On a nearly daily basis, I get a phone call.

It will be any time between 20:00 and 21:00, but I can almost guarantee I will get a call.

Up flashes the number, and every time, I’ll ignore it.

See, I know who this is, and I have no interest in giving them what they want.

There have been a couple of instances I’ve been deceived into answering, and every time I’m greeted by an ever enthusiastic voice that opens with something like:

“Hi, it’s xxx from the Friends and Alumni of the University of Warwick, do you have time to talk?’

Loosely translated as, “we’re asking you for a donation, can we have some money?”

The first few times, I surprised myself with my creativity. The places and things I pretended to be doing whilst actually slumping deeper into a Netflix-induced coma bordered on genius. These days, the subtlety is beginning to wane as I try and fend off Freshers from my bank details.

Now, I know this paints me in quite a poor light, and it isn’t because I didn’t enjoy my time at university. I met some of my closest friends, did things I didn’t know I could, learnt things I didn’t know existed. But as an alumni, I currently have little/no interest in making a donation.

But it’s not because I can’t afford it, don’t like the university or trust where the money will be spent.

The answer is a little more personal than that.

Quite simply, I don’t like being sold to.

As polite as the callers may be, I know I am but a phone number on a sheet. A number they only just started to care about.


This attitude is foreign to my wife, a very proud alumni of Northwestern University. 

Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge here, she has donated every year since she graduated in 2010. Now there are vast differences between the university systems in the UK and USA, but isolating the alumni engagement activities alone, the approaches are night and day. Why, as a broke college student did she donate in the first instance? Well, it was entirely down to the exclusive wine event that a donation opened the door to. Now that sounds like common sense, but the door had been opened nonetheless.

But what about the next year?

Or the six years that have followed?

Well I can tell you she isn’t shuffling about cowardly every evening like I am. She’s too busy reading the alumni magazine, learning from professors on the latest news in broadcast media and signing up to events with celebrity Wildcats.

The point is that they aren’t directly trying to sell in every interaction.  Rather, they are building a genuine, lifelong relationship. Strong enough that they don’t really need to ask for money. When the time is right, out comes the bank card and the donation is made.

Now this isn’t to say a direct approach can’t work, but in this situation, it feels inherently awkward for me and ineffective for Warwick. Both parties have differing levels of interest and potential gains; there’s no value exchange. It feels very temporary.

Such a style can happen with the purest of intentions. How many of you have had that conversation that typically goes something like:

“Have you seen ‘xxxxx’ on Netflix?”

“N …”

“No?! Oh, how have you not? It’s the best show ever, I can’t believe you haven’t seen it? I have the DVD if you want to borrow them? Oh, I can’t believe it …”

Whether it be a TV show or something else, I’m sure we’re all guilty of stamping our interests on friends and family alike. 

For me, I’ve realised I’ve been doing so to my grandfather every Christmas and birthday for quite a while now. Each year, I desperately try and find him something he won’t have seen before. Not that he’s not a difficult man to buy for, it’s the complete opposite. My last brainwave was to introduce him to Game of Thrones. He’d been complaining that there wasn’t much he was interested in on television recently, so I bought him the box set of the first series. As he unwrapped it, I hit him with a full run down of everything that I find great about the show.

Those DVDs are still wrapped in cellophane; just as my phone remains just ‘out of reach’ or on silent whenever it starts to ring.

Why? Reflecting on it now, I did exactly what those nightly calls plague me with; I told the story that I wanted to. I assumed I knew the best way to tell it and hadn’t given much thought to what he was actually looking for. (Unless, he was secretly looking for an unconventional coaster, in which case I’m doing myself an injustice.)

Outbound or Out of Bounds?

The shortfalls of these approaches are typical of how we as marketers and business have previously engaged with customers and candidates alike.

Traditionally, the focus from organisations has been outbound; centering on the business’ story and actively finding customers. Such methods are convenient for an advertiser; they can control where and when they deliver the messages they want to tell. Whatever the medium, the focus has always been on the organisation and what they want to say.

Now I don’t need to tell you the frustrations that comes with irrelevant interruptions; that’s the world we live in. There is always something competing for our attention. We are continually overloaded, and the statistics as to our lack of engagement with such traditional methods and mental impact continue to amaze:

·    The average click through rate of display ads across all formats and placements is 0.06%
·    Ad blocking grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months
·    There are now 198 million active ad block users around the world
·    A study revealed that only 2.8% of participants thought that ads on website were relevant
·    54% of users don’t click banner ads because they don’t trust them
·    94% of people hit skip on YouTube pre-roll adverts
·    77% of users watch television whilst using a second device
·    Content retention rate when only using one device: 92%; when using a second device: 32%

Based on these statistics alone, something needs to change, wouldn’t you agree?

We can’t just wait for the next social network to come to the fore, make us resize everything again and carry on as before. The space isn’t the problem, it’s what sits within that drives us mad.

We need to fundamentally look at the outbound approach and how we can change.

Looking Within

Unimaginatively, the complement/antidote to outbound marketing is an inbound approach. Instead of disruptive, organisation-centric information, the focus of inbound marketing is to create content and messages that potential customers actually want to see. It’s less cold calling, and more about providing information and experiences that your audience are interested in. It’s about being part of a conversation; starting and developing relationships, so that when the time is right, the heavy lifting has already been done.

When we as consumers are looking to buy something, we don’t call up the company and ask them why we should buy. We research. We read reviews. We compare. The same is true of recruitment. From our data, we’re seeing that on average, job seekers are visiting 4.3 different sites before completing their application, a figure that becomes higher for more experienced and skilled positions.

