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October 12, 2004
Online communities sell stuff. That is why eBay recently bought a 25% stake in Craigslist, the homegrown community site that began in San Francisco in 1995 and is now flourishing in 45 cities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. Not only does Craigslist help people sell refrigerators and used cars, it helps recruiters sell their employment opportunities, as well. In fact, the site was selected as a Weddle's User's Choice Award winner in 2004, which means it is among the 30 top job boards, according to a poll of both recruiters and job seekers.
Outside of the Internet, almost everyone participates in a "community," so we all have at least a vague idea of what one is. Whether it is a small town or a city block, a neighborhood or a college dorm, we know where our community begins and ends – and what to expect inside it. But do those familiar notions also define a community on the Internet? And why are online communities so effective at bringing buyers and sellers together? If we recruiters can find the answers to those questions, they will be better able to put online communities to work in sourcing top talent.
An online community creates the same sentiment of membership at a spot in cyberspace – a web site – that a traditional community creates in the real world. When people are present in the community, they feel as if they are interacting with others they know and trust. Although they may actually be acquainted with only a few of the community's members – their neighbors in the real world and those with whom they exchange e-mail online – they believe that all or most of its members share a sense of belonging to the community and that most will do what they can to help and support the group's members. In other words, the community gives those who participate the experience of being connected in a beneficial relationship.
That experience is what makes an online community such a powerful recruiting platform. The familiarity and trust that a community's members feel for one another extends to whatever happens there. They don't give up their consumer savvy or their self-interest, but they are willing to give more attention and credence to the advertising they read and the offers that are made inside the community. It is a "safe" environment, and that sense of security predisposes them to pay attention to and consider a job posting they would probably have ignored someplace else.
How is this experience created? On the Internet, communities often evolve from pre-established relationships in the real world. Some of the most effective online communities, for example, occur at the web sites of professional associations and societies. Others, however, have sprung up on the Internet and exist only there. These include newsgroups and web sites that focus on a specific cohort of the population, such as veterans or those who share a common ethnic background.
Regardless of their origin, all of these groups have three characteristics in common. These characteristics create the foundation for the community's relationships; they are the source of that sense of connectedness. To be an online community, then, a site must be:
When a web site establishes a "brand" that has all of these characteristics, it is transformed into an online community, a place where even the most passive of candidates feels as if he or she has beneficial relationships. This is why association, college alumni, affinity and other niche or specialty sites can regularly connect you with high-caliber candidates you can only occasionally reach at a traditional job board. And that is why some of the more progressive job boards are developing communities of their own so the best and brightest will feel right at home on their sites.
So how can recruiters use this information to improve the quantity and quality of their yield online? First, you can use the characteristics to find and evaluate a whole new set of online communities for our use in sourcing. While surveys now show that recruiters normally post their openings on a number of job boards, they also indicate that recruiters have yet to tap a wide range of community sites. As with anything else, however, there are good communities and there are lousy ones. Knowing what makes a successful community, therefore, will help us to identify other Craigslists on the Web, where we can effectively sell our organization to prospective employees. Sometimes that selling will be done with job postings, and other times it will be done by online networking. Whatever the method, the more top-flight communities we use, the greater our reach into high-value cohorts of the candidate population.
Second, you can use the characteristics to build your own communities. While online communities operated by associations and affinity groups will always be helpful in sourcing good candidates, you have to share them with other recruiters, including competitors. You can eliminate that disadvantage, however, by bringing some of your most important communities in house. For example, if an organization is always looking for good salespeople, it can give itself access to a continuous flow of top prospects by creating a community for them on its own corporate web site. To be genuine, of course, the community must be tribal, helpful and nonjudgmental, so the recruiting staff will need to involve select co-workers (such as some of the "A"-level salespeople in the organization) who can help to make those characteristics the norm. That involvement represents an investment, to be sure, but it is modest compared to its return: a private, gated community where you can sell your employer to the best and brightest in the field.
Communities work because they provide an experience that is familiar and comfortable. That experience, in turn, creates a "halo of trust" that diminishes the impersonal feel and potential risk of buying online. Recruiters who understand and respect the core characteristics of that environment will reach and sell cohorts of the population that other recruiters can only dream of.
– Mr. Weddle is an author and commentator, and publishes Weddle's, a newsletter about successful online recruiting.
This article is reprinted by permission from CareerJournal.com © 2004 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.
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