What technical recruiters can learn from online dating
I’m on LinkedIn just like most people in the tech industry. If you’re like me, you probably get random messages through LinkedIn from technical recruiters several times a week. Their tactics run the gamut of deliberately ignorant to over-the-top obnoxious and rarely do I feel like I’m being treated as a human being. After watching the behavior of recruiters on LinkedIn (and also in real life), I’ve come to realize that the problem is very similar to online dating.
Online dating is basically about supply and demand. There is a supply of single people and they are in demand by other single people. Fair or not, this is frequently set up as women being the supply and the men being the demand. This plays out in real life just as much as an online dating where women get into clubs for free and men have to pay. Men want to go where the women are and so getting the women there first is important.
This was a rude awakening for me the first time I tried online dating. I had been encouraged by a couple of my female friends to sign up and they virtually guaranteed I would be going out on dates immediately. So I filled out my profile and sat back and waited for the e-mails to start flowing in. After a week, without receiving a single e-mail, I wondered what was wrong. After all, they just signed up and immediately were getting 20 or more messages a day. But me? Nothing.
Putting discussions about my desirability or lack thereof aside, what they and I failed to realize is that online dating is a very different experience for men and women. Assuming that a man and a woman are roughly equally attractive and have the same personality, the woman will be contacted far more frequently than the man. In fact, I’ve heard numerous times from female friends that the day they sign up their inbox is flooded with messages. And no matter how many times I’ve tried online dating (handful over the past decade), I can go months without receiving a single message. Why is it that women don’t contact men as much?
The problem is that there is little incentive for women to search for and communicate with men. The demand is coming right to their front door. Surely there is someone worthwhile in the dozens of e-mails waiting in their inbox. Why search for more candidates when resumes are being hand-delivered to you?
Men, on the other hand, have little hope of meeting anyone without actively searching and contacting women. As a man on a dating site, if you sit by and wait for somebody to contact you, you may find weekend after weekend completely free. Additionally, once you do decide to contact women, your message is just one of the dozens that they’re going to see.
Recruiters on LinkedIn are like the men on online dating sites. They are hoping to meet someone to fill a position, and there are a lot of candidates out there. They need to search for and contact potential candidates in the hopes of getting a response. The problem is made a bit more difficult than online dating because not everyone on LinkedIn is actually looking for a job. Despite that difference, the question is the same: How do you make your message stand out from all the others?
Men use several strategies for trying to get women to notice and respond to them online. From my female friends, I verified that these are generally the type of messages that they receive. On LinkedIn, if you aren’t a recruiter then you are the supply (equivalent of the women on an online dating site), so I am actually receiving the type of messages that I imagine women receive on dating sites. The thing I find interesting is that many of the dating site techniques are duplicated by recruiters on LinkedIn. See if any of these sound familiar.
The first is the least amount of effort and also yields the worst return: sending the same message to everyone. You just come up with a really good message that you literally copy and paste into every message that you send to every girl. The plus side of this approach is that you’re not investing a lot of time and effort into an activity that has a very low rate of return. On the minus side is the fact that generic messages will generally get a lower response rate than personal ones, so the onus is on you to contact much more women in order to make up for that.
Messages of this nature look like the following:
I came across your profile and think we would be a great match! I love to surf and go camping, and I think that we would have a lot of fun together. Hope to hear from you soon.
The message seems nice enough but you’ll note that there is nothing personal about it at all. First, you obviously found the profile otherwise you wouldn’t be able to send a message, so that doesn’t really tell you anything. Of course the fact that you’re writing indicates that you think there is a match. There goes the entire first sentence. The next sentence is just about you and doesn’t really reveal much. The last sentence is just a way to wrap up the message.
This is also a favorite tool of recruiters. Since LinkedIn fills in the name of the person being contacted, there typically isn’t a generic greeting as there would be on an online dating site. Still, the basic pattern is the same. Here’s an actual message I received on LinkedIn from a recruiter:
Hi Nicholas C.,
Our team has reviewed your profile and are very impressed by your skills and experience.
We are working on emerging technologies for our next generation products at [redacted]. We are located in the heart of Palo Alto, CA. Amazing offices, super smart people and financially well funded.
