Crowdsourcing: A Red-Balloon-Finding Contest Shows the Future of Recruiting

photo_bar7Mark it in your calendar that on December 5, 2009, the world of sourcing changed forever. Sourcing, for those unfamiliar with the term (hopefully not many reading this article), is the process of identifying potential candidates who have not applied for employment with your organization. There is no more common complaint in recruiting than “I just can’t find enough quality candidates.”

Many recruiting managers and recruiters blame their inability to find great candidates on a relative shortage of talent; however, the results of a recent balloon-finding contest demonstrate that it may be the tools/approaches recruiters are using that are to blame for efforts not turning up the desired candidate slate. Let me warn you in advance that it might take a few minutes for you to see the connection between a balloon-finding contest and the future of recruiting, but let me assure you there is a connection.

A Contest to Identify the Most Effective “Finding Tool”

This story begins with a famous government agency, DARPA, wanting to test the effectiveness of the available tools/approaches to locate missing objects or individuals, i.e., pieces of downed aircraft, wanted criminals, or missing children. Because this task was so large in scope, it turned to a labor model growing in popularity among progressive organizations: contests!

In this challenge, participants were tasked with finding 10 red weather balloons that were secretly placed in diverse locations throughout the U.S. for just 24-hours. Approaches that were considered by 4,000+ contestants included using satellite/aerial photography, iPhone applications, and Internet-based collaboration and networking tools. Competition was fierce; one team even placed a fake balloon to throw other teams off. Like finding high quality, available talent with a rare skill set, finding 10 weather balloons dispersed across the expanse that is the U.S. in just 24 hours is a herculean task.

You’ll probably be surprised to learn that it took the winning team from MIT a mere 8 hours and 52 minutes to find all 10 balloons, in 10 different states, at a cost of $40,000. These results amazed everyone involved, including the team from MIT, which had only learned about the contest four days before it began.

The Connection Between Finding Balloons and Recruiting

The method used by both DARPA and MIT to solve this challenge is known as crowdsourcing. In this case, DARPA used crowdsourcing to staff its initiative, while the MIT team used crowdsourcing to source information. Crowdsourcing is a term coined for a new form of labor in which tasks that would have traditionally been allocated to an employee are instead allocated to an ad hoc formed, undefined group, or crowd.

header_prize1It is the labor solution that has been used to build and maintain the powerhouse online encylocpedia, Wikipedia, as well as numerous other corporate projects such as the Netflix Prize. To the surprise of many, this DARPA challenge proved that crowdsourcing is the most effective finding tool on the planet, bar none.

I Use Social Media — So Why Am I Not Getting These Amazing Results?

Social media usage in recruiting is a hot trend, but very few recruiters are producing significant results via their efforts. Online forums are abuzz with recruiters who have tried recruiting via social media and given up, because it simply didn’t work for them. Other recruiters laud the success of their efforts, not in recruiting the masses, but in finding that one great hire who made them a hero among managers. To those who have tried and failed, I argue that the tool didn’t fail, but rather the approach to using the tool.

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Simply being active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., is not a solution. Social media recruiting, like all strategic efforts, requires a well-thought-out approach that incorporates the critical success factors that transform an ordinary effort into a world-class solution.

10 Critical Success Factors for Effective “Crowdsourcing”

The following is a list of 10 critical success factors that must be incorporated into crowdsourcing centric recruiting solutions such as social media efforts and employee referral programs for them to reach maximum effectiveness.

  1. The Kevin Bacon principle: crowdsourcing and employee referral programs both work because top performers know, trust, and have relationships with other top performers. As the scope of program participation grows larger, the probability of identifying all probable talent increases. The key learning: all organizations should be monitoring the participation rate of relevant parties in crowdsouring initiatives, most notably the participation rate of proven top performers.
  2. You must have a plan: if an ad hoc managed effort produces results, it’s purely out of luck! Programs capable of producing predictable and repeatable results require a comprehensive plan and feedback loops that help identify design issues that when positively addressed can improve program effectiveness.
  3. Leverage the search work through collaboration: the underlying success principle of any crowdsourcing effort is large-scale collaboration. You can’t reach the critical mass of individuals required for an effective search if you rely exclusively on recruiters. The most effective search efforts marshal the time and contacts of anyone and everyone who can be cajoled into helping, including your entire employee base, their families, alumni, vendors, customers, and anyone else who likes your organization. Collaboration also requires that information flows both ways, so that the crowd doesn’t waste time sourcing information already found. Just like in a scavenger hunt, learning what the other teams have already produced can go a long way at helping any particular team advance.
  4. Rewards drive results: you can’t get widespread collaboration without some kind of motivating factor. The MIT approach relies heavily on rewards. The reward schema was an inverted pyramid where 50% of the reward went to the first individual to find the target, then 25% went to the individual who invited that person to participate, and 12.5 % to whoever invited that person, and so on up to a total of $4,000. In any corporate crowdsourcing model, reward individuals outside the corporation who identify top talent or that invite those individuals. The rewards don’t have to be in cash; they could include coffee cards, offers of free services/products, or even donations to charity.
  5. A broad range of social media outlets are required: Crowdsourcing works only if you use every type of available social media outlet. In addition to the commonly used LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, every type of communication and collaboration mechanism must be used, including SMS, Internet forums, video sharing sites, meet-up groups, professional associations, etc.
  6. Worldwide collaboration is needed: even though the balloons were placed exclusively within the U.S., the MIT effort would not have been successful without extensive international participation. It turns out that globally located individuals could indirectly produce finds by using the segment of their network that was located in the U.S. For a corporate model to work, it must not limit its social networking to sites and individuals located in the same country where the job is.
  7. A continuous search approach is superior: although crowdsourcing can produce amazing results in a short time, it is even more effective and less time-consuming if it is a continuous operation. The best sourcing approaches that target top performers always begin looking to identify candidates long before a position becomes open (pre-need sourcing).
  8. A relationship is required: although identifying top performers is an important first step, in many cases, you won’t be able to convince them to actually apply for a position without building a relationship first. The most effective relationships are based on learning, benchmarking, and professional growth rather than the promise of a job.
  9. The referral program must be expanded and revitalized: in order to be effective, the process for submitting names and narrowing down the submissions to the very best must be easy and responsive. The best approach for crowdsourcing is to use the existing employee referral process, but update it so that it is more effective. Referral program participants should also be encouraged to pre-assess potential referrals based on their competencies but also on their fit to the corporation.
  10. Recruiters must be educated: rather than actually doing most of the networking, recruiters must be educated and rewarded for their role in managing the networking process. They must become experts in understanding social media collaboration, so that they can attract more participants, retain the ones they have, and then educate these participants on how to produce better results.

