From Contact to Contract—Social Networking on the Internet

Social networking sites offer some possibilities for finding candidates, but there are downsides as well.


Ed Weaver, vice president of Xtel Consulting Group in Dallas, was building up the new voice and data technology firm last year when he ran into a major challenge: How could he quickly fill numerous positions with high-quality professionals as the firm was awarded contracts?

“My wife happens to be an executive recruiter—but I couldn’t afford her,” he says with a laugh. He had tried popular job boards, but was inundated with resumes, mostly from unqualified applicants. That’s when he decided to try one of the business-oriented social networking sites that were taking hold on the Internet.

Weaver had read about LinkedIn, the largest of some 30 sites devoted to career networking, in The Wall Street Journal and how some businesses were using the site to fill high-level jobs within a couple of days. Based on the concept that each person is only six degrees of separation from everyone else in the world, social networking sites allow members to build huge networks electronically, tapping into the contacts of their contacts and their contacts’ contacts and so on.

Weaver signed up for the site, but, because he only had a couple of contacts, his initial entry delivered few results. Then a friend in Munich, Germany, who used LinkedIn regularly, invited Weaver to the site as his contact. The invitation—97 percent of LinkedIn members are invited in—and contact with a regular user set things in motion. Soon, Weaver was making targeted searches for the people he needed.

In one case, Weaver needed to form business partnerships in his local area. He targeted his LinkedIn search with the words, “telecommunications, consulting, Dallas area.” Within two days, he found two people “who have worked out very well,” he says. Another time, Weaver needed a data expert to analyze bills. Within a day, he found an AT&T retiree who for 30 years had done the work Weaver needed.

“The turnaround time has been extraordinarily quick,” Weaver says of LinkedIn. “I’ve found innumerable possibilities.”

Taking Networking To the Next Level

Weaver’s experience is one example of how social networking sites are supposed to work: With relative ease, you can register as a member on LinkedIn, Ryze.com, Spoke.com, Tribe.net or one of the other 25 or so sites, bring with you all or most of your professional contacts and increase exponentially your networking pool.

“These tools take networking to the next level,” says Gerry Crispin, principal of CareerXroads, a human resources consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., and president of the New Jersey Metro Employment Management Association, a Society for Human Resource Management chapter. “These [sites] are no more than advanced databases that are extremely user-friendly.”

Defined by Differences

When it comes to social networking computer applications, all operate off the same principle of connecting you to as many people as possible to broaden your network. Where the 30 or so Internet sites differ is in the processes they use to achieve the end result.

“They’re all really about finding paths through graphs,” says Don Steiny, president of The Institute for Social Network Analysis of the Economy, a San Francisco area nonprofit that works with industry and academia to study social networking applications. “Where they’re different is in finding data and how many steps you have to go through.”

Typically, people use their Internet browsers to access a site. They then type in information such as name, occupation, employer and phone number to become a member or to take an introductory tour. Many sites are free of charge, although more are creating extra services to charge for, and some use a flat membership fee of about $10 per month.

The sites’ differences are most apparent in how they increase their database of contacts, how members—or any site visitor—can access that information and how the levels of membership match a user’s needs.

LinkedIn.com, which claims to be larger than all the other web-based sites combined, encourages membership by invitations from current members. “On any given day, 20,000 users are inviting others to join,” says Konstantin Guericke, co-founder and vice president of marketing.

Members are asked to import their contact list, although Guericke says no one becomes part of the database without giving permission—something that isn’t true of all networking sites.

Invitations are important; the site protects its members by requiring mutual contacts to connect before reaching a stranger. You may build a contact network without an invitation, but it is harder. While some say the process to contact is too cumbersome, others say they appreciate not being inundated with unwelcome e-mail.

Even with such a large database, Guericke and fans of LinkedIn say it is quality over quantity that makes it popular. Known as a site for executives, LinkedIn’s membership includes the founders of Netscape, eBay and Excite, the president of Sony and the former Federal Reserve Bank chairman of Brazil, Guericke says. Another important distinction: More than half of LinkedIn’s membership is from outside the United States.

Things users should look for in a networking site, Guericke says, are the number of registered users, the quality of the members and how much member information is available.

Some users of Ryze.com, one of the first business networking sites, are critical of its openness with member information, although the site has increased control from its early days, users say. Ryze is known for being one of the easiest sites to maneuver and for having a broad range of members at various levels of their careers. One distinction is that Ryze members can post invites for in-person networking, and many cities host live Ryze events. Ryze has a $9.95 per month fee to read search results.

Unlike Ryze and LinkedIn, some sites, like Tribe.net, allow you to network either for business or pleasure. Tribe is popular for its 5,000-plus discussion groups that cover everything from careers to politics to music and dating.

Some sites, like Plaxo.com, Spoke.com and VisiblePath.com, are more corporate-oriented and offer software to build and sort networks automatically—causing the most privacy concerns.

Crispin, who is contracted by corporations to explain how social networking applications can be used for recruitment, is potentially a few clicks away from millions of people and tens of thousands of companies at several sites of which he is a member.

“If I’m working for Johnson & Johnson and looking for a salesperson from Arizona, I can look at a database of 2 million resumes of people who have said in the past year that they want to work for Johnson & Johnson,” Crispin says. He then narrows his search, asking that the database find “all the people with three years’ experience selling pharmaceuticals in Arizona. In five or 10 seconds, I’ll have half a paragraph on each of them.”

While the sites can be user-friendly, return-on-investment can vary. Social networking sites are best for finding passive candidates and for filling positions that are too specialized to be filled via traditional methods, users say.

