Improve your communication strategies to find candidates faster and easier

Even the best made plans need careful execution in order to be successful. You may know how you are going to promote your internship and fellowship programs, but do you know who to contact in order to get the best results?

  • Have you identified your target audience and the best ways to reach them?
  • Where should you post your opportunities so that the most potential applicants see them?
  • Which social media tools are the most effective?

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) can help you find the answers to these questions.

  • by Ben Kunz 

    Buried in the cluttered news of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Nielsen, the advertising ratings company, released a report uncovering a crack in the communications field. It had been no secret that American media habits were shifting; from 2011 to 2015, for example, print use in the United States declined 52 percent and TV viewing slipped 4 percent, as mor­e and more people turned to computers for news and entertainment. 

    But Nielsen’s “Comparable Metrics Report” unleashed a whopping of significant findings: from 2015 to 2016, TV use dropped another 10 percent among young adults age 18-34, while online video viewing shot up nearly 40 percent. Old media habits weren’t just shifting—they were running out the door.

    If you work in communications for recruitment or public influence and aren’t adapting to these media changes, you face trouble. Luckily, there are five simple solutions to improving campaigns in this new world of fragmented, morphing audience behavior.

    Redefining communication

    First, let’s recall what public communication—call it recruitment or advertising or PR or anything else—has always been about. Since the Romans first painted campaign slogans on stone walls 2,000 years ago, advertising was meant to reach an audience with a message via a medium designed to influence. In recent history, from the late 1800s to about 2001, advertising focused on media placement to make campaigns work. If you wanted to reach housewives in the 1950s, you’d run an ad in Better Homes & Gardens. If you wanted to reach young people for college recruitment in the 1990s, you’d run TV ads on MTV. The media placement (e.g., MTV) was a proxy for finding the right audience (young people). Communications was about painting on the right stone wall.

    But about 15 years ago, this old strategy changed, driven by two factors: 1) Consumers, especially young people, began moving to computer and mobile devices for reading and viewing; and 2) data started to replace media as the way to find them. If communication has always been about finding an audience, data illuminated the audience in new ways.

    Direct marketers used to call data “mailing lists.” But now, online marketing in particular can provide thousands of data overlays to reach people interested in specific products or services. To push a recruitment message to scientists, for example, you no longer need to run ads in MIT Technology Review or IEEE Spectrum; instead, you can target online videos or banner ads to audiences who work in robotics, drone research, or specific organizations simply by plugging in to digital data.

    Five approaches for beating media shifts

    The nice thing about relying more on data, and less on media placement, is it allows campaign managers to build a frequency of impressions against their audience across different communication outlets—in effect, making the campaign more effective.

    Here are a few approaches:

    • Traditional media targeting. TV, radio and print still work, but if you include them, make sure you dig into the ever-improving research tools that tell you exactly which audience is using which type of media. GfK Mediamark Research, for example, is a study of 25,000 U.S. residents, their demographics, position titles, product usage and media behavior, that can pinpoint how audiences act. ComScore does the same for digital behavior. (Most advertising agencies subscribe to these tools; if yours hasn’t shown you this data, give them a call and ask.) In a recent recruitment campaign targeting healthcare professionals, for example, our agency found that physicians spend a lot of time on medical websites—but dating sites were also extremely popular. Including a broader range of media outlets, with data overlays, creates more impressions around a specific audience. 
    • Third-party data overlays. Digital marketers can now plug into so-called “programmatic buying systems,” which act as electronic bidding systems for targeting digital ads against online audiences. These systems launched in 2007, with AppNexus and MediaMath as early players, and now marketers can connect online ads to more than 10,000 data attributes from eXelate, BlueKai, and other data providers. Simply put, these are the equivalent of old direct mail “lists” now deployed online. Is your target audience in-market for a higher education degree? Are they researching specific products? Do they have a certain position title? All of these attributes can be connected to ads, making them more effective.
    • Lookalike modeling. One you’ve identified your audience—say, by tagging all the respondents who come to your website—you can match their profiles to people who look or act just like them. This is a powerful recruitment strategy because “birds of a feather flock together,” and a person interested in your offer is likely to have friends, or fellow humans with similar profiles, also interested. Email lists, for instance, can be uploaded and matched to Facebook, which then can target other users with similar profiles. If you have a pool of 50,000 respondents to your website, you can expand your targeting to the 1 million people who most closely resemble them. While not a perfect science, response rates from lookalike modeling tend to be 2x or 3x higher than regular advertising targeting.
    • Geo-fencing and mobile device fingerprinting. Of course, the biggest shift in media use is the movement to mobile. Here’s a test: In your next business meeting, bring a basket and ask everyone to dump their phones inside prior to the meeting. You’ll see the look of pain, the itching fingers, as your colleagues ache to grab their mobile devices back. Mobile has become the new American addiction.

    Geo-fencing is one basic approach to target ads based on the locations of mobile units. For a recent consumer campaign, we targeted the parking lots of Walmarts around the United States to ping users with ad promotions prior to them walking into stores. In recruitment campaigns, this often works well by tagging people who walk into physical perimeters—such as college campuses—that indicate they are in-market for a service.

