Advice and How-Tos Recruiting Talent to Unglamorous Places, Part 2: Reverse Marketing

Not every firm can offer the glamour of a Cisco, HP, or G.E., nor can most firms be lucky enough to be located in great geographic areas like the Silicon Valley. But firms that are located in less-than-glamorous locations still need to attract top talent. Small-sized firms, as well as organizations located in rural areas, often share the same “it’s hard to recruit” complaint. And although it might on the surface seem to be a difficult task, there are effective recruiting strategies for these situations. It is possible to recruit top people to isolated areas or “bad feature” firms if you include these four elements in your recruiting plan:

  1. Find those with an established family of school “connection” to the area.
  2. Use reverse marketing to find people that “like” the features in your region.
  3. Become an employer of choice.
  4. Build a personal relationship with the identified candidates.

The first element, finding those with established connections, was covered last week in Part 1. This week we’ll take a closer looks at the second element: reverse marketing. Reverse Marketing One of the most effective approaches that “disadvantaged” firms can use to attract top talent is called reverse marketing. The basic approach removes most of the convincing out of the recruiting process. Instead of trying to turn lemons into lemonade (that is, convincing candidates that they should change their job acceptance criteria to fit your job), you do the reverse and identify people that naturally like lemons (your region and its features)! The reverse marketing recruiting strategy has three parts:

  1. Identify what you have to sell.
  2. Seek out and target the types of people that are already attracted to those features.
  3. Prepare arguments to counter any negatives your region or firm might have.

Reverse marketing allows you to avoid the low success rate that traditionally accompanies the hard sell. Instead, you focus on finding people who actually like the regional features that most others consider to be negative. Start by identifying the “niche” that likes what you have to offer. Most recruiting targets the broad general population, which has its preferences and biases. For example, while most people hate the smell of a skunk, there is actually a group of people that enjoys it. Most people prefer looking at thin people, while there is a distinct set of people that prefer those with more ample figures. Reverse marketing works by identifying the narrow “niche” of people that prefer the regional and job features that you offer. Yes, finding people that prefer snow over the sun and isolation over the big city bustle is a little harder. But once you do identify them, convincing them to relocate and stay is significantly easier. Reverse marketing begins with some basic market research. First, you must identify your firm and region’s strong and weak points. Remember that your current employees already find what you have to offer attractive, so if you haven’t already, you should develop a catalog of your positive features. Start by doing an e-mail survey (or do a focus group) of a small sample of individuals from the following groups:

  • Recent hires
  • Those that turned down your job offers
  • Current employees who moved from other regions
  • People who left your firm during the past two years

Also consider talking to other recruiters, college students, employees’ families, or anyone else that can help you understand your hidden strengths and learn what others say about you. Make a List of Your Region’s Strengths Use the results of your survey to compile a list of the positive aspects of your region. Have your recent hires that relocated from other locations review and polish the list of features. You would then highlight these features (for example, low crime rates or winter sports) in your recruitment advertising, on your corporate website, in your referral program information, and during your interviews. Reverse marking involves highlighting what I call “wow” regional or job features. These are unique offerings that make others think, “Wow, I wished I had that.” These talked about features generally fall into the following basic categories:

  • Regional quality-of-life factors
  • Regional recreational and sports activities
  • Major universities, employers and health-care facilities in the region

Work with your local chamber of commerce and tourism bureau in order to ensure that you capture all of the positive features of your area. Cooperate with other businesses in the area to identify the broad range of selling points of the region. Once you identify the unique and desirable features of your geographic region, the next step is to find individuals that are predisposed to want those features. These individuals won’t require a hard sell and are pre-inclined to want to live and work in areas (and for companies) that possess these features. California vs. Minnesota? Convincing top talent in California, for example, to move to a state like Minnesota, which is perceived as relatively dull, is easy if you can find people that are already attracted to its many positive features. Remember, numerous celebrities and Hollywood stars (with unlimited location choices) have moved to western states like Montana, Minnesota, and Wyoming because of the weather, the change in seasons, and the laid back lifestyle. So don’t underestimate your pulling power. Start by identifying people who are attracted to:

