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Learn how to write an effective job advertisement, and where to place it to have a greater chance to attract the person you are looking for.


Why is advertising important?

It's Sunday afternoon, and you've settled in for a long bout with the help wanted ads in the Valley Falls Distorter, the local paper. You're interested in some sort of community work, and you'd particularly like to be able to use your social work training. As you run your eye down the columns, you turn up some ads that you might be interested in responding to.

Help Wanted: Staff for hum. serv. org. Some wkends.
Apply to Distorter, Box 291, by April 5.

Terrific Opportunity in Community Development. Leadership training for community youth in a collaborative organization devoted to social justice. Flexible schedule, room for creativity. Full-time, benefits, salary negotiable. Background in education, social work, or related field and experience with adolescents preferred. EEO/AA. Send cover letter and resume to Opportunities for Area Youth, 401 Harmony St., Valley Falls, by April 5.

Caseworker. MSW (LICSW), full time, to manage clients' interactions with benefit system. Some supervisory/administrative responsibilities. Min. 3 yrs experience dealing with low-income population required. Excellent wage and benefit package, starting at $17.45/hr. EEO/AA. Apply with resume only to Director, HRC, 22 Main St., Valley Falls.

Which ad do you find most interesting? Most informative? The chances are that you'd write off the first one immediately: it doesn't tell you anything, and the organization obviously tried to spend as little as possible in running it.

The other two both briefly describe the jobs they're advertising, and each tells you a good bit about its organization as well. HRC implies that it sees itself as a professional organization -- it's requiring both a Master's degree and licensed social worker status -- and that it has at least a somewhat hierarchical structure ("supervisory/administrative responsibilities"). It sees the people it serves as "clients" who need to be "managed." It also tells you that it pays reasonably well, and that there are probably automatic raises at regular intervals ("starting at..."). It specifies both the required qualifications for the position and what it wants as application materials, and lets you know who you're sending them to.

Opportunities for Area Youth, on the other hand, has a catchy title, and implies that it's a grass roots organization ("devoted to social justice"), and that it sees its target population as capable of community leadership. It seems to have a non-hierarchical, or at least less top-down structure ("collaborative"), and to value staff ideas ("room for creativity") and staff autonomy ("flexible hours"). By the same token, the "negotiable" salary may be fairly low, not unusual for a grass roots organization. This organization also is specific about what kind of application to send and who to send it to, but "prefers" its qualifications, meaning that it's willing to be at least somewhat flexible about them.

You can see from your reaction to these ads and from what you've been able to learn from them that it's important to think carefully about how you advertise for a position. There are a number of reasons, in addition to your need to convey information, that advertising a job isn't as simple as it might seem.

  • An ad for a position is often the first impression a potential staff member will get of your organization. Somewhere out there is the perfect person for your job, and your advertising has to sell the organization to him. If the ad's muddled, unclear, or disorganized, applicants may think your organization is all those as well. If the ad doesn't give a good sense of what the position and the organization are about, he won't know what to think, or may gain an impression that's inaccurate. If the ad is specific, precise, and includes all the information the applicant needs, his sense of your organization will probably be accurate...and positive.
  • Advertising that's carefully written and distributed can attract those you want to apply, and discourage those whom you don't want. The two ads above are written to attract different types of people. Those who don't like to work in a top-down environment, and who would prefer to have more say in their work, are more apt to gravitate toward Opportunities for Area Youth. Those who'd prefer a more traditional workplace, and who'd rather have an exact picture of where responsibilities lie and of what decisions they'll have to make, will probably be more comfortable at HRC. And the ads give, or at least hint at, that information.
  • Advertising has legal implications for many organizations, especially those with public funding. Many public agencies (and many private foundations, for that matter) require certain language or certain characteristics in any advertising for positions that their money is funding. The EEO/AA (Equal Economic Opportunity/Affirmative Action) in the ads above indicates that the organizations are actively trying to attract and hire minority applicants, for instance; many states require that commitment from anyone they fund. The requirements listed in job advertising can have legal implications for some organizations as well, leaving the organization open to a lawsuit for discrimination if it doesn't honor them.
  • In order to apply for a job, the ideal applicant has to know about it. Where and when you place your job advertising -- paid and unpaid -- can have a great effect on whether you find the right person for the job.

