The (Broken) Promise of Social Recruiting

Have you ever watched Numbe3s, the now-defunct crime drama that featured a geeky math genius who used quadratic equations to help the FBI get the bad guys? I happened to watch a rerun the other night, and a scene between Don Eppes (the tough, FBI agent brother) and Charlie Eppes (the math genius brother) struck me like lightening.

In pursuit of a gang of home invaders, Charlie the math genius instructs his FBI agent brother to get him “tons of data” about the people of Los Angles. The brother, a math Luddite, wants to know why he needs more — not less — data to find the criminals. Charlie explains that he’s built an algorithm that can filter through all of the social connections in Los Angeles. The more data he has, the more likely he is to find the pattern that will identify the robbers. Or something like that. I’m more like Don, the tough brother.

What struck me is that Charlie’s television math describes our expectations of social media when applied to recruiting.

Social media exposes recruiters to “tons of data” about the relationships of potential candidates: relationships to other people, relationships to companies, relationships to skills or functions, relationships to people, places, and things that may have no immediate bearing on their role as a candidate, but might give us clues about how to find more prospects to recruit.

Despite access to an unprecedented amount of social data, most recruiting organizations have yet to report overwhelming success at social recruiting. Why is this? Is it because social recruiting is merely early-adopter hype?

I don’t think so. I think social recruiting represents a potential breakthrough for our industry. We have a way to go, however, before we see more than anecdotal, one-off success. Two factors, in particular, must be solved, before social recruiting (the use of social media to attract and recruit employees) becomes widely adopted.

The first factor is scale. Social recruiting works when practiced on a small scale. Of course it does. For example, a recruiter searches Twitter to find engineers discussing Agile software development lifecycle models. She finds a dozen or so likely suspects. She does further research by reading their blogs, and checking their LinkedIn profiles. Note the amount of data available to her. She narrows her focus to five prospects, based on what she learns. She follows these five Twitter users, and eventually develops a relationship with them. At some point, she feels comfortable enough to present her opportunity. Two of the five are interested.

Successful social recruiting? You bet. Scalable? Not for most organizations. This type of recruiting is not predictable or efficient. The recruiter might have spent hours researching her candidates, only to find that, while the prospects were appropriate for her position, they weren’t interested. The time and methods used to “develop relationships” are unpredictable and difficult to repeat with a large number of prospects. While this example is not the only method of social recruiting, it does serve to illustrate why many talent leaders are wary of social recruiting. Results cannot be mass produced.

And, because speed is critical in our business, we’re interested in recruiting methods that yield fast, predictable results.

The other factor that inhibits social recruiting success is nuance. In the example above, the recruiter is looking for very specific experience. When she proactively searches for these experts, she is able to find prospects. Social recruiting efforts based on posting, or advertising (such as posting positions on Facebook or Twitter), have not, to date, been nuanced enough to be any more effective than traditional job boards. In fact, because these tools were not built with recruiting in mind, most of these postings are even less targeted than postings on traditional job boards.

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As I have (painfully) learned, job postings, in their traditional sense, are most effective when broadcast to as large a population as possible. Just like Charlie’s algorithm, posting a job on a big job board exposes the job to a large number of applicants, from which recruiters can cull the few relevant results. Posting jobs on social media sites is not efficient enough or differentiated enough from existing job posting methods to declare success.

Moreover, “building relationships” with prospects who don’t fit your need can be overwhelmingly time and resource consuming.

Taken individually, each of the popular social networking tools lack one or more of the elements required for large-scale social recruiting:

  • Candidate segmentation — The ability to mine the social tools to find prospects who fit a narrowly defined set of skills or parameters is critical for effective recruiting.
  • 1:many messaging — Allow employers to broadcast timely information about the company to a large audience.
  • Socially based relationship development — The ability to share information, status updates, links, and other media and engage in 2-way communication — work-related or not — is important to the relationship development process.
  • Finally, 1:1 messaging is necessary as relationships evolve; the ability to communicate privately with individuals is critical.

