The Social Media Bubble

Jul 6, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Lately there have been a lot of keystrokes generated about the social media bubble, starting with a blog post on Harvard Business Review. A bubble suggests that something has greatly inflated value, e.g., the housing bubble, or the dot-com bubble. The original post claims that social media cheapens relationships, giving people the illusion of having many relationships when in reality they have few.

“During the subprime bubble, banks and brokers sold one another bad debt — debt that couldn’t be made good on. Today, ‘social’ media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.”

When disillusionment sets in on a large scale, this bubble will burst because “The promise of the Internet wasn’t merely to inflate relationships, without adding depth, resonance, and meaning. It was to fundamentally rewire people, communities, civil society, business, and the state — through thicker, stronger, more meaningful relationships.”

I don’t know where he got that idea — given how things have turned out it’s obvious that the promise of the Internet since the beginning was to make adult entertainment accessible in the workplace.

But reasonable people can differ.

The Promised Land

It’s not that the value of social media is overstated, it’s that the investment required for getting value out of social media that is understated. This is what’s relevant to recruiting: social media can be a powerful tool for finding candidates, but a) it is just a tool, one of many, not some silver bullet solution, and b) it takes substantial effort to get results.

As recruiters, we need to connect with people, and networks are a great way to do it. It makes little difference for recruiting programs that the quality of relationships spawned by social networks is low. Most people already know that, and they aren’t about to delete their LinkedIn and Facebook accounts because all those connections haven’t fundamentally changed their lives and they’ve become disillusioned. People like to connect with others — the average Facebook user has 130 friends — but they don’t do much with those friends (the average user on Facebook spends just over 12 minutes per day on the site). That may change in the future, but we’re talking about the here and now. The fact remains that it’s physically impossible to have meaningful relationships with more than a few people: 7 to 10 at best. You still only have 24 hours in a day, and no technology can change that. The vast majority of so-called friends on any social network are just a collection of casual acquaintances.

This is where the bubble has developed: there is a lot of space between the hype and the reality of social networks. Despite all the activity on social networks, people are not as involved with social media as some would like to believe. Despite all the resources we have available to connect with others, where people spend most of their time is in front of a conventional TV. The amount of time spent watching TV exceeds that spent on the Internet by a factor of eight, and very little of that time goes to watching TV online.

The goal is to have a reliable, repeatable recruiting program that produces consistent results. Getting a hire or two on occasion doesn’t make something a reliable source for hires, since it’s impossible to know if an effort of X will produce Y hires. I read plenty of accounts of someone who got a few hires because they posted some jobs on a social network or someone read it on Twitter. That’s great, but for most recruiting managers, that’s not a solution they can rely on. This is the bubble; they’re being told things like “sourcing will become irrelevant once social networks start to engage,” but the reality isn’t quite that simple. It’s still a long ways to the Promised Land.

It Takes a Village

So what’s a recruiter to do? For starters, try getting employees to promote your jobs rather than using a company page to do it. Research shows that Facebook users are twice as likely to read items on profile pages than on company home pages. Users pay more attention to page updates in their News Feed Wall rather than ads. Building talent communities is another approach, but attracting the right candidates to a community is best done by soliciting the help others. Research also shows that people are much more likely to join a community if they have friends who are in the community who know each other. So again success requires involving multiple people to help source candidates. It’s all very doable, but it’s going to take effort.

Companies that have successful social media programs like Deluxe and Sodexho have made big investments in these efforts, and it has taken years for the programs to start paying off. Have no illusions that this is easy. Social media is about engagement, which takes time and effort. Another employer I know of started using social media because it originally thought it was free — but getting hires has required having five full-time recruiters dedicated to working with social networks. It doesn’t run ads, but no one calls it free anymore. If you haven’t got the time to do all that, then it’s best to just pay an SEO provider to raise the visibility of your jobs and run ads on Facebook. That’s an ad strategy, not a social media strategy, but you can claim that you’re using social media. Burst that bubble and you can get back to appreciating the promise of the Internet.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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