say I ran a red light? Pull me over right then. The action on which the claim is based will be fresh in my head and I can either challenge the officer (calmly and politely, of course) about the veracity of the claim or accept the ticket. (Or cry, and maybe get off with a warning. Oh, relax; I’m kidding.) But you say I ran a red light three months after the fact? I barely recall being at the intersection in question, let alone what the conditions of the intersection were, or the timing of the light, or the layout of the traffic around me. Even if you were to furnish me with photographic evidence of my rented car with me in it clearly violating a red light, I still don’t have the consideration of context, and I get no due process at all.
The Bigger Issue: Privacy, Personal Rights, and Public Data
I don’t necessarily believe my conspiracy hypothesis about the rental car traffic violation scam; I just think it’s possible, and at the rate I get these tickets, I admit I’m a tad suspicious. But I’m less concerned with that and more conscious of the the bigger issue: how vulnerable people are and increasingly will be to schemes that take advantage of ever-present tracking data, surveillance, and systems with default authority, such as rental car companies and traffic enforcement bureaus. Even if these entities aren’t trying to be exploitative, the more access they have to integrated data about our movements and behaviors, the greater the potential will be for them to overstep the authority we think we’ve granted them.
So why do I share this half-baked conspiracy idea anyway? Because the premise is not mere science fiction; it’s certainly not impossible, and it’s important that we remind ourselves regularly of the powerful data about people that can be used by companies and government. That power is growing, and to a great degree, it’s already out of our hands as citizens, consumers, patients, and the public. So where and when we can, it’s important that we think critically about what the implications are, and it’s important for those of us who work in and around data systems that track human actions to be mindful of what that means.
Meanwhile, to finish on a lighter note, here’s how comedian Joe Lycett handled a mailed-in notice of a parking ticket. Enjoy.
I often work at coffee shops. A lot of other people do, too, of course. But since it’s my nature to think about meaning and what makes different human experiences meaningful in different ways, I sometimes find myself deconstructing the experience of what it means to work in a coffee shop. Overthinking it? OK, maybe. But I’m looking for what we can learn about designing experiences, both online and offline.
The “Why” of Place
The opening question is “why?” What is the value of working on my smallish laptop screen on a hard chair at a crowded coffee shop as opposed to sitting at my desk in my apartment, where I have a big display to dock my laptop into and access to a huge supply of teas, and where I can put on slippers and make myself as comfortable as I like? What possible explanation could there be for why I and so many others choose to pay and be inconvenienced for discomfort and fewer amenities?
You could propose “because there are no distractions,” and yes, for some people, including myself, that’s probably a piece of it. (After all, if you live with cats, you know they can get pretty insistent about getting attention. I can only imagine how insistent kids might be.) But then again, you’re adding a whole new set of distractions when you work in a coffee shop, or other “third place.” You’re introducing whole villages of people to have to tune out and ignore.
But ignore them you can. In general you’re likely to perceive less of a sense of obligation to acknowledge and respond to the distractions you encounter in a coffee shop like you would, say, at the office, when your colleague shows up at your desk asking for that TPS report. Beyond that, I don’t have to think about the small stack of paperwork on my desk — I’ve effectively eliminated it from my context and can concentrate on the work I’ve come to do.
Also, you’re trading in familiar distractions for more interesting distractions, and perhaps more stimulating distractions, in a sense. But for someone who thrives on creative inspiration, that can make a tremendous difference, whether tackling creative or mundane tasks.
The “When” of Place
The next question that occurs to me is “when?” How often is it productive and beneficial to work in a third place versus the usual place? What’s the ideal combination of familiar and new to inspire but not distract?
For example, I find that I do really powerful brainstorming and big, think-y, strategic work in airplanes. I always assume there’s a combination of factors in play: turning off internet connectivity, probably first and foremost, but also being in a constrained environment where it is literally a challenge to get up from the seat and do anything other than focus on the space right in front of me — all of that seems to come together to reward me with some of the clearest thinking work I ever do. But then I wonder: would I be able to rely on having such breakthrough thinking if I increased my frequency of travel? Maybe it’s the pacing of it that works. I travel far more than the average person, but not as much as many frequent business travelers do, and perhaps the relatively limited availability of the airplane context keeps it fresh. I’m looking to experiment with that a bit over the next year or two.
In any case, asking “when” in relation to changing the context of place is important in designing optimally meaningful experiences. At a certain level, it’s the heart of what work-life balance is about.