What do you have to take into consideration for the ad?

  • Cost. How much can you spend on paid advertising in newspapers, TV, radio, or professional journals? Or, from another perspective, how important is this position, and how much are you willing to spend to get the right person to fill it? How much you spend will have an effect on
    • How long (in words) and how large (in size on the page and type size) the ad is
    • How many days or weeks the ad will run
    • Where the ad will run. TV is the most expensive medium, with radio next and newspapers the least expensive of the "Big Three." By the same token, big-city or large-circulation newspapers are generally more expensive than smaller local news organs.

For most grassroots organizations, paid advertising has traditionally been limited to newspapers, since broadcast media are generally too expensive, and professional journals often don't reach the right group of people. Rarely, a sympathetic radio or TV station may run a help-wanted ad as a PSA (Public Service Announcement), which is free. The Internet, however, is increasingly becoming a place where people look for job postings. If you have a website or access to one, you'll probably want to post your position there, as well as in other media. In addition, there are listservs, bulletin boards, and Internet job-posting sites that people looking for jobs check regularly. Some of these are free to employers and others charge a fee, but they have the advantage of reaching a very large number of potential job applicants for a minimum outlay.

  • Of the issues affected by cost, which is most important to you? The length and/or size of the ad, the length of time it will run, the medium, or the market it will appear in? Once you decide which factor is most important, the others will fall into place.
  • Does any information or particular wording have to be included in the ad, either by law or because of particular funders? If a funder is bound, legally or by its own standards, to particular hiring practices, it will bind you to those practices as well. Many funders require "EEO/AA," for instance, and/or language like "Minorities and women encouraged to apply."
  • Remember that you can be legally challenged if you don't follow your own requirements, at least if that's possible (if you require a Master's degree, but no one who applies has one, you're off the hook). If you choose to hire someone who is, on paper, demonstrably less qualified by your requirements than another applicant, you have to have a clear explanation why, and it has to involve criteria and standards that were applied to everyone you interviewed. Remember also that lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming even if you win: a discrimination suit, no matter how trumped up, can derail your whole organization or initiative. If you want flexibility, "prefer" your qualifications, rather than "requiring" them.

What are the different forms of job advertising?

What absolutely has to be in any ad or posting you write? That varies from ad to ad, from medium to medium, and from organization to organization, but it usually includes most of the following, often only in a word or two for each item:

  • A catchy title or headline
  • A brief description, often only two or three words ("community health educator").
  • Basic qualifications
  • Full or part-time status
  • Job location
  • Starting date
  • Either actual salary and benefits, or a phrase like "competitive salary and benefits."
  • How to apply, and application deadline

Other things you decide to include depend on how you want to influence who will apply. You might want to provide some indication of the organization's focus or philosophy, if that's either a selling point or an identifier for applicants of whether or not they'd like to work with you. (Words like "collaborative," "democratic," or "grass roots" will attract some people and scare off others.) You might also include information about odd schedules or demands -- weekend or evening hours, retreats, etc. -- or particularly attractive features of the position, such as professional development or opportunity for advancement.

If you can give a clear idea of the actual character of the organization, you're more apt to attract people who are sympathetic to your point of view. It's also a good idea to be as clear as you can in a very small space about what the job is really like, so applicants will know what they're getting into, and you won't be wasting your own and their time. Choosing your words carefully will pay off in the long run.

An important issue to consider in writing an ad or posting is what you want the application procedure to be. A very common set of application requirements includes a cover letter (sometimes "detailing qualifications" or something similar, sometimes unspecified), a current resume, and the names of three references.

The cover letter will give a sense of whether the applicant can write well and of how carefully he has prepared his application. The resume will actually tell you what he has done, and how recently. And the references can be used -- either before or while he is under active consideration for the position -- to check on his experience and on how well he did his job and got along with colleagues and the community in other situations. (Some organizations ask for letters of recommendation with the application, but it is generally more useful to get names of references and to talk directly to them -- usually by phone -- in order to get the answers to specific questions, and a better impression of how this applicant might match up with this particular position.) Other required application materials might include a writing sample, college transcripts, a solution to a particular problem ("Prepare a lesson plan to impress upon sexually active adolescents the importance of safe sex."), or examples of past work.