  • A low crime rate. Professionals who live in high-crime areas like Los Angeles (the top crime cities are listed by the FBI each year) often want increased security and peace of mind. A low crime rate is a major draw for older citizens and individuals with young children. Minnesota, for example, also has a significantly lower risk factor when it comes to homeland security and terrorism then the more “visible” L.A. Incidentally, when certain cities are undergoing a highly publicized “crime spree” (Oakland, for example), it is an excellent time to recruit away their citizens.
  • Low housing prices. Demonstrating that you can get three times the features and square footage in housing in Minnesota than you can in the Silicon Valley is a great recruitment feature. This is especially true for people early in their careers, individuals with growing families, and couples trying to buy their first home. Firms can put housing cost comparisons on their website to inform, and they should also target individuals that are in the market for a new home. Real estate agents can help you identify high housing costs areas to target your recruiting in, while local real estate agents can also help you identify individuals that have made inquiries about buying property in your area.
  • A low cost of living. Smart recruiters demonstrate how much further your dollar will go in their recruitment materials. Incidentally, tax time (when people are thinking about high tax rates) is an excellent period to do recruiting in high tax areas. You can find individuals who hate high taxes by advertising on conservative talk radio or by advertising in publications that are widely read by conservatives and other tax-adverse people (ask any Republican fundraiser how to identify them).
  • Short commutes. In California, commutes are often over an hour. The relatively short and stress-free commutes in Minnesota mean more time with your family, less road rage, and lower auto expenses. Auto clubs list regions and cities with long commute times, so it is easy to target those areas with your recruitment advertising.
  • Great schools. Professionals who are reaching 30 years of age begin to make good schools and living in a “great place to raise a family” their top priority. It doesn’t take much of an effort to convince Californians that the schools are better in Minnesota. Your internal marketing staff should be able to help you identify and reach individuals in this 28-to-32-year-old category.
  • Winter and outdoor sports. Whether its skiing, ice fishing or snowmobiling, Minnesota offers a great deal for the person who likes the outdoors and winter sports. Look to hunting, skiing and fishing clubs as sources that are full of people who love the outdoors and don’t mind the cold. Look at recreation majors and former athletes as a possible source. Put ads in publications they read and TV shows they watch in order to attract them. Also target people in outdoor occupations who are already acclimated to working in challenging climates (like Forest Service employees, for example, who are likely to be frustrated by continuous budget cuts).
  • Civility. Highlight the characteristics of “Minnesota nice” and compare it to the relative gruffness of New York or New Jersey. The civility pitch is more likely to work in cities that have recently undergone highly publicized incidences of road rage or senseless crime against children or the elderly.
  • A healthy lifestyle. Highlight the fresh air and water as well as great recreational opportunities that make it easy to get into and stay in shape. Advertise in health-oriented publications in order to get these individuals’ attention. You should also highlight the availability and affordability of great traditional and alternative medical care.
  • The environment. Minnesota has impeccably clean air and water. Look at environmental groups, former scouts, and environmental fundraising events to identify talent. Put up a booth at these events or advertise in their publications. If you are a “green” company, highlight the things you do to protect the environment and make a difference.
  • Job security. Highlight the stability, low unemployment rate and job security in Minnesota (and the firm). This is especially important during tough economic times (California has recently suffered through the dot-com crash). Target your recruiting to individuals who have recently been laid-off or focus on cities with high unemployment rates and low projected future growth rates.

