Realizing the Power of Facebook

Jan 30, 2009
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Many employers are eager to tap the potential of social networks as sources of talent. The potential is huge, and facing difficult economic conditions, these can be a cheap source. But it’s easier said than done. Some employers have put up their own corporate pages on Facebook. But this accomplishes nothing more than to prove ignorance of online social media. What makes social media so popular is their, well, social nature. They enable people to meet social needs. This may seem as obvious as the nose on your face, but it’s amazing how many employers don’t get it.

The word “social” has many definitions, but some of the more appropriate ones are 1) pertaining to friendly companionship or relation; 2) Seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; and 3) living or disposed to live-in companionship with others rather than in isolation. The point being that people use social media as a two-way street and to get a sense of community. To belong to a community one has to have something to contribute and be accepted as a member. A community is people interacting with each other. It requires free flow of ideas and thoughts. None of that is delivered by a corporate web page, which is essentially static. People do not invite companies to be their friends. The same is true for recruiters wanting to get hires off Facebook. Creating and cultivating a network to the point where one actually has a hire can take a long time, and the ROI can be impossible or very difficult to justify. It’s not possible to say that X number of hours spent networking will result in Y number of hires and it is not a replicable model.

The Amway Model

There is a very successful and proven approach to tapping the potential of social networks. This has been around for decades before there was Facebook. Companies that operate using network marketing — such as Amway, Avon, and Mannatech — build and work their networks by providing a little structure and the messages they want delivered along with incentives to get the results they desire. They know that their networks exist and thrive where they become communities. They are not clubs where anyone can buy a membership and get the benefits. The people that succeed at network marketing emphasize the social component. The same is true of Facebook. Active members have built their networks to form communities they want to be part of. It’s a two-way street, with lots of interaction, dialog, and sharing — elements that have been true of communities since there have been communities.

Employers wanting to tap social media for talent need to recognize and respect these realities. It’s not about putting up a web page — it’s about what you have to contribute. Therefore it’s easier to tap the networks that already exist — those of employees. Employees can be encouraged to write about their employer, their experiences at work, things the company is doing that may be interesting to others, and so on. Some ERP systems now offer functionality that allows an employee to directly post jobs to their Facebook page. But this requires flexibility and giving up control over what gets put on those Facebook pages along with the job postings. Many employers are accustomed to having all communication beyond the firewall restricted to the boring drivel put out by the PR department. The idea that employees can be writing, blogging, and putting out stories about their employer without review can give many an HR manager an acute case of dyspepsia.

I had one such experience where a company I worked with was so shaken by a blog posting I wrote that was critical of someone, that they created an entirely new corporate policy requiring all employees to have everything they wanted to put on a blog, a website, or any other medium approved or risk termination. Of course, not everyone is as paranoid or PC as this bunch — they would be uncomfortable about any writing that was critical of Bin Laden, on the outside chance he’s really a nice guy who’s been framed or badly misunderstood.

Don’t Kill the Goose

Succeeding at tapping social networks as a source of talent requires participating or contributing to what makes them popular. Many recruiters have limited time to create their own networks or spend time blogging. But in either case what employees do will be far more effective and, more importantly, far more credible and therefore better received than any hype that marketing can spin about the paradise that exists inside the corporate walls. This isn’t exactly a new idea — some employers have long allowed candidates to talk to current employees without any monitoring of the conversation to get a true sense of what it’s like to work there.

Trying to control or restrict that is an exercise in futility, better described as tilting at windmills. Of course that never stopped employers and others from trying. Employers tried for years to restrict their employees’ use of the web out of the fear that they would just waste their time, before finally giving in, by which time mobile devices had made the restrictions irrelevant anyway. The same will be true of social networks — the desire to control the lives of others is deeply ingrained and anything having to do with the web seems to turbocharge it — just look at China and most of the Middle East. Of course, as all that try it have discovered — such actions result in equally forceful opposition.

By embracing social networks and encouraging employees to talk up their employers, warts and all, any employer can turn their workforce into a big referral program that will dwarf any effort the recruiting organization can manage on their own. The key is to recognize that social networks exists first and foremost for the benefit of their members — to provide them a sense of community and meet their social needs. To reiterate — the value provided by a social network is that it is social. An employer that can’t understand this simple concept should best stay away from trying to tap social media.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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