Here’s my final evaluation of the StarPower Conference in four short words: I didn’t hate it. The intellectual content of the thing was oversold by a hefty percentage, and virtually everything in the curriculum was an upsell for something else. We were entreated all week to gather “pearls” from the presentations, but the best I was able to come home with are grains of sand from which we will craft pearls of our own. The event was stage-managed with precision and flair, although a little cheerleading goes a long way with me.
This post is largely a critique. In the coming weeks, I want to detail some of the pearls Cathy and I will be assembling around the gritty sand we brought home. Here I want to enumerate what I considered to be important defects in the StarPower Conference. I don’t know that this will do anyone any good. Most of the companies I take on seem not to spring into action to address my concerns. But I find myself taking an anti-vendor position again and again, and my four days at StarPower served only to reinforce that redoubt.
However: I think it’s important to note that the StarPower organization is not unique in exhibiting the defects I will catalog, nor does it come even close to being the worst specimen of the milk-the-Realtor industry. I could have wished for a lot more — and more-rigorous — information in exchange for my time and money, but I did not come away empty-handed, and I may yet succumb to one of this week’s incessant upsells.
First, with a couple of exceptions, StarPower is stuck at about 1999. Web sites, lots of web sites, all of them static, almost all of them templated, most of them mindlessly mimicking the me-me-me meme. There is weblogging, sort of, substantially worse than what I’ve been bitching about and yet utterly invisible to Technorati and the Googlesphere. In the StarPower universe, there is no Web 2.0, nor any derivative implications of Web 2.0. I heard the words “long tail” out of my own mouth only. This thing that we do — this idea of a massively linked, massively interactive conversation — does not exist where StarPower orbits.
There was a weblogging class offered, but I didn’t go to it. I figured I could laugh, scowl, gripe or sleep, but I wouldn’t bring any benefits to myself, to the teachers or to the students. I’m pretty sure I know more about real estate weblogging than anyone else who was there, so it would have made a certain kind of sense to have had me as the teacher of the weblogging break-out session. This I offered to do many months ago, but StarPower people didn’t take me up on it. The conference had a sponsorship deal with RealEstateBlogsites.com, and my expectation is that the purpose of the blogging class was to upsell canned, templated weblogs that are invisible to Technorati.
This seemed to be a common arrangement. RealPro Systems benefitted from constant promotion in the events I attended, as did the vast StarPower catalog of CDs, tool kits and upcoming events. This is the format of a StarPower class: “I was unable to achieve the objective that is the subject of this class. But then I started using the very expensive sponsored product you can obtain right out in the hall and my business turned around almost overnight!” If you use a RealPro web site, for example, you will get thousands of leads. No kidding: Thousands.
As Russell Shaw pointed out the other day in a comment, I misrepresented the StarPower premise. “Catching success” is Russell’s idea. The base premise of StarPower seems to be an inversion of the pragmatist epistemology — the truth is what works. That’s an anti-epistemology, since it turns on a definition swap, but StarPower inverts it to an even more dubious proposition: What works is the truth.
StarPower founder Howard Brinton finds and interviews mega-producing Realtors from all across North America. These are the Stars behind the StarPower program. He induces them to reveal their “secrets,” then repackages that content as the curriculum for StarPower products and events. Again and again, students are advised not to “reinvent the wheel,” but, rather, simply to copy the ideas the Stars are presenting — a pack-rat empiricism. How bad could it be?
How about this bad? RealPro Systems will sell you “stealth” web sites which seem to offer transparent values to the consumer — home evaluations, school or neighborhood information, free FSBO listings — but are actually lead-gathering systems. They are not quite blind ads — the agent and brokerage will be identified at the very bottom of the web page in small print. Meanwhile, the large print will promise that you will not be hounded by a Realtor. But if you take the bait these sites offer, you will be drip-spammed immediately, incessantly and inextinguishably. Ordinary spam seems clean by comparison.
Not bad enough for you? At a special event sponsored by ProStep Marketing, one of the Stars admitted that she has her team spy on the content of tell-a-friend forms within her web site. In other words, you find a home on the site and use the form to send the link to your mother. Thinking your communication is private, you write, “Mom, I think this is the one!” The Realtor and her buyer’s agents now know how to milk you for full-price on a double-dip commission.