    Mobile device fingerprinting is a similar, but more nuanced, approach. In essence, this “tags” mobile phones, allowing you to serve ads much later when the phone users have migrated to different locations. Mobile company Rocketfuel recently ran a successful campaign for Brooks running shoes, by targeting the mobile phones of spectators who lined the path of the New York City Marathon. The idea was brilliantly simple; anyone standing on a street watching the race was likely a running enthusiast. Later, as the crowds dispersed, the owners of those phones were retargeting with a series of Brooks running shoes ads—even if they had flown back to their home cities across the United States. “Fingerprinting” allows you to find audiences and then communicate to them in the future.

    • Integrated media measurement. All of these tactics are fine and dandy, but the only way to control outcomes is to build media plans that forecast results, and then set up measurement systems to evaluate how all the tactics work together. This requires going beyond the standard Google ad serving reports that show how many people click on digital ads; the best measurement approaches combine feeds from TV, print, OOH, digital and social, and the provide statistical analysis of how the waves of media support each other. 

    If you do all of this right, today’s shifts in how people use media really won’t matter anymore—because you’ve moved your communication strategy away from media placement as a proxy to true data-based audience targeting. With the actual audience at the center of your recruitment or communications campaign, you’ll be focused solely on what matters: The people most likely interested in what you’re trying to say. 

    About the Author

    Ben Kunz is senior vice president of marketing and content at Mediassociates, a media planning, buying and analytics agency. He has guided recruitment and communications campaigns for clients in the government, health care, higher education, travel and technology sectors, including the Centers for Disease Control, Marriott and Elon Musk’s SolarCity.

  • Dr. Michael T. Westrate, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships at Villanova University, participated in a Q&A session to help STEM recruiters gain insight into the role fellowships advisors play in the recruiting lifecycle and how best to work with them.

    Q: What are fellowships advisors?

    A: We are administrators and faculty in higher education who assist undergraduate and graduate students with applications for an array of nationally competitive, merit-based awards, often including research opportunities such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). We are not always called “fellowships advisors,” but that is the most common title. 

    In well-resourced schools, we often have our own “centers” or “offices.” In other places, we work in career centers or college deans’ offices.

    Many fellowships advisors came to their positions through careers in administration and work 12-month schedules. Some have a master’s degree; many do not have a Ph.D. However, many fellowships advisors are teaching professors, have little to no experience with administration, and go on break for big chunks of time, including summer.

    Both types of advisors have a high turnover rate. Whatever our experience, virtually all of us are members of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA). Yes, we do have a vibrant professional association, with workshops, seminars and national conferences!

    Q: What do fellowships advisors do?

    A: We recruit and advise students and alumni on applications for externally-funded awards—everything from summer REUs to research internships to language programs to national fellowships to multiyear graduate fellowships. 

    We are the people who go into classrooms to recruit for awards. We advise students from first year through graduation and beyond. We assist undergraduates and graduates alike. We meet with students and help them match opportunities to their career goals then provide unlimited draft review and assistance on their applications.

    We administer the application processes for the national fellowships, and we write the press releases about positive results for our schools. We report student success up the chain of command within our institutions, and argue for more resources to support student applicants.

    In other words, for the purposes of getting more and better applicants for externally-funded opportunities, we are the most important people at any college or university.

    Q: How do I find fellowships advisors and others who do similar work?

    A: Have your organization pay for you to join NAFA, use their resources, and reach out to advisors through NAFA’s channels—especially workshops and conferences, if you want to make a lasting impression.

    Always contact all the fellowships advisors you can find listed on a school’s website. However, since the turnover rate is high, also email multiple people at each college or university, including: assistant and associate provosts, college and graduate school deans, appropriate department chairs, and everyone’s executive or departmental assistant. Also, don’t forget the students themselves. Many institutions have both profession-specific and identity-specific student groups—(e.g., the Association for Women in Science and an African American Students Group).

    Q: What “killer mistakes” can I avoid?

    A: Overall, try to put yourselves in our shoes. We work on long cycles (e.g., we try to have deadlines graphed out a year in advance), and we must work efficiently. You will get more and better applications if you make it easy and efficient for us to help students apply to your opportunity. Frankly speaking, we have more than enough opportunities for our students. We are therefore not going to waste time recruiting for opportunities that have difficult application processes or opaque instructions.

    Since some fellowships advisors are staff and others are professors, do not treat us all the same, especially in personal communications (look at our email signatures, at least!).

    Fix your web presence or make one if you do not have one! Many, many webpages for student opportunities are out of date, incomplete, lame or some combination of the above.

    Do you want to save yourself from answering a bunch of repetitive emails? Come up with some solid and comprehensive FAQs, post them on your webpage, and make sure that we advisors know about them. Include application and acceptance statistics as well as tips for a good application. Keep both your webpage and your application instructions up to date.

    Give us your deadlines far, far in advance. Ideally, I like to know the deadline for the upcoming year immediately after the deadline passes for the current year. This avoids confusion and gives me the maximum amount of planning and recruitment time.

    Have some post-award communication with us! If we have winners, give us a boilerplate press release to help us build value in your opportunity. If we did not have winners, give us some advice for future years, or at least a “well done, better luck next time” email.

    In general, we fellowships advisors are similar to you program managers. We are largely overworked and under-resourced, but we like our jobs anyway. However, our motivations are sometimes a bit different. Although we care about our institutions, helping students is generally our top priority. If you make it easier for us to help students find and successfully apply to your opportunity, that will always be a win-win.