512px-owly-binoculars-newHootsuite, a high growth, high tech employer based in Vancouver has emerged as one of the most widely used social business platforms on the market. Its enterprise social monitoring and publishing tools have fueled the company’s explosive growth from bootstrap to big brand, from start-up to social success story.

In under four years, Hootsuite has grown from under 20 employees to over 700, with plans to hire hundreds more global employees in 12 countries in 2015 alone.

That kind of growth would be daunting enough for pretty much every employer, but as the head of talent for Hootsuite, Ambrosia Humphrey faces a few unenviable talent attraction challenges

The first is that there’s a pretty limited pool of developers and coders available in Vancouver, a city that has seen an explosion of start-ups and bigger players competing for the same finite number of candidates, since its proximity to Seattle still doesn’t make getting a Canadian work visa for an international employee any easier. It doesn’t help that the cost of living in Vancouver is among the highest in the West Coast, or that most homegrown tech talent is concentrated around the technical colleges clustered in Southern Ontario (the exact other end of the second largest country).

These challenges are big, but while they’re still unique to Hootsuite, the company also faces the same challenges of attracting and retaining candidates with the skills required to take a high growth, high tech company and build a big enough business for a potential IPO. That’s hard no matter where you are, as you already know if you know anything about the labor market at the moment. And if you’re reading this, well, no need to tell you how tough tech recruiting really is out there.

But Hootsuite must be doing something right, and a lot of that credit goes to the fact that even against those already daunting odds, Ambrosia and her team have taken the company from bootstrap to brand name. We’re talking dozens and dozens of really specialized, really skilled and hard to source hires from all over the world. To Vancouver. To work at a start-up. In social media.

Which means I’ve got nothing but mad props for Ambrosia and her team. And, of course, I wanted to know how in the hell she managed to sit at the intersection of tech hiring, social media and startup recruiting and still have the kind of success – and passion – that she’s managed to achieve while still keeping her sanity and sense of humor. Seriously.

I finally got the chance to sit down to speak with her about her role at Hootsuite and talk shop about some of the things she’s done to simultaneously confront – and successfully overcome – some of the most pervasive talent attraction challenges.

Recruiting Daily: Tell us a little bit about your social recruiting journey. What’s working for you? Any advice for recruiters just starting to think about this stuff?

ambrosiaAmbrosia Humphrey, VP of Talent – Hootsuite: Early on, we adopted the philosophy that everyone is a recruiter, and everyone is responsible for bringing in talent. We talk a lot about “brand ambassadors,” which is easy when you’re a small employer, but growth requires a different strategy.

It’s becoming very difficult to engage people out on social media. Take Twitter. We have 42 different handles and 7 hashtags here at Hootsuite, and that’s just for one company. So the real questions we have to be asking when we look at social is why anyone should pay attention to ours and respond to an ask, which is hard enough to do even when you’re not hiring hundreds of people like we are.

The key for us is building content, conversations and community. Content is king, and people engage with content – and the most successful content all includes photos or video. We don’t have a dedicated team for employer branding, and no one really ‘owns’ it – we’ve been doing it grassroots.

We think since we’re already building a brand here at Hootsuite, we can work around creating a believable employer brand story with existing assets Hootsuite has already built. 

RD: Speaking of your employer brand story, how do your employees fit in when it comes to telling that story? How has becoming a global company impacted that story or how it’s shared on social? 

AH: Our new career page is our calling card, because it allows us to create a separate careers site that’s not just another piece of marketing material. We can really bridge the divide between what Hootsuite says we are as a company and what employees actually think we are.

We’ve created the #HootsuiteLife hashtag, which helps us also track and attribute hires directly to social media. From that, we’ve seen we can attribute a significant number of our hires to people who have actually searched for this hashtag and read this content before they applied.

That means getting our employees involved. All Hootsuite employees are educated on the purpose of this hashtag and what we want to show: fun in the office, our global expansion to places like London, Bucharest, Australia and Brazil. We’re quite a big company, but we’re also quite a young company. That means we don’t have this huge marketing machine to help us localize employer branding. As we mature, that’s going to become more of a focus, but we’ve found that #HoosuiteLife translates globally.

It helps us show that we’re not just pumping our own tires in our recruitment marketing materials, and that all our employees are stakeholders in recruiting – having a global hashtag helps us make sure we’re not focusing too much on Vancouver.

We want employees who don’t work at our headquarters to be heard – and they won’t if no one’s listening.

RD: Obviously, you’re doing a lot of the kind of cool, cutting edge stuff on social and career sites, but let’s go back to the basics. How do these stack up against more traditional recruiting strategies?

AH: I think ideally they are just different elements of the same effort, really. We have a series of #HootHire events, which are basically open house hiring fairs, but we really use social to fuel those and build awareness and engagement with attendees.

We get a lot of PR from this sort of thing, but we’re not casting out the net for coverage. That’s not our goal. It’s about building a community around the places we’re already at, and we deputize our advocates to spread news about our events and raise awareness organically.

These hiring events really are community events, and that helps our #HootHire hashtag trend across Canada and build a ton of buzz. At our last event, we had helicopters covering our career fair from CBC News, the biggest broadcaster in the country.

I’m sure you’re wondering what’s newsworthy (or new) about a career fair, but it’s really about building a social buzz and making the community feel like they’re a part of ours. It also helps us tell our employees’ stories, not just our own.

It is one example of many initiatives we have where the idea might be traditional but the approach has changed. Low cost, high impact, and fueled by social.

