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Finding Needles in Haystacks

Data-aggregator systems can provide far more information about passive candidates than social media -- including LinkedIn -- can. Experts and users weigh in on the pros and cons.

Monday, July 21, 2014
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Any recruiter or hiring manager looking for a place to find a large number of potential candidates cannot do better than LinkedIn. With close to 300 million users in 200 countries, virtually every professional has a profile on the site.

"When anyone thinks of finding candidates, LinkedIn is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. You can't ignore it," says Timothy McHugh, a Chicago-based financial analyst with William Blair & Co. who focuses on the HR-technology sector. He points out that it has far more scale than all of its competitors. Its information tends to be more up-to-date, and it includes people that you might not be able to find anyplace else on the Web.

But McHugh adds that the very thing that makes LinkedIn the virtual standard for recruiting -- its gigantic user base -- is the cause of a serious drawback when applied to certain types of recruitment efforts. "How do you distinguish among candidates and how do you contact them in a way that they'll actually read your messages? It's very hard," he says.

For active candidates who send a message to your HR department, or referrals, or people who drop a card into the fishbowl at > a trade show or job fair, LinkedIn provides a quick and easy way to give recruiters an initial sketch -- and in a growing number of cases, a comprehensive profile -- of the candidate's background, skills and professional interests.

But for passive candidates, people who are not actively looking for new jobs, some HR executives think bulk LinkedIn InMails and contents through other social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, may be ineffective. This is especially true, they say, for organizations seeking candidates for difficult-to-fill positions, who receive so many unsolicited messages and invites, they treat them like spam.

LinkedIn has been working to solve that problem by allowing users to post presentations, videos and even blogs on their profile pages. These give recruiters the ability to customize InMails instead of sending generic messages.

Says Joseph Roualdes, senior manager of corporate communications for LinkedIn Talent Solutions, "We recommend as best practice: First, find potential candidates through their LinkedIn profiles. But then go the extra step of looking < at > their other professional content on LinkedIn to see if they are a good fit for your company, and also to help create InMails that are specific to their interests and skills."

But a few companies want to look further than LinkedIn content and are turning to data-aggregator systems, which display in one place a summary of candidates' --  either active or passive  --  entire social-media presence, including LinkedIn; participation in open-source projects and professional forums; and sites aimed more < at > off-hours interests, such as Facebook and Instagram.

Data-aggregator systems -- there are only a handful in existence < at > this point -- may provide a more holistic view of the potential candidate than can be found on a single social-media site. In the best cases and in the hands of the best recruiters, the benefits of data-aggregator systems are not merely centered on convenience (although the all-in-one-place interface certainly is that); they can actually change the entire passive-candidate-recruiting process by developing long term relationships instead of looking for immediate hires

Bringing It All Together

To Diem Nguyen, a primary advantage of data aggregators is that they consolidate the information about a candidate, making it easier to get a complete picture of him or her. Nguyen is a technical recruiter < at > Redwood City, Calif.-based Evernote, which makes applications that help users keep track of personal and business information. She says it has been impossible to determine if a candidate is worth pursuing based solely on the lists of schools attended and positions held found in LinkedIn, Facebook or other social-media-site profiles.

And while she will certainly look first < at > a LinkedIn profile for active candidates or referrals, for more in-depth information, she has turned to resources such as Stack Overflow, a site where professional programmers can ask others in their field questions, and GitHub, a source-code repository, which includes the names of programmers who wrote the code.

But jumping around these sites -- as well as the social-media sites and Twitter feed -- was too time-consuming.

"The information we were getting from those sites was very helpful, both in determining how someone might fit in with our company and in customizing our outreach to them," says Nguyen. "But the job of manually creating a complete profile of each candidate based on five or six sites kept the number of people we could pursue too low."

Nguyen says most of her problems have been solved by products from San Francisco-based Entelo, which she now uses instead, and which aggregates data from a passive candidate's entire online presence, including from the technology sites she uses, onto one page, which also usually includes complete contact information.

"After I do a search [in Entelo], I have everything I need to decide if I want to contact the person and, if so, what might be the best approach," she says. For example, if a candidate is working on projects that are technologically similar to the work he or she would be doing < at > Evernote and the person has expressed an interest in moving to northern California, Nguyen uses that information both to place the candidate high up on her list of people she wants to create a relationship with and to help customize the email that may be the initial basis of that relationship.

"Before we send an email message to a potential candidate," Nguyen says, "we know why we want him or her to consider working for us, and that comes across in the message. It's personal -- not generic -- and therefore much more effective than a bulk mailing."

