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

from RamotionblogIn Part 1 of this series I called out the need for the recruiting profession to embrace and make the business case for using market research to inform and guide recruiting efforts. In this episode, my attention turns to acting on that need.

Every recruiting leader wants top candidates, but the standard approach used by most recruiters simply doesn’t work. A more precise data-driven approach that leverages complete understanding of the attraction factors can give you a competitive edge. Market research can reveal:

  1. What it would take for top talent to look at and consider your firm/jobs;
  2. What are the best information channels influence to top talent;
  3. What is required to “trigger them” to apply; and
  4. What expectations have to be met before they will accept a job.

Implementing a Recruiting Market Research Effort

Building a market research function isn’t rocket science, but there are certain action steps you should consider when getting started, including:

  1. Partner with existing market research and product marketing functions within the business to learn about their best practices and tools they may be able to grant you access to. (Don’t forget to inquire about ongoing coaching and advice as well.)
  2. Recruiting someone with marketing research knowledge and experience to run the effort. This is one of those cases where training a subject matter expert the intricacies of recruiting would be less resource-exhausting than training a recruiter how to be a market research expert.
  3. Put together a strong business case for additional program funding (it’s unlikely you have enough surplus in your existing budget). Work with the CFO’s office to ensure that the benefits targeted are credible and that your approach for proving ROI is airtight.
  4. Decide what information you need to inform your efforts, and what types of data could be analyzed to provide that information.
  5. Develop a long list of possible data sources that could provide the data needed to develop the information for each of the key talent segments your function must recruit for. Commonly overlooked sources include desirable individuals who would not consider your firm, current top prospects, current or past candidates, and new hires.
  6. Test the accuracy, reliability, suitability of format and cost to obtain of each data source, prioritizing and selecting those providing the optimal mix.
  7. Design a simple method to collect, collate, categorize, analyze, and tag the data that will power your effort.
  8. Determine how you will make information actionable by identifying not only how the information produced from your analysis will be communicated, but also how it will be embedded in core processes.

The Top 10 Subjects on Which Information Is Needed

The job search process — you must understand how top talent goes about looking for an opportunity. Identify the specific steps they take and the timeline that they follow when considering a job change. Also identify who they consult with throughout the process.

Identify channels of influence/communication — use surveys or focus groups to identify specifically where top talent source their information from and spend a great deal of time. You should learn about how top prospects use:

  • Social media — what social media sites do they frequent (i.e. LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Yelp, Twitter, etc.) Would a jobs-related message there excite them or turn them off?
  • Internet/Mobile — how they use the Internet, both from the desktop and from mobile devices. What online outposts do they visit most frequently? What blogs do they read and what RSS feeds do they subscribe to? Do they listen to podcasts? What electronic forums/chat rooms do they frequent?
  • Media — what magazines, publications, journals or newspapers do they read, either the paper or online version? What radio or TV programs do they tune into? Would they read an ad or must a mention be within the narrative content?
  • Message preference — what type of messages will they read, ignore, or reject (i.e. electronic e-mail, text, video, tweets, Facebook posts, voice or even snail mail)? Under what conditions would they return a direct message from an unknown recruiter?
  • Job sites — what job feeds do they use and what job boards (if any) do they visit frequently looking for a job? On what sites do they post their resumes? What must a job post description contain to get them excited?
  • Corporate career sites — what does it take to get them to visit a corporate career/ jobs site? What factors will cause them to drop out before applying?
  • Professional association/trade events — what organizations do they join and what meetings do they attend (professional or social)? Would they ever attend a job fair?
  • Employer rating sites — what employee rating or rant sites do they visit? Does the information change their job search? (Glassdoor, Jobitorial, etc.)
  • Videos — where do they view videos (i.e. YouTube or Flickr)?
  • Talent competitors — what firms do the target candidates consider during their job search? Which firms do they finally select?

Identify the message that is required to get their initial attention — use your research to identify what a message must look like and contain to ensure that a quick glance at it will get your target’s immediate attention. After developing some sample messages, use a focus group to pre-test them.

