Mass Personalized Recruiting: A Powerful Approach for High-Value Candidates

Personalized marketing and mass customized manufacturing are powerful concepts that when adapted to recruiting can provide a strategic opportunity to successfully recruit even the most difficult candidates.

While personalizing the recruiting approach to fit every candidate is nearly impossible, the growth of social networks has made it significantly easier to “mass-customize” recruiting approaches to fit high-value recruiting targets.

Personalized Approaches Are Always More Powerful

Mass customization became much more common nearly two decades ago when companies like Dell and Levi’s started providing consumers an opportunity to order products configured to their specifications. With the ability to mass-customize products came the ability to service an ever wider array of consumers, and so marketing also went the way of mass customization to attract customers who would not have been drawn to the companies previously. Mass customization enables those that embrace it to capture significant market share from organizations that continue to leverage a one-size-fits-all approach.

While one-to-one marketing is still rare outside of industries selling premium goods and services, segmentation, which enables one-to-few marketing, has become increasingly common. Mass personalized marketing uses demographically tied market research to quickly and economically tailor an engagement approach that is designed to attract and sell specific high-value individuals. Today many recruiting functions already employ segmented recruitment advertising in a limited fashion, such as college versus professional, executive, etc. Unfortunately, few recruiting organizations define segments small enough to enable highly refined communications or empower their efforts with market research or segmented recruiting processes that deliver differentiation.

An Illustration of Personalized Recruiting

The first example of personalized recruiting that garnered significant media attention occurred at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.

The university was attempting to attract top students and their friends. Market research on where potential recruits “hung out” and where recruiting messages would most likely be seen was conducted. The university then filled those communication channels with personalized recruiting messages (including the name of targeted students.) Local billboards, pizza boxes, sign on gas pumps and even a commercial on MTV were employed in hopes of getting these targeted students to enroll.

The campaign created major buzz in the community about the University and what it had to offer. Under the corporate model, the messaging would be more sophisticated and a target’s favored social network channels would be the primary communication channels.

Characteristics of the Mass Personalized Recruiting Model

It is certainly not new for an individual recruiter on their own to personalize their approach in order to successfully recruit a specific candidate (executive recruiters have leveraged this model for years). However mass personalized recruiting at the corporate level involves developing a repeatable process that can be applied across the organization to many high-value candidates. The eight key characteristics that define a mass personalized recruiting model include:

Prioritized — this approach is not for every job. Instead, jobs and targeted individuals are prioritized so that the mass personalized approach is only applied to the most critical hires.

A repeatable process — it is a mass model because the process can be applied to many jobs and many individual candidates. The process tells individual recruiters which approaches will best fit an individual candidate.

Data-driven — instead of using intuition, the mass personalized model is driven by demographic and market research data.

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Social-network focused — practical personalized recruiting is only possible using the Internet and social network tools. Social networks initially provide us with the information we need to fully “know” targeted candidates. Social media also provide numerous choices of “channels” to ensure that recruiting messages are positively received.

Candidate-centric — the model is based on the assumption that you will not get candidates who are in high demand using the standard broad recruiting approaches. Instead, you must develop a process for identifying and meeting a candidate’s needs and expectations during every step of the recruiting process.

The sourcing, relationship-building, and selling processes are tailored to fit

  • Where the candidate would likely see a job opening announcement
  • Their relationship and trust-building requirements and expectations (i.e. Microsoft found that learning/talent communities were the best way to build relationships with engineers)
  • Their unique job search process
  • Their preferred messaging channel
  • Their job acceptance criteria and what information they would need to make a positive decision

Search engine optimization — using analytics to increase the chances that these targeted individuals will see your recruiting and branding messages.

Segmented employer branding — employer branding content and placement are segmented to better fit different groups of targeted individuals.

Of Course It’s Difficult … All Competitive Advantages Are Difficult

If your initial response is to stick to your current one-size-fits-all approach because mass customized recruiting seems difficult, you will never be an innovator or leader. If you are a recruiting manager, realize that all major innovations that provide a significant competitive advantage contain major risks and are difficult to implement (otherwise everyone would be doing them already). The very definition of leadership requires that you do new things and take risks. Pioneers do the hard things first but being first means that you reap the largest rewards. Mass customization has been proven in numerous other business functions, so the risks are reduced.