As you can see from the above examples, there are many factors that would draw people from California to Minnesota. You can easily highlight for applicants the differences between California in Minnesota by putting a side-by-side comparison chart on your website. Make it easy for individuals to see how their standard of living and lifestyle can be improved by moving to Minnesota. If you think you might have missed some features, work with your local chamber of commerce and utilize the “great cities to live in” books and websites to make a more complete list of all of a possible features that the region offers. Demographers (people who study population demographics) and your own firm’s advertising and marketing departments can also be effective in helping you identify and reach these “target niches” of people that are attracted to the features that your region offers. Using them is important, because where most recruiters fail is when they target the general population instead of the “niche” demographics that contain the people that would love living and working in places like Minnesota. Using Reverse Marking to Counter the Negatives Highlighting the positives is a good start. But it is equally important to identify and counter any perceived negative perceptions about your region or company that potential recruits might have. You can gather information about these negatives by interviewing former employees three months after they quit and by asking everyone who rejected or accepted your offers what their perceived negatives about the job and region were. Once you compile a list of possible negatives, the next step is to develop counter arguments for each and to include those arguments in your recruiting materials, on your website, and in your interviews. Here are some examples of negatives and corresponding counter arguments to illustrate the point:

  • The cold. In order to counter that perception, on your website list the great cities around the world that share the same average temperatures as Minneapolis. Also highlight the number of days of sunshine, low rainfall, the low number of snow days, or rankings on “great weather cities” lists. If utility costs is the real issue, show how your yearly costs compare favorably to other high cost cities.
  • The isolation. Show the number of direct flights (and low airfares) that leave from Minneapolis to major cities like L.A., Chicago, and New York. Highlight the low driving time to other major cities, professional sports stadiums, theme parks and malls.
  • The pay. Using direct comparisons, show that your firm’s average pay is higher (relative to the cost of living in your geographic area) than other competing firms. By showing potential candidates what the average salary dollar will buy (compared to jobs in high-cost cities) you can improve your chances of landing top candidates. You might also be able to show that the cost of healthcare, vacations, and tuition are so low that the standard employee benefits that your firm offers actually go much further than the equivalent ones they might currently be receiving. It’s also important to show that the quality of life is so superior that any small dollar differential become less important.
  • Canadian salaries. My Canadian clients often complain that the value of the Canadian dollar, coupled with high Canadian taxes, make recruiting top talent from the U.S. difficult. I have been fortunate enough to travel to every Canadian province, and I can assure you that your country could be more than competitive with the U.S. if you highlight your many great features and take the right recruiting approach. First, although your taxes are high, they pale in comparison to the tax rates in California and New York. I find that if you highlight the “relative” cost of living and the high quality of life, your country is more than competitive in terms of what a salary dollar will buy. (Rather than pay, I find the primary recruiting roadblock is your conservative approach to management. Your overemphasis on seniority, your approach to managing and encouraging employee innovation, and your under-emphasis on significant rewards for performance are what really negatively impact your recruiting efforts. Most of the negatives related to working in Canada could be overcome if your management was more creative. For example, Canada has yet to learn how to take advantage of remote workers both in the U.S. and Canada. Progressive U.S. firms have long ago learned that top performers are willing to sacrifice higher pay in exchange for flexibility in when, where and how they work.)

No matter what the negatives your firm or region might face, I have found that innovative recruiting and management practices can overcome any weaknesses. For example, if your firm offers a slam dunk benefit like “hire them both” (hire both spouses at the same time) your recruiting problems will diminish overnight. A “hire them both” program works because many individuals resist a move to another region primarily because they are afraid of losing their current two-wage-earner income. By offering a program to the very best recruits in hard-to-hire positions where you hire both spouses (or two colleagues) at the same time, you can overcome a good deal of the resistance to relocating, regardless of what city your jobs are in. Anther innovative but effective recruiting programs include designing a dream job specifically around the top candidates needs and wishes. Also consider using your current employees that have recently made the warm to cold weather relocation as recruiters and mentors. An excellent employee referral program, peer interviewing, and a question-and-answer feedback feature on your website can also be effective tools in overcoming any “negatives”. Next week, in Part 3, we’ll tackle becoming an employer of choice and building relationships.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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