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, a web service to help development teams recruit new technical staff peer-to-peer. You can contact him at


16 Comments on “Not-too-expensive Employer Branding

  1. I am amazed by how many companies career pages on their website are terrible. This is an easy win and a BIG factor in the likelihood someone will apply.

    1. Most websites are directed at customers, as they should be. Managers will tell you “very few software engineers browse our site.” That is true, but the moment that they hear about you, they will visit your site, and then you’d better have some clear messaging directed at them.

  2. I am amazed by how many companies career pages on their website are terrible. This is an easy win and a BIG factor in the likelihood someone will apply.

    1. Absolutely. Some people think that few candidates come to their site. But, when potential candidate hears about your company, they ALWAYS go to your site.

      So, I decided to work making this easy. My RightJoin is about to release a careers plugin for company websites gives them an attractive careers page, no development needed. If anyone’s interested, just send me an email.

  3. The career page is a pretty big indicator about how a company works and treats its candidates and employees. And the proliferation of bad ones suggests what they’re thinking: not much. What’s mentioned time and again but deserves repeating is that it should be easy to apply. Enough of forcing people to retype the information on their resume thirty seven times. Enough with demanding references’ names, phone numbers, addresses, emails, social security numbers, etc., during the initial application process. And why the hell does any employer still give a damn where I went to high school, for God’s sake? Having a decent careers page and a simple application process is one of the easiest and least cost prohibitive things you can do these days. The lack of attention and thought paid to what should be a simple process, but which at most companies is insanely cumbersome, repetitive, and time consuming, really shows you how little they care about recruiting good people.

    1. > Enough of forcing people to retype

      When it comes to software engineers — our specialty — the ad should have a “Ping Us” button that lets the company know that a candidate wants to talk shop with a professional peer, before both sides decide whether to move forward. The button can send professional URLs like LinkedIn, and no further info is needed to get to this first step.

  4. Advertising in general suffers from not making obvious what the next action is. Commercial ads are placed in front of focus groups, and a common reaction is, “I have no idea what these people are selling.”

    Job candidates have similar vibes toward job postings. These could be found online or supplied by an interested recruiter or hiring manager. After reading endless bullet points, a very typical private response is, “I have no idea what they want me to do if hired.”

    It gets worse when competent software engineers see unrealistic demands like “15 years Social Media API expertise required!” when a flavor-of-the-month technology hasn’t even existed half that long. That too is wasted advertising time and money.

    1. > not making obvious what the next action is

      That’s essential. All ads are online nowadays, so there’s no excuse not to accompany them with a “Ping Us” button for high demand professionals, or “Apply Here” for entry level jobs.

      > reading endless bullet points,

      Right, need to keep it short.

      >what they want me to do if hired

      The main ad should just give a job title and a very short description. It should link to a full spec.

      1. I don’t agree with all he says, but Adler’s approach to performance profiles instead of job descriptions is solid. I tried like hell to sell that concept at my last job, they simply wouldn’t do it, and no matter how many sessions we had where I told them to let me know what the person had to do, and NOT to describe the person they thought could do what they needed done, I’d still get a bullet point list at the end of the day with typical requirements. People are so locked into that paradigm, it seems you need a much more skilled salesman than me to drive change there. In the end I started developing the profiles internally by talking to people in the department and just using them informally.

        I think in many cases the managers were hesitant to list actual things the person had to do with timelines, etc., because they themselves didn’t know. Again, it came around to poor management. But, if your department is full of people with general skill sets in one particular field like marketing, who essentially put out fires all day with no real medium or long term planning, as a recruiter I need to know that because then I’ll find someone who can do THAT.

        1. Yes, performance profiles are a good approach. It is hard to get it into your organization, but every organization realizes the importance of informal chats as the way to bring in top talent.

          Once these chats happen, you come to learn the candidate’s performance potential, and not just a dull laundry list of spec points.

          At RightJoin we have had a lot of requests to help enable these informal chats by finding ways for strong professionals to talk to in-house professionals.

  5. Absolutely. With online profiles, there is less need for a resume.

    > but one size does not fit all.

    This is a key point. So many job ads and ATS processes are written with the goal of deterring applicants. No doubt we have to screen out the unsuitable, but an ad whose goal is to deter is not going to attract at the same time!

  6. > locating the people you want and directly recruiting them

    Keith, I think we actually agree! The article is all about “branding” as part of a direct recruitment campaign. In other words, when you cold-contact someone, don’t send a dull job spec or boilerplate text (we know that!) but rather an attractive, carefully designed presentation of the opportunity.

    I will also say, controversially, that the company is more important at the first 10 seconds, when you try to catch the candidate’s eye, than the job. If a well-branded company like Google reaches out, the candidate notices. Then, of course, he reads the job title, description, and spec. But most important is to work in an environment of smart, talented people in a company that shows respect to its employees.

    1. “most important is to work in … a company that shows respect to its employees.”

      That’s where most fall down. In most companies HR barely has the manpower to deal with compliance issues, much less employee relations issues. And much, much less improving the environment, reigning in abusive managers, suggesting policy changes, etc. And even if they had the time, management usually quashes any and every attempt to improve things for the employees, even when it’s at next to no cost to the company, because there’s an inherently adversarial attitude between the two groups, and giving anything is seen as ‘losing’.

      I remember one guy, I couldn’t get him placed, but he was an IT tech, routinely crawling around server rooms, sweating his rear end off, and his employer DEMANDED all techs wear a full suit at all times. Help covering the cleaning bills, and inevitable tears and stains making the suits unwearable? Nope! The option to wear a polo shirt at least when you’re doing hands on work in 100 degree heat? Nope! They were going to look like a million bucks at all times on their own dime, and maintain it in an environment where it was completely nuts to do that.

      That is the typical corporate reality: policy made from on high for everything from dress code to compensation, and made by people so disconnected from the reality of what their own employees do that it’s borderline criminal, and certainly should be embarrassing to anyone with half a brain cell. It’s endemic in private and pubic companies. In private companies it tends to take the form of the screaming, abusive boss. In public companies it’s more likely to be insane policies written and enforced by people who never did, and never will do the work of the people to whom the policies actually applied.

  7. jordioni , I absolutely agree with you about the elements that need to go into employer branding. The point of the article is simply that recruiting is the prime opportunity to actually spread the message, both to potential candidates and internally.

  8. These are the conversations I have daily working for Glassdoor. This article paints a clear picture as to why employers absolutely need to focus on the 1-2 punch of branding and recruiting. This is why I love what I do. Helping employers kill 2 birds with 1 stone!

  9. Personally, I think it’s easier to handle the volume than the lack thereof. If your active campaign is pulling in a lot of people, so much the better. It doesn’t take long to quick scan a resume and know if the person has a chance in hell of doing the job.

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