Your first instinct might be to search the job boards when you’re looking for a new job. But that approach comes with a built-in obstacle: Competition. A single job listing can easily receive hundreds of applications within the first few hours after publishing.
It might prove better to look for opportunities off the beaten path, and one way to do that is to reach out to target employers before they post any openings–call it the art of the “speculative job application.” If you do it right, you’re more likely to connect directly with the decision-makers inside companies, without having to elbow past dozens or hundreds of other candidates. This five-step process can help you do just that.
Step 1: Do Some Recon On Who’s Hiring For What
One thing remains true in any job search: You first need to identify the roles and companies you want to apply to. Without a clear idea of the employers you’re approaching, and why they might want to hire you, you’ll struggle to position your resume or market yourself at all.
So start as you normally would–by doing some thorough research into your target roles, finding out exactly what skills and experience they demand, and which companies are currently hiring for them. This is the one stage when you’ll actually want to spend time on job boards, scanning them to build up a clear picture of the skills that employers are looking for.
For example, if you’re a digital marketer looking for an agency role, head over to one of the major job boards and run a search for your target roles and salary (location isn’t too important here because you’re just focusing on the role requirements). Create a list of all the hard skills and knowledge that employers are requesting, which in this case might be digital strategy, five years of agency project experience, and specific software tools. Ignore generic, cliché terms such as “team player” and “hard worker.”
Step 2: Make A (Big) List Of Prospective Employers
Now you can leave the job boards behind you for good, without ever sending a single application to an opening you’ve found there.
Once you know the types of firms you’ll be approaching, you need to compile a list of actual firms to approach. For starters, you’ll want to remember that speculative applications are a numbers game. The majority of people you reach out to will not have immediate vacancies, and many will not even respond to you–and that’s okay.
Start by scouring LinkedIn and Google to find a healthy number of companies that employ people in your desired position. LinkedIn makes it particularly easy to track down employers irrespective of who’s hiring for what roles. Use the platform’s filters to draw up a list of employers by size, industry, or whatever other criteria you’ve identified. Add to your list until it tops 50 or so (it sounds like a lot, and that’s the point).
Step 3: Seek Out Decision-Makers
Once you have your list of target employers, you need to make sure your message gets as close as possible to the people making hiring decisions. Contacting companies via the “firstname.lastname@example.org” address will usually mean that your application lands in the inbox of an administrative assistant who has many more pressing tasks to deal with.
Take the time to seek out hiring managers within the business and their contact details. Again, use LinkedIn to run highly filtered searches for those HR and recruiting professionals. How? In many cases it’s easy as searching for “IT recruiter,” which can present you with thousands of people in the results. From there, you can draw on your list of employers to filter down until you can pinpoint the right person inside the right organization. This doesn’t actually take much time to do.
Beyond LinkedIn, company websites will sometimes have staff profiles on their About pages, where you can find email addresses to utilize. If you really can’t find any actual individuals to reach out to, you can use the generic company mailbox as a last resort.
Step 4: Give Prospective Employer A Reason To Get Back To You
Now it’s time to make contact with your prospective employers, but you need to be tactful here. Chances are this person isn’t actively recruiting, and they certainly won’t be expecting your email. Your message needs to build rapport with them immediately and give them some good reasons to respond positively. So write in a professional yet personable tone, and always address the recipient by name; this can bring their guard down a bit while they’re reviewing unsolicited email. Focus on what you have to offer in terms of your skills and experience. Now is not the time to make demands.
A little bit of flattery never hurts, either. Keep it brief, and attach your resume. The goal of this message is simply to spark some interest and get at least one or two responses from every 20 messages you send. Here’s an example:
Hope you’re well, and sorry for the slightly cold approach.
I’m a digital marketing manager with over six years of experience running national digital campaigns for well-known clothing brands, and I’m currently looking for a new role with a leading retail firm.
I have considerably grown market share, leads, sales, and revenues with my current employer Sports, Ltd., over the past two years, and am now looking to take on a bigger challenge.
If you are currently in need of somebody with my skills and experience, it would be great to hear from you.
Please find my resume attached.
Step 5: Track Your Progress
When you are contacting a large volume of people, you need to record your actions to track your progress–and to avoid embarrassing duplications. Knowing where you’ve succeeded can help you spot areas where you need to focus your efforts and what you might need to refine or change. A simple spreadsheet is all it takes, noting the name of the person you’ve contacted, the date you sent your cold email, and whether you’ve heard back.
This also allows you to determine when and where to send follow-up emails. Recruiters and hiring managers are busy people, so sometimes they may just miss your email or forget to get back to you. A polite follow-up message after several days is sometimes all it takes to generate a response. But again, be tactful here and don’t overdo it. If somebody hasn’t responded to you after one initial email and one well-timed follow-up, cut your losses and turn elsewhere.
Sending out speculative job applications definitely takes some time and effort, but it can be a great alternative to scouring anemic job boards and coming up dry–or being the 285th person to apply to a given role. This method may not be dramatically more efficient, but it’s definitely more effective at uncovering hidden job opportunities. Remember, all it takes is one positive reply to land your next role.