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What ad agencies can teach us about writing job posts

“Every word counts” is a pithy aphorism, but it’s also true in a literal sense. You can actively change what people choose to do if you use the right words. Speechwriters know it. Therapists know it. Trial attorneys definitely know it. To find out what New York Times journalists know about it, read this story. But I think no one knows it more precisely than an ad copywriter. As a copywriter, the 3 or 5 or 8 words you write for an advertising campaign can make or break an entire brand. “Just do it,” says Nike, and people do.

I worked as a copywriter for years before joining Textio. In the world of consumer marketing, the resources dedicated to these tiny bits of language are astonishing. Creative teams spend hours, days, and weeks poring over small variations in a tagline or ad copy that’s just a few words long. Audience research, brainstorming sessions, focus groups, internal crits, field testing, client reviews — all in pursuit of the optimal turn of phrase that will cause the highest possible number of readers to take a specific step toward a desired action: to buy a thing.

So what does that have to do with hiring? If you have ever written a job description to post on your company’s career site, or Indeed, or Monster, then you are an ad copywriter. That’s what a job posting is: it’s an advertisement. The only difference is the call to action. Instead of convincing Jennifer that she really needs a new pair of Nikes, you’re just asking her to make a career choice that could alter the course of her life. No big deal.

You’re asking her to make a career choice that could alter the course of her life

Every word you choose for the job post you are writing counts directly toward or against this goal. Ad agencies test their copywriting by conducting surveys that try to measure people’s “intent to purchase” after seeing an ad. In hiring, the right word choices are simply the ones that drive up applications from the most highly qualified and diverse group of people.

So what can the recruiting world learn from how the advertising world does this kind of work? I can think of at least three things that they do, that you probably don’t. You don’t need an ad agency budget — or any budget at all — to do them. They are pretty simple concepts. They require some discipline, but they get easier to execute with practice.

1. Never write alone

Good ad copywriters never fly solo. Never. Even if they don’t have a writing partner (and many of them will only work as pairs), they go through many rounds of iteration on their copy with the creative director and the designer on the project. Eventually they put several versions in front of their clients, who also help choose the best one. It’s a team effort.

Who else is on your creative team for writing job ads? Ask someone whose writing you respect to be your sparring partner. You give feedback on their job posts, they give feedback on yours. Everybody wins. Over time, writing quality for both of you will improve, guaranteed. Even better, ask two other people to form a writing group — then if they both have similar reactions to a particular word or phrase, you’ll know you should pay attention to it.

2. Build a library of your best work

We’ve all done it: it’s time to write a new job post and instead of starting from scratch, you search your computer for the last job description you wrote, and make a copy. Then you adjust a few words here or there and figure it’s good enough. So you publish it, and it then becomes your template for the next one.

There’s nothing wrong with starting a new job post from an old template… unless it’s a bad one. Ad agencies maintain a robust collection of their most successful work. They use it constantly, to pitch new clients and to gauge which direction to take on new projects.

This one is really simple to do: make a folder where you store copies of all your best job posts. Add notes at the top of each file about why they worked well. Title them consistently so you can more easily find the best one to start with for a particular new role. And if you’re doing that, then why not go one step further and share your best job posts with other people on your team? Create a central library so other writers can access your best work, and then you can tap into their strengths too. This will also help your hiring team get on the same page regarding your employer brand language.

3. Track your performance

How do you know what writing works well if you don’t keep track of your results? Here are some of the basic performance metrics that ad agencies track for every single ad purchase:

  • Reach: How many people read the ad?
  • Engagement: How many people clicked through to find out more?
  • Conversion: How many people actually bought the product after reading the ad?

In hiring, those first two pieces can be difficult to measure without assistance from your IT team. But the critical part of any conversion funnel is the actual conversion, which in hiring breaks down into several important factors:

  • How many applications did you receive for the role?
  • How many of those candidates were qualified enough to interview?
  • What were the demographics of your applicants?
  • How many days did it take from posting the role to filling it?

Even if you just track those four pieces of data for every job that you publish, you’ll start to see patterns and get insights into how your writing affects these outcomes. If you really want to go full data nerd, do what ad agencies do: scientifically test different versions of the same ad. Publish version “A” and version “B” and track the results to see which one performs better.

Once you have been tracking this same data on every job post for a while, you can calculate your averages and record them as your baseline. Anything new that you try will ideally return results that are better than the baseline, in which case you should keep doing that. (And you will also have a new, higher baseline to beat!) If an experiment draws results that are worse than your baseline, that’s important too. Make sure to note it under “don’t do this again.”

In the advertising industry we do all of these things, all the time. It’s simply standard practice. That’s how you write better ads that convince more people to buy more things. Even if you only start practicing one of these methods, the performance of your job posts is going to improve. If you start doing all three consistently, you might be surprised by how much.

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