Identify what excites top prospects about a job or company — to refine your messaging you must identify what factors about an industry, company, or job excite your target audience enough to drive them to apply, i.e. high pay, job security, interesting work, a green environment, a great location, an opportunity to learn, etc.)

Identify possible “turnoffs” — in addition to understanding factors that excite, you must also identify the factors that are turnoffs. Because you cannot control the information available on the Internet, you must first find out what negatives about your firm and jobs are easy to find, and develop/test “countering messages” to make sure they successfully overcome published negatives.

For not-looking prospects, identify what it takes to get them to enter the job-search process — if you don’t know already, currently employed individuals who are “not active lookers” cannot be attracted using active approaches. If you are targeting individuals who are not actively seeking jobs, it is critical that you identify the specific “triggers” that would excite them enough to enter into job search mode.

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Identify the factors that cause top prospects to take the time to apply — it takes a lot more to get a top prospect or a non-job-looker to take the time required to apply for a job. As a result, your research must identify the drivers or factors that will overcome their natural resistance to applying for a job. Once you identify those factors, prepare and pretest your messages to ensure that they drive candidates to take desirable recruiting actions like visiting your website, applying for a position, or making a call to a recruiter.

Identify the best ways to identify potential referrals — because employee referrals produce such a high volume and improved quality of candidate, use your market research tools to identify the best approaches for identifying and selling referrals. Provide that information to your employees so that they can target their referral efforts.

For active candidates, identify where they see job information — although it takes less work to get active candidates to apply, the very best actives have numerous firms in mind. As a result, use your research methods to identify the specific places and locations where your top “active prospects” would likely see and read an announcement of either an open position or a recruiting-related event. You should also consider putting an identifying code, phone number, or unique web address in each message in order to allow you to later identify which ones actually drew the most interest.

Don’t forget follow-up market research — in order to ensure that you “got it right” and to continually improve, gather follow-up source and influence information from a sample of applicants, candidates, and finalists. In addition, always ask new hires during onboarding what factors attracted them, caused them to say yes, and what factors almost caused them to say no. Use this information to refine both your market research and your recruiting process.

Final Thoughts

Recruiting leaders can learn a lot from competitive fishermen. You cannot even begin to be a mediocre competitive angler without fully understanding the interests, locations, habits and feeding routines of your target — i.e. the trophy fish. You can of course use intuition or luck, but the best competitive fishermen have long ago shifted to the scientific approach, which includes depth finders, temperature gauges, and electronic fish finders.

In the same light, recruiting must move away from traditional unstructured trial-and-error approaches and instead shift toward more scientific and data-driven research approaches. If you are among the majority of recruiting leaders who have hiring managers continually complaining that they are not seeing top candidates, your lack of market research and not “fully understanding your prospects/candidates” may be to blame. As the job-search process becomes more complex and global, you may soon find that there is no alternative other than adopting a market research model in the recruiting function. Don’t wait too long. There simply won’t be time to catch up.

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.



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

  1. Dr. Sullivan,

    An excellent and thought-provoking article. We’ve undertaken several of these efforts here at Deloitte and the results have led us to rebuild our Candidate Communication Strategy, particularly for our initial outbound messaging.

    For those interested, I’d be happy to provide an overview of our approach and corresponding results.



  2. Jim

    Deloitte has a long history of innovation in recruiting, so I’m not surprised that you have also innovated in the area of market research. I’d love to learn more about your approach and its results for a future article. You can post it as a comment here or if it’s too long, send it to me directly at

    John Sullivan

  3. Thank you, Dr. Sullivan. Your article is quite informative. At the same time, much of what is described here (as well as much else that you inform us about) works well for recruiting environments which are not dysfunctional, or short on staff, money, and time. I would enjoy reading practical suggestions for “the other 99%” of us who work where things ARE often dysfunctional, short on staff, money, and time.