Final Thoughts

The effectiveness of employee referral programs has historically provided some evidence to the value of having a large number of individuals looking; however, the balloon contest should be a wake-up call to all recruiting managers that social media collaboration is literally … the future of sourcing.

Managers should also realize that the DARPA contest proves that you must move beyond the current hodgepodge of uncoordinated social media recruiting efforts toward the more scientific and more inclusive managed crowdsourcing model. Direct sourcing is the future, and crowdsouring is what will make it feasible. Managing effectively, direct sourcing initiatives will produce living databases of talent that can be used for recruiting, competency trending, learning partner identification, benchmarking, and a wealth of other opportunities.

(the article originally described DARPA as “infamous,” which was a mistake; it now says “famous”)

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



16 Comments on “Crowdsourcing: A Red-Balloon-Finding Contest Shows the Future of Recruiting

  1. “The most effective relationships are based on learning, benchmarking, and professional growth rather than the promise of a job.”

    There’s my problem. I’ve been wasting my time in trust-based relationships.

  2. Dr.Sullivan’s comments, as always, are thorough, thoughful, and well presented, but with the notable exception of characterizing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as “…an infamous government agency, DARPA,…”.
    The DARPA Network Challenge came about as an observance of 40 years since the first message was sent over the Department of Defense’s ARPANET, forerunner of today’s Internet.
    Webster’s describes infamous as:
    1 : having a reputation of the worst kind : notoriously evil
    2 : causing or bringing infamy : disgraceful
    3 : convicted of an offense bringing infamy.

    Summarily referring to DARPA as “infamous” is either an incorrect choice of word or insulting to scores of professionals whose mission is to maintain technological superiority of the U.S. military.

    L. Sper

  3. Dr Sullivan- Great article…. While I believe it is harder than 10 years ago to find the top people, it is true, the people are there, but nobody wants to work for it..

    “Direct sourcing is the future, and crowdsouring is what will make it feasible.”

    Third party search recruiter’s (Contingent/Retained) have been doing this since the beginning of time…

    Is there anyone in this community that will stand up for the contributions of the Third Party recruiter’s contributions?

    Best, Brian-

  4. Thank you again, Dr. Sullivan.

    I will say this again to everyone:
    The vast majority of quality telephone or internet sourcing can be performed at a cost of no more than around $10/hr. If our time is more valuable than that, why do we need to know more than a user’s understanding of how it is done, since we won’t be doing it? We can hire Shally, Maureen, or Irena to do the relatively few “Purple Squirrel/Osama-in-a-Cave” searches.

    Is Sourcecon devoted to the $10/hr-and-under type of sourcing, or to the small number of “Purple Squirrel/Osama-in-a-Cave” type sources? From the current agenda, I don’t see much of the latter. I also don’t see much on how to create, manage, and get the best use of your $10/hr and under virtual work force.


  5. @keith = i’d like to see the speakers & new owners of SC reply to ur Q about “Is Sourcecon devoted to the $10/hr-and-under type of sourcing, or to the small number of “Purple Squirrel/Osama-in-a-Cave” type sources?”



  6. Les

    I did NOT use the word “infamous” in my original article. It was added during an edit and I apologize for not catching it. I too have great respect for the work of DARPA in encouraging new technologies.

    John Sullivan

  7. Les,

    John is correct, the word infamous was added by me during a quick edit prior to submission to I had intended to say famous and included some elaboration about DARPA’s past contributions to society, but in hast didn’t catch the spell check error.

    My sincerest apologies to anyone at DARPA, I too greatly respect the agency and it’s contributions to the world I live in, namely the one I use nearly every minutes of the business day!