Borrowing from Other Functions Is a Proven Concept in Recruiting

The best recruiters I’ve ever encountered are without exception serial borrowers of process from other successful business functions. I’m probably the profession’s strongest proponent of learning from and adapting the best practices of other high-priority business functions like sales, supply chain, marketing, and manufacturing. Numerous corporations have improved their recruiting processes by directly borrowing from other high business impact functions. A few of the most significant examples in recruiting include:

  • Developing a talent pipeline — based on a supply chain concepts
  • Improving the candidate experience — based on customer service models
  • Building stronger candidate relationships — based on a Customer Relationship Management model
  • Building a stronger employer brand(s) — based on product and organizational brand portfolio management concepts
  • Understanding a candidate’s job acceptance criteria — using tools adapted from marketing research

Final Thoughts

It’s almost impossible to argue against the logic of customizing or personalizing your recruiting approach to fit each target candidate. There are of course credible arguments related to the costs and the time and the resource requirements of customization. However, with the growth of social networks and the Internet in general, the wealth of information that is now available about individuals makes a segmented recruiting approach relatively easy and a mass-customized approach for key jobs something that must be seriously considered. Even if you don’t adopt a comprehensive program, individual recruiters can directly benefit from the individual principles and practices of personalized recruiting.

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," 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 and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



20 Comments on “Mass Personalized Recruiting: A Powerful Approach for High-Value Candidates

  1. Dr. John,

    Great piece.

    When jobs are viewed as “employment products” and employees as those who “volunteer” to work for a company, then creating matches is what not only makes the “sale”, but what also underwrites job performance and talent retention.

    People work for different reasons and want different things in return. Research has identified six distinct employee segments, with roughly equal population proportions (14-19%). Wouldn’t it be nice to know to which segment a recruiting target belonged and to be able to tailor the message accordingly?

    Job matching, based on cognitive, behavioral and interest dimensions, is the best predictor of job performance and talent retention. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the degree of match between a number of prospects and the position of interest before selecting targets for personalized recruiting?

    Job design provides an additional measure of flexibility. Just as marketers position products by customer segment, employers can tailor job designs for greater appeal to a target segment (individual) or to expand the pool of matching talent, among other possibilities.

    Management begins with measurement and talent management is no exception. Resumes are not measurements they are sales documents. Much like market research, assessments hold the key to getting essential actionable information. Especially in the context of personalized recruiting it makes sense to use assessments, strategically, to select the audience and customize both the employment product and the messages.

    Richard Melrose

  2. Strong article John- I really like the concept of borrowing from other functions. May I add one more ?

    Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is being mixed with Analytics (BI) to form a new dicipline: Enterprise Information Management (EIM). We foresee quite a bit of Applicant Tracking and other TM functions migrating toward the people and platforms that comprise EIM in larger organizations in the next five years.

  3. ISTM that once again, we are seeing a passive, tech-heavy, (probably) quite complicated and expensive approach to sourcing. Instead of this approach to get candidates to come to you, it would be much more effective and efficient to directly phone and internet source strong potential candidates. Example: if a small-scale implementation of this project cost $5,000 (I’d expect it would be many times this), you could hire an effective $11/hr virtual sourcer FT for over 2 1/2 months.



  4. Martin – Great point! John and I have been after the major ATS players to add significant content management functionality for years and leverage personalization engines and network/location aware scripts that deliver a richer candidate experience. Today so much is possible when organizations are willing to step away from legacy systems and embrace tools not necessarily developed for the recruiting function, but that deliver the functionality needed.

    One of the key barriers isn’t the availability of tools, but rather the shortage of knowledgeable professionals within the profession to advance the use of tools available today.

  5. Master thanks for the good word: our strategic planning assumes that the document tools, publishing, workflows, and analytics that now exist within our software code are going to have less and less value as EIM takes hold, with major ramifications for both SaaS and on-premise vendors of all solutions that touch those areas, while our chance to deliver value to our small-business customers will be dramatically expanded because they need quality content management and collaboration too.

    My gut (and Gartner) say that Microsoft will be likely be the huge force in those spaces. For our very small customers, we assume that the PC platform itself has had its day (at least on the client side) and whatever we offer had better run well directly on a smartphone/tablet browser. For those still using PC’s, many will be using Microsoft Outlook as a primary interface.

    Otherwise, the wide world of interface design had better include four key controls: MENU / HOME / BACK / SEARCH, because Apple and Google have made that decision for (all of) us.

    It’s going to be interesting 😉

  6. John, what a terrific article to start the new year. Your first two sentences set the stage very well…

    1) “Personalized marketing…when adaped to recruiting can provide a strategic opportunity to succesfully recruit even the most difficult candidates”
    2) “…the growth of social networks has made it significantly easier to “mass-customize” recruiting approaches to fit high-value recruiting targets”.

