An employer branding conference held in New York City and sponsored by Universum, a leading global employer branding consultancy, offered a wide array of best-practices by leading consultants and corporate practitioners. The conference also illuminated an on-going debate in broader marketing circles: the effectiveness and efficiency of promotional vs. attraction-based marketing, in this case as applied to employer branding.

Traditional Employer Branding vs. Attraction-Based Marketing

It may be helpful to illustrate the differences and similarities between these marketing/branding approaches. Traditional Employer Branding often starts with the HR department. It is designed to help attract and retain employees, expressed as an “employee value proposition.” Done well it helps position the company as a good employer and a great place to work. Traditionally, these messages are delivered using paid media placements, ranging from TV ads to digital display job boards like Indeed, or paid employment ad placements on sites like LinkedIn.

Attraction-based marketing usually comes from the marketing department, and uses social media to attract audiences based on the relevancy and perceived value of the content. It can convey the benefits of a product/service, or share other useful information. Ideally the content is compelling enough that readers will share it with their friends, family, and professional networks on social media.

Let’s look at how these two marketing approaches are applied to employer branding, both on their own and then in a combined way that leverages the strengths of both.

Promotional Employer Branding

Promotional Employer Branding messages are placed in paid media venues or company owned websites that talk at people, telling them what is great about a company/brand (or employment opportunity) via one-way communications with a call-to-action. In terms of employer branding this approach can range from simple digital job postings to expensive TV commercials from the likes of GE.

This model worked great as in the “help wanted” section of traditional newspapers, and then on the web starting in the mid-90s with digital help-wanted display ads and “employment opportunities” sections of company websites.

Attraction-Based Employer Branding

An emerging employer branding approach uses attraction-based marketing. This method employs more authentic user-generated content to attract audiences, and then engages with them in “a conversation” around interesting content. All sorts of digital content can now be shared through social media (likes, shares, re-tweets, etc.). Examples include blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.

Brands like AirBnB and Uber have never spent a dollar on brand advertising, yet command multibillion dollar valuations – largely driven by all the great stuff people have said about them on social media. The down-side of this approach for brands is that it takes time and an on-going commitment to producing exceptional content to build critical-mass with audiences.

The Impact on Employer Branding

One of the first speakers at the Universum event was Lars Schmidt, founder & CEO of AMPLIFY. He was a clear advocate of the attraction approach. He recommended starting with an Employer Value Proposition (EVP), which is a clear articulation of why working at a given company can be a good thing, in benefit-based terms for prospective employees.

Schmidt then advocated using a company’s employees as “brand ambassadors” by empowering them to create employee-generated content on social media, which he characterized as “the holy grail of employer branding because it tells authentic employee stories.” Schmidt noted, “Employer branding is all about attracting the right candidates.”

It appears a clear majority of the millennial generation simply don’t believe in flashy high-production commercial messages today, especially when they appear contrived. Consider the recent Pepsi TV ad that mirrored a “Black Lives Matter” protester, played by Kendall Jenner, giving the riot police a Pepsi. It got completely trashed on social media when it was accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter cause, and Pepsi pulled it immediately.

Dell Does Employee Branding Right

Jennifer Jones Newbill (right), director global employment brand from Dell, showcased an impressive array of attraction-based employer branding best practices. Dell starts with a simple but powerful strategic roadmap for their employer branding:

Attract > Engage > Share Relevant Experiences

Dell uses employee-generated content that comes across as much more authentic, and in turn is more engaging with prospective employees.

Dell also leverages another important asset available from digital marketing, in this case for employer branding: Data analytics. Newbill cited Dell’s process of creating employer branding content, and then tagging it so they can see what content performs well with various audiences in terms of audience engagement (views, click-throughs, shares, likes, and re-tweets).

Newbill was effusive about this approach: “It creates a background of consistency – found in places like Dell’s ‘Monday Motivation’ and ‘Friday fun’ posts.” She pointed to Dell’s practice of employer brand building using Dell employees on social media, like @CareersAtDell Twitter, branded as “Life at Dell.”

Her team has created tip sheets for Dell employees “to get them pointed in the right direction.” These programs show up in places like Instagram takeovers, when employees take over the Dell Instagram feed with their own user-generated content. The authenticity of this type of employee storytelling makes this content much more authentic and engaging.

Using Amplified Social Media for Employer Branding

Petter Nylander (left) is the global CEO of Universum. He spoke about using social media for employer branding, but with a twist. It begins with recognizing the sheer number of “digital native” users on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.

“They live in a world that is always connected. Because of that, social media is actually very appropriate for Employer Branding – 83% are open to the idea of being contacted on social media by an employer regarding work opportunities,” Nylander said according to a recent Universum study.

“Data is the key,” Nylander noted, “I think a little and do a lot based on what the data is telling me.” In other words, which blog content is generating the most engagement? He also threw in an interesting old-school approach of paying for promoted messages.

Nylander advocated using paid social media posts to “boost” message exposure, like putting paid content into targeted LinkedIn user streams, to help amplify the impact of the message. He also encouraged experimentation with messaging, as all digital content engagement can be tested through engagement data.

“To optimize results,” Nylander remarked, “Set measurable KPIs (key performance indicators), then set up tests to find which types of content are most relevant to the right audience segments. Then adapt future activities based on learning from the tests.”

Employer Branding is Changing Fast!

The conference painted a quickly evolving landscape for employer branding, one where authentic employees create content, describing how it’s like to work at a company, is much more powerful than slickly-produced TV ads where companies talk about themselves.

The most successful employer branding programs borrow tactics from traditional direct marketing in terms of testing content/offers and then using data to measure its effectiveness. But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of any employer branding effort is in the palm of the prospective employee’s hand — judged by how engaging and authentic the content is, enough to spark a clickthrough or simply be ignored. Today it happens all in an instant, with the simple move of a finger on a smartphone.