The (Broken) Promise of Social Recruiting

Dec 1, 2010

Have you ever watched Numbe3s, the now-defunct crime drama that featured a geeky math genius who used quadratic equations to help the FBI get the bad guys? I happened to watch a rerun the other night, and a scene between Don Eppes (the tough, FBI agent brother) and Charlie Eppes (the math genius brother) struck me like lightening.

In pursuit of a gang of home invaders, Charlie the math genius instructs his FBI agent brother to get him “tons of data” about the people of Los Angles. The brother, a math Luddite, wants to know why he needs more — not less — data to find the criminals. Charlie explains that he’s built an algorithm that can filter through all of the social connections in Los Angeles. The more data he has, the more likely he is to find the pattern that will identify the robbers. Or something like that. I’m more like Don, the tough brother.

What struck me is that Charlie’s television math describes our expectations of social media when applied to recruiting.

Social media exposes recruiters to “tons of data” about the relationships of potential candidates: relationships to other people, relationships to companies, relationships to skills or functions, relationships to people, places, and things that may have no immediate bearing on their role as a candidate, but might give us clues about how to find more prospects to recruit.

Despite access to an unprecedented amount of social data, most recruiting organizations have yet to report overwhelming success at social recruiting. Why is this? Is it because social recruiting is merely early-adopter hype?

I don’t think so. I think social recruiting represents a potential breakthrough for our industry. We have a way to go, however, before we see more than anecdotal, one-off success. Two factors, in particular, must be solved, before social recruiting (the use of social media to attract and recruit employees) becomes widely adopted.

The first factor is scale. Social recruiting works when practiced on a small scale. Of course it does. For example, a recruiter searches Twitter to find engineers discussing Agile software development lifecycle models. She finds a dozen or so likely suspects. She does further research by reading their blogs, and checking their LinkedIn profiles. Note the amount of data available to her. She narrows her focus to five prospects, based on what she learns. She follows these five Twitter users, and eventually develops a relationship with them. At some point, she feels comfortable enough to present her opportunity. Two of the five are interested.

Successful social recruiting? You bet. Scalable? Not for most organizations. This type of recruiting is not predictable or efficient. The recruiter might have spent hours researching her candidates, only to find that, while the prospects were appropriate for her position, they weren’t interested. The time and methods used to “develop relationships” are unpredictable and difficult to repeat with a large number of prospects. While this example is not the only method of social recruiting, it does serve to illustrate why many talent leaders are wary of social recruiting. Results cannot be mass produced.

And, because speed is critical in our business, we’re interested in recruiting methods that yield fast, predictable results.

The other factor that inhibits social recruiting success is nuance. In the example above, the recruiter is looking for very specific experience. When she proactively searches for these experts, she is able to find prospects. Social recruiting efforts based on posting, or advertising (such as posting positions on Facebook or Twitter), have not, to date, been nuanced enough to be any more effective than traditional job boards. In fact, because these tools were not built with recruiting in mind, most of these postings are even less targeted than postings on traditional job boards.

As I have (painfully) learned, job postings, in their traditional sense, are most effective when broadcast to as large a population as possible. Just like Charlie’s algorithm, posting a job on a big job board exposes the job to a large number of applicants, from which recruiters can cull the few relevant results. Posting jobs on social media sites is not efficient enough or differentiated enough from existing job posting methods to declare success.

Moreover, “building relationships” with prospects who don’t fit your need can be overwhelmingly time and resource consuming.

Taken individually, each of the popular social networking tools lack one or more of the elements required for large-scale social recruiting:

  • Candidate segmentation — The ability to mine the social tools to find prospects who fit a narrowly defined set of skills or parameters is critical for effective recruiting.
  • 1:many messaging — Allow employers to broadcast timely information about the company to a large audience.
  • Socially based relationship development — The ability to share information, status updates, links, and other media and engage in 2-way communication — work-related or not — is important to the relationship development process.
  • Finally, 1:1 messaging is necessary as relationships evolve; the ability to communicate privately with individuals is critical.

Keep at it

Social recruiting faces the challenge of producing big-scale, nuanced results. I think back to the early days of “social recruiting” — when the term was brand new. Early adopters (myself included) had high hopes that access to such plentiful and rich data would yield perfectly matched candidates. I believed the big numbers ensured that soon everyone would participate in social media in one form or another (that seems to continue to be the case); exposing us to anyone and everyone we might want to hire. Social media penetration in the U.S. is at an all-time high, but we can only handle so much of this powerful fire hose of information.

The truth is, we still haven’t figured out how to automate and personalize the recruiting experience simultaneously. My hope is that social recruiting revolutionizes the industry by making the process more efficient while providing a personalized, positive experience for each candidate.

We have a bit of work to do before social recruiting fulfills its promise. Recruiting technology vendors must invest in the problems of scale and nuance. In my opinion, even newer technologies must be built to leverage the data. Better algorithms. The use of artificial intelligence, data mining, and simulation methods. In the meantime, I applaud the brave recruiters who see the possibility of social recruiting and continue to experiment and report back on how to put all of this relationship data to work.

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