One-to-One Recruiting: The Importance of Personalizing All Aspects of Recruiting

color_colonelThe most powerful recruiting advertisement I’ve seen in the last two years didn’t originate from Google and it wasn’t found on a social media site; instead it was a “take your breath away” billboard designed to attract a single person.

Usually billboards are a complete waste of money, but this one dared to go where no one has gone before. We’ve all seen the famous 1916 James Montgomery Flagg portrait of Uncle Sam with the caption “I want you for the U.S. Army,” but imagine if instead of a generic message you passed a billboard or poster bearing your name, your image, and a message specific to you, i.e. Nicole Pollock “we want you!” There is zero chance you wouldn’t pull over immediately just to stare, but chances are you would have already learned about it through calls and text messages from your family and friends. Such a startling communication would even cause people who didn’t know you to take notice and to wonder about both you and what kind of organization would be so bold to attempt this type of recruiting.

The roadside billboard was only the beginning of a broad reaching “one-to-one recruiting” campaign launched by Wilkes University to land a single student. In addition to the billboard, it added personalized messages to pizza boxes at the local pizza shop, signs on top of local gas pumps, pre-screening ads in local movie theaters, directory signs in the local mall and even localized ads on MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central. The campaign turned everyone in the community that interacted with Nicole Pollock, the student of interest, into a stakeholder/influencer of her decision, which was ultimately “yes.”

The marketing firm, 160over90, hired by the university, clearly understood the value of the seldom used but powerful one-to-one approach. While not appropriate for every vacancy, the cost of a one-to-one campaign pales in comparison to the value of getting a top performer into a key role. Even if you are not ready to engage in an effort as bold as Wilkes University, there are components of one-to-one recruiting that can bolster any effort.

Narrowing Recruiting Scope Broadcasting to One-to-One

Defining the scope of recruiting processes and activities is perhaps one of the most overlooked elements of planning in the typical recruiting function. Instead of developing programs and practices that target a specific range of actions or individuals, most recruiting leaders engage in broadcasting, i.e. using a one-size-fits all approach. One-size-fits-all clothing generally isn’t that attractive, and neither are overly generic recruiting processes and communications. Scope, like clothing comes in many sizes, including:

  • Broadcasting (targeting a large multi-demographic audience)
  • Narrowcasting (targeting a smaller more defined audience)
  • Microcasting (targeting a specific population within a narrowcast audience)
  • One-to-one, aka 1:1 (targeting a specific individual)

Personalization is the Wave of the Future

The practice of 1:1 or personalized marketing is a well-established concept in customer relationship management circles, and is becoming more of a mainstream practice thanks to many emerging technologies. Last fall, the Castrol Oil Company practiced an extreme version of personalized marketing by placing cameras along a main road in London to capture the license plates of passing vehicles. The license numbers were then cross-referenced with vehicle registration records, enabling Castrol Oil to display targeted ads on a digital billboard suggesting which type of oil the drivers should use as they drove past the billboard!

In addition to 1:1 marketing, personalization is invading the product and service deliver arms of organizations as well. Mass customized manufacturing enables firms like BMW to personalize literally every car they produce so that no two are the same.

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Rarely do HR functions support mass personalization, but there are exceptions. Cafeteria style benefits programs allow employees to personalize their benefits portfolio. Career planning tools in use by firms like Deloitte allow employees to customize their careers (Deloitte’s program is referred to as the Mass Career Customization Program.) Executive recruiting efforts often target “most wanted” individuals i.e. individuals the organization has remotely assessed and determined that they would like to recruit them in the near future. One-to-one recruiting isn’t unheard of, just rare. Google has employed it several times, most notably with its famous “math puzzle” billboard, and the practice was common at FirstMerit Bank while under Michael Homula’s recruiting leadership.

