Finding Value in Social Networks

Like prospectors during the gold rush, recruiters everywhere are flocking to social networks in search of hires. But like the experience of many during the gold rush, getting results in not easy. Reaping the benefits of social networking requires engaging with those networks. There’s plenty being written about how to do so, but to know if what you’re doing is working, consider the following metric:

EE = (1-N) X (R/P)


EE = Effectiveness of Engagement, expressed as a percentage

Engagement, in this context, means getting ready access to employees’ networks, regardless of the mechanism for doing so. Virtually 100% of employees have social networks and connect to them using different means (networking sites are not the only way to do so), but only a certain proportion of employees may be willing to give an employer access, by either making the contacts available or agreeing to forward job postings to them.

N = The proportion (%) of employee networks that an employer or recruiter has engaged with.
R = The average number of qualified referrals received per month per employee
P = The average number of postings accepted by employees to their networks per month

So if an employer is engaged with 10% (N) of employees’ social networks, and on average each employee accepts 3 (P) postings per month, and produces 2 (R) qualified referrals:

EE = (1-10%) X (2/3) = 60%

If the same results are achieved by engaging with 50% of employee networks, EE = 33%

Engagement is more effective the larger the number of qualified referrals received for the same proportion of employee networks an employer is engaged with. However, this is not a bottomless pit. Research shows that beyond a certain threshold of postings, the volume of qualified referrals starts to flatten out and even reduce.

Reality Meets Hype

All that’s being claimed about the potential of social networks as sourcing tools hinges on being able to increase N. But engagement takes time and effort and there are no shortcuts, which is why many of the claims being made about how social networks can revolutionize recruiting border on the ludicrous.

Take the buzz around Twitter as an example. Originally conceived as an answer to the prayers of narcissists and stalkers — okay, “to support the idea that people should enjoy an ‘always on virtual omnipresence'” — it’s now being touted as a critical tool for recruiters interested in social networking. The conventional wisdom is contradicted by a recent study from Harvard that shows it to be just a broadcast mechanism. Ninety-percent of tweets are generated by 10% of users. Across all Twitter, users the median number of lifetime tweets is one!

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Social networking is about communities, where there’s sharing of information, give and take, etc. for the members to stay connected with each other. Twitter is a one-way street — there’s no evidence to show that it supports social networking. A recent interview with Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has him talking about companies using Twitter to sell pies, warm cookies, and respond to customer service requests. There’s no social networking going on here, unless the pie eaters are sitting around the same table.

Some would claim that having a broadcast mechanism is precisely the point. A recruiter can broadcast jobs. That requires candidates to follow them or the employer. In which case, just how is this different than an e-mail alert? Job postings don’t have the same shelf life as warm cookies, and a quick response usually doesn’t alter the outcome.

Increasing N

Research on communities by the Pew Foundation and others shows that engagement requires starting in and participating in conversations. The main reasons people share are:

  • To help someone who would benefit (81%)
  • To give back, after benefiting from sharing (42%)
  • To show enthusiasm (39%)
  • To show dissatisfaction (19%)

Interestingly, only 5% of people share to be seen as experts.

However, to state the obvious, starting and participating in a conversation requires having something interesting to say that the community cares about. An excellent example of this is Elevenmoms on Wal-Mart’s website. They have 20 moms blogging here. The blog is focused on a specific demographic with a very clear mandate of the type of community it supports. Try engaging with that one if you’re not a mom. The point being, in case it still isn’t clear, is that increasing N takes a lot of focused effort. As a recruiter involved in social networking, you need to figure out the engagement profile of your audience:

  1. Where do they interact (or not interact)?
  2. What topics get them excited?
  3. What do they share?

Technology is the least useful thing here. Using Twitter is not going to help much, as the usage patterns show. There isn’t a person on the face of the planet who has enough interesting things to say on a regular basis that they deserve to be followed. Any pronouncements people make, including what they have to say about their place of work or jobs, can always be searched for the few nuggets of useful information buried in the mountains of drivel. To increase N focus on a few communities you can engage with and forget toys like Twitter. Face it, unless your last name is Spacey or Kutcher you’re not likely to have much of a following. And even if you get some, they won’t stay: Nielsen Media estimates that 60% of Twitter users stop using it after a month.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.


13 Comments on “Finding Value in Social Networks

  1. I found the stats/blog posting on Twitter interesting. I would like to see your thoughts on Jerry Lee’s comment.

    Your formula suggests that if a recruiter engages with all of employees’ social networks, Effectiveness of Engagement will be 0 regardless of average referrals received or postings accepted. Is that the implication you had in mind?

