girl with computer
Image by Paride de Carlo on flickr

Currently, at my company, our HR team receives an average of 850 applications a month, and that number just keeps rising. Although recent reports suggest that the US job market is bouncing back, the reality is that many talented people out there are still struggling to land the careers they want.

Hitting wall after wall in the job hunt can be especially frustrating for new graduates and those in the early stages of their careers, who are chomping at the bit for the chance to channel their passion and ambition into something real.

While traditional tactics for boosting hireability are still invaluable, (like attending networking events and polishing up your resume), an increasingly critical tool for standing out from the crowd is social media. If you’re not incorporating Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn into your job search, you’re missing out on a key competitive advantage.

Here are three ways to put social media to work for you:

1. Use social networks to boost your networking power … and your chances of getting that foot in the door.

It’s common knowledge that most jobs come about as a result of networking, not through responding to job ads or sending out countless resumes. Nothing will ever beat a face-to-face meeting for instant rapport.

But what social networking has done is open up access to key decision makers who used to simply be out of reach. As Lars Schmidt, head of talent acquisition & innovation at NPR recently told me, “You can imagine social media as a big virtual conference where you have an opportunity to start making connections.”

Perhaps the best way for job seekers to take their traditional networking efforts to the next level is to start following people in their industry on Twitter and to connect with them on LinkedIn. Through these networks, research employers and reach out to them through trusted friends and colleagues who might be able to make introductions. In particular, LinkedIn Groups are a great way to start conversations with like-minded people. Look for groups that focus on job searching and career topics to expand your own knowledge and contact base.Also, find your desired employers’ Twitter profiles or company blogs and follow them, or like their Facebook and LinkedIn company pages. This way, you’ll have a chance to connect more intimately with them and can show off your knowledge and passion when the opportunity rises.

Overall, I find it’s helpful not to expect a set outcome from these encounters, rather to be open-minded. Learn things; get to know people. The best part is that communication doesn’t have to be all that formal. Even just talking about common interests or sharing an interesting article can build trust and open doors.

2. Leverage social media to create a professional and attractive brand online and woo prospective employers.

A 2012 study showed that more than one-third of employers (37%) now use social networks to screen potential job candidates. This means many companies are now making hiring decisions based on what peoples’ online personas say about them.

The great thing about social media, of course, is that you control what others see and know about you. Start with LinkedIn. At my company, we like it when candidates invest time in their LinkedIn profiles. Highlighting team projects or emphasizing volunteering and sports shows you can work well in groups. Recommendations are also great ways to add credibility. Ask people who’ve seen you shine—whether former teachers, bosses or colleagues—to write one out for you. On Twitter, share information and links to resources that you think will be interesting or valuable to others in your desired field, and have meaningful public exchanges.

Another integral part of using social media to build a professional personal brand is to, well, stay professional. A few years ago, a promising candidate for a job here tweeted this from his personal Twitter account: “going to a phone interview with @hootsuite and I am drunk after a few hours in the #congress2012 beer tent.” Needless to say, he was not hired.

tweet from linkedin post

3. Become a social media skills guru.

At HootSuite, all 300-plus employees are actually encouraged to use social media at their desks, on the job. And this isn’t just because we’re a social media company. It’s because social media enables people to do work better, whatever department they’re in.

Our salespeople are using social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn to research and reach out to people more effectively. Our HR department uses social media to hire better, including having a dedicated Twitter profile to connect with candidates. Our customer support team connects with users on Twitter and Facebook, allowing for much faster responses than via phone or email. And the list goes on.

My point is that as social media becomes incorporated more fully into business (and it will!) being savvy about Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will become a critical skill set. In today’s business landscape, jobs are becoming less specialized and more general; the more you know, the more hireable you become.

That’s part of the reason we created a program called HootSuite University, which helps graduates and young professionals grow their social media skills and gain formal certification. Courses range from ‘The Dos and Don’ts of Social Media Etiquette,’ to ‘An Introduction to Social Media Across an Organization.’

Social media isn’t just for sharing funny cat photos with your friends, or telling them what you had for breakfast. In the right hands, it’s a powerful tool — in the job hunt and on the job.