  4. Keith

    As someone that strives to be a “thought leader”, my role is to push the envelope. If you want to read about average practices and problems in talent management, you shouldn’t be reading my articles or for that matter, pretty much everything on ERE.Net. David, Todd, John Z, Kevin Wheeler, Lou Adler and the entire staff are well known throughout the industry for their focus on innovation and outside the box approaches. If you are so focused on the average, I recommend SHRM if you want to read about how the average HR professional acts and as a result, struggles.

    I would also note that in my experience, recruiting organizations that are short on staff and money suffer these constraints precisely because they use average approaches that produce average results. I’ve never met a successful recruiting leader that “got the money first”. They always report to me that they scraped together resources to innovate and only after those innovations produced exceptional results did the money begin flowing.

    John Sullivan

  5. Thank you Dr. Sullivan. When I hear an individual seek to attach a label like “thought leader” or “visionary” to themselves (however well-deserved it may be), I become concerned that this person may be too prideful. I fully commend your efforts to “push the envelope” and “think outside the box” (I like to think that I may also do so on occasion) – it is that what is often discussed is impractical and unusable to any but a tiny minority of recruiters. Also, I am not advocating the use of “average” recruiting practices- as a working recruiter, I find the “average” corporate recruiting practices to usually be moderately- to severely dysfunctional. Rather, I am advocating (and once in a while actually proposing) practical, usable, and affordable techniques that the average ERE member can apply in the real world of recruiting where things are usually sub-optimal in many ways. ISTM that instead of consulting with the recruiting leaders to deal with problems, much more might be gained by actually asking those of us doing the work what we need and want.

    Also, it is disappointing to hear an individual of your reputation and stature blanket the 250,000+ members of SHRM (to which I do not belong) with a term “average” which sounds to me as being equivalent to “mediocrity”. It is unfair to the many hard-working professionals of that organization. (If this was not your intent, I apologize for my misunderstanding.)

    Finally, I once again thank you for your stimulating and informative articles, and look forward to your next contribution.



  6. Keith,

    Since I am in agreement with both of you simultaneously, I suspect that a conversation between you and Dr. Sullivan would reveal close agreement. These short comments simply do not offer the space to fully elaborate every element of context and contingency that more complete conversation whould reveal.

    Regarding the contributing causes for the dysfunctions within companies, Dr. Sullivan has indicated in other posts that he shares your perception that this dysfunction is not based on the fact that people who do recruiting simply do not care or know what they are doing, and furthermore that much of this dysfunction is because on the executive decisions, organizational systems and management processes that essentially determine how these well-intending recruiting people are expected to work.

    Regarding SHRM, Dr. Sullivan may be referring to the research that Dr. Sara Rynes conducted for SHRM, which revealed a very dissappointing level of knowledge and practice among SHRM members. I’ll send you both a copy in case you have not seen it.

    For others, here’s the reference: Rynes, S. L., Colbert, A. E., & Brown, K. Gl (2002). HR professionals’ beliefs about effective human resources practices: Correspondence between research and practice. Human Resource Management, 41(2), 149-174.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. James Pepitone, Research Director – Early Access Field Trials, Humaneering Institute –

  7. Thank you Dr. Pepitone. I appreciate your comments. I also believe that Dr. Sullivan and I have a considerable amount of agreement in our views. I think the main point of divergence is on how to approach recruiting problem-solving: my approach is to (whenever possible) start with the people who are actually doing the work for their input. My perception is that Dr. Sullivan usually deals with high-level recruiting leaders who are somewhat removed from the day-to-day concerns of the working recruiters, and (as you pointed out) may be the cause of many of the problems the recruiting staff faces.

    As far as the discussion of SHRM: it may be true that the level of knowledge of many of its members may be somewhat lacking (though one report you cited is now nearly 10 years old). However, the same may be said of many professional associations and groups, and to blanket an entire organization of 250,000+ with the label of “average” (meaning: “mediocre”) strikes me as being unjustified.



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