    I certainly agree you… segmenting your audience and personalizing your message requires more effort than blasting an email template to the masses or broadcasting a job opening through social media. But, when segmentation and personalization are used, the return is so significant that it far outweighs the cost. Namely, by “narrowcasting” a personalized message, you can confine your focus to the very best talent, you achieve an exponentally higher response rate from your most highly sought after targets, and you have the opportunity to engage in one-to-one conversation.

    I love Seth Godin’s line, “mattering a lot to a few people is worth far more than mattering a little to everyone”. It applies to marketing as well as recruiting.

    Gaining the attention of top talent has become increasingly difficult because everyone is bombarded with messages vying for their attention. But messages that are targeted to the right audience, clearly personalized, and delivered using unique approaches will cut through the clutter.

    You touched on a big challenge when you mentioned “mass-customized recruiting approaches”. Even with proper segmentation and personalization, the right “approach” makes a difference. Fortunately, advances in technology are making “mass personalized recruiting” more achievable and scalable than ever.

    Looking forward to seeing you at the ERE Expo in San Diego this spring,

    Jon Bryant
    Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Office

  7. @Richard:
    “Job matching, based on cognitive, behavioral and interest dimensions, is the best predictor of job performance and talent retention.”

    Who says so? Please precisely define your terms and cite the sources which prove your point.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996)


    Keith “Show Me The Evidence” Halperin

  8. @Keith from Missouri:

    Firstly, I am referring to real (emphasis) job-matching, as exceedingly well defined by the U.S. DoL’s Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (UGOESP). In the simplest terms: first conduct a thorough job analysis to determine what it takes to perform a particular job well and then use valid, job-related measurements to determine the extent to individuals (applicants, candidates) have what it takes.

    In writing for the SHRM Foundation’s Effective Practices Guidelines, Elaine D. Pulakos Ph.D. noted: “It is important to point out that the procedures outlined in the Uniform Guidelines are, in fact, the exact same procedures that an assessment expert would employ if the only goal was to identify the best qualified candidates for a job. Thus, at least in this case, compliance with legal requirements also represents best practice in developing and implementing the most effective selection practices possible.” Ms. Pulakos is not only an authority on the subject as far as the Society of Human Resource Management is concerned, she has recently been instrumental in the studies that led to the decision by Executive Order (President Obama, May 11, 2010) that starting November 1, 2011, Federal agencies would thereafter “assess applicants using valid, reliable tools” … “to allow agencies to select diverse, high-quality candidates more efficiently”.

    Pulakos is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and a past president of SIOP. APA procedures are referenced in the Guidelines
    as de facto standards for the “validation of selection procedures”.

    In a report published in the Harvard Business Review (1980), Herbert M. and Jeanne Greenberg exploded long-standing hiring myths using data from 360,000 individuals in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe. Their study covered sales people in fourteen industries. In summary, they wrote:

    “In view of these findings, an obvious question arises: if these long-used [hiring] criteria are invalid, what criteria can industry use that would better predict job performance? The answer is criteria that make a better match between the person and the job. The management of the company doing the hiring must first consider the requirements in doing the particular job. … the job matching approach is far superior to the standard tack of hiring according to experience and education.”

    ERE author Dr. Wendell Williams, who has the education, experience and interest to warrant paying attention to, asked and answered the question this way, in his article published here just two weeks ago:

    “Typical question, ‘How do I know this [specific reference to Uniform Guidelines job-matching, selection procedures stuff] really works?’ Typical reply, ‘You tell me. If instead of working from a job description and doing a casual interview, I thoroughly define job skills, then use a variety of hard-to-fake accurate tools that evaluate whether a candidate has those specific skills, what do you think?’”

    Note, from the opening paragraph of UGOESP: “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Civil Service Commission, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Justice jointly have adopted these uniform guidelines.”

    So there we have it – definitions of best practice selection procedures that have withstood the test of time, for more than thirty years. That tends to make my “claim” that job-matching is the best predictor of job performance and talent retention something less than ‘extraordinary’. It’s just a fact of life, for which there in an extraordinary amount of independent and thoroughly actionable evidence.

    I am a former international industrial CEO. I attacked the question of best practices hiring with professional curiosity, objectivity and years of due diligence. The answer: job matching in accordance with UGOESP. The particular assessments that I rely on accomplish that mission exceedingly well. I keep my antenna up and I know of no better alternatives. What has changed over the past thirty years is that advanced psychometrics, expert system software, PCs and the Internet have made all forms of legitimate assessment better, cheaper, faster and more accessible (anywhere, 24/7/365). Indeed today’s advanced job-matching assessments routinely earn 10x short-term ROIs for clients, as well as three – and four-digit IRRs over the employee life cycle. So, better than affordable, they are highly profitable.

