It's a testament to just how hard it's become for high-tech companies to entice qualified workers: Industry heavyweight IBM is dispatching its own employees to hand out a new breed of business card aimed at recruiting talent.

In L.A., Big Blue employees are passing out the cards at industry events and executive dinners. The cards list available positions and human resource contact information for the company's newly launched Los Angeles Center for IBM e-Business Innovation.

The primary message of the business card is not "buy our product" but "come join us."

It's a tactic known as "viral marketing," whereby several cards, brochures or even entire packages of company materials are handed out to members of a desired target audience, and those recipients are encouraged to pass along the materials to their friends and acquaintances.

IBM's use of the tactic appears to be working. The IBM office in Santa Monica has already hired 100 employees in anticipation of its official November opening. The office will provide marketing, technology and content for companies seeking to expand on the Internet.

It might seem that for an established industry behemoth like IBM, which has some 300,000 workers worldwide, tapping the talent pool for its e-business centers would be easy. But it's not.

"The challenge we have is the same as any other company," said David Hildebrandt, market development manager for IBM's local operations. "It's very difficult to attract talented people."

Stuffy image

It's an especially tough challenge for an older, well-established company like IBM, which is perceived negatively by some young professionals as a stuffy, uncreative, button-down company, said Fred Janczyn, executive and managing principal at the IBM office. "You can trust me, we don't have any button-down collars in our e-business center. You have to develop an appreciation for body piercing. That's a new skill I've got," Janczyn said.

Within the year, IBM hopes to double the staff of its local office to 200 people.

Hildebrandt said the aim is for IBM's "idea virus" business cards to be passed along and eventually "infect" unhappy workers at other firms. Those so-called "passive" candidates are often the most sought-after by recruiters, who also ply company Web sites and target top brass with e-mails in search of a good catch.

"Usually, the best candidates aren't actively searching," said Kelly Roman, director of client services for Sales Athlete Inc., an L.A.-based recruiting agency that specializes in executive searches for Internet companies.

Roman said he hadn't heard of the business card approach, but it didn't surprise him.

"There's definitely a huge demand for talent and a very small talent pool that's actively looking," said Roman. "That's why you see companies like IBM getting guerilla. It's clever. In a sense, they're asking someone to be a recruiter for them."

Hildebrandt said that distributing the cards is optional for IBM employees, and there is no protocol involved. It's simply a kind of voluntary peer-to-peer selling.

The local IBM office started the card and e-mail campaign two weeks ago in preparation for its Oct. 23 job fair. As of last week, Hildebrandt had received 73 resumes through the effort.

The viral marketing approach is an extension of IBM's existing recruiting campaign, but it's also the most effective, according to Janczyn.

"Peers are talking to peers because they're excited about where they are," Janczyn said. "That excitement is contagious."

In the process, old-fashioned job fairs are losing their popularity.

Roman has a colleague who recently organized a tech job fair at MIT, and nobody showed up.

"She called me in a panic and said, 'No one's here,'" Roman said. "People aren't showing up at the job fairs anymore. They can go anywhere, so why should they go to some fair? You have to go to them and get a little guerilla."

Or a little viral.

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