The Many Benefits of One-to-One Recruiting

When I present during corporate recruiter trainings or HR offsites, I frequently mention one-to-one recruiting examples just to see how progressive the organization is with regards to its thinking about the value of top talent. Undoubtedly, most audience participants rarely ponder the value of the talent, they seek and universally assume it’s just too expensive for them to consider. Those open to actually delivering strategic recruiting versus just talking about it, often change their viewpoint once they learn more about the approach and its many benefits, some of which include:

  • One-to-one marketing builds the employer brand—one-to-one recruiting efforts provide the organization with an opportunity to establish a much more realistic brand perception among a highly targeted and highly desired population, often in a way that gets talked about by others. (Contrary to popular belief, not all employees/candidates experience the organization the exact same way, so brand perception is not universal across the organizations despite generic corporate messages that say “we are…”) Using one-to-one creates high visible individuals who can become ambassadors of your brand in the community.
  • One-to-one targets act as magnets—one-to-one efforts almost always target industry icons. While you will certainly spend a little more money to capture these individuals, doing so will not only send a message that “something is up,” it will save you money in the long run as magnet hires often bring with them or attract from other organizations a significant volume of quality hires.
  • One-to-one efforts can boost morale—if your organization has recruited team players who like to win, one-to-one efforts send a clear message that your organization will do whatever it takes to recruit the very best for existing employees to work alongside fellow top performers and industry game-changers. A win for the team is a win for all, and morale will likely skyrocket.
  • One-to-one efforts increase visibility—bold recruiting efforts are almost always noticed in ways that dramatically increase the publicity the organization receives, raising the profile of the recruiting function both inside and outside the organization.
  • One-to-one efforts will also likely net boomerangs—even if you don’t actually “catch” your primary target the first time around, the power of the one-on-one campaign guarantees that they will consider your firm again later in their career, without much additional effort on your part.
  • One-to-one efforts produce amazing results—rarely are recruiting efforts 100% successful, but one-to-one efforts almost always produce positive results.

Tools and Approaches to Consider

Even if there’s no chance that you’re going to try a full-fledged one-to-one recruiting campaign, there are many tools and approaches that have proven to be extremely beneficial when included as a component of broader efforts. These approaches include:

  • Identifying how to reach them—get at least a rough idea of the best way to reach your target candidates. Start by asking your own top performers in similar jobs, “how could we find you again?” Use the information your employees provide as an indication of the best ways to identify and communicate with your targeted candidates.
  • Identify their job acceptance criteria—there’s no more important step in any sales process than asking each of your top targets what decision criteria they will use when deciding to accept or reject an offer. With that information in hand, you can at least modify the recruiting and offer processes to ensure that you have provided each candidate with enough evidence to prove to their satisfaction that you best meet their criteria.
  • Ask them to apply—most recruiting processes assume that merely being made aware of a job opening will be enough to trigger everyone to apply. This is a huge mistake because there are a significant number of currently employed individuals who, for whatever reason, won’t apply to a new job unless they are personally invited.
  • CEO calls—if you’re not already using them, you should be aware that a personalized call from a CEO who knows the candidate’s background is the most effective recruiting tool there is. If you can get your CEO to agree to a limited number of calls per month, you can use them to convince individuals to apply or to sell them on your final offer.
  • Personalize the job—top candidates generally accept because the work itself and the opportunities are unique and exciting. As a result, if you expect to have a reasonable chance at landing top candidates, you will need to realize from the beginning that at least part of the job will need to be customized to their unique needs and interests.
  • Identify who they would like to meet—most recruiting schedules are set based 100% on which individuals within the company have decided that they want to interview the individual. Unfortunately, that ignores the fact that the candidate themselves might want to meet certain individuals (by title) before they would be comfortable in accepting the job. Allowing top candidates to meet a few people of their choice makes the hiring process appear more personalized to them.
  • Personalize onboarding—if you tailor the onboarding to their unique needs, not only will they feel accepted by their team faster, they will also reach their minimum productivity levels in a much shorter time and be more apt to share positive stories about the organization with former colleagues.

Final Thoughts

Every freshman studying journalism, communications, PR, sales, and marketing learns in their first semester that if you want “your message” to be read and accepted, you need to make it personally relevant to the target audience. It’s a basic lesson that we often forget in the world of broadly targeted recruitment advertising, candidate messaging, and employer branding. Mass personalization is essential if you are courting top candidates, but I would argue that it’s quickly becoming essential for all quality candidates. No one wants to feel that they are entering a corporate monolith where they will become lost. Recruiting leaders need to examine every program and process to determine how each can appear more personalized to candidates. They should also allocate more time to benchmarking marketing functions, which are light years ahead of most recruiting functions in the area of effective personalization.

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.



