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Your Complete Guide to: Emailing Passive Candidates


The passive candidate – increasingly easy to source, but notoriously difficult to engage. So, we’ve put together a complete guide packed full of Sourcing Ninja advice, to help you grab and keep the attention of these candidates when emailing them for the first time, including tips on establishing your objective, how to craft the perfect engagement-provoking email, and even how to approach the follow up:

Your Objective

The primary objective among so many recruiters who send emails to passive candidates, is to ask them to change jobs based on one email. This is a completely unrealistic goal and is the biggest cause of poor response rates in the industry.

The objective of your first email to a passive candidate should never be to convince them to apply then and there, it should be to start a conversation about the possibility of switching jobs. What recruiters need to recognise is that, like any other decision they make, candidates will need to go through a funnel shaped, decision-making process before making up their mind as to whether to take your job or not. And there are 5 stages to that decision-making funnel:


Your first email to them will only affect stage one of that funnel – the “Need Recognition” stage – or the  “making the potential candidate aware this job even exists” stage. If your email is successful, it should trigger the “Information Search” stage, where the potential candidate goes about gathering information about the company and you, by reviewing sites like Glassdoor, asking people they know, and searching the web/social media. If they like what they find there, they’ll move on to the “Evaluating Alternatives” stage, where they then learn about similar companies who are hiring people like them too. Then, if at that point they think, “Yep, I’d like to be considered for this job”, then and only then will they make their “Purchase Decision” and get back to you and the role.

You need to remember, that your initial email alone will NOT convince a candidate to apply for your job, but a good email WILL start them on the road to seriously considering the job and putting their hat in the ring to apply. Therefore, the objective of your initial candidate email should always be to set an appointment to talk further with the candidate.

Your Email

When it comes to actually writing an email to your passive candidate, it pays to keep the following points in mind when constructing it:

Employ the 3 Sentence Approach

  • Sentence 1: The Hook

hookYou have to make candidates want to read the rest of your email by hooking them in with the first sentence. The hook needs to grab their attention and get them interested. How do you get people interested? Answer: Be different!

Don’t do what everyone else does! Don’t copy your colleague and certainly don’t do what every other recruiter on the planet does. For example, when writing the subject line of your email (e.g the first thing the candidate will see), you might use something like “Yes, another email from yet another recruiter ;-)”. Our good friend, Steve Levy, uses this line as a strategy and as a result he boasts quite a high response rate! Why? Because candidates don’t expect him to point out the obvious, or make fun of the fact that he’s another recruiters looking to hire them.

Bottom line: Do the opposite of what everyone else does and inject some humour if possible.

  • Sentence 2: Tell Them “What’s in it for Them” (WIIFT)

Too many recruiters, whether they use email or cold calling tactics, lead with why they think the candidate is suitable for the job. Of course they’re suitable, that’s why you’re reaching out to them!

Sales-101 will tell you that you need to focus on why the customer (i.e. the candidate) might want to buy your product (in this case, a career move). Is this job in a location, that would reduce their commute time? Would the remote working opportunity or flexi-time this role offers, give the candidate more hours in the day to spend with their kids? Or is the salary just better? Could they afford that coveted car they post pictures of on Twitter all the time if they took your job?

You have to figure out the selling point for each particular candidate, by doing your research. It might just take a thorough read of their LinkedIn profile, but it is essential to stand back and look at the opportunity you are presenting and ask, “Why would this person be interested in working in this job or working for us or my client?”. If you cannot come up with a compelling reason, then you need to either move on to a more appropriate candidate (i.e. stop punching above your weight), or go back to the drawing board and take a proper job spec.

Bottom line: Tell the candidate why they should be interested.

  • Sentence 3: The Presumptive Close

Contractor-Sales-Advice-to-Close-More-DealsPeople are busy and sometimes, even with the best of intentions, people forget to reply. What is the most common closing line for headhunt emails? Answer: “Let me know if you’re interested”. This is not a good closing line. You need to compel the person to reply to you, right now. A salesman (and we’re all salespeople at this point, like it or not) does not let the customer leave the store and go home and think about it. Close on the spot.

It’s best to close with a time specific call to action. The call to action could be, “Can you take a call at 6:30pm this evening to discuss further?” or “I’m going to be near your office on Tuesday. Can you meet me for coffee at 12pm to discuss?”. This invariably elicits a must faster and higher response rate.

Bottom line: Ask them a very specific question and put a time on it.

Personalise your Message
Your candidates should feel like this message is being sent to them and them alone. It should feel in no way general. Research tells us that the best way to ensure a message is personalised is to include at least two unique things about the candidate in the message. And no, one of those is not their first name!

By including at least two unique things about that candidate in your email, it shows you’ve done your research and that you are genuinely interested in them. Make reference to the candidate’s current employer, their current job title, their degree, an award they’ve won, or a blog post they’ve written. If you have any “uncommon commonalities” with them e.g. a love of the same sports team, be sure to mention it. Or if you discover you both have a mutual connection, be sure to mention them too. Bottom line: the more personal the message, the more obliged the candidate will feel to reply. And a reply is exactly what you’re looking for.

Get to the Point, FAST!
downloadEveryone is busy. Particularly in demand candidates. That’s why they’re in demand after all! So if you’ve gotten them as far as opening your mail, please don’t waste their time.

Actually, you don’t really get a choice here because the person opening your mail is likely only going to give you 3-5 seconds to get their attention and they aren’t going to read an essay! I have seen some exceptions to this, usually when the recruiter is working for the industry leader and hence the weight of their employer’s name usually allows for more attention, but for the most part, you have seconds to get to the point, so get to it!

Your Follow Up

Follow-upNo matter how great your email was, half of the emails you send will get blocked by spam filters and more than half of the voice mails you leave will not be returned. Do not let this put you off. Just because someone did not reply to you does not mean that they are not interested. Silence does not mean “No”. No means no, so chase up the replies until you get one.

Quite by accident, we discovered that if we forwarded the original unanswered email to the same person with additional text at the top such as “Hi Jane, in reference to my email below from last week, can you come back to me today to let me know if this would be of interest?”, most of the time I would receive a reply that suggested that the person either never received our first mail or received both the new mail and original mail at the same time i.e. it had been caught in spam but the act of forwarding the original message with some new text bounced it out of the spam filter.

The rest of the time, people either weren’t interested or they just forgot to reply. Either way, you likely spent a lot of time searching for this person, so rule them in or out before you re-start your search.

If you’re worried you’ll forget to follow up with a candidate, take advantage of a free service like FollowupThen. All you need to do is BCC when emailing a candidate and it will automatically remind you to follow up with that person at a time and date you’ve specified. All you need to do is determine the day, time or frequency of when you would like to be reminded to follow up, then BCC your candidate email with that email address. For example, if I want to remind myself to follow up with a candidate next Wednesday, at the same time I’m emailing that candidate, I’ll BCC [email protected] For more information on how to use FollowupThen, click here.

So there you have it folks, a complete framework for emailing passive candidates that ensures the best chance of receiving that coveted response. Use it well my friend, I know it’ll do you proud!


If you’d like to learn more about the art of candidate engagement including how to contact your prospects successfully via email, social media and phone, then download a copy of our Black Belt in Internet Recruiting online training course prospectus, and discover how we can turn you from a recruiter into a Sourcing Ninja in just 12 weeks.

Looking for some supplemental reading on the topic? Then check out Hubspot’s blog post on 3 Ways to Find Any Email Address.

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