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The Medium is Not the Message: Busting the Conventional Wisdom in Social Media

by
Raghav Singh
Oct 26, 2011, 5:57 am ET

Social media gets a lot of press. There seem to be millions of articles offering advice on how to succeed with social media, in business, in fundraising, starting revolutions, and of course, recruiting. A lot of that advice is as useful as a bicycle for a fish — since it’s often anecdotal or the wisdom of some self-styled guru writing about purple sheep or comparing anyone that doesn’t follow their advice to dinosaurs. So it’s great to read something that’s based on data and research, like a recent report from Gallup that has implications for recruiting.

The Medium vs the Message

There’s more going on offline than online.

A key finding of the research is that social networking is done more offline than online; the most common type of social networking is face-to-face or over the phone. This is a tough pill to swallow for those who worship the god of digital media, but the conventional wisdom is based on confusing the medium with the message. Social networking is what people are naturally driven to do; online social media is just the mechanism through which it’s done.

One size does not fit all. The research shows that social networkers have different reasons why they use their networks. These reasons are intrinsic to each individual: if you want to engage with them you need to tailor your message to them. If your social media initiatives are designed to reach the widest possible audience, then there’s a lot who will simply tune it out.

It’s About Engagement

The conventional wisdom about social media is that it’s a vehicle to reach the widest possible audience at the lowest cost — 467 first-level contacts connect you to 88,654 second-level contacts and 12,674,812 third-level contacts; Facebook has 600 million users, and so on. Getting dazzled by the numbers obscures the fact that success with social media requires engagement. And engagement means connecting with people who have shared passions and interests. Research on the effectiveness of tweets as a means to deliver a message shows that that happens most when tweets are re-tweeted — which only happens if the message resonated with the person reading it … an engaged follower. A “like” by a friend is more likely to be noticed than an ad, and even more if the friend commented on whatever it was they liked.

And engagement means that people are more likely to talk with their friends about the topic, whether it’s a product or a job, or interesting place to work. This is why talent communities can only succeed if they build engagement. The conventional wisdom about the talent communities is that they should include the largest number of possible candidates, with the idea that some will become employees. That approach doesn’t build engagement. It builds a database. The people in it are not likely to be retweeting your jobs or sharing them on Facebook.

The Gallup research shows that prospective customers are much more likely to try your product or service or advocate on your behalf if they hear good things about you from an engaged customer in their social network. They are much less likely to trust online advertising or corporate-sponsored Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. Candidates will behave the same way — if they’re engaged with you they will mention it to their friends, and those friends are more likely to be attracted to your jobs, more so than any amount of tweeting and self-promotion you may do through SEO for your jobs.

Old Habits Die Hard 

Much of recruiting has to do with advertising; the enduring popularity of job boards is testimony to that. Before that, so much of print advertising was devoted to help-wanted ads. It’s hard work to come up with leads on candidates and then reach out and try and to get them interested in your jobs. We’d all like to just post a job and wait for the resumes to roll in. When social media came along the most natural thing to do was to try and get those jobs in front of as many people as possible. That was the message peddled by ad agencies — the former middlemen in the job-posting business. Hence the obsession with click-through rates, impressions, views, etc. That may work for jobs where the requirements are a pulse and the lack of a felony (and sometimes only the first) but it usually doesn’t work for jobs requiring specialized skills. Do it too much and you’re just filling the channel with noise that no one’s paying any attention to.

Advertising doesn’t build engagement but a focused message, tailored to a narrow segment resonates. Talent communities are most effective when they include like-minded people who share a passion for their work. Do it right and you have passive candidates engage with you in ways not possible through advertising. Do it wrong and you’ve got the social media equivalent of spam.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Howard Adamsky

    Brilliant article but be careful, Rajhav as you do not want to confuse those who pray at the shrine of technology with either logic or facts.

    Engagement is key and engagement can’t be broadcast in sheer numbers. If the time ever comes where remember that recruiting is a people business that takes care and time and human contact, we will surely become better practitioners of an art that is becoming so very bizarre and unfortunate.

  2. Dr. Tom Janz

    Another great piece with clear, evidence-based thinking. Congrats Raghav. The latest Facebook numbers from an independent source: Global Audience: 773,812,480

  3. John Kreiss

    It’s interesting to see how people can get different perceptions from the same message.

    The Internet, in my opinion, has made it easier to segment marketing to targeted groups. If you want real estate professionals, there are social media sites just for them. You can segment with Twitter using key word searches on who to follow.

  4. Charlotte Byndas

    Good Morning Rajhav,

    I appreciate your efforts to get beyond the hype. This week I had an “A” candidate who contacted me out of the blue. He had been referred to me by what I refer to as a “random” contact that I have via social media. What I found interesting was that he told me up front that he was not interested in following any of my “stuff” he just wanted to know if I could get him what he wanted.

