Not-too-expensive Employer Branding

co-authored with Michael Pelts, RightJoin

What do folks think about your company? Every organization has a public image as an employer (and if you don’t, all the worse), and the image determines whether in-demand professionals will agree to be in touch.

The hands-down champion in employer marketing to software engineers is Google, which regularly gets photo-shoots of its toy-filled offices in top media like the New York Times. These campaigns are planned to draw in the best candidates in the industry and also to increase retention among current employees. In the final calculation, they more than pay for themselves with a significant reduction in recruiting costs.

In many small and medium sized companies, the priorities cannot justify the budget for long-term branding campaigns to boost the corporate image. But employers have started to realize that strong employer branding can make the difference between excellent hires and unfilled reqs; or, even worse, filling the position with unqualified candidates. Luckily, employer branding can be done on the cheap by combining it with recruiting: They both have the same target audience, and they boost each other when done together.

In this article, we’ll explain how to do this efficiently, focusing on the area we know most about: software engineering. By taking advantage the professional respect that existing employees have earned, organizations can cost-effectively improve recruiting success and at the same time carry out employer branding on the cheap. When you strengthen your employer branding with peer-to-peer recruiting, you can improve your conversion rate of contacts to successful hires, and also to ramp up to a better class of employees — the most essential element in the success of any  organization.

Ads: Attractive or Repulsive?

What is the goal of a recruiting campaign? To repel unsuitable candidates or to attract the desired ones? Unqualified applicants are going to show up, regardless. Don’t create a repulsive ad! A recruiting campaign is marketing exactly like any other marketing campaign. When you expend time and money to draw in suitable candidates, while at the same time pushing away the ones you don’t want, you accomplish neither.

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The first step is a beautiful job ad. Most job ads are plain-text, built on long, boring specs, passed to HR by the hiring manager. Now, 50 years after the original Mad Men, it’s time for the recruitment industry to realize that a job ad needs professional care, like like any other. Instead of the dull, dry specs, you need ads that are beautiful, well-designed, short on text, and rich in info. And instead of spec lines like “Required: 5 years Java, 10 years brain surgery, and 20 years as a sushi chef,” you need to highlight exactly the features that interest and attract professionals.

We’ve done surveys of our users, and they tell us that they want to see how a job position can give them interesting challenges and enjoyable experiences in the third of their day that they invest in their job.

  • Start with a short, compelling blurb: Three lines maximum. The goal is not to provide full information. It’s just to pique curiosity. The ad can link to the fuller spec.
  • Bullet points: special attractions. Every organization has something to offer, so figure out what it is. For example: Meaningful work that helps humanity, the opportunity to work with advanced technology, or exceptional professional growth opportunities.
  • If you have a convenient office location — show a map.
  • If you have a beautiful office — show an image.
  • Professional challenges: From the employees’ perspective, the most interesting, enjoyable, and challenging jobs also tend to have the most career advancement potential. From your perspective, you most want people attracted, not repelled, by tough challenges.
  • The most important attraction is the colleagues. Top professionals care about the people they work with more than anything else. Not only can they learn from working with strong co-workers, the fact that a top professional is in a company is a strong indicator of its quality.
  • The job ad should make it easy to contact you. Employed engineers don’t apply for jobs. So let them ping you directly from your ad. Their LinkedIn profile can serve to screen them into initial discussion.  Start a dialog between the candidates and in-house engineers. They understand and trust each other, and such conversations are the best way to break the ice and encourage employed engineers to come over to your organization. (See our earlier ERE article on “Informational Interviews for People Who Don’t Need Them.”)

All Possible Channels

Well-designed  job postings do require a greater investment than the normal cut-and-paste, so once you’ve put it together, be sure to get it out on all possible channels.

  • First, employees’ social networks. Referral recruiting is far and away the best way to get good candidates, but  only founders and top executives generally feel like talking a professional out of their job. This leads to low participation rates in referral recruiting, often as low as 20 percent. But you can easily bring this up to 60 percent. They key is the messaging. Rather than “Apply to work for my company,” it should be “Come work with me.” Highlight the sharer in the ad that he or she shares. If you also make it easy for employees to track the success of their social campaign online, they will feel their efforts have a purpose. When social recruiting is centered on your employees, they understand that they’re  not doing you a favor; they are doing themselves a favor by attracting people they want to work with. The famous Netflix work culture is built on this: (Harvard Business Review) “The best thing you can do for employees — a perk better than foosball or free sushi — is hire only ‘A’-players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else.”
  • Recruiter cold-email gets a big boost from a little color. Supplement the short text of your message with the graphical overview that you put together to catch the candidate’s eye.
  • Don’t forget your company site. You may think that few candidates visit your careers page, but in fact it is the most cost-effective form of recruiting. The moment that candidates hear about you and consider whether they want to for you, they come to your site and check you out. Your site is probably oriented toward your customers; make it speak to candidates as well.

With a big enough budget, you can shape public perceptions of your employer value proposition. But for a far smaller investment, you can use the respect that your professionals’ peers have for them to  improve your returns on recruiting in the short term, while also improving your employer branding in the long-term.

In his years in software development, Joshua Fox has hired and been hired enough times to understand that the usual recruitment processes need some serious improvement. Together with Michael Pelts, he's fixing this problem with RightJoin.io, a web service to help development teams recruit new technical staff peer-to-peer. You can contact him at joshua@rightjoin.io.

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