Writing a Great Employment Ad

by Hildy Gottlieb
© ReSolve, Inc. 2008

If your organization has a key position open, and you are not seeing the quality responses you know the job deserves, the problem may be your employment ad.

Employers tend to take their employment ads for granted. A position may be the most amazing job in the entire Community Benefit Sector, but one could never tell that from the employment ad for that job!

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For an ad to get you the very best candidates, it needs to break the mold of every employment ad you have ever seen. To do that, there are 3 basic steps. The first one is all about how you think about an ad. The rest - the doing steps - flow from that changed thinking.

Step 1: Change Your Thinking about the "Appropriate" Ad

Picture this ad to sell your home:

"Home buyer wanted: must have basic knowledge of plumbing and electrical work. People with no money need not apply."

We recognize that no one would advertise a house with such an uninspired ad. Yet we expect someone to change their entire life, taking a new job and perhaps moving to another community, based on ads that are not much better than that!

What we forget is that advertising a job is just that - advertising. The purpose of advertising is to inspire the target audience to take action.

Standard job ads, however, do not inspire. Standard job ads are boring. And when an ad is boring, it should be no surprise we get boring candidates!

If your organization's leadership is not willing to go outside the comfort zone to create an ad that gets to the heart of what you want in a candidate - and what that candidate wants from you - then it is likely your candidates will continue to miss the mark.

If, however, you are ready to admit that you are attracting dull candidates because your ad is dull, the first step to creating a great ad is making the commitment:

First, commit to ignore your experience re: what employment ads should look like.

Then commit to creating an ad that aims at attracting extraordinary candidates.

Step 2: Explain What You Want
There are multiple mistakes employers tend to make when it comes to explaining what they want. We will focus on two of them:

The Curse of Knowledge
In their groundbreaking book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath describe the "Curse of Knowledge" as perhaps the single largest barrier to getting one's point across. In example after example, they show that once we know something, it is hard to imagine what it is like to not know that.

  • You know what you mean when you say "Strategic Thinker." But does the person reading the ad know what you mean?
  • You know what you mean when you say "Visionary Leader." But is it the same thing your reader thinks it means?
  • You know what you mean when you say "Team Player," but does that mean the same to your prospects?

Ask a roomful of professionals to respond honestly to these questions:

Do you think of yourself as a team player?
Do you think of yourself as a visionary leader? A strategic thinker?

I will bet 99% of them will answer, "Yes." Does that make it so? Would they all be good candidates? Or is that response simply a result of how we each define those terms?

Asking for Qualifications
Related to the Curse of Knowledge in employment ads is the Curse of Qualifications.

Ads ask for 10 years experience. Or someone who has run a $10 million organization with 100 employees. Or someone with an advanced degree.

We all know people who have 20 years of experience who still don't evidence even two years of smarts. So is "10 years experience" really what you want?

We don't really want "experience;" we want the qualities we assume will come from that experience. We want the ability to think on one's feet, to know the right answer almost instinctively, to be able to rely on a wealth of contacts and wisdom.

But typical employment ads do not ask for what we really want (qualities, skills, talents). Instead, those ads ask for indicators of what we want (experience and other qualifications).

Step 2 in Action: Explaining What You Want
Spend some time brainstorming what you really want. If someone mentions a label (visionary thinker), brainstorm what that really means. Give examples of how you would want that person to respond in any given situation. How would you know a visionary thinker if that person were standing before you? How would you know if someone was NOT a visionary thinker?

Do the same with all your labels and qualifications. If your qualifications include, "experience running a $10 million organization," dig deep to discover what you are really seeking from that experience. What do you want that person to be able to easily do?

If you do not know these critical components up front, I guarantee you will write a boring ad. But worse than that, you will then do a poor job of screening resumes and interviewing, all because you are not totally clear about what you are seeking.

Step 3: Explain Why This is the Best Job for THEM
Picture a television ad for junk food. Greasy burger, oozing catsup and bacon and all sorts of other things that humans should think twice before consuming. Now tell the truth - doesn't that ad make you want one? Heck - I'm a vegetarian, and just picturing that ad in my mind makes me want a burger!

How will your employment ad do that for your candidates?

True story:
Every intern in our office over the past 5 years has told us the exact same tale: They saw our ad and dropped everything they were doing - one even got out of her sickbed with a 102 degree fever - to respond to the ad. And the words they have all used in relating that story have all been identical: "I knew when I read the ad that this was my job. And I knew if I did not respond immediately, someone else would take my job."

Do your ads make prospects want to get out of their sickbed to respond? Is your ad a beacon to the perfect person, pulling him/her in to your realm? Is the ad showing candidates that yours is the most amazing place in the world to work?

If not, remember the boring ad above for selling a home. And remember the big juicy burger on your tv screen.

Putting It All Together
Once you have listed what you really want from a candidate, and once you have listed what's in it for them, you are ready to write an ad that says exactly that.

So get to work. Write an ad that says the following:

  • Here is what we're looking for.
  • Here is what's in it for you.
  • If this sounds like you, let us know. We cannot wait to meet you!

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