Although LinkedIn boasts 1.2 million members, Crispin says fewer than 5 percent of corporate recruiters use social networking sites. The reason, he says, is partly because the sites are relatively new—most having started in the past three years—but also because it is easier to rely on traditional, familiar methods.

“The biggest failure is that most companies are not proactive; they’re reactive,” Crispin says. “They simply post ads for openings and hope qualified candidates will show up. The more proactive you are, the more likely you are to be successful. Those who aren’t connected aren’t going to find connections.”

Another bonus of social networking sites is that they can be used to get references about a particular candidate from people the candidate hasn’t specifically named as a reference. Recruiters can simply contact people on the candidate’s contact list, although this practice certainly isn’t popular with everybody who uses the sites.

Just Another Tool

But for all their convenience in locating candidates, even fans of the sites say they are simply one more tool for recruiters to broaden their network.

“The best recruiters I know say, ‘I use it some. I find people on LinkedIn, then I Google them and contact them myself,’” says Don Steiny, president of The Institute for Social Network Analysis of the Economy, a California-based nonprofit that studies social networking applications. “The best recruiters I know are fearless, and they’re just going to call them up.”

That is the case with Claudia Lindquist. A technology recruiter in Silicon Valley, Lindquist uses the Internet regularly to do things like research patents to find passive candidates. She says she limits her use of social networking sites to candidate searches and prefers to make contact on her own. Lindquist tried Ryze, one of the first sites, when it was new, but quit using it because, she says, the information was too open for anyone to access. She says she likes LinkedIn for finding executive candidates, but bypasses the site’s gatekeeper approach to contacts, which requires you to use a mutual contact to reach people.

One of Lindquist’s favorite sites—the one she uses “almost daily”—is www.craigslist.org, which she says “beats many job boards in producing quality candidates,” and which also has helped her find her last two homes, sell a car, hire a handyman and buy computer gear. Another site she recommends is Kit-List, a “homegrown” Silicon Valley site specific to technology jobs that can be found on Yahoo atgroups.yahoo.com/group/KITlist-Tech.

“In general, these sites are good for sales, marketing and executive people,” Lindquist says. “But here in Silicon Valley, the A-players are the technologists. They often don’t subscribe to these sites and, as a recruiter, I still rely on the Internet, reading technical publications and researching patents to find the best people.”

Social Networking’s Dark Side

While social networking sites offer much convenience and efficiency in broadening networks and locating candidates, there is a dark side. Some privacy experts recommend against using them, or at least not using them at work.

“I have had many requests to join and get these invitations through [Microsoft] Outlook that ask for my phone number and address. I don’t respond to those,” says Susanne Wetzel, a computer science professor at The Stevens Institute for Technology in Hoboken, N.J. “There are too many details that can sit on someone’s computer, and I have no idea how that computer is protected.”

Indeed, most social networking sites ask members to import their e-mail contact lists, and some sites track members’ e-mail, Crispin says. The ease with which members can get information on other members varies with each site.

“I don’t mind sharing that information with friends, but if it’s coming from a business computer, who else has access and how are they using it?” says Wetzel, who specializes in computer security. “Too much of our information is floating around out there, and technology is becoming more and more sophisticated.”

Wetzel says she has seen differences in the privacy statements of the sites and adds that LinkedIn has the most extensive privacy statement. Still, she says, “Everything that goes through their server will be monitored, and there will always be that question of how secure your information is.”

Linda Musthaler, vice president of Currid & Co., a Houston-based technology consulting firm, also advises against using networking sites. “They all collect and store private information about you and your contacts,” Musthaler wrote for the online site Network World in September. “I strongly encourage all users of these networks to read every word of the privacy policy before joining or submitting information.” Even then, she says, such policies are designed to protect members, not members’ contacts.

Besides privacy concerns, the prevalence of social networking sites has some users wondering if they will take away the need for recruiters. The sites have numerous examples of executives who talk about time and cost savings of filling positions themselves by using the sites. Recruiters argue that such executives don’t fully appreciate the extent of their work. That said, some believe recruiting could go the way of traditional travel agents—many of whom have had to redefine themselves and offer new services to compete with Internet sites that offer travel arrangements.

“There will be plenty of companies out there that say they don’t need recruiters,” says Xtel’s Weaver. “But what are they going to do with the 5,000 resumes that end up on their desk? Somebody still has to do the legwork.”

Steiny agrees. “There’s more to recruiting than just finding someone. There’s the vetting. The idea that recruiters won’t be needed anymore doesn’t really capture what recruiters do,” he says. “They do a heck of a lot more than find people on the web.” How much social networking sites will be used in the future is anyone’s guess. Currently, most sites, including LinkedIn, are free, although LinkedIn founder and Vice President of Marketing Konstantin Guericke says the site may develop specific services in the future, such as reference checking, that it would charge for. Other sites, such as Ryze, have short trial memberships, then apply a monthly service fee, typically $9.99.

“We’re really talking about the first stages of a whole revolution of changes of how people will meet and communicate with each other,” says Crispin. “The number of positions filled because an employee refers another candidate is 30 percent. You can expect that to double in the next couple of years because of social networking applications.”

Indeed, Peter Weddle, an author and commentator who publishes Weddle’s, a newsletter about successful online recruiting, has called e-networking “the most underrated aspect of online recruiting—and the one with the greatest potential for advancing an organization’s position in the War for the Best Talent.”

Steiny disagrees. “There are ways of expanding your network that are killers,” he says. “People who want to serve on boards and nonprofits and things like that may get more out of it. I don’t think it’s going to be the end-all be-all. I think there will be a real leveling off of it.

“People trust you more if they’ve met you face to face. There’s so much that goes on with a human being that you can’t discern from writing.”

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