    Keith, if you would like copies of any of the references I have cited, I have them in .pdf format to send as email attachments. Just send me an email request.

    Cheers back,

    Richard Melrose

  9. @Richard: Thank you for your answers- I’d enjoy seeing more of this sort of reply from our contributors and readers.

    Now, to the answers:
    ISTM that Dr. Pulakos uttered an opinion- an expert, thoughtful, and probably accurate opinion, but an opinion nonetheless.

    The Greenbergs’ work is 30 years old. Has nothing been done more recently to build upon, modify, or refute it?

    I greatly respect Dr. Williams and enjoy his commentaries.
    At the same time, he is issuing an opinion, in the manner of Dr. Pulakos.

    UGOESP: The fact that it has been adopted as a guideline does not demonstrate its validity as a “best practice”. It may in fact be so, but that’s not proof.

    Here’s my point: what you have decribed may be the best that can be done. At the same time, it isn’t clear that this has been clearly proven. Furthermore, if it were clearly and overwhelmingly the case that it is the best practice, why isn’t it done more? (This doesn’t negate the fact that it may be the best method). Is it too time consuming, expensive, complicated, works only on certain types of positions/in certain types of organizations?
    Or, are there too many vested interests in doing it other ways?

    I’ve periodically mentioned my desire to work with experts and develop practical, empirically-based “Generally Accepted Recruiting Practices” analogous to “Generally Accepted Accounting Practices”. While I do think that we can do better than we do now in many areas of recruiting, I’m also getting to think that there’s too much money doing recruiting badly to change things significantly without considerable effort. The GAFI Principles (Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance) trumps the GARP almost every time….


    Keith “Invite Me to Work on GARP For Your Organization” Halperin

  10. @Keith (Doubting Thomas):

    As I flew to Dallas, this morning, I sure was hoping that gravity wasn’t still just Sir Isaac Newton’s opinion. Well, gravity worked, today, so I didn’t find myself on a real “non-stop” flight.

    I referring to the Uniform Guidelines, as “best practices”, Dr. Pulakos did say “in fact” rather than ISTM or IMHO, or even IMNSHO.

    Yes, the Greenbergs’ work is thirty years old and the Guidelines are yet another two years older. That they have both survived the test of time, along with Newton’s Law of Gravity, may suggest that there’s sufficient truth and value there.

    Dr. Williams and his I/O psych colleagues can bury you in empirical research in support of job analysis and job-matching assessment, as the preferred selection path toward employee performance and retention.

    But instead of debating the point, further, let’s just do it! You furnish the client with a suitable current hiring need and I’ll underwrite the lion’s share of the expense and effort (not that big a deal). Then you can report on these pages how it turned out.

    Keith, this approach should serve your expressed desire to “work with experts to” demonstrate (rather than develop, in this case) “practical, empirically-based generally accepted recruiting practices”.

    These assessments lend themselves to experiential learning that you will find both painless and profound. Your client should love you for it.

    Richard Melrose

  11. To be sure, Newton’s theory of mechanics did NOT stand the test of time and was recently superseded.

    My intuition says that greater understanding and assesment of groups, rather than individuals, will also eventually supersede SOME aspects of job analysis and job-matching assessment, especially in creative and leadership intensive roles.

  12. @martin:

    You split hairs for this audience. There is no aspect of talent management (or even six sigma for that matter) that even comes close to the predictive validity of Newton’s Gravitational Law.

    The pertinence of the Special Theory of Relativity even for earth’s most frequent space travelers is that they are a few nanoseconds younger than if they had stayed home. When/if we can travel at some significant fraction of the speed of light, I’ll get more interested.

    As to individuals and groups, I see no “either/or”, rather the need to better understand both.

    Richard Melrose

  13. @Richard:
    Equating 30+ y.o. social science research with the Laws of Motion and Theories of Relativity doesn’t follow, as Martin said: “There is no aspect of talent management (or even six sigma for that matter) that even comes close to the predictive validity of Newton’s Gravitational Law.”

    What you describe may (or may not be) the best we have, but I still ask:
    Why isn’t it the preferred method? What prevents it from becoming the standard?

    Our problem isn’t that we can’t hire the right people, it’s that our hiring process is very slow and reliant upon Peoplesoft, which hardly anybody here understands or wants to use.