For newspaper ads, abbreviating as many words as possible can keep costs down for ads that charge by the line or by the column inch. You can also do some weeding out of applicants this way, since certain abbreviations will be recognizable to those who are knowledgeable in a particular area, but not to those who aren't.

Most newspaper help-wanted ads charge by the line or by the "column inch," a space one column wide and one inch long. The number of characters in a line or column inch varies from paper to paper and from type size to type size, but newspapers will tell you what they are, and how much each costs. The more you abbreviate, the shorter your ad and the lower your costs. However, abbreviation also makes an ad less catchy and attractive. One way to decide what's best for you is to look at comparable ads in the papers you're going to use; that will give you a sense of what your ad will look like, and of whether what you're considering is acceptable.

A job posting that is mailed, e-mailed, posted on the Internet, or otherwise distributed to applicants and sources of referral without major cost, can be longer and more detailed, and may even include the whole job description as a separate page. You can, and should, take advantage of being able to use more space to try to make the organization and the position as attractive as possible to the people you want.

Writing an ad for radio or TV can be challenging, since the time will probably be very short (30 seconds or less), and you have to catch people's attention quickly and then hold it long enough so they know what you're talking about. Although radio or TV stations often will work with you on the writing and recording of ads, most applicants won't expect to find help wantads in those media, and they may not be worth your while.

How do you place job ads to attract candidates?

You can advertise a job by doing just that -- paying to take out an ad in a newspaper or other medium -- or you can also use other, often free, ways of distributing the information. Some possible ways of getting the word out to potential applicants are:

  • Newspapers, both regional and local.
  • Local broadcast media outlets (radio and TV).
  • Mailings to other agencies and to the local office of the State Employment Agency, asking them to post the information that the job is available. Such mailings might include not just an ad, but a full or abbreviated job description and more information about the job. (The same is true for most of the other free postings on this list.)
  • Internal job posting.
  • Online job postings on your own and other organizations' websites, on large job search sites such as, and on job search sites solely for non-profits  (,, etc.)

If someone in your organization is interested in the job, you might want to do an internal search first. In that case, the internal posting and interviews should happen before you start advertising in the community; in an internal search, applicants would only be competing against others from within the organization. Often, a job search is simply open, and anyone, whether from inside or outside of the organization, can apply. If the intent is to hire the person from within the organization all along, an open search is unfair to everyone concerned, and the organization should simply do an internal search.

  • Direct invitations to apply issued -- either by mail, e-mail, phone, or face -to-face -- to people you think might be good candidates.
  • Word of mouth through people who might know appropriate candidates.
  • E-mail to a house e-mail list or listserv.
  • Your own or other appropriate websites.
  • Mailing to a house mailing list.
  • Newsletters or bulletins put out by your own or other organizations.
  • Conferences or other meetings of people from similar organizations.
  • Postings in the community.
  • Job fairs.

Where you place or post ads should reflect the type of person you're looking for. If you want someone from the local community, then your advertising should be concentrated in that community. If you'd like to attract a staff member from a particular ethnic or racial group, then your advertising should include areas where there are large communities of people from that group. If you want to reach a larger pool of applicants than the local community can provide, you might need to advertise in big-city media, or in a newspaper, station, or professional journal that covers the region or the country.

Once you've decided where to place your ads and postings, you have to grapple with the question of when and for how long paid ads should run. Cost obviously becomes a factor here. The longer a newspaper ad runs, for instance, the more people will be exposed to it, especially if its run includes one or more Sunday publications. Sunday papers often have larger-than-average help wanted sections, sections that most job-seekers make it their business to read. Thus, if you can't afford too much time, a Sunday posting may give you more value for your money. On the other hand, Sunday ads are more expensive, and you can often get an attractive break on a several -day or week-long rate.

A final time question is that of how long applicants should be given to respond after the last ad has run. Generally, a requirement that submissions be postmarked one to two weeks after the last appearance of the ad is about average. That gives people who saw the ad on its last day enough time to get their application materials together and mail them in time.

In Summary

The wording of your job ad or posting and where you place it can have a great deal of effect on whether or not you find the person you're looking for. If you pay careful attention to writing the ad and to placing it where the people who are likely to be the best candidates for your position will see it, you should be able to attract applicants who will fit in with your organization and do an excellent job.

Phil Rabinowitz

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