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

Oct 26, 2011
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

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 part of a series called Opinion.
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