  2. The posting on the blog mentioned above does not contradict what I’ve written – in fact, it underscores the points I make. Twitter is being described as a social networking tool for recruiting – to connect with a community. That is not what it does and the usage patterns clearly establish this. As a broadcast mechanism it may well work – which is exactly what Farmiole’s blog post says. Successful uses of Twitter all are about selling products or providing information. There are few parallels to recruiting – you may use it to connect with employers looking to make hires, but connecting with candidates is far removed from that. An employer may have an immediate need to make a hire and candidates may be immediately available but Twitter is not an effective mechanism to bring the two together. That is how job boards are supposed to work and we all know how well that works.
    My point is that Twitter is not a very useful tool if your goal is to get engaged with a community – a.k.a. social networking. A recruiter may tweet all day but it is highly unlikely that they will develop a following that’s relevant to fill the jobs they are working on. That’s not my opinion – that is what the data in the Harvard study shows. Given that there’s virtually no two-way communication using Twitter you would have no way of knowing how well you engaged with the community you are targeting.
    The formula is an indicator of the effectiveness of your engagement. It is not an absolute measure. It is unlikely in the extreme that a employer will be engaged with a 100% of employee networks. As a recruiter your goal should be to get useful referrals by focusing on communities that are relevant to the jobs you work on. You may need to increase your reach, but at some level it becomes impossible to meaningfully connect with more people.

  3. I need to put some more thought into & play with your formula before I have a solid opinion of it.

    I can say that I disagree with your conclusions about the viability of Twitter with establishing a direct social connection to an audience. Part of the beauty of a tool like Twitter is that you can self-select the people you interact with so you DO get the kind of focus (low N) that you describe.

    My personal experience has proven that this has been an effective relationship-building tool with recruiters. More importantly I have met several recruiters that have demonstrated to me that they have built their own audiences of highly relevant potential employees.

  4. Thank you, Raghav. Your reasoning is compelling.

    If the information below is correct, much of this discussion will be moot, as the pre-recession employment levels may not return for 3-5 years in most states, at which point our current views may be rendered obsolete by new technologies and trends. Keep your eyes out for “Behavioral Recruiting” (not “Behavioral Interviewing”) the application of Behavioral Economics to Recruiting.

    Meanwhile, there are still a number of desperate and gullible folks out there with ready cash looking for a technological quick-fix to their problems, so you Social Networking Recruiting Marketers out there: keep beating that horse, it ain’t quite dead yet!


    Keith Halperin

    Here is some data (reposted from a WSJ blog) concerning an estimate of when the various states’ levels of unemployment will return to pre-recession levels:

  5. “Twitter is a one-way street — there’s no evidence to show that it supports social networking.”

    I am not intending to take your quote out of context but I have to say I find this interesting.

    Here in Minneapolis you must not be aware of the country’s largest Social Media Breakfast group that recently had 300+ PR, Marketing, Social Media, Entrepreneurs and Recruiters and is 18 months running.

    Or that the upcoming event at the Minnesota State Fair already has 200+ registered after just 4 days.

    Or of the many “Tweet Ups” that occur.

    How is that a one way street? I created a column in TweetDeck specifically to monitor the ongoing conversations of the local community. FYI, recruiters are participating in these conversations too.

    At our recent Minnesota Recruiter events Josh Kahn led a conversation about Best Buy’s use of social network sites. It started a great conversation after how many of us have had success with Twitter and other sites.

    Josh also spoke of the failures Best Buy has had. There are those too just as there is with any tool.

    From your comment: “My point is that Twitter is not a very useful tool if your goal is to get engaged with a community – a.k.a. social networking. A recruiter may tweet all day but it is highly unlikely that they will develop a following that’s relevant to fill the jobs they are working on. That’s not my opinion – that is what the data in the Harvard study shows. Given that there’s virtually no two-way communication using Twitter you would have no way of knowing how well you engaged with the community you are targeting.”

    You can quote the Harvard stud all you like but I suggest speaking to some of the Recruiters in your (our) town about the successes and failures they are having.

  6. The reason we have studies is because anecdotal evidence is not reliable. The Harvard study is based on 300,000 users. As the basis for developing a recruitment strategy using a large study is likely to be far better approach than any isolated examples. That doesn’t mean that Twitter may not work as a recruitment tool, but the data does not suggest that it will.

    None of the examples you’ve quoted mention hires. The breakfast event that you mentioned is a group that’s interested in social media – they would naturally gravitate to an event on the subject. But if you were to try and engage with a community of chemists, engineers, doctors, teachers, etc. with Twitter as the vehicle you may not have much success.

