By Dave Zielinski

LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus have become familiar hunting grounds for most recruiters. But today, more-enterprising talent professionals are going beyond the “big four” to unearth talented passive candidates who demonstrate their abilities on lesser-known industry niche sites.

Recruiters are using candidates’ social footprints to find information that supplements or even replaces traditional skill assessment techniques. The information may come in the form of work samples posted in online repositories, responses to peers’ questions on industry-specific forums, blogs, tweets and more.

The goal is to use social data to better gauge who’s considered an expert by their peers, to see evidence of candidates’ actual work and to identify people with a passion for their jobs.

Beyond the Mainstream

Recruiters often miss opportunities when they use only mainstream social sites, said Katrina Collier of Winning Impression, a London-based social media recruiting company. “The question people should ask is, ‘Where are my top passive candidates likely to spend most of their time online?’ rather than just going to one of the big networks and expecting them to be there,” Collier said.

For example, despite the popularity of LinkedIn, passive candidates in some professions either don’t use the site or create only bare-bones personal profiles there.

“Most great software developers don’t spend much time marketing themselves; they’re far more interested in their technology,” said Jason Pistulka, director of recruiting for Asurion, a technology protection services company in Nashville, Tenn. “We’ve hired a number of developers who either didn’t have a LinkedIn profile or, if they had a profile, it wouldn’t have warranted a follow-up. These were passive candidates who were very much underground.”

But those software developers do spend time on industry-specific sites like GithubStackoverflow or Bitbucket, where they create and store open-source code and respond to questions from their peers. To find promising candidates frequenting the sites, Pistulka uses the services of Gild, a San Francisco-based company that aggregates social data scattered across the Web.

Gild identifies candidates and sends them to Pistulka in ranked order of potential by requested geography. The ranking is based on the quality of publicly shared, open-source code they store in repositories like Github; how these passive candidates answer peers’ questions on industry-specific sites; their past job roles; and more.

“They use many of the same tools our own quality assurance group does to test the quality of open-source code,” Pistulka said. “Our hiring managers also can look at the actual code to rate it for elegance or efficiency. It helps us unearth hard-to-find developer candidates and match them to needs of the organization.” The process also increases the odds that the candidates he brings in for interviews will pass crucial technical tests, Pistulka said, boosting his interview-to-hire ratio.

Industry experts believe new sourcing strategies can provide a valuable supplement to traditional skill assessment approaches.

“New technologies are allowing companies to index passive candidates that are best-in-class in their respective fields and then find creative ways to connect with them,” said Elaine Orler, president of Talent Function, a recruiting consulting company in San Diego. “Where the social data is peer-to-peer or product-related, and when it’s clear that a candidate’s answers to peer questions in online forums regularly solve challenging problems, that becomes a valid marker on their ability to do the work.

“But, of course,” she cautions, “it’s not a marker on whether they’ll be a good cultural fit.”

Not Just Technical Jobs

Tech jobs aren’t the only ones for which recruiters can use social data to find passive candidates. Experts believe people working in many other professions regularly share their work online, blog or post answers to peers’ questions—and leave valuable evidence of their skill and motivation levels.

Collier said the graphic design field is one example; professionals in that field post their work portfolios online on sites like Behance. “If you are recruiting those types of candidates, they typically won’t be on some of the bigger sites because they’re restricted in the type of the work they can post and how long they can post it,” Collier said. “But on these niche sites, you can review their best work and then try to engage with them.” can be a good starting point for identifying where passive candidates spend their time online. “What industry forums might they frequent, and what’s the proper way to engage them there?” she said.

Candidates in fields like accounting typically aren’t big on self-promotion, but they might share their knowledge on industry-specific sites, Orler said. “They usually don’t create detailed LinkedIn profiles that highlight all of their successes,” she said. “Because they deal with compliance, there often is more confidentiality involved.”

Predicting Passion

Some recruiters also believe social data can be a good predictor of candidates’ motivation levels. Pistulka said it helps him separate software developers who “will do” the work from those who “can do” jobs, a distinction he uses that measures people’s passion for the work.

“Because of where our social data is pulled from, such as repositories where developers actually create code for fun in their free time, you tend to find people with more passion about development than you might find in your typical developer,” Pistulka said.

Drew Koloski, director of talent acquisition for XO Group Inc., a life stage media and technology company in New York, has used social data aggregator TalentBin as a source for hiring three software engineers in recent months. He used the data to discover information such as how much time candidates invest in the open-source coding community.

“It allows us to get a contextual relevance for engineers via information available across all the social networks they use,” Koloski said. “It also means we don’t have to blanket-message candidates or risk sending a Ruby on Rails engineering job to someone who is a Python language developer.”

The biggest challenge for recruiting leaders can be getting their staffs to buy into these new sourcing strategies. “Recruiters are creatures of habit, and this requires a strategy different than many are used to,” Pistulka said. “You have to be enterprising, since it can mean pulling together information from many different sources on the social Web.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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