    Why share this story? I feel it affirms both sides of the debate over social media. That being that social media can help you connect, educate, and build a first level relationship with large groups of people.

    In some cases it may get you into one on one conversations that will prove to be valuable. In the end recruiting will always be about building trust and establishing value one person at a time. Like my new contact said to me “Don’t take this wrong, I just don’t give a rats ass about all the other stuff you do, just what you can do for me.” Warmed my heart to hear him say this, much more than any “LIKE” or “+” does on any of my profiles.

    Thanks again for sharing the thoughts. Wishing you a strong close to Q4!

  5. Howard Adamsky

    John, in my opinion, you miss the point.

    People do not wish to be “segmented.”

    People wish to be engaged, courted and understood. No one ever hired a targeted group. We must think human speak, not marketing speak.

  6. Brian Kevin Johnston

    Remarkable article… Until you understand what “Leverage” means to a persons business (career)/personal life you will never understand the power of social media (Inbound Recruiting/Sales/Marketing). To Your success…

  7. Howard Adamsky

    Brian:

    Why not explain to us what “Leverage” means?

    Happy birthday by the way!

  8. Seth Handler

    Interesting and informative post. I agree that the key to social networking is engaging with people that you have something in common with. Knowing that you are loosely connected to millions of people really doesn’t do you any good if you don’t personally know them.

    A rule that I always tell people is that the best social connections are ones that you would feel as comfortable doing a favor for as you would asking for one in return.

  9. Madeline M

    Very interesting article Raghav!
    I do agree that social media needs to be relevant to its targeted audience in order to get feedback and a response. When you mentioned, “success with social media requires engagement”, it makes sense because people will respond or become more interested in your company if they find what you post interesting or applicable. If social recruiters are able to make their social media relevant to people that they are searching for, it truly can make their recruiting more efficient. http://employers.identified.com/blog is a great resource for tips on utilizing your social media in your recruiting strategies. For instance there’s posts like “How to Use New Facebook Features for Recruitment” and “Measuring the Value of your Twitter Account”. I appreciate your insight on social media and definitely find it relevant to the recruiting community!

  10. Brian Kevin Johnston

    @Howard- Thanks for the Bday wishes!

    Recruiting Leverage: “1 to 1 conversations” (OLD SKOOL) OR “1 to MANY conversations” (New Skool/Inbound Recruiting)

    “1 to MANY” done correctly, then (and only then) Engagement is true LEVERAGE.

    If you are an “outbound” phone jockey recruiter and refuse to use technology and social media, YOUR SCREWED by 2015.

    Your “reach” (SM Footprint) + Engagement = Future

    @Charlotte story/example is AWESOME!

    @John… I “understand” and appreciate your point about “segmenation” in regards to marketing (SW engineers Don’t want to be marketed to about HW engineer jobs and vice versa)

    Best to ALL… Brian-

  11. Jody Ordioni

    Great read Raghav. I agree– the medium is most definitely not the message. A strategy for both are essential in building dialogue and engagement among your target audience. And just as a differentiated message is critical in the storytelling and brand-building process, so is the deployment of an on-brand media plan. (Can Monster run print ads?) Whether you’re broadcasting or narrowcasting your recruitment message, the important thing is a well-depolyed 360 strategy.

  12. Vanessa Meyer

    The concept of networking and connecting with like-minded people will never die, regardless of which medium is used. And although I am shocked to learn it happens more offline than online, I totally agree with your argument.

    I think what most companies looking to connect with an audience through social media have a hard time understanding is that engagement doesn’t come cheap or quick.

    In order to develop enduring relationships through social media firms need to give it time and resources. As you said, properly segmenting the target audience is key element of effective messaging, therefore, proper database technology is needed. But simply using social media to dialogue with talent and collect data on them does not automatically build enduring relationships and engagement.

    What does build engagement and commitment are skilled marketers who know how to use that data to build resonating messages that are relevant to a specific group of people. Time and data collection investments are worth the effort if the marketers then know how to convert that data to information – information to knowledge – knowledge to relevance – relevance to interaction – interaction to relationships – and relationships to commitment.

  13. Jerry Albright

    Quick note to Brian – 1 to Many is not a conversation – it’s called broadcasting.