Keep at it

Social recruiting faces the challenge of producing big-scale, nuanced results. I think back to the early days of “social recruiting” — when the term was brand new. Early adopters (myself included) had high hopes that access to such plentiful and rich data would yield perfectly matched candidates. I believed the big numbers ensured that soon everyone would participate in social media in one form or another (that seems to continue to be the case); exposing us to anyone and everyone we might want to hire. Social media penetration in the U.S. is at an all-time high, but we can only handle so much of this powerful fire hose of information.

The truth is, we still haven’t figured out how to automate and personalize the recruiting experience simultaneously. My hope is that social recruiting revolutionizes the industry by making the process more efficient while providing a personalized, positive experience for each candidate.

We have a bit of work to do before social recruiting fulfills its promise. Recruiting technology vendors must invest in the problems of scale and nuance. In my opinion, even newer technologies must be built to leverage the data. Better algorithms. The use of artificial intelligence, data mining, and simulation methods. In the meantime, I applaud the brave recruiters who see the possibility of social recruiting and continue to experiment and report back on how to put all of this relationship data to work.

Carmen Hudson wears several hats. She is currently Engagement Manager, Sourcing and Social Media Strategy for Recruiting Toolbox and Founder and CEO of Tweetajob, Inc. Carmen draws from over 15 years of recruiting experience, with a strong focus on helping organizations attract, source and recruit top talent. Carmen's expertise is in helping clients build the right sourcing and recruiting strategies, and then implementing them in the real world of limited budgets, competing priorities, and highly competitive recruiting environments. She consults and trains companies to help them leverage high ROI solutions for big sourcing, social media, and technology implementation initiatives.


12 Comments on “The (Broken) Promise of Social Recruiting

  1. Excellent article Carmen. How would you rate Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter on the elements you listed? I believe Linkedin comes closest to meeting them so far and it does seem to focus on recruitment.

  2. Carmen,

    The “promise” of social recruiting isn’t broken, it’s just unrealized. Just like the forward pass changed the game of football, social recruiting will change the way talent is managed. But to get there, different approaches need to be taken.

    Looking at social networking sites as recruiter and sourcing team sources seems is limited in how successful it can be. It’s not resource-efficient or effective to try to scale the recruiting model. Also consider that many people don’t go to social sites just to look for jobs – they’re primarily there for another reason so expecting great recruiting results simply will likely always lead to unfulfilled expectations.

    Why not make it abundantly clear to employees that they can receive referrals from people they introduce to the company via these sites directly or indirectly? That’s right, pay them to actively engage in sharing information about your company and opportunities without having to manage requisitions. Tell them how to get people involved in the formal recruitment process and give their recommendations/referrals priority consideration.

    Then you’re rewarding the employee for the value her/his community or relationships can bring into the organization. It also will start to make social recruitment look more like social community building inside your organization.

    Use social recruiting as your forward pass to change your recruitment game the same way the pass changed football. You’ll be surprised who some of your best influencers (employee networkers-turned social sourcers and recruiters) and how rapidly they can add the scale and promise so desired.

  3. Nice article Carmen and bravo Daryl on your comments, as they are spot on.

    Like most technologies, adoption of one will be slower than the creation of newer, so I think we will continue to see new ways of using social networking and their unrealized success before some of the legacy social networking processes are operational and measurable at a large scale.

    I think we have forgotten (or some are too young) the concept of the killer app. And that is what social networking is in general. It will continue to be a somewhat unrealized idea as it develops and will become normal before it’s use is fully realized. We had a similar process with email for several years until file attachments became regular. It’s usage mysteriously changed without much fanfare, but became a neccessity. The same occurred recently with texting. Did you notice how so quietly the length of text messaging became so much longer as a standard, and it’s usage greatly increased. In fact the catalyst of Twitter actually pulled that killer app into a boundary, which proves the point that external forces can quickly tame technology impact and growth.