Meaningful Experience and the Third Place
You’re probably already ahead of me on thinking through the next questions: “where,” “what,” “how,” and “who.”
Well, “where” is already all about place, so we’re fundamentally examining it already, not to get too meta. But to frame it up in a way we can try to apply in designing experiences, the place you’re in is a significant part of the context of your interactions. And place creates opportunities for stories and interactions.
In your home, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. But home is where, in some respects, you probably have the most control over your environment and experiences.
In your office or fixed workplace, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. Depending on your position, you probably have some degree of control over your environment and experiences.
In a third place, though, like a coffee shop, a bar, an airport, a park, etc, the opportunities are pretty much unlimited and the opportunity for novelty is much higher. And although you have little control within the place itself, you have in some ways the most important kind of control: you get to choose to be in this place (“where”) for however long (“when”) for whatever purpose (“what and why”) and how much you acknowledge your surroundings (“who”).
It’s not that one is inherently better than the others; sometimes the interactions and novelty introduce too much of a distraction and annoyance.
Today, for example, an uncommonly beautiful woman was seated to my right at the window bench, and for a while (until I put headphones on and drowned it out) I was privy to overhearing her being constantly hit on by strange men. Some were one-and-done approaches; one in particular was a prolonged attempt to wear her down and get her interest. She was unfailingly polite, but I thought (and tweeted) if this is as tedious as it is for me, I can’t imagine how tedious it must be for her.
I digress. But that digression is more or less the point. In a coffee shop or other third place, you’re placed in proximity of these kinds of micro-happenings that don’t really add up to much and don’t change your life, really, but taken as a whole they add color and perspective and dimension to our lives. It’s an opportunity for empathy and framing up your perspective alongside countless other people you can observe.
In an upcoming post, I’ll take these ideas about the meaning of place and apply them to online experiences, and some of the nuances of how we can intentionally create meaningful experiences of place will start to become more evident. Until next time, I’m headed home to give some cats a little attention.
The fun thing about owning your own company is that every now and then you get to institutionalize ideas that inspire and excite you. Back when I owned a digital analytics agency, I instituted the practice of encouraging employees to spend the week of Thanksgiving engaged in big picture thinking, for themselves and the company. At the beginning of the week following, we’d all meet and review and if there were ideas we could try implementing to improve the company, we put them in place.
Someone — maybe it was me, maybe an employee — called it “Thinksgiving” and the name stuck.
Several years later and running a different company, I still practice Thinksgiving, only now at some level I carry it all the way through the end of the year. What starts during Thinksgiving incubates during December as I wind down my other work, and then luxuriate in spending the last week of the year immersed in deep strategic planning and big picture thinking for the next year. It feels decadent and liberating, and it really inspires me to enter the new year strong.
Let’s call it “Thinksgiving+.” I’ll tell you about it in case it inspires you to do your own version.
What’s different about Thinksgiving+ from traditional New Year’s resolution-making is that so often resolutions stem from arbitrary pressures we put on ourselves to be a more idealized version of ourselves. This process, instead, is intentionally about what will fulfill me, my business ambitions, and my personal ambitions, so the goals originate from aligning my intentions and efforts, and it becomes much easier to follow through on them. In practice, it might be the difference between an arbitrary resolution to do more exercise, versus observing that I always enjoy bike-riding and also want a little more exercise, so I’m going to try to remember to use bike share for short trips more often instead of, say, taking the bus.
Also, although the process overlaps with goal-setting for the year, as opposed to making resolutions, these aren’t necessarily commitments I’m trying to make with myself; they’re more like saying what I want out loud, so I can hear myself say it. It’s not at all about putting pressure on myself and trying to motivate myself to stick with it; it’s about being clear and honest with myself about what I want to see happen, and what kind of work I’ll need to do to get there. It’s a subtlety but it matters immensely in practice.
The other piece that makes a big difference is that once I have my plan and goals outlined, I rename and reconstruct the taxonomies of my life so that they align: my notebooks in Evernote, my lists in Remember the Milk, and my folders in Gmail, to name a few. I try to ensure that they reflect the verbiage and the spirit of the goals and the focus, so that I have contextual reminders of my big-picture direction.
Not everyone has the luxury to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and invest it in planning, and perhaps not everyone would want to. But even if you only spend a few hours this week thinking about how you want 2016 to look and feel and sound and smell, even if you only write down a few thoughts about what you want in your heart of hearts, I’m betting it’ll be easier to make it happen. Good luck.
