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Referral Wrapup.2

(May 10, 2006)  The dust is settling and we're going to close the book on the referral tools question for awhile.

The marketing language, which we expect will continue to degrade, has followed the course of the word community. If you remember, there was a time when a community was a place that you lived. Although the definition varied from individual to individual, a community always consisted of individuals who actually were aware of each other. In many cases, they actually knew each other.

Community used to refer to a place. In the 90s, the term was expanded to include the sense of place experienced by members of virtual communities (like the Well). In this new sense, community referred to the underlying patterns of interaction and care (including the seamier sides of judgment, discrimination, cliquishness).

Later in the 90s, it was possible to hear about "communities of practice". It was an HR term, to be sure. The awkward formulation came into common usage at the same time that "around" began to be used as a measure of subject matter approximation (as in "We're having meetings around the subject of training"). That word was also restricted to time and place in its former usage.

Somewhere during the debates about (should we have said around?) bulk email, savvy spammers (including some from our industry) realized that direct marketing (DM) carried very negative connotations. Burying marketing targets (otherwise known as people) in unsolicited bulk email was becoming more intrusive than newspaper telemarketing solicitations. The market acceptance of DM techniques and philosophy were becoming ascendant just as the legislators were getting ready to crack down. Of course, no company wanted to "spam" unsolicited "targets".

A new brand of doublespeak was introduced. From that point on, we only sent "opt-in" email to members of targeted "communities". In the worst cases, community was a direct translation for the older, more accurate "bulk email list". In the best cases, "opt-in" really meant "didn't opt out" and "community meant something like "shared data point that indicate the potential for shared interest or affiliation". It had stopped having anything to do with interaction or shared world view (except in the most abstract statistical sense).

That same process is happening today with the word referral and its related concepts (refer, referring). The implication used to be that the person you were referred by actually knew you. Linked In is pioneering the notion of referring yourself. Companies that once advertised themselves as referral companies are now subtly shifting their parlance to sourcing.

Referral is becoming the new code word for "assembling email addresses into targeted batches".

Once it leaves the realm of people who know each other, its validity as a quality-control tool evaporates. Sadly, the subtlety is lost on the audience. Even more sad is the fact that it isn't really very subtle. Referral systems that do not depend on people who know each other are not referral systems.

For career practitioners and serious Recruiting Departments, understanding the How and Why of referral networks is vastly more important than the fluctuations in language. You can bet on the fact that the definition of referral will continue to blur (until it means little more than bulk email processing and monitoring). That means that the serious players will have to weed through another mound of marketing BS.

Referral software is here to stay. It will probably end up being called something else.

 John Sumser . - .  Permalink . - . Today's Bugler

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