    The fact remains that among the general population of Twitter users there’s no evidence that any engagement is taking place. Until another study proves that behavior patterns have changed, this one should be relied on.

  7. The delicious irony is that it is just the kind of engaging interaction taking place to this posting that does not happen on Twitter according to the Harvard study and my personal experience. Twitter is much like professional sports— a very few highly active and well honed individuals bust all the moves and most of us watch. It is a deluge of very short (140 character) monologues. Monologues are hard— just ask Jay, David, and Conan. So Twitter reduces to largely a one -> many communication vehicle, hiding in the sheeps clothing of a one -> one engaging communication channel. So let me second Raghav’s call for that other great Minnesota tradition (and I am a U of M Ph D), dustbowl empiricism. The facts continue to be true whether or not we choose to ignore them. (or like them)

  8. I agree that social networking sites do not work for every skill set. In Minnesota there is (as best I know) 50 attorneys, 60 medtech/biotech professionals, a few hundred in IT and I would not want to guess how many hundreds of PR/Marketing/Social Media folks.

    If I am trying to create relationships with attorneys, yep, might be a waste of time in one sense but I would suggest that if you decide to get involved once 100+ attorneys are there it might be a little late.

    Of the Harvard study, how many of the 300,000 were in our industry? I would have to guess that matters to our discussion. I am not so concerned about the general audience but how successful recruiters may or may not be.

    Better yet and for what matters to me, what is the experience of I.T. professionals?

    So because there is not a survey supporting my opinion then Best Buy is not actually having success with this and job seekers are not finding jobs in Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York and other locations?

    Do the ERE survey results from the Social Recruiting Summit give any weight to counter your viewpoint or are they too anecdotal or too small a sample?

    Here is a July 2009 survey/white paper from a Minneapolis firm of 438 national management, marketing and HR executives from around the U.S. Not Harvard but a decent sample that includes some from our industry. It was presented as part of a webinar last week to the Twin Cities Human Resources Association:

    For anyone interested here is a white paper from July 2009 “Social Networking for Competitive Advantage” (PDF):

    Is social networking going to work for every company, search/consulting firm? No. Is it going to work in every skill set? No.

    But to dismiss it entirely, I dunno about that.

    Go Gophers!!!

  9. I don’t recall dismissing social networking outright. My writing was specific to the effectiveness of Twitter as a social networking tool.

    What’s happening here is a lot like the weight-loss business. All the industry’s claims of success are individual stories, while the wider data (such as the CDC study released last week) shows that there’s practically an inverse correlation between dollars spent on weight loss programs and weight gain in the population. But who you going to believe – Dan Marino and Marie Osmond or some boring data from the CDC? Just go to a weight watchers meeting to see how popular they are. This despite the industry’s own admission with every claimed success that “results not typical”.

    There are cases of individual success, but if the results at the micro level are not present at the macro level then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that whatever is being claimed is not a generally replicable effect.

    For the average recruiting manager looking to decide how much to invest in social media the data shows that Twitter is not a reliable means of doing so. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try it – but just be aware that – “individual results may vary”.

  10. Since my goal is referrals, I’m partial to the following equation because it solves for R:

    R = [EE/(P(1-N))]
    Ok, maybe not 🙂 And are we forgetting raising (1-N)^RT@ ? “1-N raised to the power of RT@”.

    Raghav, you have been around long enough to know that you’re either banging the “Twitter is great” marketing drums (and/or the “Social Networks are mini-manifestations of the Recruiting God”) or you’re not. If you are, vendors will love you and you’ll become a RT @ superstar. If you’re not, vendors and sales reps will hate you because critical thinking skills are seen as a negative in the Recruitosphere. If you don’t get in line like a toy soldier, you’re no ‘fun’.

    There is a lot of lobbying to keep fellas like you quiet. Follow the money stream, my fine feathered-friend, and ye shall find the truth 🙂

    In regards to your diet analogy, you’re right. Yeah, there are stories of 100 lbs lost in 30 days. And maybe they’re true (what’s that person’s health like, though??? Ok, I digress because we’re not supposed to ask that question.) And there are stories of social media success (i.e. Zappos), etc. I think the real question you’re attempting to answer is whether today’s recruiting success stories are the norm or the exception.

    P.S. The fundamental fallacy about social media is that it’s “free”. Most sidestep the fact that man-hours (spent on social media) fall in the ‘cost’ category.

    P.S.S. Don’t give into the pressure and drop your critical thinking ability. There is always tomorrow to dump rational logic in favor of RT @ fame 🙂

  11. It is just me, or is the irony not lost on anyone else that this article ends with, “follow ERE on twitter”?

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