We had a lot of calendars around the house when I was growing up. Probably one in every room. The kind that used to be given away by businesses with their name and address on the bottom, so they’d hang on the wall all year as a reminder of their service. They’d display a month at a time, and as a kid it was a big thrill to be allowed to be the one to turn the page on the first of each month.
Every calendar acknowledged pretty much the same pre-printed holidays: the usuals, like Easter and Christmas and Independence Day, and then the oddballs, like Arbor Day and Grandparents Day and Boxing Day.
I remember noticing Boxing Day every year and wondering about where and why it was significant. I only knew that in other countries, there were traditions and meanings associated with it, just as there are for Christmas where I grew up.
I also figured that it was more than what we did with it. The day after Christmas in my family was for standing in the returns lines at stores and getting money back so you could buy what you had really wanted all along.
By now it seems some in the U.S. have adopted Boxing Day and subsumed it into their own traditions. For some people there’s a sort of special relaxed pace about the day; for some it’s a big shopping day: many people go shopping in the after-Christmas sales hoping to score a deal for themselves or maybe for the friend or relative they’re planning to see after the holidays. A kind of purposeful procrastination.
It’s different from Christmas, yet dependent on Christmas as an extension of its meaning. But the difference between Christmas and Boxing Day is merely social contract; it’s just a matter of adoption, and critical mass.
It’s funny how tradition can seem absurd at first. Get enough people to agree that Boxing Day is a day when we wear boxes on our head to remind ourselves to think outside the box, and you might just have yourself a cultural movement.
That in any case would be an attempt to be intentional about the day and about what it signifies. And I think that’s worth consideration. It’s worth using the days we designate as somehow special in the most meaningful ways we can. By contrast, people often seem to find themselves stuck observing Christmas traditions they’re no longer excited about, that no longer resonate with them, because they either haven’t come to terms with how to adapt or they don’t want to risk disappointing others. But that can leave us stifled and suppressed, when we could instead be experiencing the fulfillment of a day of mindful focus on, say, the spirit of giving and togetherness, or whatever other values and significance you would want the holiday to hold for you.
The same is true for any other day, really. There’s no point following someone else’s idea of how your days should be lived. You get to decide what’s meaningful, and live according to that. Life’s too short for anything else.
I’m working on some offerings that can help you do just that, by the way: in 2016, I’ll be rolling out a series of workshops, webinars, books, talks, reports, and these blog posts and my emails. So I hope you’ll stay in touch if you want to find out more about that.
But however you do it, I hope that in 2016, you get closer to staying focused on what’s meaningful and make it align and connect throughout your life. You deserve it. We all do. And not for just one day a year. Even if you wear a box on your head to do it.
I founded KO Insights in early 2014 after spending the previous five years leading an analytics strategy agency and guiding clients through the colliding worlds of marketing and technology. This collision had (and increasingly has) the power to provide access to life-changing information and resources and solve world-class problems for the good of humanity, but more often these fused capabilities end up compelling us to be hurried and intellectually lazy, and to engage in endless cycles of short-sighted busy-work.
Or worse. Marketing organizations now have the option to learn how to gather nuanced insights from data and use them to develop a more robust and sophisticated understanding of customer motivations at a segmented level, with amazing speed and clarity. But the opportunity too often is wasted — for example, by piggy-backing on low-level data tracking to make advertising more persistent and creepy. Even if it “works,” we must know we’re capable of so much better.
It also seemed to me that the world had enough voices talking about internet marketing, growth hacking, and SEO. Moreover, between global warming and the “rise of the robots,” there were enough aspects of our future that seemed dystopian, or at least uncertain. Of course our future is bound to involve digital technology and data, so what we needed were frameworks, guideposts, and even reassurances that could help us embrace that digital future with a clear heart and an open mind so that we could use the growing powers of technology, data, and global access to solve the problems of humanity. We needed more of an emphasis on meaning.
So I’ve spent the past year and a half researching, writing, partnering with smart people and companies, speaking, listening, and building a body of work around meaning. I see meaning everywhere now.
There are fundamental ways that meaning informs our lives and work across every area, if we are conscious of it and recognize its shape. The shape meaning takes in marketing is empathy — all relevant customer understanding and communications flow from being aware of and aligned with the customer’s needs and motivations. And in business at a broader sense, the shape meaning takes is strategy. It guides every decision and action. In technology and data science, meaning can drive the pursuit of applied knowledge toward that which improves our experiences and our lives. Creative work becomes more meaningful the more truth it conveys. And in our lives overall, an understanding of what is meaningful to us provides us with purpose, clarity, and intention.