RD: So you’ve got some buzz, but come on – does that really translate to hires? It’s hard to imagine many qualified candidates coming in from something like a career fair, even for a company like Hootsuite that’s got such a well known brand.

AH: Our job in recruiting isn’t to control the brand – it’s to create a community. At our last event alone, we had over a thousand attendees, and of those, we made 85 new hires. We hire holistically across our organization, and these kind of events are great for hiring roles like sales and customer support.

We’ve probably pretty much saturated the Vancouver market by now, but we want our models to scale globally, and in all markets these hiring open houses provide a great yield in terms of results by offering candidates a foot in the door by getting to meet us, and a chance for us to get to meet and know candidates we might not otherwise be able to reach through something like social media alone.

We don’t do these for attention, we don’t do these for goodwill – we’re going for hires and those don’t always show up to an event with an audience. #HootHire events are what we call “The Bat Signal” – we send out a beacon so every job seeker hopefully can see it, even if top talent doesn’t always show up. But there are always a few diamonds in the rough that create a really high ROI.

I can’t think of another way to get 4,000 applications submitted, 1200 in-person informational meetings and 85 hires without spending money anywhere else in recruiting. The challenge is definitely getting through the volume which does take dedicated time and effort by everyone.

RD: Talk to us a little bit about how you build a “social organization” and what impact, if any, that’s had on recruiting or retention at Hoot Suite.

HootSuite-CurlingAH: We really thrive on referrals and rely on our employees to support our global hyper-growth. When we’re bringing new people in all the time and sharing training with them on how to use social and make social media a part of the onboarding process, it only makes it that much easier.

We spend a lot of time at Hootsuite making sure that we build social media as a core competency for every role in the workplace, and that there’s no fear around social engagement or usage for any of our new employees.

It’s important to note that we actually engage our long term employees a little differently on social; while we still utilize them for referrals, we find they’re much more interested in using social media to share their voices and speak to our sense of purpose.Social engagement tracks very differently across the employee life cycle, and this really effects things like referrals, because social media usage differs so much between our new and longer serving employees.

We think engagement is critical, and our refer-to-hire ratio is 90%, which means 90% of our employees would refer a friend to work here. In fact, the percentage of hires made from employee referrals is currently 40%.

RD: So what does it take to actually keep employees engaged? Seems like we hear a lot about it being a problem, but don’t often get any solutions for solving it.

AH: When we survey our employees, we find that social interactions, both on and offline, is one of the top drivers of engagement. If it wasn’t, then we’re not drinking our own Kool-Aid because culturally, anyone who doesn’t like interacting on social media is likely not a good fit for Hootsuite.

We work to empower employees by sharing what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how they can help – and always reminding them that they engage in their individual way, not with a canned company line to tow.

Our leadership team is very committed to helping use social to get our message out, and their involvement is a huge competitive advantage. It’s also helped align our recruiting and social recruiting objectives with the company’s bigger business goals, and it’s also helped us cut way down on third party recruiters.

We don’t pressure or reward our employees to participate in social engagement, and there’s no incentive for doing it, but we’ve deliberately placed the onus as an organization on using social to put stuff out there that’s valuable to employees so they want to share, as well as creating content our candidates are actually interested in. What a product marketer cares about may be very different than what a software engineer cares about, so different things will trigger their engagement.

We try to track trending topics so we can know what’s cool, what’s relevant and what employees are actually going to share. We just make sure that when we have an ask, we’re careful about how we do it, because even the most social companies shouldn’t be putting out anything that’s too self-promotional.

The key is not to come out guns blazing and realize that you can’t make anything go “viral.” All you can hope for is to add value.

RD: Finally, let’s finish with a cliché. As a talent leader, what’s keeping you up at night? Other than owls, of course.

hootsuite-downAH: What’s keeping me up at night? A ton, but the big thing is scale – how can we scale quickly and effectively without compromising what’s working for us? We will be in 12 countries next year and the obstacles increase or pivot every time we move into a new region.

What we need to do is build a strategy that can be supported from a framework and compliance standpoint, but also empowered by local efforts.

We also want to allow global regions to have autonomy to do what they need to move the business forward, with a little support from us on helping with what we think will work, and learning from each other.

We are also focused on spending more time partnering with our customers and listening to what they need as our product expands.

We’re looking ahead holistically, and our bet is that the more education we can deliver to employees, the more successful our social media can be – and we’re helping bring that approach to other companies through our professional services team and using our collective knowledge from our experience at Hootsuite to show them what success looks like on social… at least from our lens.

From a social use perspective, there’s no template we’re following as the space is still being defined around us. Even though we’ve been successful so far, we’re not immune to challenges – we’ve had the same issues other companies have had, the same problem behaviors as other people, but the key is that even when we hit a roadblock, it doesn’t scare off our employees from social. We iterate and partner to build a better practice.

The bigger employers, the enterprise organizations who are more complex sometimes get stuck on social because they have a hard time tying in social media with their existing business objectives, have no idea to track it, or their employees are afraid to use social at all. Those companies see the potential PR nightmares and hear the horror stories and think, “What’s the point?”

We’re still learning, but the point is, we believe social is already revolutionizing the way businesses communicate, and there’s no better time to figure out how to make that a competitive advantage than right now.

We’re going to keep hustling to help shift that perspective, and find like-minded folks to join us along the way.

By Matt Charney

Matt serves as Chief Content Officer and Global Thought Leadership Head for Allegis Global Solutions and is a partner for RecruitingDaily the industry leading online publication for Recruiting and HR Tech. With a unique background that includes HR, blogging and social media, Matt Charney is a key influencer in recruiting and a self-described “kick-butt marketing and communications professional.”