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.
By now it seems everyone and their dog has shared their predictions and observations about the the trends of 2015, so it may seem I’m a little late to the party. But I was holding off because I knew I was scheduled to present on the topic 13 days into the year. That happened yesterday — I was the keynote speaker at the Franchise Business Network annual kickoff meeting — so I can break my silence, such as it is. Anyway, I spoke about the major trends affecting business that I see taking shape, particularly around data and technology, heading into 2015. And today, before we get any further into the year, I thought I’d share some of what I presented last night with readers here.
Bear in mind that this audience was primarily franchisers and franchisees, along with service providers to those businesses, and with a healthy sprinkling of high-potential startup founders in the mix. So I introduced the subject by talking about relevance and meaningfulness, and that I had tried to narrow the scope of the talk to those emerging topics that seemed like they could have the most meaningful impact on their businesses this year. I talked about six major trends:
Right-sizing big data
Ongoing channel shakeup
Rental crowding out the ownership model
Deeper and blurrier integrations of the ideas of “online” and “offline”
Disruption of payments: mobile payments, crypocurrency
Evolving ideas of “work,” “team,” and “leader”
I went into more detail for each trend, of course, but more importantly, I tried to summarize each trend with a “minimum viable opportunity,” repurposing the idea from the “minimum viable product” in the Lean Startup methodology. In case you’re not familiar with the notion of an “MVP,” as it’s called, a minimum viable product is a scaled-down first-stage version of your offering that you can produce with minimal resources to validate the overall direction and gain initial customers. My repurposing of the idea is to suggest that for each of these trends, there could be a scaled-down first-stage approach smaller businesses can take to implement them so that they can determine the trend’s potential impact on their business.
For “right-sizing big data,” for example, I said that although big data is not a new concept, it’s something there’s a growing awareness of, and its ongoing and increasing impact on business can’t be overstated. But I suggested that small businesses and startups can sometimes get bigger impact from being strategic with smaller data. So the minimum viable opportunity, perhaps, is to work on building processes that use the customer and marketing data already present in a business effectively before trying to tackle large-scale data mining or analysis projects. As small and growing businesses become more sophisticated about making data-informed decisions, they can potentially tackle more complex data sets to inform those decisions with a greater likelihood of effectiveness.
For “ongoing channel shakeup,” after covering some of the changes in the digital marketing landscape brought on by new advertising opportunities, algorithm changes, and so on, I talked about the opportunity, as I often do, for marketing to start from empathy and an understanding of customers’ motivations in a segmented and meaningful way so that they can craft relevant messages and experiences and test them in relevant channels. It’s increasingly an experience-aware world.
I won’t rehash the entire talk here (although if you’d like to have me come present to your company or organization, please reach out) — I’ll just offer that when you go back and skim the lists and roundups of 2015 trends, you might want to borrow this idea of the “minimum viable opportunity” for your business. What small change could you experiment with that might help shine light on where your next investments need to be? Bring in me or another strategic facilitator if you have to; we can help guide the brainstorming and identification of opportunities. However you approach it, I hope you do it with an intention to learn. Good luck, and may 2015 be full of maximum opportunities for you. Cheers!
I was meeting with a colleague in a coffee shop yesterday, and as we approached the end of our scheduled time, her next appointment walked up to the table and my colleague introduced us. What she told the other person, in essence, was that I was smart and joyful. I don’t think anyone’s ever distilled me quite that way before, and I was charmed but also intrigued. It’s always entertaining and enlightening to me to observe how people introduce me to new people. I wonder how many different ways my friends and colleagues would describe me. I wonder how much overlap there would be, and what those points of overlap would be.
All this got me thinking, too, about marketing. What about my company? What about your company? How would people describe or introduce your company? How do you suspect your best customers would describe you? How would your most unhappy customers describe you? Where is the overlap?
Depending on how you think about your brand strategy, you might feel comfortable with a degree of uncertainty, ambiguity, and variance in how people describe your company. I have friends who have a business that does very prestigious projects, but whose model is very difficult to explain. I know, because I once tried to explain it to a 13-year-old child of a friend who heard us mention the company, and asked what they do. This was a bright child, but even bright children aren’t overly familiar with abstract business concepts like strategy, engagement, and revenue share. Plenty of adults are unfamiliar with those concepts.
That business thrives on a certain amount of mystique. But most businesses, particularly consumer-facing ones, live or die by how clear their value proposition is to their potential new customers.
Of course there’s always the opportunity to ask your customers directly, and it’s a good idea to do so. But it’s also a good exercise to think about it yourself. Let me know in the comments if you come up with something good.
The transition from one calendar year to another, with its themes of improvement and renewal, often casts light on the areas where we are not aligned with our purpose and priorities. And while any time is a good time to take steps toward living the life you want to live, the fact that so many people around you are probably asking themselves the big questions makes this time of year particularly well suited to introspection and reflection.
Ever wonder what you have in common with yourself? I didn’t really, either, but an app I was using for social analytics showed me my own account and presented me with a view of what I had in common with @kateo.
According to this metadata, here are some of the things I share an interest with myself about:
Big Data, Data Visualization And Infographics, Dataviz and Infographics. Well, OK, those were gimmes.
Parenting. I’m publicly on record (in TIME magazine, among other outlets) as being child-free by choice. So that’s actually an understandable semantic link; it’s just a misleading one.
Both Country Music and Classical Music. I live in Nashville, a.k.a. Music City, and yes, I have ties to country music and the industry, but this one serves more as proof that computer-led analysis can be imbued with the jumpy biases of its programmers, since “Nashville” = “country music” to many people who don’t know anything else about the city. And Classical Music, while I respect it, has less significance in my digital life than, say, bacon does, and that’s saying something since as you can probably infer from the Vegan, Vegetarian, and Raw Food tags above.
Pay Per Click Marketing, Ecommerce, Testing & Optimization Software, Advertising & Marketing, Email Marketing. Sort of, I guess. They’re all, like, fractional pieces. But I get that “digital behavioral strategy” is a pretty esoteric conceptual space. And I’ve certainly expressed interest in topics relating to each of these areas online. So those are forgivable oversimplifications.
Horror. I can’t even. Maybe we should interpret that as part of a set with QR Codes. Or US Politics.
If you were trying to use this metadata across a user base to build targeted messaging and experiences, based on how my own authentic interests align and misalign with this data, I can tell you you’d miss more often than you’d hit. Which would maybe be OK if you’d built learning cycles into your process, so you could continually refine your understanding of your audience and what resonated with them.
Data is just dots. Analysis is trying to draw lines between or around those dots, but there’s no guarantee you’ll produce anything truly meaningful. It usually takes some understanding of context to make any sense, or meaning, out of data, and that’s more true the more abstract and open-ended the data is, such as social metadata.
A sound business data strategy involves both framing up data collection so that what you collect is most useful, and looking at the data collected in the context of business realities.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a virtual reality nature hike to plan gamification strategies for.
It’s a huge opportunity for hyper-personalized and contextualized content and experiences. It’s also potentially a massive trap for marketers because studies have shown that people want to be tailored to, but not so much that it creeps them out.
It’s vital for companies to use the resources at their disposal, including data and data-driven experiments, to make themselves better, faster, and smarter at making decisions and serving their customers. That includes testing to make products better, make customer experiences smoother, make messaging more relevant, make operations more efficient, and so on. It covers a lot.
But what businesses should not do is take extraordinary license with the permissions customers give them through their interactions with them.