Entelo also uses data analysis to predict when people might be leaving their current jobs. The company claims 30 percent of the people it predicts will switch jobs do so within four months. Nguyen says she uses the predictive aspect of Entelo as just one of many decision factors. "We'll certainly contact people who may not be looking to switch jobs, but if the tool predicts the person is looking, that will put the candidate higher on our list of people we want to contact," she says.

Steve White, talent-acquisition manager < at > Pier 1 Imports in Ft. Worth, Texas, agrees that the benefit of data aggregators is that they can provide a lot more information about a candidate before the initial contact than can single-source sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. He uses Open Web from New York-based Dice Holdings Inc. to gather a wealth of public information, which comes from blogs, Twitter feeds, social media and more.

"I was looking < at > a candidate earlier today who had 17 different profiles that Open Web pulled out," says White. "It's impossible [to] have found all those sites, and even if we could, it would have been hard to consolidate all that information by ourselves."

When White began using Open Web, he was working on a five-month-old request from a technology hiring manager for a position that required a difficult-to-find skill.

"The hiring manager was wondering why it was taking so long," he says. After a two-hour Open Web search, White was able to find a group of candidates and the company ended up hiring one who is working out well.

Customizing the Outreach

 White has honed his Open Web process to optimize results. Once he sees the candidate's summary on Open Web, he often clicks through to the more interesting underlying sites to get to the original post. Like Nguyen, when he or a hiring manager < at > Pier 1 finds a good candidate, White will customize the email, including in it information about how the type of work the candidate would be doing < at > Pier 1 matches his or her interests and capabilities, or how the company's culture or even product line fits in with the passive candidate's preferences and interests.

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"If we find someone who's interested in interior design, we'll be sure to mention that we're the largest home-furnishing business," White says.

While many companies use data-aggregation products to search for candidates as part of an ongoing recruitment process, some also use the products to vet candidates they or their hiring managers found from other sources. David Reese, vice president of people and culture < at > Palo Alto, Calif-based customer-experience-management-software company Medallia, uses aggregator products from San Francisco-based Gild before contacting people who Medallia's hiring managers find from their regular sources such as magazine articles, forums, referrals or conferences. "We have the name of someone who might be interested in us and who we might be interested in. Before we contact [him or her], we'd like to know a lot more about [him or her]."

Reese does use LinkedIn to hunt for passive candidates, but primarily for entry level positions -- requiring less than five years of experience. For higher-level positions, and for technology professionals, LinkedIn has only limited usefulness, Reese says. Too often, the information < at > LinkedIn is insufficient to determine if a candidate would be a good fit for the position.

It's important to note that data aggregators are tools, not panaceas in and of themselves. They only work if you use them effectively. Brad Warga, senior vice president of customer and employee success < at Gild, points out that moving to a data aggregator will do little good if it's not accompanied by a change in process.

"Too many people are still playing the volume game," Warga says. "They send out 100 generic messages, then another hundred, then another hundred. It's quick and easy, but inefficient." Instead, Warga suggests taking time to craft personal emails, and not worrying that the number of inquiries drops dramatically. He says spending five to 10 minutes to write a personal email will certainly result in fewer attempts-to-contact, but will yield a much higher rate of response from people who are better qualified.

Elaine Orler, president of San Diego-based Talent Function, believes data aggregators may well become more important over the next few years because recruiters increasingly need to hone their passive-candidates lists.

"There's been an explosion of the number of unqualified candidates being contacted," she says. "Recruiters need more information about candidates than they can get from one source." But, Orler adds, these aggregators will probably remain primarily a tool more for building relationships with passive candidates than one for seeking information of candidates a company needs immediately.

"In the main," she says, "these products are best for filling positions in the seven-to-12-month range."

Orler says she's also found some passive candidates "are a bit 'creeped out' " by the amount of data the recruiter has on them, even though that information is culled from public sources. Recruiters, she says, have to be sensitive to this concern and careful about how much non-professional information about the candidate they reveal in the initial contact.

Despite the benefits of data aggregators, McHugh believes they will remain niche players for the foreseeable future. As LinkedIn allows candidates to include more data types, many recruiters will continue using it, turn to it or return to it, because it's one of the few places concentrating on professional information. "With data aggregators," he says, "you have to sift through a lot of information that may not be relevant to the hiring situation," he says.

But for difficult-to-fill positions, and for building long-term relations, data aggregators can be an important tool allowing a recruiter to stand out from others seeking the same potential candidate.

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