Candidate Personas 101: What They Are and How to Build Them

Candidate Personas 101: What They Are and How to Build Them

Mike Roberts

Who’s your ideal candidate? Which social network does she use to look for new jobs? What keeps her up at night? How does she measure success? What’s stopping her from applying to your company? These are all questions recruiters would love the answers to. If only there was a research-backed way to figure them out…

You’ve probably heard of candidate personas. By following the fairly straightforward methodology we’ll discuss below, your team can create this very useful recruitment marketing tool—and no doubt learn lots in the process. We’re going to dive into everything you need to know to start building and using candidate personas.

Background: What Is a Candidate Persona?

A candidate persona is a concept borrowed from sales, marketing, and product development, all of which have been using personas to some degree for many years now. In the case of talent acquisition, a persona is a fictitious representation of your most typical candidate—who you’re trying to recruit. It’s not uncommon for an organization to create several personas for different types of candidates.

Building a candidate persona requires research, interviewing and surveys, and a bit of analysis. The result is often a digital document that can be passed among your team that provides a snapshot overview of your ideal candidate. Some organizations that take the exercise seriously consider it the cornerstone of their recruitment marketing and employer branding strategy.

Candidate personas dig into your typical candidates’ background, goals, challenges, objections, and fears, as well as their preferred methods of communication, where they spend time offline and online, and how to approach them.

Done right, a candidate person should be so comprehensive that a new addition to your recruiting team can use the document to get up to speed very quickly.

Where to Get Candidate Persona Data

One of the biggest limitations of building candidate personas, or any personas for that matter, is the temptation to fill in the blanks without conducting any research. This happens because business veterans often think they know everything there is to know about a candidate, buyer, or user.

It’s imperative that you fight this urge, because even the most tried and true professionals can come out of the candidate persona research process with a new perspective. After all, a lot has changed in the economy and the job search process in a very short period of time.

To effectively create a candidate persona, you’re going to need to interview between three and five people—you could do more or less, but that number can give you a good representation. Again, you can create multiple personas. Many companies will do this for different categories of positions: sales, marketing, product, operations, and so on.

Within each category, you should be prepared to interview people you hired (those who have successfully gone through the interview process). You could also gain a lot of insight from interviewing someone who perhaps turned down your offer—although that may more difficult.

If you don’t have the resources to interview candidates, you could potentially hire a third-party, such as one of the many recruitment marketing agencies. Another option is to follow the methodology below, only instead of interviewing candidates and hires, you can create a survey for various existing employees to take.

The Candidate Persona Interview Process

For each of the three to five interviews you conduct, you can expect the process to take 20 to 30 minutes. You’ll want to prepare a list of questions that aim to reveal candidates’ demographic information, motivations, interests inside and outside of the office, professional and life goals, frustrations with previous employers, expectations for their next employer, doubts about your organization, communication preferences, and much more.

The idea is to ask a diversity of questions that paint the picture of who that person is. If you do that three to five times, you can then start to rationalize the answers into a persona.

You’ll want to dig into the following areas:

Demographic

Since you’ll be using your candidate persona document to figure out how to attract and convert job seekers, the first step is to figure out things like age, title, location, willingness to move, education, interests (inside and outside of work), views on workplace flexibility and work-life balance, and current and prospective income. Of course, some of this is sensitive information, so getting it could be difficult.

Background

Having an understanding of where your ideal candidates currently work can greatly improve the recruitment marketing and employer branding messaging you build around them. Their previous employment history can be used to project their trajectory as well as additional unspecified trends in employment preferences that may not have been disclosed in the background section. In addition, you may find some sources of candidates outside of the obvious.

Experience

Going a little deeper into the background information, you’ll want to get a sense of their specific skills, competencies, and experiences with particular technologies and software, industries, functions, and brands, as well as any existing relationships, and so on. This will show not only what they currently know, but also their proclivity to learn new things on the job and work with others. It will also reveal how they respond and adapt to adversity.

Goals and Fears

Candidate goals can vary wildly. However, understanding the general mindset of your ideal candidates is possible. What you should be after in the research process will be multi-faceted. Discover what drives their personal and professional ambitions. What do they want to be responsible for? How do they define success? Are they primarily after more money? Do they want a better work-life balance? Do they want to accelerate their career? Find out what gets them excited. Lots of research has been published on this topic, especially pertaining to millennials.

You can also learn a lot about fears if you flip these questions around. How do they define failure? What’s a nightmare of a work-life balance look like? And so on.

Objections

If a qualified candidate doesn’t currently want to work at your company, it could mean she’s the wrong target—or, it could be that you’re not effectively marketing to her. Understanding that, though, requires doing some research into why candidates may object to your brand, culture, benefits, or other attributes. If you could briefly speak with a few people who took another position, then you could figure this out. But you could also probably learn about it by asking new hires, because people are willing to pursue opportunities even in the face of uncertainty or objection.

Information

Last, but not least, you’ve got to gain an understanding of how your candidates get their information and make decisions. For instance, a salesperson may be more likely to jump on a quick call—even a cold call—whereas an engineer may not want to be the one who contacts you. In this phase, you’ll also explore where your candidates live online: social, forums, and so on. This will all help you formulate the strategy for connecting with them.

Analysis and Creating the Candidate Persona Template

If you do this process multiple times for each category of positions you’re hiring for, you’re going to have a lot of information. The best approach to synthesizing it all is to sit down with your team and start identifying trends and patterns. Responses will be unique to individuals, but you’ll find interesting commonalities with the right sample size.

Creating the template is essentially an exercise in putting the pieces of your analysis back together in a consumable format. As mentioned previously, this could be built in the form of a PowerPoint or Keynote deck or some other type of word processing document.

The candidate persona itself is a fictitious representation of the your typical candidate, and it’s important to have a little fun with it. You should give each persona a name, a picture, and even some unique characteristics. For example: “Here’s Charlotte Evans. She’s a 37-year-old New Yorker, has been working as a salesperson at IBM for three years, with a total of 12 years of sales experience. Charlotte’s considering the next step in her career. She incredibly entrepreneurial and is interested in leading an inside sales team. She’s married with two kids, and loves to take family trips up to the Catskills on the weekends.”

That type of opening statement can get people in your organization interested and thinking about the persona as a real person. This can ultimately help them relate to and empathize with new prospects more readily.

Each subsequent section in the persona should correlate with the sections we went through above—background, goals, objections, etc. You can list out all of the patterns in bullet format so it’s simple to read and understand.

Important: Within each section, you should develop a pitch—a way to discuss and respond to what candidates may say about their goals and challenges and objections. These documents can be refined, and your team should be prepared to update them over time.

Putting Candidate Personas Into Action

As you know, your jobs aren’t for everyone, so why approach the strategy for attracting and converting candidates in an uninformed way? Candidate personas help cut through the ambiguity of who you’re targeting, so you can better allocate resources and ultimately deliver a higher ROI on your recruiting efforts.

We often say that recruitment marketing and digital marketing are merging, and doing this type of exercise is yet another step in the right direction.
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