In this Q&A session, Hung Lee and Alan Walker discuss how building a personal brand can help with both short-term goals and long-term career aspirations, and how growing a community needs the right approach – but the benefits can be amazing.

Hung Lee is the founder of recruiting tech platform, Workshape.io, and also runs the newsletter community, Recruiting Brainfood.

Q: Recruiting Brainfood has grown at an impressive rate over the last couple years because of the great content you’ve been curating for it, as has your personal brand. How important do you think personal brand is nowadays, particularly for a leader in the TA space?

A: It’s increasingly important because we are now dealing with people who are in a permanently distracted condition and it doesn’t matter whether you’re addressing people outside or within your company – everyone is paying 30% attention to what you have to say. A big part of what I’ve learned in my Recruiting Brainfood journey, is that getting people to pay attention is key. This makes sense for people working in recruitment in particular, because one of the biggest problems is capturing candidates’ attention.

Q: So how can a recruiter make their personal brand more well-known?

A: You can split personal branding into two: the first part is the stuff you want to be known for i.e. content creation/curation. Number two is the network that you have (distribution power). People who often make mistakes in personal branding, focus solely on the first part – building content, writing blogs etc. without paying enough attention to the distribution.

I’ve been there; spending weeks writing a blog, only to have five people read it. It’s crushing because you think it’s going to make real industry impact. However, getting people’s attention isn’t just about creating great stuff, it’s also about thinking about where the network is and how you can build relationships that help you get that attention in the first place.

Q: How can you build those relationships?

A: Contrary to popular belief, these relationships can accelerate faster than you think – relationship development is not about duration, it’s about the number of significant events that occur within a certain time frame. The wonderful thing about the social web, is that it’s possible to create these events easily – small micro-events can help develop a relationship that would otherwise be the product of anonymous email or faceless call.

Q: Could an example of a micro-event be a comment on someone’s blog?

A: Exactly. You could even go more passive than that e.g. if we were both on the same social network and you posted something, I wouldn’t necessarily need to interact with that post, to know that you posted it. That would be a micro-event that would help me build trust on who you are and it would also help us have further conversations – I would now have some material to talk to you about. Social media gives you the ability to rapidly accelerate relationships and that’s often underestimated, even by recruiters.

Q: Does converting an acquaintance into a strong relationship take multiple touch points?

A: Yes, there are studies that show that, ultimately, people make decisions with the familiarity bias – it’s one of the most well-understood cognitive biases out there. It’s the idea that we’re much more likely to trust things or people that we are familiar with. So, to put it in a recruiting context, if a candidate receives an email and recognises the recruiter’s name or picture in some way, then maybe they’ll open the email instead of binning it. Personal branding is critical for one of the current crises in recruitment: how to get people to listen to your message.

Q: What triggered the idea for building the Recruiting Brainfood community?

A: I realised that the internet had simply got too big! It was very difficult to find interesting bits of content around the world of recruiting, because of all the other noise. I thought ‘You know what? Maybe there’s a way to make the internet smaller for me.’ Brainfood really started off as a bookmarking exercise, where I came across decent bits of information I wanted to read but couldn’t consume right there and then.

It then occurred to me that there were probably a thousand other people in the same boat, where they couldn’t consume great content immediately. Brainfood  was a way of me opening this up and sharing great content. It was an easy jump to create a newsletter.

Q: What are the personal benefits?

A: There have been indirect and direct benefits: an indirect benefit has been that people give me more time of day and as such, I’m much more able to have conversations with people that are super busy themselves because they know who I am, linking back to this ‘familiarity’ we’ve spoken about.

It occurred to me maybe a year ago that I’d been sending this email into people’s inboxes every week for about a year and, even though this person may not have responded, there’s kind of an asymmetrical relationship being built, where they now know who I am. This person might be a future customer/partner and that’s massively powerful because it means that whenever I do need to have a conversation with this person, I don’t need to pitch myself in. One of the most awkward things about any business is having to establish that you’re worth someone’s time.

It’s the awful experience of having to do that mini-audition by email or phone and it can be demoralising.  So that seems have gone away now, I can now open this conversation up very easily – that’s the one of the major benefits.

In terms of direct benefits, I get stuff coming my way because I’m top or close to top of mind when people think about a particular industry problem. No question, it’s been super valuable.

Q: What are your tips for recruitment teams looking to build communities?

A: I’m going to say a few things that might not be a popular opinion but I think they’re true. Firstly, you can only build a community when the members of that community self-identify as being part of it, so I think one reason why a lot of brands fail is because they want to create a community around their brand and actually, most people don’t walk around thinking they’re Santander people for example, regardless of whether or not they’re consuming a particular banking product.

Communities need to be based on identity and that’s usually a job role or particular passion on a topic. Think about where self-identity occurs – that’s where you can build community.

The second thing is that communities are inherently exclusionary from the point of creation. This can be achieved purely through the things you talk about e.g. I want to create a club of people who care about football, so I just keep talking about football, which will deter people who aren’t interested in football – that is exclusionary.

It’s one of those ‘harsh but true’ thing; if you want to create a community, you’ll need to apply some rules to give your audience the comfort that they can converse with likeminded people. 

Q: What can you do to make sure your community stays active?

A: You’ve got to care about the people. One of the problems for ‘artificial communities,’ is that they place too much focus on ROI, which, although totally natural, is part of the reason why companies can really struggle to create successful communities. The best communities tend to arise ground up.

For example, let’s say you have a project plan to create a vibrant community – there’s someone looking over your shoulder asking, ‘how is that going?’ The reality is, you probably can’t tell how it’s going; there may not be visible ROI in terms of revenue, for a long period of time. So, I think it really helps if people who are involved in building communities are truly passionate. If they are, the right techniques will emerge as a result of the passion – you’ve got to care about the topic.

Q: How do you consistently gauge your community’s interests?

A: Community management and moderation is a discipline and skill set –you have to respond, you have to engage and you have to provide some leadership actually. I, personally, do not find this overly natural because I like to observe things, rather than be the guy charging to the front.

However, sometimes people are not going to make the decision to go forward without the moderator or community manager saying ‘okay we’re doing this now,’ so that requires you to do those types of leadership-style activities.

Q: Is it worth looking at partnering with other communities?

A: Absolutely. Anthropology dictates that communities are not discrete; tribes intermingle. Depending on your topic area, I think it’s perfectly possible to be involved in multiple communities and have that cross-fertilization. I think it absolutely makes sense, although you might want to keep some distinction between the two and ensure you’re creating a unique experience to avoid any kind of merger. It’s fascinating how communities can evolve.

Q: How can building a community benefit a recruitment team?

A: Some of the most interesting agencies I’ve seen are actually really good at building community, particularly in the vertical they recruit for. In fact, there are a couple of businesses right now that have done such a good job, that they’re now the de-facto agencies to go to if I’m looking for a ‘head of’ product, or I’m looking for a developer using ‘x’ technology.

This because they already have access to said community in a richer way than anyone else. Anybody else might have the same data but they don’t have the same relationship – that’s the different between community and a database.

Community has the potential to transform a moribund database into its something much more effective and will therefore be, theoretically better at recruiting it.

Q: Does the same apply for in-house teams?

A: I would say so. You can’t build a community for every single role you recruit for and you’ll need to decide which route you want to take. One route might be to build a community to create brand fans. This is difficult to do but not impossible. There are companies out there that are more well-known for their culture than for their product – these companies develop a following because people want to learn about how they’ve built that organisation.

Another route would be to do it for roles that you know you have a persistent hiring need for e.g. if you’re sort of business that is always going to recruit a certain type of person, you’re always going to want to speak to said type of person, irrespective of whether you have an open job vacancy or not. I would say that’s a place where you should start thinking about community building because that’s where you need to have long term relationships, which will ultimately provide you with the pipeline of talent you need.

Q: Finally, does building a community have the potential to produce greater ROI than using a recruitment agency?

A: It has been very interesting to watch B2B tech firms, particularly companies that provide data or services to other tech businesses – they were the first to think about this, creating brand evangelist roles. They were typically ex-developers, whose role was not actually to develop or recruit but rather to face the community, listen to the community and make sure that their brand was positioned in the right way.

Of course, this leads to recruitment opportunities because the relationships are getting built if the brand evangelist is effective. As the company brand gets more familiar, you should be able to have more effective dialogue than an anonymous business.