May 4, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

A lot of employers that have started using social media are doing so without fully understanding the opportunities and challenges associated with it. The tendency is to treat social media as a mechanism to broadcast jobs; in other words, as an advertising medium.

This reminds me of an interview I heard some months ago, with someone in Fargo, preparing for flooding of the Red River.

The man was building a barrier with sandbags, though he admitted that in five out of six previous floods this solution had not prevented his house from being flooded. It may appear that our friend is missing a few fries from his happy meal, but the point isn’t to be insulting. Regardless of whether he’s a few pickles short of a Whopper, he was doing what he knew, having seen it work at least once.

The Ad Mentality

This is how many employers approach social media. A lot of social media programs are based on what has been done before. Recruiting is a largely transactional process, so the tendency is to keep doing things that are transactional. Which would be running an ad, or posting jobs on Facebook, and waiting for someone to apply. And why not, after all it’s worked in the past. But this does not tap the potential of social media. Advertising, whatever the medium, is a one-way street. It’s us shouting at them. Social media is a two-way street; it’s about having a conversation and creating relationships. And that is not natural for a recruiter. It’s time consuming and takes a lot of effort. Plus, you have to have something to say that the other party finds interesting enough to engage in the conversation.

Talent communities are supposed to be a good way to use social media. But the way many employers have implemented these shows is an Illustration of the ad mentality. I’ve joined a few talent communities and I regularly get solicitations for jobs that are not even remotely related to anything in my profile. I frequently get a list of jobs of all types the company has open. How this qualifies as being social is hard to understand.

It’s unrealistic for any employer to expect that their recruiters can engage in conversations with candidates they are trying to hire. What could they possibly have to say to the vast majority of candidates? To get the most from social media, a recruiter should be encouraging other employees to blog, network, and connect with other to promote their employer. Success can come from relying on the “net,” not so much by doing the “work.”

It’s the Network

Success in recruiting with social media means having something to contribute that invites others to enter into a relationship. Think of any engaging conversation you’ve had. How long would it have lasted if the other party kept talking about themselves? (A long time if you’re in a bar and trying to pick up the other party, but that’s the exception).

This is where it gets difficult. There are not a lot of interesting conversations a recruiter can have with people with a different skill set. What’s needed is to use their organization’s network — get the right employees to start and keep up those conversations. Organizations that think that this encourages time-wasting have their heads in the sand because it isn’t like these conversations aren’t already happening. Might as well use them to your own benefit. They can’t be controlled — only channeled. The genie is already out of the bottle and it’s not going back in.

Prospective candidates cannot become friends with a company, but they can benefit from relationships with employees. That is, they can be engaged, and possibly hired at some point. That can be a long-term process. The best practice in this regard is setting up talent communities that consist of networks of employees and prospects, sharing (preferably professional) interests. Over time, relationships between employees and prospects can allow a company to develop relationships and determine if there’s a match between prospective candidates and open jobs. It also allows candidates to know more about the employer than they would expect to learn in the typical interview process.

There’s a line of thinking that suggests that this approach will lead to better hires with less likelihood of turnover because candidates have a better appreciation of what they are getting into. That sounds logical, but at this time it’s completely speculative: there’s no proof of that, and there won’t be for years. A very long engagement doesn’t necessarily make for a successful marriage.

The key to success is to use the network. It isn’t so much about social media as it’s about social networks. The media is just a means to an end, but using it like a platform for ads is not how to benefit from it. Like our friend in Fargo, it may work on a few occasions, but much of the effort may be just a waste of time.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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