Employers are seeing the wisdom of setting up social-media talent communities to familiarize passive job candidates with their organizations, and vice versa.
By Andrew R. McIlvaine
Vistaprint is on a hiring spree.
The Waltham, Mass.-based printing-products company (which got its start designing and printing business cards) is currently hiring about 1,200 people a year as it builds out its global "mass customization" portfolio of services. Clients (ranging from one-person shops to multinational corporations) hire Vistaprint to design and produce everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts to rubber stamps emblazoned with their logos.
The company's talent needs range from e-commerce experts and software developers to call-center reps with excellent customer-service skills.
And, in certain localities -- the Boston area, for example -- it's finding the market for top talent to be quite competitive.
"We're competing with the best of the best in this market," says Chris McMahon, Vistaprint's senior director of global talent acquisition.
McMahon and his team aren't just interested in recruiting the top talent within the various categories that Vistaprint needs, however -- they want talent that will be likelier to stick around after they've joined the company. They also want to raise awareness of the company itself among the pools of candidates for whom it may not have immediate openings now, but most likely will in the future.
"Being able to identify and cultivate top talent and bring them on board -- we spend a lot of time and resources on that, and we consider it a big difference-maker for us," says McMahon.
Vistaprint has adopted a strategy that's gaining currency among a growing number of HR departments these days: building talent communities of passive candidates who are interested in working for a particular company and who want to learn more about it.
The most prominent exemplar of this strategy is Zappos, the Las Vegas-based online shoe retailer that created a stir earlier this year when it announced it was doing away with traditional job postings in favor of a talent community called Zappos Insiders.
If you're looking for a job at Zappos, the company doesn't just want to see your resume -- it wants to learn more about you as a person.
"We want to get to know you, whether there's a current opening or not!" reads the introduction to the Insider FAQ page on the retailer's website, under the headline "No more job postings?! What's up with that?"
"We wanna hear from you, chat with you and learn more about you . . . and job postings kinda get in the way of that!" it reads.
Zappos' recent decision to do away with traditional postings in favor of the new online community for people interested in working at the company represents the culmination of the talent-relationship-management trend in recruiting, in which employers and candidates (active and passive) are trying to get to know one another better, say experts.
"I don't think this is the future, per se, in that we will all drop job postings, but I am a fan of what Zappos is doing," says CareerXroads co-founder Gerry Crispin, who is personally acquainted with the recruiting leadership team at Zappos.
By replacing its job postings with a talent community, Zappos may avoid "resume customization," in which applicants alter their resumes to meet the job description, says Lisa Rowan, Framingham, Mass.-based IDC's research vice president for HR, talent and learning strategies.
Zappos Insiders replaces a traditional recruiting method that is "too transactional," Michael Bailen, who heads talent acquisition for the company, told the Wall Street Journal. "We spam them, they spam us," he said, referring to the traditional dynamic between job seekers and recruiters.
Approximately 31,000 people applied for jobs at Zappos last year; only 1.5 percent of them ended up getting hired, reports the WSJ.
Candidates are eager to learn more about companies they're thinking about applying to, says Elaine Orler, founder and president of Talent Function Group, a recruitment-consulting firm in San Diego. Orler, who -- along with Crispin -- oversees the annual Candidate Experience Awards, cites research from that project showing 44 percent of candidates saying they needed more time to research companies before applying, she says.
However, the No. 1 factor in making their decision was the job description, says Orler.
"I don't think the entire universe will switch over to the Zappos model, but many companies could adopt elements of it," she says.
Too many organizations continue to engage in what Orler labels "reactive recruiting."
"They're waiting for a job requisition to be posted before they go out and search for talent," she says. "We're going to start seeing those organizations lose the battle for the best and the brightest because what it takes now is a community and relationship mind-set -- 'post and pray' is no longer viable."
Talent communities, says Orler, offer HR a chance to ensure that talented candidates understand the company they're applying to just as much as the position they're interested in.
Thinking Inside the Box
At Vistaprint, McMahon and his team are focused on establishing relationships with members of the Boston technology community, with their initial priority being to build up awareness of the company itself.
The recruiting team has created talent communities specifically dedicated to 10 or so functional areas, including marketing and customer service as well as technology. Of the approximately 12,000 people who are members of the pools, 31 percent (or one in three) passive candidates have applied for jobs at Vistaprint so far. The communities are managed via iCIMS Connect, from Matawan, N.J.-based iCIMS.
"We've got a lot of great people and great data in the system," says McMahon.
Once they're in the community, however, keeping passive candidates engaged is another matter, say McMahon and Brandon Morrill, Vistaprint's senior manager of HR operations.
"We have people monitoring the pools on the back end, interacting via a combination of targeted email campaigns and sending out e-vites to candidate events," says Morrill.
HR works closely with Vistaprint's marketing department in creating email campaigns designed to capture attention, he says.
"We worked with marketing to push that out and had a really good response rate," says Morrill.
