Strategic Market Research: What You Don’t Know Can Kill Your Recruiting! (Part 1 of 2)

I have stated for years that “recruiting is just sales with a crummy budget,” but there is one major differentiator: sales professionals widely accept the principle that you can’t successfully sell to a customer with multiple options unless you fully understand the customer. Professional sales organizations have been using market research for decades to learn the needs, expectations, and the buying behaviors of the customer. Unfortunately few recruiting organizations have adopted this practice. If market research influenced recruiting, there would be:

  • Market segmentation — an approach that separates top performers and innovators into a distinct segment, so that recruiting could distinguish between the unique expectations of top performers and the completely different expectations of average candidates.
  • A scientific approach to get in front of their eyes — surveys or in-depth interviews with top prospects to determine the best location for them “to see” job postings or employer-brand-influencing content.
  • A databased approach to identify decision-triggers — periodic focus groups asking top non-job lookers (i.e. passives) what factors about the job and company must be present in order to actually trigger them to consider your job, and in-depth behavioral profiles that reveal which factors lead to complete application/acceptance.

You Don’t Know Jack

What recruiters don’t know about candidates is extensive. For example, it is extremely rare for consumer-oriented companies to even make note that a candidate is a regular customer. Hiring managers interview candidates without realizing that even a mediocre candidate experience might drive them away from their brand as a consumer. Few companies have a formal process to identify the job acceptance criteria of top candidates.

Most recruiters believe they know “candidates,” but when you drill down into their knowledge in specific instances, you realize that the knowledge is limited to generalizations full of stereotyped assumptions. It’s not entirely the recruiters’ fault; few human resource leaders (possibly because few have spent time in recruiting) seem open to investing in market research to arm them with data. Recruiters have been forced to rely solely on ad-hoc information garnered from interviews, and informal conversations with candidates that often lack insight into day-to-day behavior outside the job search. It is my argument that if recruiting is to ever move from an art to a science and to prove its business impact, recruiting leaders must implement an in-depth market research practice.

Prospect market research is the process of systematically identifying and exploiting the job search approach and the decision-making criteria used by top prospects

Key Learnings

Other Business Functions Have Already Made the Transition — Almost every consumer-touching business function already leverages market research. Sales, marketing, brand management, customer service, and even product development long ago shifted to a data-based model. Other aspects of HR use tools like 360s, employee surveys, and exit interviews to better understand the internal audience, but external audience research is one of the most important but most-ignored aspects of the strategic recruiting process (along with quality-of-hire metrics and sales training).

I estimate that less than 10% of corporate recruiting functions have ever flirted with conducting real market research on their prospects. Most recruiters and recruiting leaders argue that they are simply too busy to do this research. Unfortunately, it’s quite possible that the high workload may in part be caused by their lack of a understanding of their target, which results in ineffective messaging and the poor placement of job announcements. If you’re getting a high volume of low-quality candidates who barely know your firm, a lack of market research may be the culprit.

Moving from one job to another is equivalent to buying a house — Most in recruiting severely underestimate the complexity of the decision to switch jobs, equating the job-search decision with the simple and unsophisticated purchase of a Starbucks coffee or a Diet Pepsi. However, if you expect to land top candidates and those who are currently employed, you need to realize that moving from one company to another is a life-changing decision.

As a recruiter, you are selling something that is the equivalent of buying a house or a car, because it’s a major decision that impacts everyone in the family. The cavalier attitude comes from an over-emphasis on “active candidates” who will go out of their way to find and apply for a job, but if you’re trying to attract a top prospect who already has a job and multiple career choices, you better “know them” and their decision criteria backward and forward or you will never see an application from them.

The job search process literally changes almost every day — Knowledge about candidate search behavior like most knowledge might become obsolete in less than six months. Take a step back and think about it: nearly every day the news features an announcement of a new technology or app related to communicating, making referrals, or finding a job. Do candidates use Foursquare? Do they want to apply for jobs using a mobile device? Do they find out about a company from their website or on Facebook or Twitter? Do they use Glassdoor, Quora, or LinkedIn to find out about an organization’s negatives? Does this generation search for jobs in a different way?

Article Continues Below

You can’t actually “know” what candidates are up to without continuous market research. One of the reasons that firms are struggling to prove the ROI of social media recruiting is because we really don’t know precisely how and when these new communications tools are being used by the different market segments. You can no longer be satisfied simply knowing that these new communications and networking tools exist; you need to know how top prospects are actually using them as communications channels and job-search tools.

Job expectations are constantly changing — Speaking of different expectations … are you having difficulty recruiting from the different generations? I laugh at most of the junk science used to describe the expectations of the different generations. Almost all of the assumptions about generations are based on broad global generalizations based on age rather than data-driven segmented market research.

Assuming that everyone within a 20-year generation that lives in any country of the world can be attracted using the same recruiting approach is simply silly. Incidentally, this segmented market research information can also tell you how you need to change your jobs so that they become exciting to the specific individual or market segment you are targeting. Without market research, you can only rely on trial and error to fully understand these changing expectations.

Next week: Recruiting Market Research Action Steps and Information Gathering Targets

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 “Strategic Market Research: What You Don’t Know Can Kill Your Recruiting! (Part 1 of 2)

  1. This is a great informative link with an different way of thinking in regards to how market research can be used! Market research will allow your selection process to be narrowed down to candidates who are far more suitable for the specified job, saving time and money.

    Marketest is a leading market research company who primarily help pre-startups, startups and existing organisations by providing one to one help when developing a research project.

  2. Thank you. Dr. Sullivan. ISTM that you impart very valuable information for those who work in functional, well-staffed, well-resourced, and well-funded recruiting organizations. I would enjoy reading some practical information relevant to the 99% of us who don’t usually work in places like these.



  3. Excellent info Dr Sullivan. Similar to other depts within an organization, corporate recruiters can take advantage of excellent predictive and analytical tools – science-based assessments of personality and cognitive ability provide objective insight about candidates (so you do know Jack!), and help identify which candidates are most likely to be successful. Looking forward to Part 2!

  4. Thanks for post. Two things struck me of interest…

    1. The notion that job-changing is a significant event. Less so for the unemployed perhaps because the perceived up-side of the unemployed is higher (paycheck, benefits, etc) than the perceived risk for the already employed.

    2. Idea that not all employees are alike. This point is pure common sense, but too often recruiters treat prospects alike. When they do this, they may preserve a notion of parity in the process, but lose a sense of what makes a candidate unique. Specifically interesting re: Millennials. (More here:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *