How to source candidates and build a talent pipeline

The WhoCo guide to building a robust talent pipeline of top talent with insights from recruiting experts.

You can’t hire the right people if they don’t know about your job! Just like a product, your job needs sales and marketing firepower. In the recruiting world, instead of sales and marketing, we put distribution and sourcing to work.

Job distribution is fairly simple: share your opening on job boards and through other channels where the most qualified candidates will find it. While this approach can be highly effective for large companies with a recognizable brand and large budgets to promote their listing, it’s not necessarily a surefire way to find the best talent for every company or role.

Candidate sourcing is more of a purposeful and proactive approach to finding good candidates. Effective sourcing comes down to searching for and finding qualified candidates - individuals willing to explore new opportunities that match the target profile - and reaching out to them through email, social networks, or even phone with a compelling message that attracts them to the role and company.

Most successful hiring programs involve some combination of job distribution and candidate sourcing with the mix varying based on the role and company.

Guiding Principles

#1  Everything starts with defining your ideal candidate profile.

Before you can start sourcing, it’s important to know what skills/traits are non-negotiable or nice-to-have. WhoCo can help with this. Our rigorous Role Design process helps you determine the importance of different functional and personal skills for the role, along with the proficiency expectations from candidates in each of those skills. This exercise adds structure and data to the usually ad-hoc process of creating job descriptions, so that you can confidently source the right candidates.

#2  Understand your candidate funnel.

Sourcing is a numbers game. You need know what the funnel looks like, why it looks that way, and shape your strategy accordingly to build a pipeline if top candidates fall through. A hiring funnel (or recruiting funnel) is a way of breaking down candidates' journey through the sequential stages of the hiring process, starting with sourcing leads and applicants and ending with an offer.

Expect natural drop-offs at each stage in your candidate funnel. Whatever the role - you only need to hire one person (unless your goal is to hire several people!). So shape your funnel accordingly. When the candidate pool is relatively large (for example with an entry-level job), you can expect more interest from job boards, but should also expect greater drop-off as you qualify candidates through the funnel. On the other hand, for roles with smaller candidate pools (senior leadership, specialized roles, etc.) high funnel drop-off will eliminate candidates quickly, so targeted candidate sourcing is critical.

The shape of your funnel will differ when segmented by sourcing channel. There are many ways to source a candidate, not all are equal, and performance can vary by role. We recommend:

  • Know where your ideal candidates are. Where do they spend time? Where do they consume content? Where would they search for a new job opportunity?
  • Test, measure, and repeat. There is no silver bullet. To find what works best for your company and role, test and measure performance on different distribution channels, sourcing methods, and pitches.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Sourcing is an investment in your time and a diversity is key. Be sure to try multiple distribution channels and sourcing strategies at once.

#3  Time management is critical.

Sourcing can be boundless, and as such, quite time-consuming. Avoid falling into “rabbit holes” by establishing targets (e.g., candidate volume, message volume) or time-boxing sourcing activities.

Sourcing is like studying or practicing your jump-shot. You’re not going to ace the test or win the game without it, but there’s only so much time you can study or practice. - Cameron Khani, Talent Acquisition Manager

#4  Build a data-rich sourcing pipeline.

If not using an ATS or CRM tool, build one in a spreadsheet to capture candidate info/status, and measure performance metrics such as response rate, sources of hire, time-to-submittal.

#5  Mind passive candidates.

Candidates searching job boards tend to be actively seeking. Without proactive sourcing, you’ll be missing out on qualified candidates that aren’t actively searching for a new role but may be open to opportunities. These “passive candidates” may not have an up-to-date resume/LinkedIn, making it more difficult to qualify them.

To maximize your efforts contacting passive candidates, consider:

  • Candidate profiles: Complete social profiles (e.g., LinkedIn, AngelList, GitHub) tend to suggest an openness to new opportunities.
  • Employment tenure: Equity packages at startups typically fully vest after four years at a company. Candidates past this milestone will more likely be open to new opportunities.
  • Company activity: Organizational and financial changes at companies tend to result in employee departures. Consider targeting companies (e.g., same industry, similar values, strong engineering reputation) that recently went public, were acquired, or experienced layoffs.

When contacting a passive prospect, request a response of interest in either way note the candidate in your pipeline for future reference.

Expert Tactics

Expert recruiters apply a series of tactics to source ideal job candidates.