For technology candidates in the Boston area, Vistaprint has mounted its biggest talent-community event so far: a competition in which participants will compete for a $10,000 prize to design the smallest-possible shipping box that also contains at least three Vistaprint items.
"Winners will be chosen based on their creativity and efficiency," says McMahon, adding that more than 500 people viewed the open event and approximately 100 submitted the entry form. "The folks within our talent pool saw this as a great opportunity to interact with us."
The challenge ties in with Vistaprint's goal of hiring more staff for its e-commerce operation, which involves packaging and shipping products of varying sizes quickly and efficiently.
Coming up with the idea entailed close work between human resources and the company's marketing and engineering teams, says McMahon.
"The chance [was there] to change the conversation to, 'Here's what's going on in the market, here's something you can get excited about,' so that, when the time comes for us to fill a position, we already have that relationship," he says.
For call-center employees, Vistaprint has been able to compress the time required to handle the seasonal-hiring requirements for those centers, thanks to the 3,000 or so passive candidates in its call-center talent pool.
"These are people we've interviewed before who we liked but [who] might not have been the best fit for the role they'd applied for at the time," says McMahon.
At Raymour & Flanigan, the Liverpool, N.Y.-based furniture retailer is turning to the community approach in order to build up awareness of what it has to offer. It's begun using a product called The Q, from Wayne, Pa.-based SkillSurvey, that gives the company a chance to build relationships with talented passive candidates.
The Q is linked to SkillSurvey's Pre-Hire 360 online-reference tool, in which individuals chosen as references by candidates complete surveys in which they rate the candidates on a number of different factors. Clients can invite references who they feel are talented potential candidates to join The Q, so they can learn more about potential job opportunities with the company.
"We're taking every opportunity to promote our brand and interact with passive candidates in a positive way," says Jessica Carr, an organization-development specialist at Raymour & Flanigan.
"We try to give people an opportunity to interact directly with an associate or recruiter so they feel really good about the process -- what it will be and what they can expect at each step," says Holly Heinze-Coolican, the company's director of people development.
From Online to On-site
Attracting top candidates in the technology industry can be particularly daunting, simply because employers in that field are focusing so hard on employee engagement, says Kim Cassady, senior director of talent at software firm Cornerstone OnDemand in Santa Monica, Calif.
This, in turn, has forced companies to get creative in finding new ways of luring them away, she says.
"We need to create communities in which we can plant the seed of an idea of what it's like to work here," says Cassady.
Online social communities such as Stack Overflow (a networking site for programmers) are places where recruiters can at least build rapport with potential recruits without angering the community with blatant attempts to recruit, she says. "By engaging them in a community with which they're comfortable and familiar, rather than trying to get them to come to us, we're going to where their interests lie," says Cassady.
In this way, the company's recruiters can get to know where the developers' interests lie while getting the word out about the types of projects the company is working on and the tools they're using, she says.
"They get very intrigued when you're able to share the types of technology we're developing and working on," says Cassady. Often, that will lead them to start asking about the type of culture Cornerstone has and whether any opportunities are available, she says.
Sometimes, this even happens with talent holding jobs at companies "although we don't consciously set out for that to happen," says Cassady.
Cornerstone extends its community to the bricks-and-mortar realm by hosting events at its Santa Monica headquarters building, which was recently redesigned with an open-layout plan with lots of air and light, along with amenities such as a cafÃ©, movie theater and spaces designed to foster collaboration, she says.
Cornerstone has hosted local tech events such as Silicon Beach Fest and TechWeek LA, and has started its own event, LA Tech Summit. The company provides food and refreshment as well.
"When they come in and see our nontraditional work environment, it piques their interest," says Cassady.
"At the Speed of Marketing"
The emergence of talent communities is yet another signal that recruiting needs to change, says Orler. "The whole concept of recruiting has to be faster -- you have to be thinking at the speed of marketing, sales and business development," she says. "HR is still thinking at the speed of accounting, compensation and regulatory compliance."
There is a drawback to the talent-community approach, and that is inviting people to connect and never following up, says Orler. "The greatest risk is capturing all that information from candidates and then doing absolutely nothing with it," she says.
Recruiters who fail to follow up with candidates who've signaled interest in the organization are undermining the strategy, says Orler. And if your talent community goes longer than a week without fresh material, candidates will stop checking in, she says.
Orler suggests three "best practices" for talent communities:
First, ensure that all automated messages going to candidates have a "personal touch," even if they're machine-generated, she says. This could include messages asking for additional input by the candidates. "There's so many ways to cultivate candidates to make it seem as if they're connecting with a real person -- it's web community 101, really," says Orler.
Second, you need to ensure your recruiters are properly supported so they can make best use of the model, she says.
"Recruiters need to be trained to create relationships -- they need to be able to carve out the necessary time for doing that, and they need to be held accountable for it," says Orler.
Finally, the different modules within the recruiting function need to be well-integrated so candidate data flows seamlessly between them, she says.
"If you put all this effort into ... outreach with candidates only to send them to the applicant-tracking system and they have a horrible experience, that can be the worst thing," says Orler.