Once the preferred communications channel of a small minority, social media is now the preferred choice of many. Not only has it changed the way we keep in touch in our personal lives, it is increasingly being used by to streamline communication within the business environment.

In many ways, and in spite of all the hype, social media is really about good old-fashioned networking. The difference lies in the tools we use. And just like old-fashioned networking social media networking only works if you connect meaningfully with people.

The majority of employers recruiting online use their own website and job boards to recruit. Using job boards is by far the most common and effective method of recruiting online. Job boards work because they bring recruiters in contact with people who are looking for new jobs.

And until recently, my company was no different to everyone else. Our recruitment strategy incorporated agencies, advertising on job boards and schemes like employee referrals.

It’s fair to say that the business landscape has been on a financial rollercoaster for the past two years and we suffered along with the rest. Fortunately in the summer of 2009 our sales rose significantly and we need to recruit for many positions, at all levels across the company. Our challenge was not only to find the right people but to do it cost-effectively and efficiently too.

A recent report by SimplyHired found that more than half the country’s jobseekers use social media to assist them in their job searches. And 31% of them specified LinkedIn. A similar report published by ComScore in July 2009, estimated that 80 percent of the total U.K. online population visit social network sites at least once a month and do so for an average of 4.6 hours.

These statistics set me thinking. I explored various avenues and all roads led to social media. Not only could it connect my company with people who were actively looking to move, it had the potential to reach people who were already in a job and happy in that job – and therefore not on job boards or looking at our careers website. Social media would give us access to what recruiters term the ‘passive’ candidate.

If you’ve never engaged with social media, it can be difficult to know where to start. I learnt three key lessons along the way:

  1.  Know what you’re looking for

This might sound obvious but before you begin to engage with any social media channels for recruitment, it’s important to make sure that the people you are looking for are actually using social media. It’s not for everyone. Beyond the obvious generalist social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, there are thousands of smaller niche communities, blogs, groups and other platforms that might offer a more targeted audience. Look beyond the obvious.

I identified LinkedIn as the most appropriate social media partner for my company. As newcomers to social media its high level of transparency and strong partnership approach gave us much-needed confidence. In addition, although some of our competitors were dabbling in social media, none were using LinkedIn in the way that we were planning to do.

  1.  Keep it personal

By its very definition, social media is all about making connections and working those friendships to find or get to quality candidates. The best way of making connections is by keeping it personal. Communicate and connect in a meaningful and thoughtful manner.

The best and easiest way of doing this is to find places and people who share an interest in your business or industry and participate and engage with others in that community. Since we started our campaign with LinkedIn, we have increased our profile, gathering nearly 1,500 followers to date. And the majority of managers and sales staff have profiles on LinkedIn (35% of the total UK workforce).

  1.  Be active

Unlike traditional media where you simply advertise something and wait for response, using social media is far more active. Whether you start a blog or post an article, to make the most of social media you need to work at it. But as my first point, to be effective in your social recruitment strategy you must ensure that the channels you are using are the right ones for your candidates and that you are engaging with them effectively.

Social media has transformed the way my company approaches recruitment. When I are looking for the best talent I now have the visibility of the majority of the market place. This means I can understand the comparability and availability of the talent. In addition, it has enabled me to dramatically reduce the time and costs of hiring.

Embracing social media has not only allowed my company to shape an entirely new recruitment strategy but the groups, forums and profiles has helped move our communications, marketing and organisation forward in more positive ways than I could ever have thought. Give it a try. It could do the same for your company too.