How to Run Help-Wanted Ads That Work

March 6, 2003 -- Here are some classified job ads, found in major newspapers and intended to attract top prospects:

Secty: 2-3 yrs exp. Lite typing, phones & assisting gen'l mgr. Call …

Executive Asst for Int'l co. Fax res to: …

Maint. Power washing exp. Req'd. night hrs. good driving rec. call …

Cocktail servers. Exp'd. wknd even only. Call Giggles …

Excited yet? Can you picture the rewards and fulfillment that lie ahead? Are you ready to spend time polishing your résumé, going through the hassle of an interview, and leaving your current job for these thrilling opportunities? We bet that even the prospect of a boss named Giggles isn't enough to get you moving.

There was a time when newspaper classifieds were the be-all to fill jobs. Today, they're still black and white but no longer read all over. Classifieds draw fewer responses than ever, and there are many reasons why: Newspaper circulation is down; illiteracy is rising. And then there's something called the Internet.

But it's too early to write an obituary for the classifieds. They're still a great option to fill many jobs, particularly those that don't require highly specialized skills. For classified ads to work, however, they need to be advertising — that is, creative, punchy and enticing.

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Know your audience.

Newspapers are a mass-market medium. Consider this example: In Anytown USA, there are two nuclear physicists and 10,000 secretaries. Both physicists read the paper daily, as do half the secretaries. That means that secretaries are 2,500 times more likely to answer a classified ad than the physicist. Yet many labs would run the ad for a physicist anyway.

And that's wrong! It would be infinitely more efficient to simply call both physicists.

Classifieds work best when filling the sorts of jobs that are sought by many people: food servers, salespeople, and so forth. If you really must run a classified for a specialized job, run it in a targeted trade magazine or scientific journal, not the newspaper.

Figure the odds.

Unless someone is trapped in an auto repair shop waiting room and desperate to read anything, the only people reading classifieds are active job seekers. These are people either not currently working, or unhappy in their current job and ready to make a change. Your ad will be missed entirely by passive job seekers — those who are working but might consider another opportunity if it were presented to them. (Remember, if passive job seekers read want ads, then headhunters would be extinct).

Think about the unemployment rate in your area for the type of job you're filling. If competing hotels in your area are bringing in staff from the Caribbean, running a classified ad to hire housekeepers probably won't work.

Sell the job.

Would you plunk down seven bucks at the multiplex to see something known only as Action Flick? Of course not. You want to know something about the story, who stars in it and whether it's supposed to funny or scary.

So if people won't invest two hours and $7 in an unknown, why would they bet their career on a mystery job? Sell what the job has to offer — opportunity, creativity, flexibility, great pay, a cool office, terrific benefits, working for the world's most perfect boss, and so on. And don't scribble a list on an envelope just before the deadline. Write an ad that gets people excited.

Don't pinch pennies.

Most classified ad space is sold by the word or line. For some reason, otherwise rational people hear that and become irrational. To save money, they start abbreviating and slashing until the ad reads like Fortran code. Impress people with the job, not with how cheap you are.

Don't be coy.

True, you want to cast a wide net and get as much response as possible. But don't be coy to do it. It's a waste of everyone's time to be misleading about salary, job duties and so forth in an ad. Just as people reading real estate ads resent the euphemism "fixer-upper" to describe a dump, job candidates resent "high-potential restaurant career opportunity" to describe a waiter position.

Don't run blind ads.

Some employers run "blind ads," in which the job is advertised but the company name is left out. It's done to spare the company phone calls, or because the company doesn't want employees to know a job is open (or about to be because someone will be fired).

Don't do it. Blind ads establish an atmosphere of second-guessing and distrust from the outset. And many top candidates won't respond to blind ads, reasoning that if they are sending personal information to someone they want to know where they're sending it.

If you're an equal opportunity employer (and you should be) say so.

Decide how you want candidates to respond.

Do you want candidates to respond through the mail only? Or can they fax a résumé? Can they send a résumé by e-mail? Will you answer telephone inquiries? There is no "right" answer, though generally the more options you offer, the greater the response you'll get. Whatever you decide, include the information in the ad.

Develop a plan to respond.

Once the ad runs, you need to be ready to respond. Develop a plan. Who will open the mail? Who will check e-mail? How often? Where will the résumés go? How soon will you respond to candidates? Who will respond to phone calls? (Hint: Choose someone who can actually answer most questions, not merely take messages). Once you have the plan, communicate it to anyone involved. And then stick to it.

Acknowledge all responses.

It's good form to acknowledge every application, even if you use a form letter. Less than that is disrespectful. And some candidates are receiving unemployment and need to prove that they are making a legitimate effort to find work.

Real-Life Example

His longtime secretary had just resigned. She was hard-working, smart, dedicated, funny and thoroughly professional. They had worked together for years, and trusted each other completely. He was so down about her leaving that all he wanted to do was drink a margarita or two and go watch a mindless movie. Instead, he sat down and wrote a classified ad for her replacement. The ad began:


Our executive secretary has been practically perfect in every way,But now she's moving on. If you can juggle e-mail, voicemail, and notesleft on your chair; if you aren't afraid to point out when the boss is beingstupid; if you like to make decisions for yourself (and sometimes for otherpeople); and if you keep a magic carpet bag hidden somewhere in your desk,we've got a job for you! …

In the next few days, the executive was swamped with résumés, faxes, phone calls and e-mail. Almost every letter and call made some mention of Mary Poppins.

But what really struck him was that almost every call and letter also said something like this: "Wow! I can tell you really respect your secretary …" or "I can see that your secretary is really part of the team …" or "It's clear that you don't take your secretary for granted …" The candidates were excited about the job before they even had an interview.

Stay Out of Jail

Don't discriminate in your ad copy. Don't even think about an ad that reads, "Seeking young women …" or "No Latinos" or "No one over 40 need apply …" or any other phrase that discriminates against a protected group or groups.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: