The SAPLING Approach to Leveraging Social Media

Everybody's doing it. Should you?

  • Are you trying to decide whether to create a stronger digital presence?
  • Have you dabbled with social media but aren’t sure what to do next?
  • Have you experimented with different tools and technologies and find you’re disappointed by the results?

If you (or someone you know) can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone.

In fact, you have lots of company! In spite of all the media attention and exhortations from social media enthusiasts, the vast majority of individuals and organizations have not leveraged the available tools and technologies in any significant way. 

This is especially true when it comes to managing their careers and/or running the groups and organizations of which they’re a part. What’s holding them back?

  • Lack of understanding of social media and/or its potential benefits
  • Uncertainty where or how to begin
  • Concerns about risks
  • Resource challenges (esp. time)
  • Concerns about whether efforts will pay off

The SAPLING Approach

The SAPLING Approach provides a general guide for individuals, groups, and organizations to establish and manage a strong digital presence. SAPLING is an imperfect acronym, but a useful mnemonic for remembering the necessary steps to developing and executing a social media strategy. The approach can be used whether you’re just starting out or if you’ve already engaged and want to refine and improve your approach.

This blog post highlights some of the key elements to the approach. Please click here for a more complete treatment of these ideas on SlideShare

(click image to enlarge)

Here are select tips from each phase in the SAPLING approach to leveraging social media.


  • Identify (or clarify) your goals and objectives, irrespective of technology.
  • Obtain a solid understanding of what social media is, as well as its potential applications.
  • Make a high-level determination whether social media can help you achieve your goals (not necessarily whether it should).


  • Critically evaluate your current practices.
  • Compare the expected utilities of both current practices and new practices that would leverage social technologies.
  • Identify the approaches that have the highest expected utilities and prioritize them based on your goals and objectives.


  • Sketch out a social media strategy to guide your planning and execution efforts.
  • Create a high-level plan that establishes things like implementation priorities, required resources, roles and responsibilities, basic operating guidelines, monitoring tools, and key success metrics.
  • You may need a master plan with subordinate plans for things like implementation, training, etc.
  • Prepare to address systemic issues that could inhibit success (e.g., skill deficits).

Lay a Foundation (can do this at any time)

  • Establish accounts on any major public social media platforms you may use in the future and acquire necessary domain names.
  • Follow individuals and organizations on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms and learn from observing their actions and interactions.
  • Learn about the evolving impact of new technologies by reading about general social media trends and trends in your industry/field.
  • Develop necessary knowledge and skills through training.


  • If your resources are limited, an incremental approach to implementation is fine.
  • Announce your digital presence to engage stakeholders, but limit fanfare until you’re better established.
  • SEED, FEED, and WEED your digital accounts.

Adjust ‘N’ Fine Tune

  • Though your actions will be guided by basic plans and rules, your success will be determined more by your responsiveness and your ability to adapt to change.
  • Be your own biggest critic, but be gentle too. Learn to forge ahead in the face of embarrassment and adversity, accept criticism and apologize when necessary, and develop a thick skin.
  • Monitor and measure your progress and successes, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Know the difference between general, long-term engagement and short-term campaigns.
  • Seek feedback from participants via comments, surveys, and other tools – and always be prepared to respond to the feedback you receive.


  • Increase the amount and/or frequency of content on existing platforms and expand your digital presence by integrating new platforms into your existing social media system.
  • Grow your membership and participation in each platform.
  • Identify and leverage key influencers and passionate participants to help you achieve your growth objectives.
  • Announce your digital presence more broadly, and promote each new platform as you expand.
  • Remember that pruning is necessary for growth. Pare back content and/or leave specific platforms that haven’t proven valuable – but don’t leave any digital ghost towns behind.
  • Close the loop by starting over. Be prepared to revisit your entire social media strategy/plan periodically to ensure it’s optimized.

Views: 166

Comment by Jerry Albright on February 4, 2014 at 12:36pm

Might I ask what this has to do with recruiting?

Comment by Courtney Hunt on February 4, 2014 at 12:46pm

Isn't it relevant for organizations that want to leverage social media as part of their recruiting efforts? I think it can also be valuable to individuals who want to incorporate social media into their professional branding, career management, and job search efforts.

Comment by Matt Charney on February 4, 2014 at 1:03pm

Jerry - have to agree with Dr. Hunt on this one. This advice is applicable to any social media effort with a defined objective, and for many companies, that happens to be recruiting. The biggest mistake I personally see recruiting & HR pros making is filtering out bigger social & tech trends/best practices, but that's risky, considering we're pretty far back of where most other industries are. 

Comment by Jerry Albright on February 4, 2014 at 1:09pm

Actually, once Linkedin stats are taken out of the mix - "social" is not a huge advantage.  More time has been horribly WASTED in pursuit of recruiting success stories than time offering a reasonable return on investment.  Sorry - but "social" and recruiting are not the same thing.

Comment by Courtney Hunt on February 4, 2014 at 2:27pm

Doesn't the value - and/or waste - depend on your goals and objectives? That's where this model - and all digital engagement efforts - begin. Without clearly defined objectives and a sense of how new technologies can achieve those objectives, then social media initiatives are definitely a waste. But I wouldn't say that's categorically the case. There's also no "one size fits all" approach, and therefore no single definition of success (or failure).

I'm the first person to agree there's been a lot of suboptimal deployment and engagement, but I believe the negative results are due to failures in understanding and process, not some inherent lack of value in social (and other digital) technologies as tools. The point of the SAPLING model is to get people to evaluate and pursue various options thoughtfully and deliberately rather than thoughtlessly and impetuously jumping on various bandwagons and/or following the lead of others.

And FWIW, there are at least two other ways in which these ideas are relevant to this group:

  1. They can be used by agencies and other vendors and suppliers in the recruiting space who (want to) leverage social/digital technologies as part of their own business development efforts.
  2. Any recruiters who are involved in hiring people for social media related positions need to understand some of the factors that differentiate candidates. Those who advocate more disciplined and thoughtful approaches are definitely better than those who don't see the value of developing and implementing mature strategies and plans.
Comment by Keith D. Halperin on February 4, 2014 at 6:56pm

Thanks, Dr. Hunt. Very useful. (I just finished the papers in "Conceptual Guidance," BTW...)

At the same time, in my area of contract recruiting (and also the area of consultant recruiting/staff augmentation/temp hiring), we need to get people hired quickly. It 's unfeasible to work to develop a long-term, drawn-out relationship with candidates- as we need to put quality butts in chairs NOW. The great majority of what has been described as "Social Recruiting" is actually "Social Sourcing" or the creation of talent communities, and being paid to develop relationships with substantial numbers of people who may or may not apply to our company's jobs in 3, 6, or 12 months is not realistic. Essentially, until a qualified person is ready to apply to my company's current jobs (or can refer someone who is qualified and ready), I have no real need or desire to engage with them. As an analogy: I'm not looking for SM tools to help me find some women good to date, I need SMs tools to help me find some good woman who wants to get married RIGHT NOW.



Keith "Happily Married 22 years" Halperin

Comment by Courtney Hunt on February 4, 2014 at 7:26pm

Keith, you crack me up! I totally get what you're saying and completely agree. Your example is a perfect illustration of social media's lack of relevance to a certain set of recruiting goals. It's much better for longer-term objectives like employer branding, and it can help in situations with high turnover and/or specific candidate targets.

It's also important to remember that leveraging social media for recruiting/hiring doesn't have to mean making a huge investment. Last year, for example, I worked with one of the Whole Foods regions on this issue. It was clear to me that there was no need for separate hiring accounts on social media. Instead, they could use the already-robust marketing channels (esp. FB and Twitter) to send out periodic updates related to their hiring activities and objectives. The HR folks sort of knew they could do that, but until we took a more rigorous approach to assessing their needs and the alternatives, they felt somewhat compelled to establish their own presence. Had they done that, the effort would probably have failed because they didn't have the resources or expertise to manage it on their own.

Again, no one-size-fits-all model. As with most things, the tool should fit the task rather than trying to force the task to fit the tool.

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on February 5, 2014 at 2:17pm

Thanks again, Dr. Hunt. If I understand properly, your saying that social media usually ISN'T good for short-term hiring efforts, but better for non-recruiting (but recruiting -related) activities like employment branding. . Is that correct? If it is, in the case of social recruiting for quick/current hires. not only does "one size not fit all" but "no size fits ANYONE at all".



Comment by Courtney Hunt on February 5, 2014 at 3:25pm

No, I'm not saying that, Keith. Going back to the Whole Foods example, social media is very effective for their store hiring efforts, especially when they're opening a new store. Once the FB pages go up (usually before a store opens), they can use the pages to make hiring announcements and respond to hiring queries. They also have a jobvite app connected to their pages so people can access the career/jobs portal.

Another example would be a firm that hires a lot of college graduates, like an accounting firm. Social media channels are great for making short-term announcements re: job fairs and internships, responding to queries and redirecting people to the career/jobs portal.

Like I said, there is no single application or one-size-fits-all model. Just as we shouldn't say social media is categorically valuable, we also shouldn't assert that it's categorically a waste. If it doesn't work for your recruiting efforts, then you shouldn't use it. But I wouldn't go so far as to say it doesn't work for anyone else's.

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on February 5, 2014 at 4:31pm

Thanks, Dr. Hunt. This makes sense.

It seems that SR can help get people quickly when advance work has been done.

In my world- careful forethought, planning, and strategy, aka, “advance work” are rare.

Here's my typical SR challenge (slightly modified):

•           Starting today, you have 20-30 reqs. of various types.

•           Within 30 days you need to have 1 hire/week on average, and by the end of 4 months you need 17 hires.

•           Finally, you can use only the *social networking tools you sign up for today (you can have as many as you need, but they're EMPTY) to source and recruit.

•           Your clock starts NOW….

What would those tools be and how'd we best use them? (No need to give away the store....)




*LI Recruiter doesn't count- it's a big and strange resume database


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