A Crash Course in Building Candidate Personas

August 10, 2015

With only 30% of the workforce actively looking for a job, chances are your next best hire may be difficult to find. Nevertheless, it's up to you as a recruiter to venture out into the wild, wild web and track down the skills, personalities, and professional backgrounds that your team needs.

You need a blueprint to get started—before you conduct your first search. After all, you want to hire a very particular type of person—not just anyone with a great resume.

That's why building out a candidate persona can help ensure that you’re looking in the right places and that your messaging is always on point.

What exactly is a candidate persona?

Recruiting Social, a staffing agency that specializes in social recruiting, has developed the following definition:

A candidate persona is a fictional representation of your ideal hire for a specific role. It is based on as much real data as possible, along with educated guesses about experience, goals, motivations, and concerns.”

You create these personas before writing InMails, developing job descriptions, writing social media updates, or even conducting your first search. A well-defined persona can help you tailor your messaging to the exact individual that you’re trying to reach. Recruiting social further elaborates that candidate personas can help you:

  • Focus on the highest-performing recruiting channels
  • Communicate in a language that resonates with your audience
  • Build lasting, long-term relationships
  • Tackle your candidates’ pain points and concerns
  • Position your company as an ideal place to work
  • Get candidates excited about your open roles

Personas are especially important for tough-to-fill roles that require particular unique skillsets, strong leadership qualities, and confident personalities. These key hires will likely be in high demand and require convincing to stay interested.

Tactically speaking, personas can be explained through outlines, short paragraphs, photos, and even PowerPoint presentation. What’s more important than the deliverable, however, is the process that you follow to create it. Here are some tips to get started.

1. Prioritize the attributes that you need over experiences that ‘look good’

Kevin Buckby, partner at CMO search firm Riviera Partners, encourages recruiters to start with the outcome—the expected business impact of a new role—and then work backwards. From this perspective, you’ll develop an understanding of the skills and experiences that are necessary to deliver that impact.

“Too often, I ask clients why they are hiring a particular person, and the answer is something along the lines of ‘we want someone with x or y experience,’” says Buckby. “You can’t just look at profiles of successful individuals to decide who you want on your team. You also need to understand who this person will be in 4 years.”

Personas are valuable because they form the basis of a viable recruitment strategy. What’s important to keep in mind is that teams are made up of people and that individuals with non-obvious profiles can make great additions. Keep an open mind by prioritizing skills and traits above work histories.

“Instead of dwelling on experiences, identify the attributes that the person leveraged to create their successes,” says Buckby.

2. Use marketing strategies to develop your candidate personas

Lane Sutton, employer branding and recruitment marketing specialist at TripAdvisor, encourages recruiters and hiring managers to ‘think like marketers’ when developing their personas.

“Define a persona for each team and segment that you want to attract,” says Sutton. “When defining personas, you want to have an idea of the location, background, level, function, education history, interests, and companies that they might work for.”

Sutton shares an example of a persona that he’s developed: “Data Doug.”

“Data Doug might have an education major from accounting, statistics, or quantitative reasoning. His interests might be robotics, debate team (defending data), or math,” says Sutton. “Companies he might work at could be in the analytics or data space. He could work in the retail, software, or the technology space.”

From this vantage point, recruiters can craft more tailored messaging strategies, communication strategies, and campaigns.

“Tell a personal story,” says Sutton.

3. Source your inspiration from the outside world

Instead of doing all your research online, venture into the communities that attract your personas.

Paula Gean, director of marketing at hardware and software company Dialexa, encourages recruiters to venture outside of their comfort zones to understand who their target candidates truly are.

“Attend meetups, join talks and organizations that you normally don’t attend, and ask a person who fits your ideal persona to lunch,” says Gean. “It’s always important to get to know the person you’re trying to target.”

Have a genuine interest in wanting to help and understand your candidates, rather than approaching them from the perspective of a business strategist.

4. Map your persona’s story

Mitchell Camp, VP of communications at Divergence Academy, shares a reminder that candidates are likely looking at their next roles as part of a greater career story. When developing a candidate persona, it’s important to keep this long-term story in mind.

“Map out the career context in which this candidate is placed, as well as how this individual makes decisions,” says Camp. “Look at their values and motivations. Tell this story from the beginning of this person’s journey to the end.”

As part of this process, you’ll want to ask and answer tough questions about your persona’s career experiences. Camp encourages recruiting leaders to explore the following:

“Was she passed up for a promotion due to biased or faulty judgment? Was he never recognized for achievements?”

You can use the answers to these questions to fuel your candidate search.

“Once you have answers to questions like these, get out of the building and go find ten more people just like them,” says Camp. “Get outside and go talk until you come back with ten names who share a very similar story. This will feed more information into targeting future candidates.”

5. Include multiple perspectives

Anastasia Valentine, VP of marketing at Versature, explains that the persona development should be cross-functional and account for perspectives from multiple team members.

“Get the team involved,” says Valentine. “Do a whiteboard, sticky note session with all of the things you could possibly want in a new candidate.”

This mix of perspectives will help you pinpoint and seek out characteristics that are important to your organization as a whole. You’ll fine-tune your job description messaging, in addition to the interview questions that you should be asking.

“Most importantly, we get to know the persona very well so we know exactly what questions to ask, how to ask them and are able to be more effective and efficient in our hiring process.”

Final thoughts

Treat your personas as a living, evolving document. Each candidate you meet will introduce a new perspective that you can use to make your personas more precise and tailored to your team.

Start with your business objectives, venture out to local meetups, and get your team involved. Design your own processes to craft a persona guide that’s right for you and your organization.

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*Image by Death to Stock Photo