A version of this article was first published in the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing.

The war for talent is fiercer than it’s ever been – but the rules have changed as digital technology becomes ubiquitous. In the face of this rapid change, what should organizations be doing to harness the full horsepower of new technologies in the recruitment arena?

In today’s tight labor market, organizations are struggling to find and hire the new employees that are essential to future growth and success. In fact, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2019 was the 16th month in a row that there were more job openings than people looking for jobs in the United States, a phenomenon that has not occurred since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting data in 2000. As of August 2019, there were about 1.4 million more open job openings than unemployed workers.

No wonder employers are concerned.

Passive candidates – those who are qualified but not actively looking for a new job, and who comprise the vast majority of the most qualified candidates out there – are notoriously difficult to attract. Just getting in front of them is a perennial struggle for recruiters. While the “war for talent” phenomenon is hardly new, the difference in today’s labor market is the proliferation of social and digital media and its application in talent attraction.

Digital technology enables new and more scalable avenues to reach potential new hires, including the elusive passive candidate. Yet it also makes it more difficult for employers to stand out. The digital recruiting landscape has never been more crowded.

To identify the right candidates – and convince them to take a new job – today’s recruiters must take a holistic view of their efforts and utilize the power, scale and efficiency that digital and social activations can provide.

Accepting the new reality

The advent of social media has radically changed the recruiting landscape. Job boards were once the primary distribution channel for recruiters’ one-to-one outreach approach, which constrained rapid hiring (as with seasonal large-scale needs) and limited the reach to passive candidates. Now, according to LinkedIn, the top channels candidates use to look for new jobs are online job boards (60 percent), social professional networks (56 percent), and word of mouth (50 percent).

This shift has led many employers to take a candidate-centric, "one-to-many” approach, defined by recruiting across multiple digital channels, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and even Snapchat, to target candidates who may not be actively looking for a job.

By adopting these practices, recruiters are borrowing from the principles of digital consumer marketing and aiming to get into a target candidate’s line of sight. Doing so will influence perceptions of the employer and render the candidate more receptive to outreach. They are treating the job candidate as a consumer.

Choosing the right channels

To achieve recruiting goals in this new environment, modern talent acquisition programs must use a combination of traditional offline channels (such as job fairs and professional referrals) and online channels. Ideally, the two channels should complement one another. A company’s online channels may have greater reach and more visibility than offline efforts, and they need to work in concert with real-life tactics to influence target candidates. In fact, according to Talent Works International, taking an integrated social media recruitment strategy can result in an 87 percent better chance of hiring the right talent for the job.

Digital activations allow for more engaging storytelling opportunities, which is why it is imperative for a company to communicate its employee value proposition across its owned channels. Digital media make it possible to do this alongside surgical targeting for prime candidates (the targeting itself allows for maximum efficiency against any financial investment). Broadly, these channels include ways to target people who are in the process of looking for new opportunities now (i.e., active job seekers) and those who are in the workforce but not currently looking for new opportunities (i.e., passive job seekers).

Focusing on the candidate

The proliferation of social media usage by candidates of all stripes has led to a fundamental shift in channel management for recruiters: a company must use the channels that are most convenient for candidates – as opposed to those most convenient for the company. The days of “build it and they will come” are largely a memory. Instead, candidate-centric approaches are expected.

The upside: social media channels thrive on data that can be harvested for the sake of improving outreach. And, as in most cases, information is power. Users share critical information about themselves – where they work, where they went to school, the city they live in, the causes and interests that inspire them – and employers can leverage the insight from such information to develop a series of candidate profiles to enable broad-scale targeting.

Much like the consumer archetypes brand marketers create to represent the various types of people who buy their products and services, candidate profiles can be particularly helpful when recruiting hundreds or even thousands of hires. Most digital channels feature targeting mechanisms that allow employers to narrowcast content directly to people that fit those profiles.

This is the essence of smart engagement with maximum horsepower, and the key to successful use of digital in recruiting: delivering the right message to the right audience via the right channels.

Layering the message through internal activation

There’s a critical element to effective recruitment that cannot be ignored: the role of your current employees in reinforcing the recruitment messages you relay. Companies must present a compelling, honest picture of what it is like to work at their organization; doing so increases the odds that a potential candidate will click on an opportunity or say yes to a conversation with a recruiter.

But more than simply generating candidate interest, the depiction of the employee experience the company paints before a person accepts a job offer must match the experience they have once they join the team. This can only be achieved through a vivid employee value proposition firmly and authentically rooted in reality. If there is a disconnect between the “sale” of the role and the experience, not only will it be difficult for a company to retain that employee, it will also be more difficult to attract and retain other employees.

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, “a person like yourself” is among a company’s most credible spokespeople (far more so than the CEO), and employer rating sites such as Glassdoor offer a prominent platform for the highly credible voice of the average employee. In other words, false advertising about an organization’s employee experience will be exposed by the very people experiencing it.

Empowering storytelling and storytellers

For as powerful as data-based targeting can be, its efficacy is maximized only when fuelled with the right content – and while facts might underpin the strategic approach, the most persuasive messages are authentic and compelling stories.

Marketers have long recognized the emotional pull that human stories create over purely fact-based appeals. Leveraging current employees as a company’s storytellers can attract candidates who are already well-versed in the organization’s approach, aspirations and culture. This insider perspective also allows potential candidates to determine whether they will be a good cultural fit long before the employer assesses that through structured interview questions.

Analytics and the Path Ahead

Of course, digital activations bring a new dimension of analytics to recruiting, namely in enhanced efficiency and optimization. According to the 2016 SHRM Human Capital Benchmarking Report, the average cost of a new hire is $4,129. Analytics help inform campaigns based on data, which can help reduce time and wasted spend, driving down the cost-per-hire and saving money for the organization. With a strong understanding of their audience, employers can better craft content, job descriptions and advertisements specifically designed to progress candidates down the pipeline.

As more employers increase their investment in talent acquisition, executives allocating budgets want to see results to justify the funding. The companies that are most successful here will be the ones that bring to life integrated programs that amplify each component’s impact. A “real world” or online hiring event plus a media relations program plus social media promotional content plus targeted digital advertising will set up employers for tremendous success.

If anything, the organizations best equipped to handle these campaigns tomorrow are the ones that proactively tear down their silos today. In the modern landscape, recruiters do not operate in isolation. All communicators and marketers play a role in acquiring world-class talent – and in fact, many tech companies have begun to leverage marketers as recruiters. The art of hiring top-notch talent requires imagination, innovation, creativity, and discipline, along with the right tools, media and resources. It requires stepping back from short-run efforts to consider broader strategic plans, evaluating whether the company’s approach is leading to the recruiting results it desires and needs, and working intentionally to identify how these practices can be revised to achieve them.

Tamara (Snyder) Rodman is executive vice president, Employee Experience, Chicago.

Mike Schaffer is senior vice president, Digital + Corporate, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.