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.