Sourcing Insight: Virtual Third Places

A woman in Boston picks up a glass of red wine. She puts her nose into the glass and breathes in deeply. She takes of sip of the wine and a slight smile crosses her face. She gently sets down the glass and types a few words on her computer. She watches the screen intently for a reply. A friend in Los Angeles responds to her comments. A few moments later, a comment comes in from a woman in Sydney. The comments continue to flow in from Hong Kong, from Tokyo, and finally Berlin chimes in.

This is the monthly Friday night (depending where you live in the world) Women’s Wine Club. Like clockwork, the first Friday night of each month these friends taste a new wine and share a conversation about their new discovery. They use Twitter as the means of sharing their wine tasting experience.

This wine tasting Twitter example seems to be becoming very much a part of the fabric of the 21st Century social experience. This is an example of a Virtual Third Place.

Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase — a “third place.” Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, suggested that informal, public gathering places are extremely important to community. He suggested that bars (Cheers), coffee shops (Starbucks), bookstores (Third Place Books) and other establishments are Great Good Places or “third places” (in contrast to the home and the workplace, the first and second places). These third places create space for conversation and creative interaction.

The “third places” of the 20th Century are morphing into the “virtual third places” of the 21st Century. The Twitter wine club is a scene that is being replayed in different stages, but with a common storyline: social encounters are taking place cyberspace. It is a logical extension of a third place. Job and careers are two of the most frequent topics of conversation; many virtual third places are being formed to discuss all the aspects of our respective professions. If there are discussions about careers, there must a role for recruiting in the virtual third places.

So how does a virtual third place fit into a recruiting strategy? Imagine you are a recruiter in Seattle or Portland that recruits recruiters. One virtual third place that you would want to join in the conversation would be the NorthWest Recruiters Association LinkedIn Group. The NWRA is an affinity group of nearly 900 members comprised of corporate and third party recruiters — the ideal target audience for a recruiter of recruiters.

The NWRA as an affinity group is not just a virtual third place, but also creates opportunity for face-to-face conversations. This mix of virtual and face to face conversations seems to be a very effective method of community. I am not suggesting that belonging to affinity group and having conversations with the members outside of a trade show or a meeting is new; it is certainly not. But what is unique about the 21st century model is the transparency of conversations to all the members of the group and an invitation for any member to share their views. That levels the playing field and fosters deeper relationships.

One of the aspects of virtual third places is the natural segmentation that has already occurred by the interest and self-selection of the members. For the sourcer (and I believe sourcing is marketing), as it is with a brand manager in marketing, segmenting the target audience is one of the challenges of the job. In this new world of social media, networking, and Web 2.0, much of segmentation occurs naturally. The challenge of the 21st century isn’t so much finding the community, but more about how we function as a member of the community as a recruiter with requisitions to fill.

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How one functions as an effective member of a community is a subject for a different conversation, but there are several avenues available to pursue. If your practice is designed for the longer term, then perhaps becoming a listener and finding your voice in the community can be very effective. Communities tend to have a life of their own, and learning the culture and norms of the group could provide valuable insight. I have noticed the one or two NWRA members who recruit recruiters tend to move behind the scenes. They support the organization, volunteer for events, and are visible, productive members of the community.

A bright shiny new toy creates new words to describe old things. It is not so much that the old needs the “new” associated with it; it is more that a new vocabulary is required to explain the new dimension or new aspects of an older discovery. In the 1980’s I was very comfortable referring to my Rolodex (contacts/prospects) as my network. I referred to the National Association of Accountants or the Oregon Society of CPAs as affinity groups. And I referred to the directories of those affinity groups as money. I attended, networked, and supported those groups. Relationships and reputations grew out of those groups; clients were served and careers were enhanced. Today, I am comfortable describing my network as a database. I am comfortable with describing the affinity groups as a community (as they may have been all along). I join communities; participate in discussions; and give generously back to the community. And I still call the community membership directories money.

At the Fall 2009 ERE event, our talent community pilot will be discussed in the broader context of Web 2.0 Beyond the Social Recruiting Hype: Microsoft’s Approach to Building Talent Pipelines and Communities. While the presentation will be much broader than a discussion of “virtual third places,” this concept is a cornerstone of our community development workstream.

Marvin Smith is veteran talent acquisition practitioner who focuses on strategic talent sourcing, talent community building, social recruiting, employment branding, and the use of technology to drive talent identification and engagement strategies. He has been on teams that were at the forefront of resurgence of talent sourcing as a strategic weapon in talent acquisition. These teams piloted groundbreaking programs (ERE-Media-award-winning) work that used business intelligence, data, and technology to segment the target talent audiences and build talent pipelines and communities. His current role is a strategic talent sourcing consultant with Lockheed Martin, where he is responsible for talent pipeline building for critical skills talent; project management of a RMP (recruitment marketing platform); and driving corporate-wide, talent community initiatives. Previously, he served as senior research recruiter on an internal executive recruiting team with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; a strategic sourcing program manager with Blackberry (Research In Motion); and a talent sourcer/program manager for Microsoft. He is a writer and speaker on the topics of talent communities, strategic talent sourcing, Moneyball sourcing, and talent acquisition strategies. You can follow his blog or join a community that he created on talent community development or follow him on Twitter.

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4 Comments on “Sourcing Insight: Virtual Third Places

  1. Drinking alone with my “virtual friends.” Hmmm. Sounds great. I’ll keep that in mind next time I’m hiding from my wife doing vodka shots in the bathroom.

    Seriously, though, the problem with many virtual affinity groups is that you don’t build true bonds: the kind of bonds that allow you to call favors, extend trust, etc.

    During times of social change, affinity groups grow naturally. Think of the Elks, the Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus. There is a strong argument that early Christianity was an affinity group for merchants. The web is one of those times, but the difference is that it will be harder to capitalize on relationships that are built with 144 character strings.

    My advice is make sure you take the folks you meet in your virtual third place and meet them in an actual third place before you need them. You could tweet “I need a job now,” but unless you tweet that to real (not virtual) friends, you’ll never get a response.

  2. Blake–I appreciate your perspective. I agree that relationship building is a trust building exercise. Even though it seems unlikely, people seem to building relationships 140 characters at a time.

    I did not know what you pointed out about early Christians. Interesting.

    I am a big fan of face to face conversations. And I believe with video (per Gerry Crispin) we can achieve some human interaction in the digital space.

    People have always grouped together by common interests. People are gathering in with common interests in common places on the web. And we recruiters should strategically take advantage of this.

  3. Jeremy-Starbucks was build on the third place idea|concept. I feel like I am preaching to the choir. You guys get it.

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