Finding Value in Social Networks

Aug 4, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Like prospectors during the gold rush, recruiters everywhere are flocking to social networks in search of hires. But like the experience of many during the gold rush, getting results in not easy. Reaping the benefits of social networking requires engaging with those networks. There’s plenty being written about how to do so, but to know if what you’re doing is working, consider the following metric:

EE = (1-N) X (R/P)


EE = Effectiveness of Engagement, expressed as a percentage

Engagement, in this context, means getting ready access to employees’ networks, regardless of the mechanism for doing so. Virtually 100% of employees have social networks and connect to them using different means (networking sites are not the only way to do so), but only a certain proportion of employees may be willing to give an employer access, by either making the contacts available or agreeing to forward job postings to them.

N = The proportion (%) of employee networks that an employer or recruiter has engaged with.
R = The average number of qualified referrals received per month per employee
P = The average number of postings accepted by employees to their networks per month

So if an employer is engaged with 10% (N) of employees’ social networks, and on average each employee accepts 3 (P) postings per month, and produces 2 (R) qualified referrals:

EE = (1-10%) X (2/3) = 60%

If the same results are achieved by engaging with 50% of employee networks, EE = 33%

Engagement is more effective the larger the number of qualified referrals received for the same proportion of employee networks an employer is engaged with. However, this is not a bottomless pit. Research shows that beyond a certain threshold of postings, the volume of qualified referrals starts to flatten out and even reduce.

Reality Meets Hype

All that’s being claimed about the potential of social networks as sourcing tools hinges on being able to increase N. But engagement takes time and effort and there are no shortcuts, which is why many of the claims being made about how social networks can revolutionize recruiting border on the ludicrous.

Take the buzz around Twitter as an example. Originally conceived as an answer to the prayers of narcissists and stalkers — okay, “to support the idea that people should enjoy an ‘always on virtual omnipresence'” — it’s now being touted as a critical tool for recruiters interested in social networking. The conventional wisdom is contradicted by a recent study from Harvard that shows it to be just a broadcast mechanism. Ninety-percent of tweets are generated by 10% of users. Across all Twitter, users the median number of lifetime tweets is one!

Social networking is about communities, where there’s sharing of information, give and take, etc. for the members to stay connected with each other. Twitter is a one-way street — there’s no evidence to show that it supports social networking. A recent interview with Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has him talking about companies using Twitter to sell pies, warm cookies, and respond to customer service requests. There’s no social networking going on here, unless the pie eaters are sitting around the same table.

Some would claim that having a broadcast mechanism is precisely the point. A recruiter can broadcast jobs. That requires candidates to follow them or the employer. In which case, just how is this different than an e-mail alert? Job postings don’t have the same shelf life as warm cookies, and a quick response usually doesn’t alter the outcome.

Increasing N

Research on communities by the Pew Foundation and others shows that engagement requires starting in and participating in conversations. The main reasons people share are:

  • To help someone who would benefit (81%)
  • To give back, after benefiting from sharing (42%)
  • To show enthusiasm (39%)
  • To show dissatisfaction (19%)

Interestingly, only 5% of people share to be seen as experts.

However, to state the obvious, starting and participating in a conversation requires having something interesting to say that the community cares about. An excellent example of this is Elevenmoms on Wal-Mart’s website. They have 20 moms blogging here. The blog is focused on a specific demographic with a very clear mandate of the type of community it supports. Try engaging with that one if you’re not a mom. The point being, in case it still isn’t clear, is that increasing N takes a lot of focused effort. As a recruiter involved in social networking, you need to figure out the engagement profile of your audience:

  1. Where do they interact (or not interact)?
  2. What topics get them excited?
  3. What do they share?

Technology is the least useful thing here. Using Twitter is not going to help much, as the usage patterns show. There isn’t a person on the face of the planet who has enough interesting things to say on a regular basis that they deserve to be followed. Any pronouncements people make, including what they have to say about their place of work or jobs, can always be searched for the few nuggets of useful information buried in the mountains of drivel. To increase N focus on a few communities you can engage with and forget toys like Twitter. Face it, unless your last name is Spacey or Kutcher you’re not likely to have much of a following. And even if you get some, they won’t stay: Nielsen Media estimates that 60% of Twitter users stop using it after a month.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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