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Human Capital Tech Expert Bret Starr: Engagement Has Arrived

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Most business observers would agree that the topic of engagement has come a long way since the creation of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance in 2008, but even we wouldn’t say that the field has reached anywhere near the level of awareness of advertising, recognition, loyalty, event marketing, or even the incentive industry. Will that change any time soon?  For an answer, we asked Bret Starr, founder of The Starr Conspiracy (, probably the nation’s largest marketing and research company specializing in human capital technology, and an individual who has watched first-hand the development of what has become a multi-billion-dollar technology category. His company publishes an edgy, insightful blog that doesn’t mince words at, so we knew to expect objective, honest insight.

“It’s time to give a name to the 40 or so years of past efforts to understand the human role in business,” Starr says. “This is the moment in history that engagement will take over.” 

He comes at this from the perspective of someone who helped spur the revolution in human capital software when he founded an agency strictly focused on this category in 1999. The genesis for this enormous new market, Starr explains, was the 1997 McKinsey & Co. report, The War for Talent. That report, he says, “launched a thousand ships.” 

How did he get caught up in this huge growth opportunity? Before starting his agency, Starr had worked for a company during the dot-com boom to help its clients set up their marketing infrastructure, customer relationship management, digital and other business development tools. One such company was a human capital software firm. “The big difference I saw in my work for that company was the opportunity to have a positive impact on society to change work for the better,” he says. “No other technology I was working with had the same potential. We’re talking about changing the very fabric of the relationship between the employee and employer, and changing the relationship between personal life and work life.

This was the genesis of The Starr Conspiracy and its focus on human capital technology.

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Today The Starr Conspiracy is a marketing, research and technology agency with about 40 clients devoted to all aspects of human capital management software. Starr describes his company as an “odd” marketing firm because of the way it combines services to bring new products to market in a comprehensive way: “We do the marketing work, brand definition, messaging, creative and campaigns; that’s one aspect of our company. Second, we do research; we have several analysts devoted exclusively to the software space, so we have briefings once a day. We’re watching who gets funded, pre-funded, and we use that to help our clients formulate their strategies and stay on top of future trends.” 

Beyond this, The Starr Conspiracy has a complete development team that helps clients create software to minimize start-up costs. The company doesn’t develop software on its own, Starr explains, because that would put it in conflict with its clients. But he admits that the value he brings to clients in this area is a result of the “collective wisdom” of helping many other HR technology firms develop successful software. Perhaps his company’s biggest edge, he says, is its ability to help new companies create markets, identify new ways to communicate benefits and find partners to help bring products to new customers.

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So why does Starr think the time is now? “I’ll go back to the days of the Toyota production system and the work of W. Edwards Deming,” he says. “There was research for some time even then about the role of humans in production.” After World War II, Starr explains, Toyota put this thinking into action by understanding that role in terms of creating better products more efficiently based on the “flexibility and creativity of people and the benefits of respect and fostering pride in success. This was seen as a manufacturing revolution at the time.” He doesn’t believe, however, that this thinking carried over to the services sector. “As we’ve shifted to a service economy, there has been a small group of fringe management thinkers who have fought for the application of these processes in services,” he says. “But there hasn’t been a clear development of professional services solutions in engagement as there has been in manufacturing.” (i.e., Six Sigma, Total Quality Management and a multitude of manufacturing processes).

The time has come to package this concept of engagement,” notes Starr. “The issues around engagement are being debated today in a way that validates its significance. Engagement is being debated at a level that is beyond cult status. This is the moment in history that engagement will take over. It has spread to enough people that it has become real.

What will this field be called? “I believe it will be called Engagement,” he says, adding, “This is the first year that employee engagement has overtaken talent management as a search term on Google.” Starr says that engagement isn’t just about employees, but all audiences upon whom an organization bases its success.

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True to the spirit of The Starr Conspiracy blog, Starr isn’t afraid to put his vision on the line, knowing this article will still be found on for years to come. “We are in the period of productive chaos that will lead to engagement being labeled and adopted within 18 months – by the end of 2016,” he predicts.

Once that happens, growth and change will unfold as occurred in the human capital technology revolution in which his company participated. “This is where the true change begins,” he says. “These patterns keep happening the same way over and over again. I’m very excited about the prospects for engagement, but it’s not concrete quite yet.” That said, he adds, “The time of having a category of products and services called engagement, that time has come, and it will be one of the most productive enterprise segments in history until something else gets the focus.”  Starr also believes that engagement could have a 15-year run before it has reached a mature state in the U.S. marketplace.

So what will be the impact of engagement on business and technology? From an overall standpoint, Starr believes the future rests on a concept he refers to as “singularity,” which will sound familiar to ESM readers as it relates to our use of the term “enterprise.” He explains: “We are all employees, consumers, owners at the same time. When a company creates anything, it has to realize that everything boils down to a specific person doing something at a specific time.” Starr notes that organizations have to break down the traditional constraints created by the way people are traditionally defined and communicated with, and create messages and missions that align people to what they are trying to achieve.