Would you be open to speaking with us?
Thank you in advance for your kind reply.
If you look closely, this is almost the exact same e-mail tailored to a professional environment. There is absolutely nothing about the message that is specific to me, my skills, or my experience. Here’s another:
I was reading through your background and I wanted to get in touch. I have two opportunities – one in Palo Alto and one in San Mateo that seem like you would be a fit for. Can you let me know if you are interested in hearing about new opportunities and when might be a good time to chat?
I’m not even convinced this person has any idea what I do let alone what I would like to do for my next job.
The half-hearted approach is an evolution of copy-paste. Instead of sending the exact same message to everyone, you just change the first line to be more specific to that person. The entire rest of the message is the same for everybody, so you’re not putting in a lot of extra effort, and changing the first sentence (the first one that someone reads) may be enough to get them to read the rest.
Messages using this approach tend to look like this:
I love the hat in your profile picture, very cool. I love to surf and go camping, and I think that we would have a lot of fun together. Hope to hear from you soon.
So the greeting is personalized and the first sentence is plausibly personal. The rest of the message is completely generic and obviously the person who wrote it didn’t want to put much effort into it. Instead of following up with another sentence about hats, the message digresses back into generic boilerplate.
Here’s an actual message I received on LinkedIn:
Hi Nicholas C.,
I saw your profile and I thought you may be interested in a full time Web Performance Engineer Opening we have in our San-Mateo office.
This position will offer the opportunity to work on software that runs one of the largest distributed systems in the world. You will be an integral part of our aggressive growth strategy for creating highly inventive technology solutions for our customers, driving more and more traffic on the Internet. If you want to work on technology problems that are interesting and challenging, then this is the role for you.
Please let me know if you are interested in discussing this opportunity in more detail.
This is a little bit better. The first sentence at least indicates that this recruiter did a cursory examination of my profile. I do talk about Web performance on my profile, so that first sentence is actually relevant to me. The rest of the message is definitely impersonal and just pasted in. As with the purely copy-paste approach, this one leaves me feeling like the recruiter probably sends a very similar e-mail to dozens of people. Here’s another:
Just stumbled on your profile and will first say … this message is indeed intended to recruit YOU! I tend to be direct …
I work with Tier-1 VCs and early stage startups and I’m working with a company in SF that needs a Lead guy like you. They are a great story … almost profitable and only round of funding. They are going into a major growth phase and need top talent.
Environment is Python, but they don’t require that experience, even for a lead. They also need JS/HTML5/CSS3 and good, solid *people* on the team.
You interested in discussing?
The relevant part of this message is the first sentence. I put on my LinkedIn profile that I only want to be contacted by recruiters that are interested in me specifically (and not me or someone I know – covered later in this post). So he put a personal first sentence and then copied and pasted the rest. There’s nothing about the rest of the message that’s unique to me at all.
This approach encapsulates the attitude that the more you know about me, the more you will like me. So instead of mentioning much about the person you’re contacting, the approach is to give you a ton of information about the person writing the message. These e-mails tend to be a little bit longer as they act like many profiles. Here’s an example:
Have you found that special someone yet? I haven’t yet, but I think we might be a good match. I am a recent graduate from business school who just moved to the area from the East Coast. I have a good job and make a good salary. I worked very hard and so when I’m not at work I like to blow off some steam. I love all outdoor sports but don’t mind staying in for a quiet evening either.
I noticed you also like outdoor sports, so I think we would have a good time together. If that sounds interesting to you, that I look forward to speaking with you.
Well, the person who wrote this message gets high grades for proper grammar and spelling, but not much else. This is probably duplicate information from the person’s profile which, if the woman was interested, she would probably go and read it anyway. Even though there’s nothing personal in this message, it has a personal feel to it because the writer is revealing information about himself. The last paragraph is a little bit personal because it mentions something from her profile. However, the likelihood that she got through everything about you (which looks boilerplate) just to get to the one sentence that indicates you’re writing to her specifically is pretty slim.
