Jason Averbook flies around the country advising major corporations how to weave social networks and Web 2.0 tools into recruiting and other human-resources practices. So when Averbook needed to add staff to his 50-person HR industry consulting firm recently, he knew he had to practice what he preached.

Instead of going through traditional channels, Averbook updated the 'Status' section of his profiles on three social networking sites, Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo, to show he was 'desperately' seeking new employees. It worked. He got 19 qualified candidates in two days, compared to the five that his Minneapolis-based firm, Knowledge Infusion, attracted through a job listing on their website over the past three months. 'Based on interviews that are already happening I predict we'll end up hiring some of them,' Averbook says.

Like Knowledge Infusion, other small businesses are using social networks to recruit employees at all levels. Because networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo and Ning cost little or nothing to join, there's no reason small and mid-sized businesses shouldn't try them for recruiting purposes, according to recruiting industry sources.

According to Averbook and others, the key is building up a large circle of co-workers, former co-workers, friends, industry associates, customers and 'people you run into on airplanes' so when you do have a job opening, you can tap into a group that already knows you and your company, Averbook says.

Another advantage of using social networks: showing candidates that even though you're small, you can be as 'bleeding edge' as a much larger enterprise, Averbook says.

Recruiting efforts start on in-house networks

At nGenera, a venture-backed Austin, Texas, company that makes a suite of Web-based business software, recruiting starts at home. The year-old business uses applicant-tracking software from Jobvite to broadcast information on job openings over its company intranet to 537 employees, half of whom work from home. Employees can use Jobvite to forward the information to any email address in their Microsoft Outlook address book -- and earn a referral bonus if someone they know ends up taking the job.

Katie Tierney, nGenera's recruiting manager and a dedicated online networker, also uses Twitter, the combination micro-blogging and networking service, to announce when she has openings for software developers or other positions. She also uses Summize, a Twitter search engine, to comb through Twitter feeds for people talking about subjects related to jobs she's trying to fill 'and figure out if it's someone I want to approach,' she says.

nGenera maintains a fan page on Facebook and an nGenera group on LinkedIn. Because they don't cost anything, it's easy to experiment. Even when things haven't worked out it's led to publicity for the company, such as the time an nGenera recruiter auctioned off a potato chip with a burn mark in the shape of the state of Texas on eBay and donated the proceeds to Austin's city parks. The stunt didn't net any new recruiters, but it was a morale booster for existing employees, says Susie Buehler, nGenera's chief people officer. 'With more Gen Ys coming in, we hear from employees that it's important to them that the company has a social conscious,' and if they're happy they'll tell their friends, Buehler says.

Recruiters almost universally shun MySpace, the granddaddy of social networks, because the demographic -- think high school kids and younger -- isn't what they're looking for, and because 'it's too noisy,' audibly and visually, nGenera's Tierney says.

Tips and tricks

Although Facebook and LinkedIn are the biggies, recruiters suggest that companies investigate niche social networks that have cropped up to serve specific professionals or regions of the country. Tierney belongs to two, RecruitingBlogs.com, and Minnesota Recruiters, which is part of Ning. Inc.com's sister publication, Fast Company, now also operates a social network.

Other recruiting suggestions:

  • Be prepared to act quickly. According to Knowledge Infusion's Averbook, A and B level talent are the mostly likely users of online social networks, and the most sought after candidates. 'Whether you're big or small, the faster you get to the A-grade talent the better off you are,' Averbook says.
  • Think instant. Use instant messaging, texting, and other instant forms of communication, which resonate with Gen Y-age workers, says Pat Meehan, an executive recruiter in Evansville, Ind. 'They respond much faster to these media as opposed to phone calls, e-mails or voice mail,' Meehan says.
  • Finding leads is just the start. Make sure to go through your normal interview process, says Bob Lenthart, president of Derek Hart Ventures LLC, an Atlanta-area publishing company, who recruits through LinkedIn and ecademy, a business networking Website.

Sidebar: Online Social Networks

Here are some online social networks companies can use for recruiting purposes:

Bebo - 40 million registered users

Classmates.com - 50 million registered users

Facebook - 80 million registered users

Friendster - 65 million registered users

LinkedIn - 22 million registered users

Ning - Registered users not disclosed

Plaxo - 15 million registered users