    So I think we need to watch for that. Where is the ceiling? Something will boundary social networking in recruiting…regulation, government, a hardware, something…but until then we will still use it as a means to leverage contacts in less time with less human effort (which is why it’s becoming enabling in small pockets.) Personally I think the boundary is the fact that it’s so vast that we will localize ourselves to what we are interested in and what we know. If anything, social networking has enabled us to expand our own personal universes…but also made it easy to block out stuff that we are NOT interested in. Which will Lilley remain a challenge for anyone who solicits.

  4. Better access to potential candidates is a blessing and a curse…depending how one perfects the culling process. And that’s the fun part of recruiting…cutting to the chase.

  5. Hi Carmen,

    Sorry that you had to learn the hard way about broadcasting to the large populations. But you’re right, relationships keep multiplying and that means more foot – or mouse – work than usual to “filter through social connections.” It’s all about sharing jobs, reaching job seekers and being social – opening and maintaining that two-way communication, a critical factor in finding the right candidate.

    There are definitely some great social recruiting solutions (such as Cachinko) that focus on job marketing that can help leverage your postings. They help you target relevant, qualified (even passive) job seekers by broadcasting your job postings to search engines, job aggregators, and social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). Using a social recruiting solution reduces the nuance of posting by following strategy, and provides scalable results with metrics and reporting.

    Hope this helps, and please let me know if you’ve experimented with any other social recruiting initiatives.

  6. Thanks all for reading and for the comments! I hope I didn’t come off as a social media curmudgeon — I am a social recruiting fangirl! I am excited about the potential that social media presents our industry.
    @Ravi – I think each tool has strengths — LinkedIn is killer at segmenting, Twitter and YouTube rock for 1:many messaging. I’d like to see some way to marry all of the tools and their strengths for recruiting purposes. Call me a dreamer!
    @Darryl – If I were to re-write this, I’d use “unrealized”. Spot on! Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
    @Valentino — it is fun, isn’t it?
    @Heather — I agree, I see more social recruiting solutions that focus on targeting passive candidates, and that’s a good thing. We rebuilt Tweetajob to so that it helps employers build targeted talent communities. In my dreamworld, I’d like to see tactics that go beyond posting jobs and searching profiles. How else could we use the tools? I look at what marketers are doing with location-based services and couponing…some of those principles be applied to recruiting as well. The next few years will be very interesting!

  7. I agree with most of the comments. But what everyone fails to mention is that even the social “recruiting” sites only contain about 20-30% of the target population that a recruiter would want to contact for a specific job.

    I did a small survey, took the graduating lists from 2 major universities, checked them against LinkedIn thinking that I would get at least a 50% return on finding these professionals. I was wrong, out of over 500 graduates from 3, 4 and 5 years ago only 23% were able to be found on LinkedIn. These are supposedly the prime target for many recruiters and if the media is to be believed these are the folks that are MOST familiar with social media and texting, tweeting and the like.

    I am still a fan of social media in recruiting but this is just a reminder that this is not the silver bullet that everyone is seeking. Many of the best and brightest don’t have the time or inclination to “put themselves out there”. So it is a tool, but just like any god mechanic, you can’t get the job done using just one tool.

  8. Carmen,

    Definitely! It’s critical to stay on top of the opportunities within each of these social media tools, and I can’t wait to see what comes up next. I’m interested in learning how location-based services and couponing can be integrated in recruiting.

  9. There are currently few technologies like the recruit through Facebook app ‘Work for Us’. This app converts a company’s fan page into a powerful recruiting tool. The most revolutionary aspect is the data-driven, adaptive advertising component based on Facebook ads. It uses keywords from each posting to create highly targeted job ads that are pushed to Facebook users based on their education, interests, and location. The ad engine uses rigorous A/B tests, user edits, and click-through data to enhance its targeting in real time. The engine continually optimizes itself for nuances across demographics, industries, and countries.

    Here is their website:

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