Kate O’Neill, founder of research and advisory firm KO Insights, sees her life as a series of firsts. The speaker, writer, and marketing strategist, birthed in the midwest and based in New York, built one of the first departmental websites at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Afterwards, she was recruited by Toshiba, held the first content management role at Netflix, and then moved on to spearhead optimization work at magazines.com. In recent years, she has added author, agency owner and speaker to her resume. Most importantly, the “meaning seeker” serves as a role model for women in the male-dominated tech world. And above all, she stays true to what drives her industry—as she affirms below, analytics really is about the people. Data is simply an instrument to discern what resonates between client and customer. O’Neill’s approach to marketing (mixing mass amounts of empathy with healthy motives) allows companies to make money in an ethical manner.
What do you find most fascinating about your job?
I joke that I am a corporate language apologist because while I use the lingo fluently, I go by the theory that data is about human beings. It’s easy to think about the people visiting your website as customers instead of living, breathing specimens with their own needs and agendas. My job is to see if your users did what they were intending to do when interacting with a website.
In layman’s terms what is it that you’re striving for?
(Laughs) To create something that facilitates connection between people— even if it is in the digital sphere.
Gotcha! You once lived in Nashville and are now based in New York. When did Music City first fly onto your radar?
After moving there for songwriting, I fell in love with Nashville’s creative class. It’s a really charming and charismatic city. While I love the anonymity of New York, I miss seeing familiar faces everyday at the coffee shop.
If you ran into someone on the subway, how would you describe what you do for a living?
That’s a great question and hard to explain! Over the last ten years, my work in the digital marketing sphere has revolved around data and testing. I love assessing which messages make sense to others, and how the physical place connects to the digital experience.
You’ve accomplished so much in such a short time. Have you always been so driven?
I think we go through seasons of life where we are accomplishment-oriented and others where we are more introspective. I always try to be kind with myself, harness my energy properly and yet, still meander outside of my comfort zone.
Coming from a songwriting background, how did you transition so swiftly between creativity and technology?
Aside from functionality and practicality, I don’t see a huge difference between the two worlds. My industry is really irrelevant because I’m always seeking the same thing—what matters to me. Songwriting is about connecting with some idea of truth and technology is about facilitating a true experience. They both come down to bringing human beings closer together.
Were you always like this— unwilling to take things at face value?
My late husband and I had a conversation once in which we talked about hearing music for the first time. His perception was that the radio was a magic box, which created music just for him. Even as a child, I deconstructed how a tiny box could produce such spectacular sounds. Reality has always interested me more than whimsy, which is simply the way my brain works.
It seems like the art of reinvention is your driving force. How do you decide on your next target?
The further out you drift from the now, the wider the possibilities get. It’s not like there’s one true north, but there is always a sense of integrity aligned with my decisions. Instinctually, I throw seed bombs into the universe until something blooms.
You seem like an opportunity magnet.
I think they flow if you’re receptive. Not in the power of positive thinking, but more so if you’re alert, aware and have some sense of direction. If you know what you want to accomplish, it’s easy to align with the right people and path.
As a wanted woman, how do you streamline your focus?
(Laughs) My life does this ebb and flow where I go through phases of being very “no” focused and others where I say “yes” a lot. Sometimes I want to see where the world will bring me and on other occasions, I find it easy to bypass the distractions. Once a project is complete then I allow myself to start entertaining other ideas— that is, whenever they choose to show up.
Is it hard for you to write ideas in your notebook and let them go for the moment?
I’m pretty comfortable with spinning up concepts and letting them go. If I’m in a coffee shop and tell someone an idea, if they think it’s awesome, then I try to be free with it. They may have more passion than I do, and having a lack of attachment may turn it into a collaboration. On the other hand, if an idea is affirmed internally and externally then I know it was meant for only me.
Your generosity is inspiring. What do you think is your greatest gift?
All of us have so many more skills than we admit to or have knowledge of at any given time. Mine is figuring out things on the fly. I was recruited to build an intranet for Toshiba back in 1996, and sure as hell didn’t know what I was doing. Teaching myself how to do the impossible was a completely transformative experience. It gave me the confidence that I could do anything that I wanted to.
Tackling the unknown is definitely an ally for upward mobility.
Yes! Similar to wearing new clothes, I hope to create new incarnations of myself while staying true to my core. While incredibly in love with the technical side of my industry, I also am attuned to human emotion. Marketing is a field driven by manipulation. It’s all about wielding power to gain profit. My goal is to rely upon empathy and my moral compass in order to make money.
A woman who walks with integrity.
It’s a dicey proposition that could be easily demonized. However, marketing should be about making people happy and their lives easier. Figure out what the customer wants and how that aligns with what you’re trying to do.
If you were to give advice to your fellow human beings what would that be?
I think we should all be more vulnerable, real and present in the workplace as well as our lives.