  • Use your existing pipeline of previous candidates. If someone applied in the past and it wasn’t the perfect fit, see if they’re right for another role. It helps if you flag these candidates for the future as they come.
  • Request referrals from employees and connections.
  • Search your network, the network of the hiring manager, and the team on LinkedIn. You’re able to view and search through connections of your connections.
  • Search connections of recruiters on LinkedIn. They tend to connect with both active and passive candidates and have already done some vetting.
  • Post to relevant job boards. Some examples: Designers look for jobs on sites like Behance and Dribbble. Software Engineers will use Stack Overflow and may look for jobs there. Students and recent grads will rely on college career sites (many of which powered by Handshake). Nearly everyone will look for jobs on LinkedIn.
  • Use boolean search operators when searching for candidates on LinkedIn.
  • Search high-performer accolades relevant to the role (e.g., Y Combinator alumni list, 30 under 30, company salesperson of the year award). This tends to be more effective for sales, marketing, product, leadership roles.

Case Studies

Putting the ideal profile to work | Marley Hyman, Head of People
Like any great recruiter, Hyman starts by having a detailed conversation with the hiring manager about the ideal candidate and their role. From there, she’ll put her three-pronged sourcing strategy to work.

  1. Source alumni from target companies. Recognizing that talent for different roles or industries will come from certain types of companies, Hyman creates a list of anywhere from 5-25 target companies which changes based on the role. For example, if she is looking for software engineers, she’ll source alumni of or current employees at companies like Google, Facebook, and Netflix, but it may be Red Bull or JetBlue for marketing roles.
  2. Get creative when searching LinkedIn. To avoid missing out on talent that may not be from a target company, Hyman will search based on other ideal candidate traits like skills, degrees, and location. She uses boolean search operators in her queries to yield more targeted search results.
  3. Target movers and shakers. Some roles call for highly ambitious, entrepreneurial candidates. In these cases, Marley will look to awards and publications of rising stars in the industry, such as Y-Combinator alumni lists or 30 Under 30. Even if these individuals are not personally be open to new opportunities, they tend to have a great network and might be willing to provide referrals. This tactic can be useful in finding highly qualified candidates but the results tend to be specific and narrow, so they may not be sufficient for all roles.
Pro Tip: Rather than using the skills search field in LinkedIn, input skills as keywords in the search bar. This casts a much wider net since candidates don’t always update the skills section of their profiles.

Crafting the pitch | Matt, Senior Recruiter
Sourcing involves qualifying and attracting candidates. Matt, a seasoned recruiter, understands how important it is to attract candidates on the very first touchpoint. First impressions are critical when contacting a prospective candidate, and when there’s only so much time to source and contact candidates, the pitch needs to be compelling.

With experience at large and small companies, Matt knows that smaller startups without wide brand recognition will need to work harder to sell the role to prospective candidates. Every message he sends to prospects includes:

  1. A direct nod to the candidate’s experience, either at a specific company or in a particular role.
  2. Highlights about his company such as significant investors, recent fundraising, and notable members of the team.
  3. A clear call to action. This could be a request to schedule a meeting via a Calendly link, an option to apply for the role or simply a response of interest.
Pro Tip: Email is the best way to get in front of a candidate. If you can’t find a prospect’s personal email address (you never want to contact work emails), consider using SignalHire, RocketReach, or to find email addresses. If that doesn’t pan out, reach out over LinkedIn. While InMail is an option for LinkedIn Recruiter accounts, it’s not highly effective. Strong recruiters know the best way to capture attention and drive conversion is by adding prospects as a connection with a brief note. Once the prospective candidate accepts the invitation, send a follow-up direct message.

Using pipeline data to benchmark diversity | Cameron Khani, Talent Acquisition Manager
Building a diverse team starts in the hiring process. To maintain a diverse pipeline of candidates, Cameron takes advantage of his data-rich candidate database to inform sourcing strategies.

Cameron stores all candidates in a centralized spreadsheet. In addition to standard information (contact info, credentials, role applied for, status in the hiring process), he assigns each candidate a diversity score based on their background provided in their application’s demographic survey. Cameron then combines these scores into an aggregate diversity score, which he uses as a benchmark for the pipeline’s diversity. When this score falls below target, Cameron knows his team needs to source diverse candidates more proactively.

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