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Modern Recruitment: Candidates vs. Applicants

Shannon Seery
September 24 ․ 10 min read

Symphony Talent - Candidates vs. ApplicantsCandidates and applicants — are they the same thing?  In terms of talent acquisition, the answer is no. Although they might have been synonymous in the past. Given all the advancements in modern recruitment, there’s an important distinction between the two. Those differences need to be taken into account when developing your talent acquisition strategies.

Why does it matter so much? Well, unless you focus on the candidate experience, you won’t end up with the quality talent you desire.

What Is a Candidate?

In the context of modern recruitment, a candidate is anyone with even a nominal interest in working for your organization. Today, anyone who fits any of these criteria should be considered a candidate:

  •   Subscribes to your social media feeds
  •   Clicks on a strategically placed paid job ad, either on a job board or some other medium
  •   Visits your company’s career website
  •   Reads recruiting content
  •   Engages with your HR team
  •   Initiates contact by filling out a job application

Basically, just about anybody could be a candidate — even a qualified person who hasn’t (yet) investigated working for your company. That’s different than the definition of candidate in the past. However, the landscape has changed. Switching jobs or careers is easier in this digital, omnichannel era. Heck, you can even communicate with candidates via SMS. It’s all about meeting them where they’re at, in a way that “speaks to them and them alone.”

Early career professionals, for example, are far more likely to seek employment at a company that aligns with goals and aspirations. Add that to the fact that we're currently experiencing a labor shortage in many industries. Modern recruitment isn’t just about finding ideal candidates, but also impressing and nurturing them.

Early Talent Infographic


What Is an Applicant?

Simply put, a candidate who takes a singular action — submitting a formal application—declaring he or she wants to work for a company is considered an applicant. This stage of the process may lead to interviews, vetting, skill checks, and even onboarding if things go well, but note that an applicant doesn’t stop being a candidate. For example, an applicant may choose to drop out of job consideration, but that doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t be targeted and nurtured to reapply or re-enter the hiring process. In this way, every applicant is a candidate, but only candidates who apply should be called applicants.

The Candidate Experience

Leading companies aren’t just concerned about giving applicants jobs. In a candidate-driven market, much more is required — it’s all about the candidate experience. The actual application process (e.g., filling out an online form) is impersonal. The recruitment process must be the exact opposite: You must sell your brand — your employer value proposition (EVP) — to candidates as much as they need to sell themselves to you. That means engaging in nurture recruitment: appealing to active and passive candidates with every micro-engagement (such as the criteria listed earlier) at every step of the hiring journey, from initial sourcing to application and even past hire.

When you’re able to cull data from candidates — even if it’s bit by bit — the candidate’s subsequent interactions with your careers site get more personalized at each and every touchpoint. You can speak to them directly and serve up content that speaks to your EVP, as well as information data identifies as relevant. Thanks to technology advancements, the relationship between candidates and organizations ultimately grows stronger.

Here’s another way to look at it. Compiling data on candidates is especially valuable when they are looking to explore career opportunities that don’t reflect their existing work histories. (Case in point: veterans.) AI — never mind advanced, enhanced search capabilities — lets you look beyond the resume to determine what candidates are really looking for in a career — and suggest roles that are best aligned with their interests. For candidates, it’s a chance to delve into exciting careers beyond the obvious; for your TA team, it’s an opportunity to find someone ready and eager for something different.

It’s also helpful when you’re trying to attract, engage and nurture specialty talent for hard-to-fill roles. These candidates have no shortage of employment options — it’s your job to convince them they should work for you.

Programmatic Media to the Rescue

Understandably given all the social channels and endless ways to engage talent, talent acquisition can seem overwhelming. The good news is technology also automates the process. It lets you, for example, capitalize on the benefits of programmatic media. By combining the data from interactions and artificial intelligence-fueled solutions, spend is efficiently automated to the channels ideal candidates are active. This way, recruiters aren’t wrangling with posting jobs and hoping they reach candidates; programmatic media achieves the goal with minimal effort and maximum effectiveness.

In the past, candidates would have been told to formally apply to learn more about a job or the organization. Today, they demand that essential information before they take the next step — and you better be ready to provide it. You must succeed in hitting every mark in order for a candidate to be sold on applying.


Nurtured Candidates Become Employee Advocates

The ultimate objective of all the nurturing and recruiting of candidates may seem to be getting them to apply, but with modern recruitment, it’s about building the relationship. Every interaction with a candidate is a moment of truth. Do it right and the ideal candidates will apply. Do it right and those candidates and applicants become engaged employee advocates, who all-but- evangelize your brand,

Of course, this strategy doesn’t diminish what companies should be doing with candidates once they become applicants. The level of nurturing and engagement taken during sourcing, as well as the attention to detail, should continue through the application, interview, and onboarding processes. End-to-end talent solutions tie together every step of the hiring journey so that you know each action taken with a candidate and you can plan future actions. In this way, candidates never truly stop being candidates.

Applicants and candidates may differ, but they still require your full attention. Technology is the means to create positive experiences for both. The end result? Productive, happy hires.

Interested in learning more about hiring today's talent? Check out our Early Talent Hub. You'll find tips from IBM, more blog content, and an infographic to share with your team. 

Early Talent Hub

This blog has been updated for accuracy on June 10, 2021.