  14. @Keith:

    Sorry, if my reference to Newton’s law was somehow confusing or misunderstood. In my first reply, I cited credible references that you pointedly asked me to provide. You dispatched them as mere “opinions” or too old (perhaps like gravity, I thought) to possibly be relevant, let alons persuasive.

    Of course, I can respond to the question of why the adoption rate is so poor, but it just would be my considered opinion, based on interactions with business leaders and talent management thought leaders. If the positions taken by the likes of Pulakos, Williams, Obama, DoL, DoJ, OPM, EEOC, CRC, APA, SIOP, ATP, etc. do not shape your thinking, I would not expect that my opinions would, either.

    I, not Martin, pointed out the exceptional predictive validity of Newton’s Gravitational Law, which is way more accurate than six sigma (6 sigma = 3.4 defects per million opportunities), in predicting things that do matter. And, according to Peter Drucker (more opinion for you), the track record on executive staffing decisions is about 200,000 worse than six sigma. “In no other area of management would we put up with such miserable performance”, Drucker went on to say.

    Job matching, as I have described it (with the help of UGOESP references), is, and has been, the preferred method, for more than three decades. For it to become “standard”, companies will have to commit to making changes for the better. Without change, there can be no improvement. That’s fact, not opinion.

    In this case, change for the better is highly profitable and you (any business) can prove that, with simple, low-cost experiments.

    Cheers back,

    Richard Melrose

  15. @ Everybody:
    Dr. Williams pointed out to me off-forum that a study I cited was shoddy. I tell everybody to use evidence and then the evidence I use is weak….

    But there’s more:

    Annals of Science
    The Truth Wears Off
    Is there something wrong with the scientific method?
    by Jonah Lehrer

    December 13, 2010 .
    Many results that are rigorously proved and accepted start shrinking in later studies.

    “…Such anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism. Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.) The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe. ?”

    Read more

    Keith “Losing My Religion” Halperin

  16. Richard, I split hairs for rhetorical flair, just as you used the gravity metaphor for the same purpose. My point about group assessment is often misunderstood because it’s a highly-qualified and specialized situation I am talking about.

    My friend Joe Murphy is brilliant at explaining the differences between description and prediction in pre-hire assessment. When you are talking volume hiring for bank tellers or baristas or school teachers, job analysis and validated assessment are absolutely predictive, offer huge ROI, and no sane decision maker would argue with those facts.

    But now you have swung the discussion into the wheelhouse that I am talking about, which are executive staffing decisions.

    And I submit: in THAT arena, it’s not effective to merely assess an individual- it may even be counterproductive to use traditional job analysis and job matching for those roles, because the interpersonal and group dynamics of EACH SPECIFIC SITUATION are basically chaotic emergent phenomena that can be bounded, but not predicted in an actionable sense.

    I am a big fan of the “Corner Office” column in the New York Times, which is composed of interviews with highly successful CEO types. Naturally some of the questions bear on hiring, because that’s a critical KPI for any successful CEO.

    And never, and I do mean never, have I read of a CEO who leans on typical I/O psychology tools and techniques to make those decisions.

    For example, read this very insightful edition from Bob Brennan, CEO of Iron Mountain,

    or another from Paul Maritz, CEO of VMware

    Both CEO’s are explicit that their key executive hires are made primarily in terms of fit with the other executives on the team- Maritz goes so far as to consider a management team as a single organism.

    Let’s go back to metaphor: would you do a heart transplant without regard to the T cell and immune factors already present in the patient? Not if you wanted to avoid massive rejection, no matter how wonderful and perfect the donor heart may be.

    So I will make my point clearly once again: until assessment methods begin to really encompass groups rather than individuals (for highly creative or leadership roles), they will continue to underperform, or worse.

  17. “Job matching, as I have described it (with the help of UGOESP references), is, and has been, the preferred method, for more than three decades. For it to become “standard”, companies will have to commit to making changes for the better. Without change, there can be no improvement. That’s fact, not opinion.”

    Preferred (and best) by some does not mean it should be adopted (or is best) by most or all. It may be, but IMHO that may not be the case, and as Martin says, it may not be true in the case for situations which require a strong study of group dynamics. It may theoretically the best in certain circumstances, but impractical in others. I’m open to hear from the group their thoughts on why this isn’t the accepted and always-used standard.

    My overall point is this: here on ERE, there are WAY too many opinions, suggestions, and prescriptions to do things which are made without being tested as being practical in the typical day-to-day workplace. I really don’t care if something is scientifically valid/proven- I care if it works. However, if someone isn’t prepared to say: “IMHO it works”, or “In my experience it works in these environments,” then they presume too much, and I will try and call them on it.(Feel free to call me on this, too.)



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