7 Comments on “One-to-One Recruiting: The Importance of Personalizing All Aspects of Recruiting

  1. Mass personalization…there’s a term that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I fully understand and appreciate the principle, but struggle with its somewhat disengenuous ring. It reminds me of the old direct mail brochures with your name inkjet imprinted on the inside of a slick four-color mailing. My question from a recruiting perspective is, How do we keep the perception of it from degrading into a “John Smith/or current resident” feel?

  2. Fantastic article John. I believe you are correct in saying “personalization is the wave of the future”. As our industry evolves, we’ve had really smart people working on the challenges of how to FIND talent and how to ATTRACT talent. In fact, there are terrific tools and techniques (many of which are presented at SourceCon, ERE Expo, and the Social Recruiting Summit) to help us Find and Attract candidates, but our industry is just beginning to explore how to most effectively ENGAGE candidates one-to-one.

    Thank you for putting the topic front and center – – it is worthy of discussion.

    I believe one-to-one recruitment is the most effective way to engage talent. We are used to blasting “one size fits all” templated emails to the masses and smiling and dialing through long lists of prospects, many of whom are, at best, marginally qualified for the specific role. But what would happen if we took the time to really research a small number of highly qualified prospects and develop outreach that is personalized and relevant to them. Then, instead of competing for marginal talent and hoping the top talent will respond to our outreach, we can focus on competing for the best. People respond to personalization.

    Gaining a candidate’s attention and building trust are two of the major hurdles we face. Your example of a placing a billboard to target one specific person might sound extreme, but the principle behind it is sound. Thank you again for starting the discussion. I’m eager to see where it goes.

  3. Great post. Thought provoking indeed. Reminds me of the balance between being Effective vs Efficient. I agree that 1:1 has the highest call back and engagement rate…at least it does in my search firm world. The challenge of recruiting 1:1 has always been the time it takes to find the right names, the phone numbers, and then placing each call. These time consuming tasks are still there many times but things are progressively getting easier with the ability to contact people 1:1 through some (not all) of the social networks.
    Also, I think the data is clear that the more I know (and mention when engaging) about the prospect targeted candidate the more likely he/she is to return my recruiting call or pay close attention.

    Additional thoughts:
    I’m left wondering if Wilkes University targeted Nicole Pollack because her matriculation would cause others to come to the University?
    Seems like a company could fairly easily and cost-effectively upload videos to YouTube specifically targeting one particular individual. I wonder if they’d ever notice it was there? Would their friends see it and forward it along? Would their manager notice it first and call the company with a cease and desist demand?
    Imagine the buzz that would ensue if Company A’s CEO posted a video trying to recruit Company B’s CEO to join Company A.

  4. Congrats John. Yet another thoughtful and potentially game-changing insight on how to deploy Web 2.0 in ways that go beyond informing the world what you ate for lunch or the interminable sharing of cute snapshots.

    I have long shared the view that the one-to-many relationship structure of broadcast media (newspapers, magazines, movies, records, CDs, DVDs, TV, Radio) that over-rewards the excellent few at the top can be replaced or at least joined by a structure less prone to propoganda and idolatry. But we have to reach beyond Twitting, where the vast majority of members follow the tweets of the uber few (and the modal number of tweets per month issued per member is by an overwhelming lead–1).

    Now its possible to nurture relationships that are 1-to-1 or one-2-few where each consumer, voter, or member is rewarded for contributing greater value into the whole. We need real, not simulated, personalization.

    That is why I developed a very fast (it takes just six clicks) online tool that identifies which of four primary (and seven secorndary) personal styles characterize any person. Knowing their Personal STYLE empowers a deeper connection and enables shorter communications with that person in the style that best fits their type.

    Those interested in this tool (The Personal STYLE Profiler) can email me at to check out their STYLE (and their level of measured Self Awareness).

  5. I believe it will soon be possible to individually target virtually any potential candidates at any stage of their academic or work careers, so you can create a pipeline as long or as short as you need. This is consistent with my philosophy of:
    “If you know where someone is and what they’re doing, you don’t need to source them.”

    Right now, you can pay under $2.00/hr for someone to make a phone call to each person you’d like to build/maintain a recruiting relationship with. If anyone in a corporate organization does this, I’d be interested in hearing about it…



  6. Receiving a personalized offer/job opportunity always feels great. It makes the applicant feel like they are special and fit for the job. This is a great way to hire talent that coincides with corporate culture.

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