Why great companies re-engage previous applicants

As a startup founder obsessed with making hiring more data-driven, I love to ask, “How can we use our data to make talent acquisition more effective?” There’s one particular data set that I find is often under-used: previous candidate applications. 

Ryan Markman
CEO, Melior
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Aug 21, 2022
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Last updated on Feb 08, 2022

As a startup founder obsessed with making hiring more data-driven, I love to ask, “How can we use our data to make talent acquisition more effective?”

There’s one particular data set that I find is often under-used: previous candidate applications. 

Companies with strong programs to re-engage previous applicants see serious results from it. I’ve spoken to several talent leaders who are making 10% or more of their hires by re-engaging candidates from a previous search, often weeks faster than a typical search. As new candidate sources go, 10% is significant. By comparison, according to Jobvite’s 2019 data, less than 4% of hires are sourced by recruiting agencies.

You may not have invested in candidate re-engagement yet because the current tools and incentives don’t always make it easy.  Doing this well requires you to create a tagging system to identify candidates who should get a future look, train recruiters on this new system, and hold folks accountable to make sure they adhere to the new process. This work takes valuable time now and doesn't start to pay off for 6 to 12 months. Even without a system for tagging candidates, if you have an applicant tracking system (ATS), you can search through old candidate pipelines. But frankly, this ends up being a highly manual process, as most ATS’s don’t have great capabilities to surface the most relevant candidates for a given role. Building a candidate re-engagement process can be challenging, but the payoff can be huge. 

The case for re-engaging candidates 

Like sales and marketing, recruiting is a funnel, and the best talent acquisition organizations are scientific about how they fill, optimize, and analyze the funnel. The best sales organizations revisit almost-closed leads, the best eCommerce marketers email cart abandoners, and the most effective recruiters look for near misses in the past.

There’s value in the fact that previous candidates have:

  1. Indicated interest in your company and a specific role 
  2. Often been identified by folks on your team as a good enough fit to progress to a certain stage in your process
  3. Given you insight into their strengths and weaknesses, data which should live in your ATS and scorecards 

According to Gem’s 2021 Recruiting Benchmarks report, for every engineering hire, a company has 14 candidates get to the pre-onsite stage, and 4 get to the onsite stage. If you’re a tech company hiring 20+ engineers per year, that's 280 qualified and 80 highly qualified leads per year to revisit right there. Not to mention other candidates who pulled themselves out of the process earlier, applied for a different role,  or who were missed by the company the first time around. 

There really shouldn’t be any stigma if things didn’t work out with a candidate in the past. There are tons of legitimate reasons why someone wasn’t the perfect fit before but could be today.

Here are a few examples:

If the candidate rejected us: 

  • The candidate is ready to make a move now 
  • The company’s offering (remote, salary, comp) may have changed 
  • The company’s perception in the market may have changed

If we rejected the candidate:

  • The candidate has gained additional experience
  • The candidate wasn’t a perfect fit for a certain role, but is a great fit for a different role (e.g. not a fit for Data Engineer, but great fit for Data Scientist)
  • What the company is looking for may have changed
  • With limited, imperfect information, maybe the company didn’t make the perfect decision the first time

How to start re-engaging candidates 

The first step is to lay out a process so your recruiters and hiring managers can identify candidates in real time who could be a good fit for a future role. 

Set clear rules for how to tag candidates. Keep it simple and make it extremely clear to avoid different recruiters tagging folks differently. For now, you can make it as simple as tagging with department and location. Ideally your ATS will also make it easy to also see what role they previously applied for.  One challenge - the task of tagging candidates can be easy to ignore because it’s short term time for a long term benefit. As humans, we aren’t great at prioritizing for the medium or long term. Consider creating KPIs for the talent team around how many folks each recruiter tags, and celebrate when a candidate is identified and then re-engaged. 

The other thing you can start doing today: search your Applicant Tracking System for previous candidates. Depending on your ATS, this may be time consuming. It’s tempting to just jump in and start using keyword search for previous applicants, but I find that this is often less efficient than using tactics that narrow your search. Experiment with exporting data or using filters to identify high potential candidates across multiple roles. Here are some example filters you may want to include in your searches: 

  • Candidates who reached at least X stage in your process
  • Candidates who received high scorecard results
  • Candidates who rejected the company (vs. the company rejecting them) 
  • Candidates whose last touchpoint was at least 6 months ago 
  • Candidates who were rejected for specific reasons 

Start looking for candidates who reached the latest stage of the application process first, and then work your way backwards. You don’t need to limit your search to applicants who applied for the exact same role in the past; more junior or senior roles, or even roles that require similar skill sets, may have applicants who are a fit for your current role. The more you do this, the more you’ll start to develop your playbook of which filters yield the most relevant candidates. Share with your team, and make this a rising tide that lifts all boats! 

Most recruiters will tell you that building relationships is an absolutely critical part of the job. By building processes to re-engage previous candidates, you enable a candidate’s application to be a true gateway to a long term relationship with the company, even if they aren’t hired the first time around. Lots of companies tell candidates they will “keep their resume on file.” Be one of the companies who uses this information, and follows up. 

P.S. I love to talk about data-driven hiring. Visit us here or drop us a line at team@getmelior.com if you’d like to chat or are looking for new ways to hit your hiring goals. 

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