These are all somewhat different interpretations of meaning. But in all cases, meaning has to do with the associations things carry on individual and societal levels that impact emotion, psychology, behavior, and more.
This is the lens through which the purpose of work becomes clearer. This is the framework through which our work and personal lives can stop being so compartmentalized and become more aligned.
Through the work I do with my partners — researching, validating, and communicating what we have learned — I try to provide clearer ideas for how to move forward purposefully, how to use technology for the good of humanity, how to be mindful of each other’s needs, all while still fulfilling the profit motive of business.
KO Insights works by allowing me to partner with people, companies, and organizations that adopt these values and want to apply the learnings to their own work and lives. And I use the word “partner” purposefully: there really is more of a sense of partnership than in the traditional service provider/client relationship; together, we’re applying the framework of meaning to their environment and challenges and creating value directly for them as well as indirectly for others.
Speaking has been a primary function of this work, and I enjoy it immensely. It is not only the distillation and presentation of the ideas, but very often is the impetus for the research.
For example, when CIVSA hired me to give the keynote at their national conference after they’d found me online and liked my emphasis on meaningfulness, neither they nor I knew precisely what specific topic that would imply. But my work on that presentation — which ended up as “The Meaning of Place” — along with their input and feedback along the way, led to strong takeaways for them on place-making and the culture, brand, identity, and experience of a place. And that work led me to some realizations about meaning and place that have shaped my subsequent work in other areas, such as meaning and user experience. That work will soon be transformed into a book on meaningful place-making and can offer insights to place-makers around the world.
Similarly, in my work helping marketing organizations solve operational challenges around digital data, I have developed workshops and tools to help companies understand how to use behavioral strategy, experience design, and data-driven insights all together to get the right message in front of the right customer at the right time. Without being creepy.
These are some of the things my work and life have demonstrated to me and that I now believe:
That a disciplined focus on improving customer experience through empathy leads to greater profits.
That “analytics are people” – that in real ways, the tracking data we use in business represents the human needs and interests of people who have entrusted their information and interactions to us, and that it is our human imperative not to violate that trust.
That meaning in marketing creates value, and from value follows stronger sales, deeper loyalty, and greater profit.
That marketing is the knowledge center of the organization, where the most nuanced understanding of the customer should reside, and where the most sophisticated learning operations should take place.
And while it is not the corporate-world norm to talk openly about what we somewhat arbitrarily call our “personal” lives, my personal journey through loss and grief informs my work, too, as it must. It does so both circumstantially, in having spurred the end of my last company, and philosophically, in that I believe everyone deserves the chance to work on something that is meaningful for them if they can connect it to creating value for someone else.
(Besides, forget corporate-world norms. They don’t lend themselves to the examination of meaning.)
It has been a very fulfilling process learning how to connect the framework of meaning to value for others. It’s been a challenge at times, because our cultural discourse rejects the notion of “meaningfulness” as too abstract, yet there are very real and applicable ways that meaning shapes our work and our lives. Meaningfulness helps us prioritize, for starters, and who doesn’t need a better way to do that? It’s also been challenging to keep up with how expansive my understanding of meaning has become. But that makes the quest for value easier: the value of meaning is ready to be found, hidden in plain sight all over the place. Because meaning is the lens through which we understand our experiences. And the link through which we connect with each other.
There’s so much more to do. I’m still on this journey to better understand how a rich framework of meaning can make our work more rewarding, make our lives more connected, and make the world better. I hope, after reading this, you will join me on that journey, too.
That was that! What happens next?
Well, you can share this manifesto on social media and help spread the importance of meaningfulness. Maybe you can hire me to come to your company or event to speak, present a workshop, or consult on meaningful growth strategy, customer experience, meaningful marketing, the strategic and empathetic use of data, or things like that. That’d be cool. Or you can follow the company or me personally on Twitter. Or you can join the KO Insights email list, and get occasional notes with insights you may be able to use in your work, as well as announcements about upcoming webinars and workshops.
About the author: Kate O’Neill is a keynote speaker, writer, startup advisor, and strategic consultant focused on topics at the intersection of data, humanity, and meaningful experiences. She founded [meta]marketer, a digital strategy and analytics firm. Kate’s prior experience included creating the first content management role at Netflix, leading cutting-edge online optimization work at Magazines.com, developing Toshiba America’s first intranet, building the first website at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and holding leadership positions in a variety of digital content and technology start-ups. Read more.