Here’s one from LinkedIn:
Hi Nicholas C.,
I came across your profile while looking for folks interested in web development. My name is [redacted] and I’m part of the early team at [redacted], a funded startup in Berkeley.
We’re a team of mostly engineers building a discovery service that connects people with entertainment, people and products that appeal specifically to them. Our early tests have been very positive, and we’re gearing up for a product launch this summer.
We recently raised a new round of funding, and we’re growing quickly. Our engineering team has a strong passion for building great software, and based on your experience with Yahoo and your book for Wiley I thought you might be interested in hearing more about our team and opportunities for web development roles.
Please let me know if you’re up for chatting sometime about [redacted].
So I get blasted with information about a company I’ve never heard of before. There is a sentence in the third paragraph that is specific to me and my background, but I never got to that paragraph because the first two were just a blast of information about the company. Here’s another:
Dear Nicholas C.,
You are 3 steps from working at [redacted]! Our recruiting process is “fast” just like our [redacted] [URL redacted] check out our products, email me your resume, and let me know which ONE position fits best, when you can begin working onsite in San Francisco OR Sunnyvale, what is your ability to work legally for any employer in the USA, name several times over the next couple of working days when you can be in a quiet place for a 15 minute conversation with me, I will confirm one time via email to confirm
Our Research & Development team is seeking talented system software developers ALL LEVELS, who are strong in C OR C++ OR Python. We are a Linux / Open Source environment and need programmers to create and support new version one products for the cloud.
This one is a real gem. Not only is there nothing about me personally in this message, but I’m blasted with all kinds of information about the company and the recruiting process and then I’m given a long list of things to do. There’s nothing in this message that even indicates the recruiter read my profile or has any idea what I do.
Once again, if the recipient of the message either on a dating site or on LinkedIn doesn’t feel like you were contacting them specifically, you will likely never hear back.
Or someone you know
This is actually one that doesn’t happen on online dating sites but does happen on LinkedIn quite frequently. The reason it doesn’t happen on dating sites is that everyone knows this isn’t the way to get a date. The approach is to act coy as if you’re not interested in the person who you contacted but rather somebody that they might know. Just to show you how silly this is, here’s what I imagine a message to a woman on a dating site would look like using this approach:
I’m looking for a date this weekend and I was wondering if you or someone you know might want to go out with me? Even if you aren’t interested, judging by your profile, you probably know some other women who are. Can’t wait to hear back from you.
It would be completely preposterous for a man to contact a woman with such a message. Yet, this is incredibly commonplace on LinkedIn. Here’s one that I received:
I am looking to expand our social web development team at [redacted] and was wondering whether you or someone you may know would be interested in full time or consulting gigs?
I always suspect that this is a passive aggressive way of asking if I would be interested in the job. As if I would say, “Actually, why do you want to speak to my friends? I’m the one that you want!” Here’s another:
I am reaching out to obviously [sic] for your specific background or if anyone you may know may be interested in 2 great opportunities here in San Francisco. My company, [redacted], is looking for a Sr. PHP Developer/Front End Engineer and UI/UX Designer Developer for a well funded Green/Sustainable emerging technology company for the [redacted]. Please contact me directly or via email. I will of course share all the details and job descriptions with you. They are looking to meet immediately. Best regards for your help.
This is one of the most insulting type of messages that I’ve received on LinkedIn. If I ever see “or someone you know” in the message, I delete it immediately. I honestly can’t believe recruiters think that would work.
Any guy who has spent any amount of time on an online dating site learns pretty quickly that you don’t get anywhere by e-mailing a woman multiple times. If you e-mail once and she doesn’t respond, you don’t send another e-mail asking if she got the previous one. Yes, she got the previous one and she wasn’t interested, so let it go. Yes, it’s personal, she doesn’t like you. She also doesn’t know you, so who really cares? If you’re a man on an online dating site, you must accept that this form of passive rejection will happen frequently. You only solidify that you’re not someone she’s interested in by continuing to pester her.
This is a lesson that recruiters don’t seem to get. When you continue to contact someone who isn’t interested in talking to you, that’s harassment. I can’t tell you how many times I have deleted an e-mail that a recruiter sends only to get a follow-up e-mail in two days asking if I got the previous e-mail. In some cases, I even have received a third e-mail asking if I got the previous two.
