Don't Waste My Time with Job Adverts! Making Calls for Applicants Usable.

The pain point: People tend to undervalue the life time of other people. I am not a particular fan of self-improvement guru Steve Pavlina, but he once wrote something that stuck with me: «Realize that nothing is free if it costs you time.»

Our life time is our most precious resource and modern life is cumbersome as it is. So, please, don't waste my time with poor content or unusable texts, if it is you who wants something from me! That goes for any text and purposeful communication, whether it concerns our clients, stakeholders or the niches of overwhelming bureaucracy governing certain aspects of our lives.

One type of text that companies routinely put out for external users are employment advertisements. In the current economic climate with so many job seekers, a lot of companies seem to forget that the good user experience of a potential candidate is the first impression they bestow upon future colleagues. Is the application process a hassle, how will the working environment be, once they lured you in?

I will use the topical example of poorly constructed job advertisements to illustrate how you can sabotage yourself with poor copywriting. And yes: I consider a call for applications a use case of copywriting.

Job advertisements: the case for good copywriting.

A vacancy description is a potential first point of contact for a future employee and should leave the job seeker with a good impression. An employment advert is a sales pitch for a specific position and should therefore lead the prospect to an easy call to action, because that is what you ultimately try to achieve: Attract the right candidates and convince them to take the next step in the application process.

As the company has control over what kind of copy goes out with such calls to action, one should try to maximise the potential to highlight the benefits associated with the post. The emphasis here is benefits which are relevant and apply to the advertised position. For instance, when looking for a temp it is not particularly helpful to refer to the fantastic benefits package available to permanent staff members.

In addition to good impressions and warm thoughts, you'd want to make the advert work in your favour: It should address the right kind of people that would make good team members in your organisation. Your objective is to find the calibre of people who fit in. Moreover, you'll benefit from their capabilities and fresh perspectives on the issues the post holder will be faced with.

A well crafted advert can do a lot of the heavy lifting – in terms of candidate choice – for you: it can target specific individuals. This will limit the number of applicants who will try just in case, thus decreasing the number of application you have to process to get to the next stage of narrowing down potential interviewees.

Make the right thing the easy thing.

If you want my co-operation – make co-operation the easy and most painless way to go. The usability-community lives off the concept of achieving the win-win-situation for buyers and sellers.

Make the most limiting factor obvious.

Don't hold back the most important aspect of your message for the intended audience. It only causes user frustration and a waste of time for all the parties involved.

Imagine a freelance designer pitching a new Web site concept to a potential client. The prospective client wishes to do a complete overhaul of their existing Web site. In preparation for the pitch, our freelance designer spends days upon researching, adapting the proposal, incorporating the current logo and colour palette into the design proposal etc. Being a sole trader, this is time she's not available to work for other clients on paid projects. After sending in her comprehensive proposal she never hears from the potential client again.

Why? Because the client did not realise the designer cannot offer her professional services for a £500 fixed budget. A lack of clarity on both sides (Which budget has to be met by the proposal?) wasted the designer's resources whilst the client is still without a suitable proposal addressing their situation.

Back to our vacancy example: I recently saw a job advert from a non-profit organisation in the field of mental healthcare. They were seeking a part-time manager / administrator. The bulk of the advertised criteria would have fit – let's be conservative – at least 50% of the mental healthcare professionals with a minimum of three years work experience looking for a part-time job. However, the very last bit of information, buried in several «Application Package» files under a huge amount of general information, proved to be the most limiting factor in terms of who should apply. Therefore, the copywriter obfuscated the target audience of that particular advert, thus wasting the time of everyone else.

It turns out that this organisation needed a psychotherapist or mental health professional who is experienced in landscape gardening and knowledgeable about horticulture. How can you not mention this most distinguishing feature right away? You need a gardener who is also a psychologist. This crucial piece of information limits the talent pool immediately.

Why is it important to understand this? Because, let's face it: you are a non-profit organisation seeking a part-time professional. You don't have the resources to go through hundreds of applications not pertinent to the post you have to fill. You cannot effort to not make it clear to the users of your advertisement who it is you are actually looking for. You don't want to waste your precious time and the time of potential applicants. You are in the business of helping people, not a recruitment agency. You don't want to write hundreds of templated, empty content emails saying:

Dear Applicant
Thank you for your application for the position of our vacancy… Unfortunately your application has not been successful.
I wish you the best of luck with future applications.

You want suitable candidates to respond to your vacancy and leave potential applicants without doubts about their suitability!

Make your intentions clear.

It is frustrating for job seekers to spend time with a vacancy description only to find out that their efforts are futile because the job advert is

  • outdated, but does not present a closing date for applications
  • is looking for some very specific person, but hides the essential discriminating factor under a pile of general criteria
  • a call for applicants, categorised as a job advert seeking professional candidates / contractors. However, the last line of the description includes something to the point of

I am not able to pay you since I haven't sold my manuscript yet. But I will cut you in on the profits once I am published.

As we are a non-profit / start-up company / amateurs unwilling to pay for professional services… we cannot offer a salary, but you will get fantastic stock-options in / work experience / exposure with our start-up.

You don't want to mislead the people you plan on having a fruitful professional relationship with! (Remember: people are dying from exposure…)

If you are not intending to pay for professional services, list you advert in the volunteer section. There is nothing wrong with pro bono work. Tricking people into thinking that there is a real job offer at the end of the ad will not increase your chances of finding a viable candidate. It may, however, increase the amount of hate mail you receive from people who feel deceived.


I made the case for understanding job adverts as use cases for copywriting strategies. Employment adverts are an opportunity to reach out to prospective colleagues and present them with a call to action. Therefore, good copywriting can enhance the experience of the application process for everybody involved.

To summarise this post: in order to create a usable or even user-friendly job advert

  • Take care with the content that reflects your organisation and reaches your audience. Show prospective employees that you care about them – your competitors will notice!
  • Be honest about the post and the associated benefits.
  • Make the job description relevant to the advertised role and to the candidates you want to reach.
  • State expectations (such as closing and interview dates) explicitly. Give the advert a best before date and take it offline or archive it afterwards.
  • Set expectations such as call back periods and potential interview dates.
  • Point to a real human for further information. Post the contact person's full title indicating their gender. (Nothing is more humilating than addressing a Mr George Barnabas in the cover letter just to get a call back by a Ms Barnabas. It happens.)

Good copywriting in job adverts creates benefits for everybody involved:

  • You leave future colleagues with a positive experience and successful interaction with your company or brand – starting the professional relationship on the right note.
  • You triage the mass of job seekers by attracting well-suited candidates.
  • You spend fewer working hours contacting and interviewing unfit candidates.

All this comes back to the topic of mindful communication and common sense, doesn't it?

Now go. Read your latest vacancy descriptions. What information would you like to see, if you were in the position to answer it?

Details & meta

Fri, 18/03/2011 - 15:45