Prior to the last couple of years,” he says, “people viewed engagement as a points-and-awards solution, or one process among many processes, and understood that people should be engaged in business. But increasingly, companies realize that engagement in the end is the only thing that really matters, and that it’s about more than points.” Especially, he notes, with the growth of the contingency workforce and the erosion/loss of loyalty. Starr disputes the notion that Millennials are any less loyal than previous generations. He says that companies have made them less loyal by being disloyal in multiple ways, and that Millennials, in fact, eagerly engage with organizations that have products, services, missions and values they believe in, and would happily buy more from – or have a long-lasting career with – the right company.

This is an excuse for executives becoming overly focused on the bottom line, cutting off their noses to spite their faces [and] failing to recognize that you can’t replace the value of having people you trust being with you for two or three decades. We have to decide to recommit to the value of long-term relationships with everyone in our business.

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Singularity, says Starr, requires a different type of conversation than traditional advertisers and marketers understand. What has changed, he explains, is that there is a proliferation of digital channels and different types of ways to communicate. “What we call marketing, and what we call sales, only covers about 10% of a buyer’s journey. And in most cases people have made a purchase or decision before the company has entered that buyer’s journey.

The future, he believes, is advocate marketing: “The goal is to get people to know and love you and who take positive actions on your behalf so they can influence the conversation about your brand. We now have tools that enable us to influence the influencers; there may be 100 people who love you, you just haven’t asked them for help. How do you pull levers on behalf of your brand before people even buy…take control of word of mouth?

Starr feels that the traditional marketing world doesn’t speak the language needed to form this new kind of relationship. Marketers, he says, want to talk in terms of features and benefits and ad hoc promotions “instead of attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs.” He believes that engagement is the only way to gain a sustainable, profitable niche, especially when half of most markets are usually dominated by a few key players, with the rest up for grabs. He says the opportunity is “to find people who share your attitudes, behaviors and beliefs, and hopefully for there to be a lot of those people – making that connection is the path to success.

Many marketers think business buyers purchase differently than individuals, but they’re actually no different, says Starr: “We all buy with our hearts…fear, confusion, hope, trust, love. When we’re looking at purchasing software – to think that’s a cold, calculated decision – that’s ridiculous. It’s a lot of people putting their businesses, credibility, or jobs on the line, and there’s emotion in that. People trust people and companies that identify with people. The more people know what the company stands for, that’s who gets trusted.

He points out that people have different reasons to buy, “but if you want ROI, it will come from aspirational customers who buy into your vision,” he says, and thereby become advocates.

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Starr expects the engagement movement to drive an entirely new category of technology that will follow the same path as the human capital business before it. He believes the concept of singularity will have a significant impact on how that technology evolves. He envisions a new category of human capital technology coalescing around engagement across the enterprise that is distinct from the technology in the human capital technology revolution he experienced in the last decade, which focused more on automating or improving the efficiency of manual human resources administrative processes. That phase, he says, focused largely on processes and systems to make HR administration more efficient, and resulted in the creation of what it is now a multi-billion-dollar field with about a dozen larger players and hundreds of smaller ones.

Engagement technology, Starr says, encompasses all of the recognition, reward, learning, social, gamification and other elements, examples of which are already proliferating, following what he says is exactly the pattern he saw during the HR technology boom. In the coming phase, if history is any guide, this will lead to growing integration, starting with the ability of technology for organizations to scale the concept of singularity with all of its audiences – that is, the need to build cohesion around shared values and to have high quality relationships with an organization by believing in its mission, obtaining needed information or other valuable content, feeling supported, etc.

Starr sees the emergence of platforms that integrate engagement across the organization, “not just the employee and his or her significant others, but also everybody who touches the organization,” he explains, adding that communication should be based on visibility and transparency and provide all of the information everybody in every audience can benefit from in all aspects of their lives.

People get recognized, the kids and spouses find out, and then being able to get points to redeem for rewards – these all play a part in singularity,” Starr says, and he believes this will drive the need for an integrated approach to engagement technology. He predicts that, just as happened in human capital technology, several leading players will dominate the marketplace for large corporations, buying up niche players as they go, and that a large number of other traditional technologies will continue to thrive, as long as they provide for easy integration with other platforms and offer critical functions for small businesses or some other niche not profitable for the big players.

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As an experienced developer of technology, Starr admits that the human element is often ignored in technology deployments, and that it’s critical to move people from adoption to participation and finally to true engagement with the technology, emphasizing that this is yet another reason he believes engagement will happen.

This will be huge. Independently, the market segments of engagement are worth billions. When you combine all of the sectors – communications, learning, rewards and recognition, etc. – it’s already easily a $50 billion to $100 billion marketplace.

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