Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites have become the top tool for hiring IT staff, a new survey among recruitment companies reveals.

According to 58% of IT recruitment firms polled by the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, an industry body, such sites are more useful in finding staff than traditional print advertisements. And 49% said they were now more effective than internet banner advertising.

But seven in 10 recruiters said job boards provided a better quality of candidates, and two in 10 preferred cold calling. Only 9% saw social networking as providing the most appropriate candidates.

Atsco said that the headhunters were favouring special interest groups on the sites to find candidates with the right background and knowledge, over the “scatter gun” approach of finding the right people through print advertising. It admitted, however, that print and online recruitment advertising would remain an important way for employers and recruiters to build brand value and target senior level appointments.

Ann Swain, chief executive at Atsco, said the success of social networking sites as a recruitment tool was a result of their being interactive, as opposed to the one-way communication of print advertisements. She said they offered “a dynamic, two-way dialogue between recruiter and candidate” rather than “another passive form of advertising”.

“Social networking sites make it very easy for recruiters to become trusted advisers to candidates and genuinely get to know them,” she added. “Candidates often reveal far more about themselves on these sites than they would do on the phone or in interview.”

But the survey also revealed that recruitment firms were risking their valuable databases online. Only a quarter of staffing companies currently write restrictive clauses into consultants’ contracts, asserting ownership of databases and contact lists constructed by staff on social networking sites.

As “the lifeblood of the recruitment industry”, these databases needed much more security, Atsco said.

“This is currently an area where contract law is lagging behind social trends and an area of risk that the recruitment industry needs to pick up on,” Swain said.