I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Scott Birkhead recently. In addition to his role as Director Talent Acquisition at Korn/Ferry Futurestep, he has run his own career coaching business, is an enthusiastic student of direct marketing gurus like Perry Marshall and Dan Kennedy and is a job ad guru.

We got to talking about how to write an effective job ad and I wanted to pass along the exchange.

Q: Who should write the job ad…recruiter, hiring manager, someone else?

Copywriter would be best. Copywriters are trained to conduct deep-dive investigation on the product and what problems it will solve, and then turn that information into messages that will resonate with the portions of the buying audience most likely to buy.

But barring that, a recruiter with a good training can do this as long as they’re partnering well with the hiring team and thinking about the information from the buyer’s (candidate’s) perspective.

In truth, any recruiter could benefit from a little reading on Direct Response copywriting – Dan Kennedy’s “No B.S. Sales Letters” would be a good place to start. It focuses on understanding buying motives, getting inside the head of your prospect, seeing things from their perspective, and combining these to turn out ads that generate responses from the right people.


Q: How should the hiring manager and recruiter best collaborate on creating a job ad?

First there has to be a complete brain-dump on the job in a guided Intake session. High-fee search consultants learn how to perform structured discovery with managers and are the best model. Corporate recruiters often don’t know how to do this, so they rely on the Job Description and tribal knowledge to learn what’s needed and what is being offered.

But a good, detailed structured intake session will uncover lots of useful information. And don’t just do it with the manager – recruiters who drive team discovery sessions will often help themselves and the company immensely! First, it’s often team members who have better insights into why someone would want a peer-level job and how to sell it.

And often (especially if team members are going to interview and evaluate candidates) a team discovery session will iron out differences of opinion as to what constitutes a good candidate.

Years ago a business GM I worked with insisted all of his managers be trained on interviewing and selection. When I did my first team intake meeting, I was amazed that the team members didn’t have common understanding about what constituted high performance, how you got there, or how you’d be able to get that information from interviewees.

In the “No B.S. Sales Letters book mentioned above, there is a list of Diagnostic Questions that are brilliant. These are questions copywriters use to get at the deep emotional needs a potential customer might have – they’re greatly useful for adapting the ‘marketing mindset’ mentioned above.

Once you have a structured intake, it’s really the recruiter’s job to measure response rates and hone it to drive the optimal result.

Q: How do you make the hiring manager your ally in the job ad?

Sell the benefits. No one acts without understanding how it will benefit them, so recruiter have to know and sell the benefits.

My first large global manufacturing company client had a strong, almost universal dislike for corporate recruiting. When they outsourced the function to the company I worked for, we had to prove we were different.

So when I started on searches with new hiring managers, I used to start the conversation by asking them how many jobs they had filled recently, what they thought of recruiting, and how much they liked having to fill jobs.

Responses were almost universally negative. I would ask them what mistakes they most wanted to avoid to make the whole thing as painless as possible. The top 3 answers were always related to the number, quality and speed of candidates I could put in the process.

Then I told them how our new process would eliminate those problems…IF I had the information I needed to work with and they would help me learn how to sell the top-shelf candidates they wanted.

Once I related the activity required to the avoidance of the manager’s stated pain, most of them readily participated in the 2-3 hours necessary to get me information, market well, and calibrate as I narrowed in on the right candidates.

Q: You mentioned that a decent job ad should include a compelling piece of marketing — any examples?

John Carlton, a rather infamous copywriter and guru talks about finding the “hook” in the needs of the market that matches the need. He gives the visual of thinking of your prospect like a huge sloth you have to compel to get up off the couch, pry their wallet out of their pocket and buy your product.

The hook is what first attracts someone’s attention at the deeply held emotional need level. Frequently those hooks have nothing to do with the obvious features of the product – it’s the benefit derived that’s the hook.

This lesson was driven home for me in recruiting years ago, at the very start of my career when I was in retained search. I filled a Plant Manager level job at a mining company that had experienced significant labor and union challenges: so difficult that they’d had a strike and someone was killed on the picket line.

The client had been looking for this manager for some time using standard corporate branding and job-related marketing. When they couldn’t fill it, they asked the search company I worked for to try to fill it.

We decided that the biggest negative about the job (all the labor trouble) WAS the hook. We started selling the job as the perfect spot for someone who was excited by tough management assignments, who had a passion for turning negative (even hostile) teams into shining examples of management/labor relations.