  14. Edward Woycenko

    I think social media is a grand experiment, the results of which are still to be determined. In this age of “its all about me”, job preservation,risk averse, apathy etc., I am having a difficult time seeing that we are going to have this magical sharing and collaboration suddenly appear. Most corporations are slow to change in engaging with their current employees, changing the way they hire people, gaining a sense of urgency, upgrading the quality of their organizations, instituting training and mentoring programs. Everyone seems to be pursing passive candidates passively. This is demonstrated in a recent report that showed 70%$ of the people in a survey preferring email communication rather that telephone or voice mail. In the technology segment,it has been stated that 92% of the engineering community does not engage in twitter because of the premise- “follow me”. Facebook and twitter are not available in China. Direct email marketing resulted in 99% of the business driven to websites and brick and mortar facilities during the last holiday season. Do you honestly think that average performers are going to refer quality individuals to their employers when job loss is an issue in today’s society? We live in an attention deficit society where if our needs are not instantly being met, we move on to other issues. With reports of passive candidates not be contacted by companies and terrible follow up during and after the interview process, people are dis-engaging rather than embracing this process. I have seen more reports of failure than success in this experiment. Where is the pro activity and sense of urgency needed to become all we can be? Have we become content with mediocrity? The question becomes, will the continued investment and interest in social media pay dividends before the effects of the hype wear off?

  15. K.C. Donovan

    Raghav, this is the best explanation of Social Media Recruiting I have seen since it became a recognized concept in the last 3 years or so…BRAVO!

    The Gallop research proving that Customer Engagement (Prospect Engagement )drives Social Engagement (sharing of Employment Brand/Candidate Experience )is ground breaking – and I could feel the earth quaking under my feet as I read it.

    The promise of online “Prospect” Engagement for careers will be realized when we emulate the interactions we experience in real life (Howard is spot-on, its “human speak”). People attend industry events to primarily enhance their careers by developing peer/mentor relationships. If companies provided similar Engagement Experiences online, they could attract a group of prospects they wouldn’t get from any other source.

    (If this seems like too much work – its not – reach out and I’ll show you…)

    A “real” Talent Community should be a group with similar functional backgrounds who see value in networking with employees of a specific company for possible career advancement. Masking the “ Job Agent” in your ATS as a Talent Community and blasting job ads to this database isn’t. Used as a job ad tool – as Raghav so aptly stated – is merely Talent Community “spam!”

  16. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Raghav. Like you, I think the discussion of social media and recruiting delivers more heat than light, more chaff than wheat, more truisms than original thought, etc… I think it is especially good at getting anxious and persuasive recruiters at flush companies to disburse large sums the companies’ cash to experts who promise a brave new world of effortless recruiting of perfect candidates. I heartily approve of such efforts of getting ones fill of riches at the trough of corporate gullibility…
    At any rate: here are some of the problems not usually discussed:

    1) Social Media Recruiting (SMR) isn’t really recruiting, it’s SOURCING. Sourcing is something that is vital to the process, but can usually be performed by people costing $11/hr. or less. I suppose there are or will be Social Media Sourcers in the league of Maureen, Irina, Shally, Glenn etc., but in either case –we (as recruiters) don’t need to do
    it- the sourcers should do it.

    2) It’s not very good getting motivated candidates RIGHT NOW. As a recruiter, I don’t want to spend weeks/months developing “relationships” with people- I want to have qualified candidates interviewing with my hiring managers STAT. SMR should be great at helping to fill pipelines, but I’ve been in very few recruiting situations where my colleagues and I have the bandwidth to create and fill pipelines. Also, the techniques used for getting immediate hires and developing long term employment relationships can be quite distinct- it would probably be best to have different people working on each.
    3) The results may be hard to measure- if someone is receiving info about your company from a variety of sources (Website, LI, FB, Twitter, other groups), how do you say that a given hire was due to a particular source?
    You can ask, but the candidate may not be able to figure it out…

    So, all you SMR gurus out there: keep milking us for all you can for as long as you can. It’s not as if we’re going to spend time and effort on investigating proven, cost-effective methods that produce a considerable number of hires, like employee referral programs.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  17. Howard Adamsky

    “Social Media Recruiting (SMR) isn’t really recruiting, it’s SOURCING.”

    Simply brilliant Keith. The difference between the science of sourcing and the art of closing the deal is endless miles.

    As an aside, this is exactly the type of candid conversation recruiters must be having having as we deal with the onslaught of social media.

    I am amazed by the lack of comments on this article. There are “recruiters” who do Social Media all day? Where are their opinions? Are you out there? If so, what are your thoughts?

  18. Keith Halperin

    @ Howard: Thank you; you are very kind…

    -kh

  19. Brian Kevin Johnston

    @Jerry your valuabe point is well taken (conversation vs. broadcast)… What if you spoke to 100 recruiters (1 to many), gave great content to ALL and 10 people (10% Conversion rate) wanted to buy your book or coaching program after the show. You met with each person/conversed afterwards, conducted the transactions, and everyone leaves happy… what do you call that? (I trust you are seeing my point about “leverage”) Best,
    Brian-

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