Psychological research reveals some interesting, if unsurprising, findings about job adverts. Most are full of corporate puff and management-speak, such as "co-ordinates… liaises… develops", and fail to give detailed information about the job. Instead of stating a salary, the phrase "a remuneration package commensurate with experience" often appears which, for candidates, is merely irritating.
In fact, the way language is used generally can only be described as banal – what role doesn't need "a self-starter who is looking for a new challenge and can demonstrate a track record in the industry"?
Yet companies continue to hand over 15-25 per cent of the successful candidate's salary to the recruitment industry to write ads like these – ads that generally don't get to the people you want, ie, the people who are so busy being successful in their current job that they don't have the time or inclination to read the recruitment section.
So how do you get to these elusive candidates? The heart of the answer, research shows, is to write an ad that is readable and informative about the job, not about the company. Then the people you want will start to get phone calls from their friends who do read the ads, saying: "Hey, I saw a job ad yesterday that sounded just like you."
More specifically, a good recruitment ad observes seven golden rules:
1) Be bold
Show the job title, salary and location in big, bold type in the header. People use this information to sift out the ads they want to look at. They can't read them all. If one fits, they will read on. If any of this basic information is missing, they won't.
The best people will be too busy to waste time applying for a job that, for example, may not pay enough (the most usual omission is salary).
2) Spell out what you want
Be clear about any criteria in the first few lines of the advert. People want to know quickly if they could be a candidate. There are other ads to read. Statements such as "We are looking for graduates" and "fluent German required" need to be up front, supplanting what usually gets put there – the blurb about your company.
3) Describe the job in detail
Think of the job description as a walk-through of what would happen on a normal project (most people's jobs are a series of projects). So for a banking consultant, an effective ad might say: "You'll be called in to clients when the door of opportunity has been opened, to provide the technical detail to close the deal and the industry knowledge to run the project through to completion."
On the other hand, a less effective ad might say: "You will be responsible for developing a client base" – leaving the reader wondering whether they have to find their own clients, what their role is, how much technical support is available, and so on.
Writing this section well achieves two important things. First, people whose reaction is "I can do that" are persuaded to apply. Second, those whose reaction is "I can't do that" select themselves out, thereby reducing the immense workload involved in processing them (a loosely written ad with a good salary can attract upwards of 500 replies).
4) Use questions
If the ad asks questions of the reader, it prompts his or her brain to start answering. The reader and the text are having a conversation. If the text makes only statement after statement then, just as in a lecture, the reader will switch off.
This common sense is backed up by psychological research: ads that contain questions get much higher response rates.
5) Keep it real
Tell a story about your company and why you are advertising the job – but keep it realistic. "X is a £10 billion a year company. Not many people remember that it didn't exist 15 years ago." The first sentence is fact; the second is story. People read stories.
The news is full of company failures, but recruitment sections read as if failure never happens. People aren't impressed by fairy stories. Stand out from the crowd by talking about your problems as well as your successes. Chances are, you want to attract people who can handle problems. And good people want a job they can get their teeth into, not one where the problems are all solved.
6) Make applying easy
If you have hooked the interest of a top-quality candidate, the application process is the point where you can easily lose them. They are excited by the ad, but then read the instructions: "Write for an application form" or "Write, enclosing a full CV".
Why can't they be allowed to pick up the phone now, or email or fax their CV now? With the best will in the world, the candidate will put the ad in their briefcase, intending to handle it on Monday. But then they'll get buried in the pressure of the week, dig the paper out on Friday night, reckon they've missed the boat and dump it.
There is a feeling prevalent among recruiters that serious candidates will make the effort. But serious candidates are the very people who don't have the time. You need to make it as easy for them as you would like it to be for yourself.
7) Fly your own flag
People respond better to dealing directly with a company than dealing with intermediaries. So even if you are using consultants to handle the project, get them to use your logo – unless the direst consequences will fall upon you if the world sees you advertise this post.
- Show job title, salary and location in big, bold type in the header – if there is a fit, potential candidates will read on.
- Spell out the criteria in the first few lines – people want to know quickly if they could be a candidate.
- Describe the job in detail to ensure you get the right candidates applying.
- Use questions – research shows that ads that contain questions get much higher response rates.
- Tell a story about your company, but be honest – talk about your problems as well as your successes.
- Ensure applying for the job is as easy as possible.
- If possible, use your logo in the advert – people respond better to dealing directly with a company than dealing with intermediaries.
Brian Chandler is an independent consultant based in Norfolk. Tony Scott is director of London-based consulting firm Oliver Scott.