  8. Interesting article! My only comment is that I feel each Recruiter has to develop their own processes, education and use whichever internet tools are appropriate for the type of work and industry. And find those that work for him/her.

    I fully support Brian’s comment above “nobody (Recruiters) wants to do the work” to find those Purple Squirrels. Some just plain do not like hunting or are not very good at it.

    That’s OK, though, because that’s how I earn my living–cold-calling prospective candidates directly–the old-fashioned way. And mostly senior-level management up through C-level executives. And I enjoy it!

    The scope of “sourcing services” I provide my clients include: developing target lists; candidate identification, approach, screening, brief phone interviews and qualification assessment. Then the “Recruiter” picks up the ball and runs with it.

    Should you like more information about my services (fees etc) go to the comments section for Lou Adler’s “Passive Candidates” recent article.

    Happy Hunting!

    Judy Kerns
    Executive Sourcing Group

    P.S. Honestly, I don’t know where you would find a quality “Sourcer” for $10/hr.

  9. Replacing sourcers with network managers

    The key point of the crowdsourcing article is that this approach is so effective, cheap and fast that THE TRADITIONAL ROLE OF SOURCERS WILL BE PHASED OUT IN LARGE CORPORATIONS. These corporate sourcers will be replaced with “social network managers”, who will utilize “the networks of others” (employees, former employees, vendors, customers etc.) to identify top candidates.

    Crowdsourcing works because it harnesses thousands of individuals to participate in the identification process. Employee referral programs already utilize crowdsourcing, but unfortunately, most limit the size of their “crowd” by restricting participation to current employees.

    Market forces and experience, rather than anyone’s current opinion, will be the long-term determinant of whether having “thousands of untrained nonprofessional global sourcers” utilizing their social networks, end up producing better results… than a dozen $10 or $100 per hour sourcers that cold call. My forecast is that the Internet will win out over tradition in the corporate world. If I am correct, we in corporate recruiting need to change dramatically. If the defenders of traditional sourcing are correct, there is no need to change.

  10. Dr. John,

    As I was reading through your article, I definitely understood the value of crowdsourcing as it relates to sourcing high quality candidates. But, it was less clear how to properly leverage the crowd given the relatively closed networks of most people. My thought was that you would need a new type of recruiter able to efficiently, effectively and credibly access a wide variety of closed networks.

    Your recent response referencing the role of social recruiting manager seems like it will invert traditional sourcing efforts from 1:many to many:1. Why spend time cold calling or doing internet searches when members of a properly built talent community can quickly identify qualified candidates?

  11. I read crowdsourcing awhile back and recommend it. Reading it gives a different perspective to this article. It is an interesting concept that deserves deeper consideration. It has been used in IT circles very efectively to develop new software and code.
    One note to add under rewards is recognition. Some crowdsourcing forums keep track of who wins with title and points. These participants gain credibility, recognition and bragging rights in their prospective fields.
    As with any other tool it will depend much on the user as to how effective it can be. When I have brought up the idea in corporate venues I have been met with blank stares. It will require a large degree of explanation to our HR handlers and much collaboration with hiring managers in order to make it a reality in corporate. Crowdsourcing leverages expertise of various functional groups. If your company had a R&D issue that needed solved you could hold a contest in order to solve it. During the contest you may identify candidates that would make good additions to the team. Talk about a nice assesment on the front end prior to hiring.

  12. Great article Dr. Sullivan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve contributed to search efforts when asked. I didn’t need the reward incentive, but did so out of wanting to help friends and colleagues, and sometimes even strangers. You never know when you’ll need their help in return, so in a way my “incentive” was building a positive emotional bank account with the recruiter. Plus if I helped a friend find a good position it is an emotional boost for me that I did “something good for someone”. I always enjoy your thought provoking articles!

    Alan Fitzpatrick
    Vonei LLC

  13. The Red Balloon Network challenge caused me to create a job prize web site for my own job search. On the site, I have made a prize for finding me a job that is distributed in a similar fashion to the MIT solution for the DARPA challenge. So far, all of my most promising leads have come through this site.

    Here is a link to my job prize:

    I hope that if my prize is successful, I am able to make it available to others for their job search.

    Thank you for the article Doctor Sullivan. It is interesting to see someone else has realized the impact of the DARPA challenge, and elucidated the strengths of the solution so well.

    Adrian Perez

  14. @keith @jeremy – SourceCon will help anyone who wishes to raise their bar on sourcing skills, as well as the range of tools to employ (social recruiting and crowdsourcing being an important part of that, as Dr. Sullivan describes). The reason Keith may be skeptical about whether SourceCon covers “purple squirrel” methods is because the agenda only recently added the Arbita Sourcing Lab ( which was my idea from a while back, but now an official part of SourceCon 2010. We will address any sourcing challenge in a hands-on format during both days of SourceCon. You can also login virtually to the Lab with your questions if you cannot attend in person. I am also skeptical of quality $10/hr. sourcers, but I’d love to meet some of them there if Keith can steer them — and we probably could give them an opportunity to show their stuff as a Lab advisor/presenter!

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