Market Segmentation: The Key to Successful Academic Recruitment Marketing

Successful recruitment marketing requires communicating the right message to the right person in the right way. This post is about the middle part of that equation, the right person. From a marketing perspective, the right person is the right market segment. The candidate pool is not homogeneous, it contains distinct groups of potential employees who share circumstances and behaviours. To attract quality applicants to your vacancies, you need to understand the different types of candidates and target each group appropriately.

In corporate recruitment, job seekers are often categorized as either active or passive candidates. Active candidates are those who are actively looking for a new job while passive candidates are not necessarily looking to change jobs—unless the right opportunity presents itself. Active and passive candidates exist in academia too, but one crucial difference between the corporate and academic sectors affects how these candidates are categorized.

A large number of early career academics, like PhDs and postdocs, are on fixed term contracts while they gain the necessary qualifications and experience to advance to more senior positions. This makes it almost impossible for them to leave their current contact even if they see the perfect position. Think about it. A first year PhD student can’t apply for a postdoc; they have to wait until they’re finishing up their dissertation to apply. Academics also don’t have the one month notice period of private sector employees. A lecturer can’t leave their job midway through the semester. Consequently, the academic candidate pool is a bit more complex than the classic active-passive candidates.

We have found that the academic candidate pool actually has three market segments: active, passive, and future candidates. These groups are characterized by their behaviour and more importantly their ability to apply for an open position. Let’s take a closer look at these segments.

Active Candidates

Active candidates are currently looking for new positions and they are able to apply for a job at your university right now. They frequently visit job boards and other similar media to keep an eye out for new jobs. Compared to other candidates they are very open to positions at unfamiliar institutions. Second year Master’s students or final year PhD students are often active candidates. They are nearing the end of their current degree and are on the hunt for their next position. Of course senior academics can also be active candidates if they are unsatisfied with their current job and actively looking for a new one. To reach these candidates, institutions should post their jobs on international job boards (rather than their own careers page) where they will be seen by candidates on the lookout for open positions.  

Passive Candidates

Passive candidates could change jobs now but aren’t currently looking for new opportunities. They might not have had the time to start their job search or might not be motivated to start looking. These candidates have often looked for new opportunities within their current institution or network, but have not considered universities beyond their current employer. They do not look at job boards or networking sites. Passive candidates tend to hope that the perfect job will just appear or be offered to them making it unnecessary for them to spend time looking for opportunities elsewhere. They could be interested in a job opportunity from a previously unknown organization if they are presented with it, but they will not seek it out. A final year PhD student hoping to be offered a postdoc position at their current institution would be a passive candidate. People currently working outside of academia are often passive candidates. They might want to do a PhD but will only leave their current job when they find a PhD project that perfectly aligns with their interests. Communicating with passive candidates requires thinking outside the box and targeting them in passive consumer environments such as their social media news feeds.

Future Candidates

Future candidates are not in a situation that allows them to apply for a vacant position even if they are interested. They might not yet have the qualifications for a new position or may have just started a new fixed term contract. For this reason, future candidates are less likely to read jobs adverts or check traditional job boards. First year Master’s students are often future candidates as are first year postdocs. They don’t yet have the necessary experience to apply for the next job in the academic career path. Someone just starting a two year visiting assistant professorship could also be a future candidate. Even though future candidates could be years from applying to jobs at your institution, it’s important at this early stage to position your institution as top of mind. This means using targeted messaging that is different from what would be in a traditional job ad and communicating your message on channels unrelated to job searching.

To design a highly-effective recruitment marketing strategy, you need to consider all three candidate types and make sure that your marketing mix includes channels and messages specific to each group. According to recent surveys, less than 15% all job candidates are considered active which mean that meaning traditional job board advertises misses more than 80% of the candidate pool. This is why market segmentation is so important. You need to understand who your candidates are and how they behave if you want to build a robust candidate pipeline. Segmenting your audience into active, passive, and future candidates, as well as using target messages and the appropriate channels, will increase your likelihood of attracting quality applicants to your vacancies.