How to write a compelling job ad that attracts the right people

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When someone mentions "CharityVillage" what's the first thing you think of? If it's our job board for nonprofit professionals, you aren't alone.

Since 1995, CharityVillage has helped nonprofit and charitable organizations find great talent - in fact, we've had more than 150,000 jobs posted on our site during that time. And with that many job postings, we’ve discovered that some organizations are more successful in attracting the right applicants than others.

Human resources consultant Gayle Hadfield reminds job posters that they are spending money on a job ad regardless of who they hire. “Figuring out how to attract the best candidates means you’re getting the most value for your money, as well as the right employees.” With this advice in mind, we examined exactly what makes a job ad attract the right people.

Let's take a step back and remember that job ads started out in the classified section of newspapers. Organizations looking to hire employees would purchase a square inch of space to simply provide the bare-bones facts of the position, and people who needed a job would apply. Prominent jobs might have a slightly bigger square in a careers section.

Too many organizations — both for-profit and nonprofit — still create job postings using this very same approach, and then wonder why they get no applicants (or too many candidates), few of whom are a good fit. It may sound easy to write a job ad, but Hadfield notes that doing this well is actually a fairly complex task.

Let's break it down.

It’s a job ad

Perhaps the most forgotten and most important aspect of the job ad is that it is actually a job ad. As Edwin Jansen, head of marketing for recruiting software company Fitzii, says, “A job ad is an advertisement. If it’s not presenting a value proposition that will convince your target candidates to apply, then it’s failing at its purpose.”

Most job ads fail to attract great talent because they are too often just a cut-and-paste description of job responsibilities, explained in formal language that could be written by anyone at any organization. Jansen observes that “Particularly in the nonprofit world, people seem to believe it’s better to be overly professional or formal in job ads. Effective advertisements in all mediums generally use colloquial language, and job ads should be no different.”

Hildy Gottlieb, author of The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing 'Nonprofit Organizations' to Create the Future of Our World, offers this advice when it comes to nonprofit hiring: “Commit to ignore your experience about what employment ads should look like. Then commit to creating an ad that aims at attracting extraordinary candidates.” Gottlieb says no one would try to sell a house with an ad that said: "Home buyer wanted: must have basic knowledge of plumbing and electrical work. People with no money need not apply,” but we expect people 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.”

Start with why

A typical job posting offers a brief description of the organization's mission and the position itself, followed by a list of job responsibilities and candidate requirements. Ian Yates, managing director of Fitzii, suggests that when we use this format, we’re actually approaching it backwards. He refers to Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why, saying that the majority of job postings focus on the what and how of a job and only occasionally include why.

“Potential applicants have no idea what the why is, and are simply applying because they are able to do what is required. This approach will do little to inspire applicants, especially star applicants, to apply; and any alignment of a candidate with the purpose of the company is purely coincidental.”

A job ad that starts out by explaining why your organization exists and the importance and value of the particular role within the organization will attract not only people who can do the job, but applicants who also identify with the organization and its vision. Using this approach attracts candidates who share your mission and who will be strong ambassadors who are committed to your organization.

According to Jansen, research has shown that job candidates look at seven factors when considering a new position — job characteristics, organizational characteristics, recruiter behaviours, recruitment process characteristics, perceived fit, perceived alternatives, and hiring expectancies — but perceived fit is most important to candidates when considering job ads. Perceived fit refers to the candidate’s “perception of how well their goals, values, and ideals suit the job and organization.”

“Not-for-profits have a huge advantage over corporations,” says Jansen, "because there is inherent meaning in the work. We always remind our nonprofit clients that their best asset is the mission of their organization, so it is critical to start with this.”

Denise Lloyd, founder of Engaged HR agrees. “People look for work in the nonprofit sector because they want to be part of the work or the cause. For the most part, people are not in it for money or prestige but to be part of the mission. Your job ad has to clearly and passionately convey that mission.”

Lloyd also adds, “The clearer you are about what you are selling — which is an opportunity to be involved in a cause—the more likely you will have the right people applying, including those who might not even be looking. Passive job seekers might be compelled to apply.”

Think like a marketer

In the same way that a marketer considers their target market and how best to appeal to them, so too does the writer of a job ad need to think about the ideal applicant, what they care about, what questions they have, what will convince them to apply for the position.