I know that in some delusional minds, this might come off as being complementary. Boy, this person thought enough of me to e-mail a second or third time! They must really be interested! But the opposite is true. It tells me that you have no respect for me or my time.
Whether you’re on a dating site or on LinkedIn, if you contact someone and they don’t respond, chances are it’s not because they just didn’t see your message. You are rejected, let it go.
So after all of that, what actually works? In my various attempts at online dating, the best results that I’ve ever had were with short, personal messages that showed I had actually read through her profile. The most important thing is I made the messages about her and not about me. If she’s interested in me after reading it, she can always go to my profile. So messages such as this tend to go over better:
I love that picture of you at Fenway Park! I’m also from Boston, so I know that this can seem like a strange alternate dimension where sports doesn’t matter so much. Are you still loyal to the hometown favorites even after seven years?
Just about the only mention of me is that I’m also from Boston and that’s just to provide some context for the next couple of sentences. The message might seem simplistic, but it’s intensely personal and about her. Every sentence is related to her in some way in the entire message shows that I actually read your profile. I saw her photo and identified where it was taken, I noticed that she was from Boston, and I also noticed that she has been in California for seven years. In short, I approached her as someone who’s interested in learning more about her to see if we are a match rather than trying to get her to know more about me to see if we’re a match.
While I haven’t received a lot of messages that fit this mold, here’s one that comes close:
Hi Nicholas C.,
[redacted] is looking for a hands on development manager to lead a team of talented software engineers building a cutting edge, fast and interactive Web application that incorporates the best user experience patterns and technologies available.
As I reviewed your profile it appeared to me that you are particularly suited to define and implement a next generation UI architecture while ensuring continued functionality of the existing system.
I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you soon to discuss the possibility of your joining our team.
You can reach me at [redacted] at any time to get the ball rolling or by emailing me at [redacted]
While I think the first paragraph isn’t all that necessary, the second paragraph is really good. It could be tightened up (obviously I know you looked over my profile) but has some really good parts to it. The recruiter clearly you read my profile and understands what’s important to me. He then explained how I could do that at the company and left it at that. Short, to the point, and personal. If I were actually looking for a job, I would consider replying to this type of message.
Notice that I said I would consider replying to this type of message, not that I would. Whether or not I actually respond has to do with what’s going on in my life. Do I have any better opportunities that I’m exploring right now? Do I think the commute is something I can live with? Do I think this is a company I would be happy working for? Writing a good, respectful message gets you into the “maybe” pile, just like it does on an online dating site.
If you are a recruiter, here are a bunch of tips that will get you into the “maybe” pile:
- Start by talking about me. I don’t really care who you are, you’re obviously a recruiter for the company that shows up on your profile. Say something that makes me realize you actually read my profile and understand what I do. Something like, “I noticed you have an expertise in web interface architecture, and that’s something [company name] has a need for right now.”
- Tell me a little about the position. One or two sentences about the position, where it’s located, what their responsibilities are, and how I would be making an impact. That’s about all I need to know to figure out if I have any interest.
- Provide links about the company and position. Rather than pasting in boilerplate information to a message, just provide links to the extra information. If you did a good job describing the positions distinctively, I want to go and read a longer job description as well as read more about the company.
- Your contact info. Give me your e-mail address to contact you if I’m interested. I will not be calling you on the phone so there’s no need to include your phone number.
Just like a message on an online dating site, the goal isn’t to close the deal. The goal is to get the other person interested enough to want to learn more. Keep your messages short and to the point and make sure that they are personal. It takes a little more time than the other approaches, but you will get a much higher rate of return this way.
I know that there are really good recruiters out there, because I’m friends with some of them. The problem is that there are so many bad ones that the good ones end up being looped in with them. If you are a recruiter reading this, please take this as advice to help improve yourself. I would much rather get relevant, respectful messages from recruiters even if I’m not interested at the time then continue to get disrespectful, lazy messages that make me want to never read anything I receive through LinkedIn again.
Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.