Once we repositioned the job and started marketing it that way, we got the right candidates to apply. More importantly, candidates who were qualified but not interested in that situation gave us plenty of referrals to people they knew who would want the job! We had a candidate slate built in a month and the job filled in two.

That lesson taught me that there’s someone for almost every job – you just have to figure out the “hook” in the role, which segment of the labor pool will respond to that message, and how to get it to the market rapidly.

And you have to be willing to market what you know. Sometime this can be risky.

Q: You’ve talked about “illiciting fear, pain, greed”, etc — how does that play into an effective job ad?

Buying follows a reliable pattern. People buy emotionally first, rationally second.

What that means is that people look at a product based on their perceptions of their own need. They look out into the future, imagine themselves having bought that product, and weigh the potential risks and rewards.

The stronger their need, the more readily connect with potential solutions to that problem – IF those potential solutions are connected to their most strongly held emotional needs.

Once they’ve connected, they’ll start finding the rational reasons to support that initial emotional connection. When they make the connection and see the rational evidence, they buy. No emotion, no purchase. No evidence, no purchase. Buying toilet paper may not require an emotional connection, but starting a new employment situation requires deep connection and conviction.

There are more than a dozen identifiable emotions that will cause someone to buy something. The strongest three are fear, pain and greed (or gain if you prefer):

·        They are afraid of what could happen if they don’t find the right job or get themselves into a job they hate.

·        They are in pain, and are looking for a new job as the solution to that pain.

·        They WANT something really badly they can’t get in a current situation; and are willing to try to find it in a new job.

Once you know what the job seekers in your domain fear, have pain around, and want, you can connect those with which of those your job will (and will not) fix.

When that is explicitly stated and backed up in your candidate marketing (the ad, the career site, the selling that goes with interview and evaluation), the quality of candidate will go up dramatically, and you’ll reduce the amount of ‘noise’ candidates and risk in your selection pool.

Q: How do you repel bad candidates (i.e. alienate the non-prospect) through a job ad ?

Great hires are about 1 in 10 in the typical company. That’s because we develop marginal candidate pools and succumb to time pressures to fill the seat.

Good marketing that’s written explicitly for a specific type of candidate should naturally repel the opposite of the person it’s meant to attract. From examples already given:

·        Advertising the tough management challenges at a mining plant will repel technically qualified managers who do not want that kind of assignment and would fail in the role.

·        Advertising a programmer who needs to be tool agnostic will repel those who have decided to stop learning and build a career around one vendor’s tools.

If you’re honest about what someone can and cannot get from the job, the wrong people will walk away. If you do it on the phone and have a basic technique, they’ll refer you to people they know who can do the work and will like what they see.


Q: Are there any other marketing techniques from the direct marketing experts like Perry Marshall, Dan Kennedy that have helped you attract the right candidate through a job ad?

Couple of things immediately come to mind:

1.      The idea of exclusivity. Many job ads (and other recruiting techniques used in corporate recruiting) are geared toward inclusion vs. exclusion. While we never want to broach the line of excluding people on the basis of any illegal or immoral grounds, there are LOTS of reasons to exclude marginal prospects.

Recruiters and recruitment advertisers need to work harder to position their opportunities as out of reach for the average qualified candidate – only in reach for the person who is a 95% match for the job. Good direct marketers are all about the highest reward for the least amount of cost – they are naturally EXCLUSIVE about who they work with or allow access.

Good companies are the same – Bain, McKinsey, Boston Consulting don’t let just anyone go to work there.

2.     Two-step selling. In internet marketing, some initial sales are done in one step. In other words, you go to a cold buyer market, advertise and get buyers to purchase immediately. But many more higher dollar/value sales require two steps – you go to the market primarily looking to pull converts out of the raw mass of people who might see your ad.

Converts are people who are like you, want the things you want, value what you value. You initially build a relationship regardless of whether a transaction occurs. Then later they become buyers (when the timing is right for them and you) and are usually willing to spend more than raw prospects.

Many recruiting teams are built around just-in-time marketing, so they’re going cold to the market each time. Recruiting functions that are built around relationship first have proven to be able to drive down costs, improve time to fill, and generate higher quality hires.

Charles Schwab did this by building a pipelining function to develop relationships with pools of candidates for various jobs.

Note: You can follow Scott on LinkedIn and Twitter. Enjoy!

For tips on writing job descriptions, check out How to Write a Job Description — Best Practices & Examples.

by in Job Descriptions