Before you start to write the job ad, Hadfield advises developing a profile of your ideal candidate, their skills, abilities and passions. Be sure your profile is not what Wharton professor Peter Capelli, author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, refers to as a "unicorn" and recruiting professionals call a "purple squirrel"— a mythical creature that everyone wants and no one finds. Instead consider qualities that are ‘must haves’ and those that are ‘nice to have’ in a candidate. Be clear about what skills and attributes would constitute a top performer in this particular role.

Jansen suggests asking someone within the organization or on the board who has marketing experience to help craft the ad — or send a draft of the job ad to people you know who would fit the profile of your ideal candidate to ask them what questions they have and how you could make your ad more appealing.

When it comes to describing your organization’s culture, top performing employees can be extremely helpful in crafting an appealing job ad. Hadfield says to ask your employees why they like working for your organization, how they would describe the culture, and what benefits there are to working with your organization. Lloyd advises that recently hired employees are another good source of information in terms of providing a true picture of the organization. Show your job ad to current employees and ask them to read it to see whether it would make them want to work for the organization. Use the answers from employees in combination with what would appeal to your ideal candidate to write a compelling job ad.

Remember, too, that the best candidates will spend time on your website and check your organization out on social media, so it’s important that your careers page and the rest of your website and social media pages reflect your organization’s culture and appeal to your prospective candidate. The search for a new employee is a good natural occasion to update your site.

Titling the job

One of the biggest mistakes made in writing job ads is the simplest to correct: the title of the job. Putting an obscure or creative title on a job ad rather than using one that your ideal candidate would enter into a search box can be the biggest reason for a lack of views of your ad. Recruiter Mike Overell suggests paying attention to the keywords your ideal candidates are searching for and notes that the title you put in your ad doesn't have to be exactly the same as the title a new hire will actually have.

"The analogy is the marketing email subject line. It's the only tool you have to get someone to click on your message. Almost the sole purpose [for the listed title] is to show up in search results, so it's important to understand the terms that candidates might be searching for."

Jansen adds, “Think about what jobs the people you want to apply currently have or are looking for. Look on CharityVillage for the categories and specific titles of similar positions and title your job accordingly. Generally speaking you want to pick the most commonly used title for the role, not the most creative or descriptive title.”

What not to include in your ad

Leave soft skills such as ‘excellent interpersonal communications’ and ‘works well independently and on a team’ out of your ad. Such qualities have become virtually meaningless because they are so frequently listed. Jansen says it’s helpful to think about the soft skills you’re looking for and to assess that in an interview process, but he also notes that listing the desirable soft skills in a job ad can help a candidate shape their behaviour, perhaps falsely, in a cover letter or job interview. Instead of asking for soft skills, describe only the specific competencies or experience needed for success.

Tone of voice

A job ad is also an opportunity to show off your organization’s culture to the wider community, notes Lloyd, who adds, “The more you exhibit your culture in your job ad, the more likely you are to find people who are a fit.”

John Paul de Silva, founder and managing director of Social Focus Consulting observes, “Like everything from marketing to operations, your organization's culture should be reflected in the job posting. If it's a fun and laidback organization, the posting should communicate that — for instance, ‘We're looking for a fundraiser with a CFRE and a passion to join our Friday thumb wrestling tournaments.’”

On the other hand, while all the people we talked with recommended creativity in writing job ads, this is not the same thing as simply being funny or clever. Lloyd says, “If your ad is informal and humourous but your organization isn’t, you’ll pull the wrong people in. This can result in a bad hire due to a lack of alignment.”

Jansen suggests reading a job ad aloud so it’s written the way you talk. He advocates speaking directly to the target audience: say “you” rather than “the successful candidate”; write “here’s what you would do” rather than “job responsibilities.”

A compelling job ad appeals to a candidate’s emotions and personality. Jansen says, “If anything, err on side of being more personal and emotional in your job ad because that’s what people connect with. When you write a compelling job ad, applicants will connect with it.”

Avoiding the Wrong Applicants

Some areas of the country have an abundance of talent, and certain roles attract a large number of applicants. Being very specific about essential criteria — such as a degree required for the position or particular technical knowledge — provides a filter for applicants, as does being honest about challenges in the position. “If you know your salary is on the low end, put that in the ad so you don’t waste applicants’ time,” advises Jansen. “If your office is difficult to access by public transit, that could go in the ad.” While job ads are primarily designed to attract applicants, including such realistic details makes sure you attract the right candidates.

Gayle Hadfield offers some closing thoughts. “Employment is more of a partner relationship than ever before,” she says. “You want to engage someone who is able to do the best work possible and who you can help flourish. If you take the time to write a job ad that appeals to your ideal candidate, the dividends for your organization can be enormous.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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