This stuff is sleazy, as are many of the scripts and dialogues I heard recited during the conference. At a certain phase in our industry’s checkered past, time seems to have stopped for the StarPower Stars. Not only do they nonchalantly issue completely — to my ear obviously — unethical advice, it seems not to occur to them, nor to their auditors, that there is anything at all wrong with what they are saying. Of course you fool people into surrendering their contact information. It gets you thousands of leads! Of course you spy on what should be confidential communication. In a tough market, you need every edge you can get!
And at this point, someone will say: “Did y’all catch that? That was a real pearl! Let’s all stand up and applaud.”
- In two separate classes, breathless Stars sold me on the boundless impact of putting a sewing needle in a box full of straw. “Finding a good Realtor is like finding a needle in a haystack!” Now that’s marketing!
- In a session on listing presentations, a Star insisted that he makes his sellers sign a contract that cuts the list price by 3% every 15 days — and automatically extends the listing by 45 days with every automatic price cut.
- Former CRS President Randy Eager (corrected per comment below) will sell you SEO optimization — just like those nice folks who spam your inbox 47 times a day. The premium product goes for a start-up fee of $1,995 plus $75 a month, presumably forever. That might sound like highway robbery, but consider that the StarPower attendees are being entreated to build many, many vendor-templated web sites, each one of which will also have start-up fees and monthly charges. And if that sounds obscene, stop to consider what is likely to happen to your data should you decide to stop paying those monthly fees or to take your business elsewhere.
- In a rare concession to the twenty-first century, a Star allowed that newspaper advertising does not work. Every other form of interruption marketing still works, however, provided it’s really corny.
All of that notwithstanding, we did not come away from the StarPower Conference empty handed. A lot of ideas were presented, and while I think most of them were unsupported crap, the Bloodhound way of going at things is to build upon our way of doing business. We brought home quite a few grains of sand, soon to be new “pearls” of Bloodhound marketing wisdom. These came from four sources:
- Things we thought of on our own while we happened to be at StarPower
- Ideas that we hated and will invert as counter-marketing
- Ideas that we liked and will improve upon
- Hard-headed nuts-and-bolts techniques we went to StarPower to learn
Contrary to the StarPower premise, I think the “secret” of the Stars is very simple: They are highly-organized managers who can build, implement, supervise and sustain a large real estate practice — which would be a medium-sized small business in any other line of work. The hokey marketing “works” because they way overspend on it. The smarmy scripts “work” because they are preying on amateurs. What really “works” is the machine the Stars have built to convert a large number — but a low percentage — of the many leads their marketing systems generate. It seems plausible to me that some Stars are not just chasing the last profitable dollar but are in fact chasing the weakest of their leads into net losses on the ensuing transactions. Even if this is not the case, the net profit per conversion seems to me to be a lot lower than it could be.
All that’s as may be. We went to StarPower to learn how to build that kind of lead-management machine. I would hope we can convert a higher percentage of the leads we get, at a higher net-profit per sale. But what I wanted from the StarPower Conference — and what I think we got — were the basic ideas behind that kind of systematic incubation of client relationships from first contact through closing and from there to a life-long repeat and referral relationship. The “what” of it all is certainly a discernible target, and the “why” is obvious. It’s the “how” we went to learn. And today we had a two-hour meeting to plan our implementation of the ideas we brought home.
Here’s the thing: I am probably the worst candidate for these kinds of things. I like CRS classes — and the Council of Residential Specialists is an earlier Howard Brinton invention — because they are very dense in information. But: I really don’t like classes at all. I would much rather learn by reading, and, even more than that, I would much rather work things out on my own. Holy cow! I do want to reinvent the wheel! It’s not a joke, I do. I hate almost everything, and I want to rebuild everything that matters to me in the Bloodhound way, stripping it down to the essence and building it back up with nothing but the most perfect expressions of that essential idea. That is how you reinvent the pearl.
And that is what I got out of the StarPower Conference. There is a lot I would rather had been done differently, but we came home with a better business than we had this time last week. As I have time, I’ll write about the things we have planned for the coming months, the pearls we will have crafted.
Will I go back next year? Probably not — at least not on my own nickel. But we not only safely jettisoned the very bad ideas that were presented, we learned quite a bit more than the presenters thought they were teaching. So, even with all my caveats about the conference weighed, measured, counted and catalogued, I still have to rate the event as an overall win.