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Extreme Personalisation: The Secret to Sourcing Passive Candidates

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Don't be boring. It's simple advice, but when it comes to sourcing passive candidates it could be crucial.

Sourcing passive candidates is a tough task. Passive candidates tend to be pretty content with life. They're usually happy with their situation and they're rarely looking for new roles. You have to find a way to "sell" your opportunity to these candidates, a way to make them care.

Extreme personalisation is the answer - show people that you care, and that you've taken the time to research them, and sourcing passive candidates becomes a whole lot easier.

The state of play?

The average InMail response rate is low. Really low. Between 20-25%.

That’s a 75% failure rate. If you were unsuccessful ¾ of the time in any other business function would your boss be happy?

LinkedIn In-Mail Failure Rate

With such a low proportion of of messages getting through, it's easy to slip into bad habits and play the numbers game. This is lowest common denominator recruiting: if you send enough candidates a message then you'll get enough responses to hit your targets.

This is terrible for the candidate experience, terrible for your brand, and terrible for sourcing success. Luckily there's an alternative...

The extreme personalisation tactics below are a far more effective way of sourcing passive candidates:

1. Lay the bait

You're wasting a huge opportunity with the first line of your message.

Your goal should be to entice the candidate to read on, not to introduce yourself or ask how their day is going...

Here's how most messages start:


It doesn't really matter what the opportunity actually is, or what the rest of the message says for that matter, most passive candidates will hit the 'delete' button when they spot the standard "just checked out your LinkedIn profile" line.

None of this is exciting, none of this is personalised. Remember, these candidates all have jobs which you want them to abandon, your opening lines need to hook them in, your opportunity needs to sound interesting.

What's the best way to do this?

Maisha Cannon, Global Talent Strategist at Github, sees research and creativity as the answer. The subject line and start of your message are your "icebreaker". Start the conversation off on a good foot by referencing personal details about candidates that other recruiters ignore (i.e. go deep on their social footprint, do a little stalking!)

Try referencing:

  • Charitable work (extra-curricular projects that a candidate mentions on LinkedIn)
  • Content and published work (look out for any blogs or articles that a candidate has written)
  • School and university achievements (these are towards the bottom of the LinkedIn profile and usually ignored as a result)
  • Sporting affiliations (favourite teams or players)
  • Horoscopes, Spirit Animals (anything wacky that a candidate references on social media - if it's important to them, it should be important to you)

Want an example from Maisha? Here's a neat subject line that references the charitable work a candidate did every Monday evening... It's beautifully simple, but shows the candidate that you've done your homework.

"Hey Ross, you're probably at Monday night tutoring..."  - Maisha Cannon, Github

2. Blend the personal and the professional

Are the recruiting emails and LinkedIn Inmails that you send actually interesting?

The best passive candidates get a lot of messages. Most of these will be pretty generic (read forgettable) - a shocking 90% of recruiting emails aren't personalised at all!

To cut through the noise, Mike Chuidian, senior sourcer at Sears, takes an innovative approach which gets big results. He uses humour and personality to colour his recruiting messages and stand out to passive candidates.

This works - the results that Mike gets are amazing. Here's an example of a message that he sent to a group of Growth Hacking candidates (a position that's fast becoming one of the toughest to fill):


Mike makes sure he covers every key detail regarding the role, but does it in an entirely novel way.  With the best passive candidates, standing out from the crowd is half the battle - how many other messages do you think these candidates will receive that reference Jedi mind tricks?

Don't be afraid to blend the personal and the professional. Don't be afraid to be interesting. Or, in Mike Chuidian's words, "stop being a boring corporate recruiting robot"! Start by testing a few new approaches and see if your response rate increases - you've got nothing to lose.

Wondering if this approach works? Mike got a 97% response rate with his campaign!

Word of Warning:

It is possible to take this approach too far... Here's a lovely example of what not to do courtesy of Microsoft:


3. To template or not to template?

Templates get a bad rep for a reason. For many recruiters they end up being the easy way out - if they send enough generic LinkedIn Inmails, they'll get enough responses to hit their targets.

They can also go wrong. The #recruiterfail hashtag on Twitter is dedicated to mocking the template fails of careless recruiters (see a few examples below:)



Templates aren't necessarily the enemy though, it's all about the quality of the template - the impressive 97% response rate that Mike Chuidian received was with a template after all!)

The right template can make extreme personalisation scalable, particularly important if you need to contact more than 15-30 candidates per day.


Abraham Lincoln's famous quote is a great reminder on the importance of planning, the key part of the template creation process.

You can afford to invest time in crafting a really unique email template because you're going to save considerable time when you get round to sending it.

We suggest creating a unique template for every role that you're trying to fill. Here's a 3-step process to get you started:

i) Understanding your audience

Start by building a candidate persona for the role you're trying to fill.

[sunote]A candidate persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal candidate. This persona is formed by defining the characteristics, skills and traits that make up your perfect hire.[/sunote]

Creating a persona before you write a word of your template makes sure that anything you create is highly targeted and personalised for your audience.

ii) Making it relevant

If you've built your candidate persona then this step should be easy. All you need to do is make your message content relevant to your audience.

This is where candidate research comes in handy. Look at trends that are affecting the role that you're hiring for, the types of content that the candidate might enjoy, even industry jokes that they might find funny. This is a killer tactic that Steve Levy is a big proponent of (anyone else that made it to his roundtable at SourceCon can verify this!) It doesn't matter if you don't laugh at the joke, what matters is that it will make your email different.

iii) The finished article

It almost goes without saying, but before you hit send make sure that you check spelling and grammar. Simple mistakes undo all your hard work and give your message an unprofessional feel.

If you're using mail merge, make sure everything is aligned correctly, there's nothing worse than an email that begins "Hey *firstname*!