We want to make our own decisions, specific to where we are in our decision cycle. We’re visiting third party sites for endorsements and answers to the questions we’re unsure of ourselves. And this is where inbound marketing comes to the fore. No longer is the approach that of disruption, rather focused on producing content that answers a question or need an individual has, and building a relationship that at each interaction moves somebody closer to applying.

Good Content

It is in this context that content becomes truly valuable and not just a buzzword that simply contributes to the noise.

Perhaps we need to redefine, so there is a definite line between content as noise and content as value, a way to usher aside the pop-ups and offers of instant six packs.

Let’s call it good content.

Good content: “Information created for a specific audience that is valuable and supportive to their needs and interests, available at a time and in a format that is contextually relevant.”

However we dress the definition, it being valuable is not negotiable.

The statistics I shared previously show our response to information we don’t find valuable. We as users can, block, skip, ignore to our heart's content. It’s up to us to leave behind the noise and create good content. And to do so, there are four key considerations essential to success:

Who are we talking to?

When I was first asked to talk at our event, my first question was who are we inviting? (Ok, that’s not entirely true. It was “when?” and “what time?” But I digress).

Being able to get an understanding of who the audience were, why they would be attending, what they were expecting and the challenges they face, was essential in narrowing my focus.

If I were giving a presentation to my team, I may choose to lean more heavily on data, and would have no qualms in overanalysing performance insights. But it’d be a tough gig to get our creative team excited about CTRs and cohort analysis (and so it should be). Whilst we all work towards the same goal, talking to ‘recruitment marketing’ as a whole, is unlikely to yield spectacular results.

Unfortunately, knowing what to talk about isn’t something you can prescribe. In our world more so than the consumer space, it demands research.

It demands research because there is no ‘one size fits all’ appraoch to a content strategy. When we look at the candidates we want to engage with, it very quickly becomes more complex than ‘Software Engineers’ or ‘Retail Managers.’

The answer is to build personas of who we want to talk to; ask questions deeper than their name and job title. What are their professional goals? What challenges are they facing in their career? What do they wish to understand more about? How can we help?

The list can be endless, but having taken the time to do so, we remove the guess work and ‘post and prey’ that may have previously been the process, and automatically give ourselves a better chance of engagement.

Where are they in the decision cycle?

As well as the individual motivations, we need to consider where our audience are in their decision cycle. Are we looking to attract the attentions of a complete stranger? Or develop further an existing relationship? Are they all but ready to apply? Or further still, are they a current employee and potential brand advocate?

The motivations at each of these stages are going to be vastly different and without taking the time to continually ask the questions of, “Is this what people want to hear/Are we adding value?", we risk simply adding to the noise.

Promotion of the pure employer brand is regularly an example of such misuse. Yes, it is inherent in what we do and is hugely important in establishing a company’s identity. But if we’re producing content that means more to an internal community than our target audience, something needs to change. After all, will a relative stranger to your organisation be stopped in their tracks by an acronym of your values? Probably not.

Likewise, ever faithful Instagram photos of food and drink may be a great hook by which we can start the conversation, but for the poor soul who is preparing for an interview, knowing the onsite barista makes an excellent latte – complete with the intricate love heart foam, can only sustain you for so long.

This is why content that caters for the breadth of the decision cycle, as well as different personas, is essential. It’s the context in which you can enter the conversation.

What are you creating?

With an understanding of the context in which we’d be welcome, you can then start producing the right content. And without the marriage of the two – context and content, it is difficult to sustain success. At this stage, we turn to the arsenal of tools at our disposal: Blog articles, podcasts, events, infographics etc. All singing the answers to the questions we know our audience are asking.

I know talking about a podcast or article is a lot simpler than doing so. Invariably there is a correlation between how good a piece of content is perceived to be and the cost. But whatever the budget you are working to, there are ways to make better content. A change in mindset and way of approaching the problem will be a cheaper and more sustainable solution than throwing more money at the old way of doing something. That in itself is a separate article. (Coming soon. So keep your eyes peeled for it.)

How can we best distribute?

The final consideration is where we distribute this content. A few years ago, there was a rush for a career’s presence on the major social channels: Facebook, because it’s Facebook. What about Instagram? People use Instagram, we need a channel there too. Twitter, LinkedIn. MySpace? The list goes on.

Creating content that addresses the needs of our audience is great, but it is pointless if we then aren’t taking the time to put it in the right places, at the right time, making sure the right people see it.

Where is the value in a Facebook page of 500,000 followers if the 15 software developers you need to hire live on Slack? And we don’t need to focus on social media. Your website needn’t be static, rather itself delivering the right story at the right time.  

And listen

So that’s my offering on content.

If you were expecting to read about a series of cool campaigns that you could potentially de-badge and pass off as your own, I apologise. Perhaps a slightly tea stained DVD box set will work as compensation, but the basics need to be addressed. (Also, Nathan has done something similar here.)

To close, I’d steer you all towards the TED talk delivered by Ernesto Sirolli titled, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” I borrowed my title from him, and to date, I’ve found no better articulation of how content should be approached. He isn’t talking about creating content to attract talent, but the message is entirely the same.

Digital Experience Strategist

As a Digital Experience Strategist at The Economist, Ryan is responsible for identifying opportunities for use of digital innovation. Ryan has a wealth of experience in digital marketing, content strategy, UX, SEM and social media strategy and focuses on creating optimised user experiences that drive engagement and inspire users to take action. If digital experience is his first love, then sport is his second. Follow him on Twitter and read his latest comments and observations on both.