The Future of College Recruiting Will be Dominated by Market Research (Part 1 of 2)

The current lull in college recruiting is an opportune time to evaluate new strategies and tools. It is no secret that the vast majority of organizations that recruit from college campuses globally do so tactically, employing little or no strategy. To even the casual observer, the approaches used are predictable, pedestrian, and in some cases laughable, but all of that is about to change.

From the vantage point of someone who has been involved in college recruiting for more than 40 years, either representing a corporation or a university, it is clear that we are approaching a strategic inflection point with regard to the amount of strategy supporting college recruiting.

As that inflection point approaches, there are several dramatic changes that you should anticipate, including:

  • The growth of social media (already demonstrating significant impact), opens up hundreds of new communication channels, allowing organizations to present highly targeted messages to highly targeted prospect segments and to cultivate relationships with top talent throughout their academic careers.
  • The growth in acceptance of and access to video communication equipment will make it possible for organizations to decrease the use of campus visits and embrace “remote college recruiting.” This societal change comes just as more universities embrace virtual classrooms that allow students to participate in courses without being physically present. Costs will drop, organizations will be able to expand the number of colleges mined for talent, and everyone involved will save time.
  • The globalization of work will force organizations to embrace unified global sourcing. While most organizations today continue to recruit geographically, as work becomes more distributed and global universities refine their emphasis and establish stronger industrial ties (Petronas University of Technology for example), organizations will have no choice but to tap the global market to recruit the high volume of graduates with specialized skills needed.
  • The “businessization” of university recruiting will require more strategic, longer-term programs to manage complex situations. Due to the dramatic growth of for-profit universities and ongoing economic pressures on public institutions, many educational programs today have direct ties to established corporations that enable benefactors closer access to top students. Cultivating a relationship with said students in such environments will require college recruiting functions to become more business-like, i.e. guided by strategy, empowered with real-time information and relationship-management tools, and world-class opportunities (think of jobs as products) to take to students.

All of the changes highlighted above point to a demand for the college recruiting function to migrate away from being a game of chance to a more serious function that embraces cutting-edge marketing and sales tactics to deliver specific students to the organization. The modern arsenal of tools needed will include CRM (customer relationship management) systems and highly segmented branding informed by robust market research.

Marketing Demands That You Fully “Understand” Your Customer

Recruiters, both those who focus on experienced and college recruiting, often assume that they know and understand the type of people the organization needs to recruit. In direct contrast, marketing professionals, even those with strong track records of success, rely on routinely executed market research to provide real-time understanding and identify the changing needs of target customers when taking new products or updated products to market.

Having been students before and having dealt with students/faculty day in and day out as part of the job, many college recruiters approach college recruiting from a state of familiarity that no may no longer have any basis in reality. University campuses today are awash with diversity. There are students from all generational segments, races, national origins, and experience levels. U.S. veterans returning from foreign assignments as troop retrenchment proceeds are flocking to colleges and universities flush with GI Bill benefits. In many public institutions, the stereotype of the typical student being an 18-22 year old is no longer representative of the majority.

To fully understand the complex landscape of students participating in college programs today and the relevance/attraction of your opportunities to them, full-blown market research is needed.

“Understanding” Top Students

In order to successfully recruit not only the right number, but also the right caliber of students needed, you should fully understand your target both when designing new jobs and when taking those job opportunities to them. You’ll need to know how best to identify them, communicate with them, and what factors about your organization and the jobs you have available they would find both relevant and compelling.

Benchmark research can tell you what students in general are thinking, but they do not provide nearly enough information to build out a recruiting strategy that targets highly refined student segments. Using a homegrown process or services provided by Universum or LinkedIn’s Insights Group, execute surveys or focus groups to find out about:

Their job search process — if you have no clue how top students go about finding and vetting career opportunities, you have no chance of landing the best talent. Identify the specific steps they take and the timeline they use when searching for jobs.

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  • For non-active candidates, identify what it takes to get them to enter the job search process. Not all college students are actively looking for a job;they may be considering graduate school, traveling, or already have a full-time job. If you are targeting those not actively seeking jobs, you must identify the “triggers” that would excite them enough to get them to enter into job-search mode.
  • For active candidates, identify where they see job or information session postings. Identify locations where your top prospects would likely see and read an announcement of either a position or a recruiting-related event. Put an identifying code or unique web address on announcements in each location in order to identify which ones actually draw the most interest.

Their job excitement criteria — identify the specific factors about your industry, organization, and jobs available that would excite your target students enough for them to both consider you relevant and an organization they would like to work for. Also identify the factors that are turnoffs.

How to “successfully” counter perceived negatives — no organization is perfect, no matter what picture your recruiting collateral paints, so at some point you will need to respond to those factors that are turnoffs identified earlier. Like a child standing in a puddle of juice exclaiming “I didn’t spill it,” not all counters are effective. Learn what sources students would trust countering messages from, what types of evidence may sway them, and what justifications they accept as valid for turnoffs with a strong basis in reality.

Identify where they “hang out” or “lurk” — with a good understanding of how your target audience searches for opportunities and evaluates them, the next step is to identify where you could place messages that would influence their perception of your organization and compel them to act on current opportunities available. You need to know what they read, watch, listen to, and attend. Fourteen questions to consider include:

  • What websites do they frequent?
  • What type of electronic messages do they read or reject (i.e. e-mail, IM, social media messages, SMS, video, voice, or snail mail)?
  • What social network sites do they frequent (i.e. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)?
  • What electronic forums/chat rooms do they frequent?
  • What blogs do they read?
  • Where they view public videos (i.e. YouTube)?
  • What magazines, publications, journals, or newspapers do they read?
  • What organizations do they join or attend (professional or student)?
  • What events or meetings do they attend (at school, for learning, at work or play)? (Also, identify the factors that would cause them to attend a company information event.)
  • Under what conditions would they return a direct message from an unknown recruiter?
  • What radio or TV programs do they tune into?
  • Where would posters they would likely read be located?
  • What classes and professors did/will they take during the recruiting year?
  • Who influences them to consider a firm or job (faculty, student leaders, grad assistants, parents, friends, the career center, etc.)?

You should also find out if top prospects frequent different “locations” than average students. Once you have identified the most-effective channels for reaching them with a recruiting or employer branding message, you can then shift your attention to the content of that message.

Identify the message required to get their attention — design and pre-test both branding and recruitment-related messages to make sure that if a target student sees them, even briefly, that the content would drive them to read the entire message and take the desired action, i.e. visit your website, attend a college information session, apply for a position, sign up for an interview or make a call to a recruiter, etc.

Coming Up Next …

In the next installment of this two-part series, I’ll tackle applying your market research to direct sourcing initiatives to identify and tap top students on/off campuses around the globe.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

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