While attending job fairs and career expos, I have heard numerous speakers, career coaches, headhunters and other experts advise job candidates consistently to customize their resumes, cover letters, follow-up letters and pretty much everything else, for each particular job opportunity.
This is excellent advice if you're sending out two or three resumes a week. Most job seekers, however, are trying for a bit more coverage than that. To customize each document while trying to achieve a mass mailing is neither practical nor manageable. It also raises the risk that a candidate's documents will contain mistakes that cause doors to slam shut.
Instead of hand-tailoring every document, I recommend that job seekers mirror a direct marketing strategy known as "mass customization." Mass customization allows a candidate to send out volumes of documents in a manageable and efficient way, while still giving the recipient the feel of a customized communication. Applying the strategy requires three basic steps.
Marketers are charged with bringing something new to market or extending the life cycle of a mature product. To do so, we hone in on the product's "differential" - the unique aspects that make the product stand out. Job seekers often fail to do this. Knowing what unique qualities you bring to any position - your differential - enables you to talk about yourself in a way that the recipient will see as unique. You will also be able to align your differential with your primary target opportunities, which also gives the feel of a customized communication.
For any marketer, the primary target is the group that is absolutely looking to buy what you are selling, is willing to pay for it, and meets your individual criteria for a good customer. Mass customization requires as much in-depth knowledge of your primary target as possible. The knowledge is gained through research that occurs at the same time you work through your differential.
Start by creating needs and wants criteria. "Needs" criteria are things you have to have from a job. "Wants" criteria could be quality of life items - commute time, gym membership, etc. When creating these criteria, be as specific as possible and order them by importance. Needs will always be above wants. Keep listing criteria until you can't possibly list anything else.
When you have a complete list, take it to market. You will most assuredly have to eliminate some criteria once you probe the market and try to expand your segment. As you do so, you will see what you are giving up and what you can realistically expect in your next position.
While conducting market research and working to increase your primary target segment, you will also see how to best communicate your differentials in a way that is important to your primary segment.
Creating Marketing Collateral
The final piece is creating your marketing collateral. A key thing to remember is that every piece of collateral you create is for the recipient, not for you. Knowing both your differential and the business needs of your primary target, it is your responsibility to prioritize and present the information in a way that best meets the needs of the majority of primary target employers. Correctly applied, this strategy yields communications that are easily managed, only need very minor editing for each opportunity and will feel to the recipient as though you are directing the communications solely at them.
There are other tricks you can use that will help make a recipient feel you've gone to great lengths to prepare documents just for them. Include the company name and the person's name within the body of the letter, which can be done with a simple merge document. Use bullets to make rearranging information or substituting information easy. And, develop templates that allow you to follow up quickly depending on the response, or non-response, to your mailing.
Mass customization is a widely used marketing strategy because it works. Looking for a job is a full-time job. There's no need to put in frustrating overtime - until you're getting paid for it.
William Drawbridge is director of marketing and development for the New York Society of Security Analysts.
Originally published Oct. 20, 2008