Ask A Recruiter: How Do I Get Better at Sourcing Candidates?

ProspectingIn this edition of “Ask A Recruiter,” Caitlin shares her tips on effective candidate prospecting. If you have a question, leave it in the comments’ section, and be sure to sign up for our Modern Recruiter Newsletter so that you don’t miss an answer!

Dear Caitlin, My boss is asking me to start prospecting more candidates. I’ve only ever used LinkedIn InMails for this and haven’t seen a good response rate. How do I get started? What tips should I keep in mind to increase candidate engagement? - Prospective Prospector

Howdy Prospector, 

Sourcing, or prospecting, should be part of every company’s recruiting strategy. Why? Well, there are plenty of blog posts (many of them readable here on Greenhouse) that talk about superiority of candidates who are prospected versus those who apply. But also, it boils down to simple math: the more candidates you have through active outreach and direct applications to job postings, the more likely you are to find your hire.

What is this sourcing thing anyway?

Sourcing means going out into the market to find candidates. Instead of posting a job and waiting for candidates to apply, you actually go out and find people who are already working, email them, and convince them to apply to your job.

In the old days, this meant calling into a company and fooling the secretary into passing you through the Head of Mergers and Acquisitions. Once connected, you would either get the person on the phone or leave a compelling voicemail that attempted to get this person interested in your company and job.

Now, we’ve moved to the Internet Age where 99.99% of the working-age population is online. Instead of calling directly into a company, we can use the Internet to find who we want to message and reach out, usually via LinkedIn.

Sourcing is tough, especially now that everyone has access to LinkedIn Inmails and the best candidates are constantly bombarded with messages. But it still remains one of the best ways to hire excellent talent. At my last company several of my best, and my most difficult, hires didn’t come from job applications, they came from sourcing.

So, how do I prospect candidates?

One of the first places I start is with a Target List. This is something I learned during my brief time in agency and it has served me extremely well in every job I’ve had since then. A target list is a list of companies whose characteristics align with your company’s current status. Or,target companies might have characteristics that align with where your company wants to be in 6 months.

A Target List is helpful for several reasons:

  • One, it helps you build a better sense of the overall labor market and the competition for your talent.

  • Two, it helps focus your sourcing efforts. I’ve always found Boolean search to be a very unreliable way to identify who will fit a role. But, by figuring out a company I want to target, I can very quickly hone in on the candidates at that company who would fit my role.

  • Three, it helps you craft effective messaging to your candidates...more on this below.

There are several potential variables to consider when building a target list:

  • Industry: Should you limit your list to companies who sell to consumers (B2C)? Will candidates who have experience in B2B also be good? This might be applicable when hiring support staff who need to have worked on the types of customer challenges you see in each case

  • Tech Stack: What technologies should you focus on? This might be applicable when considering engineers. If your team uses Python, you should probably avoid targeting companies that use Java

  • Ramp: do you need candidates who have helped scaled a company from $XM in ARR to $Ym in ARR? This might be applicable when hiring leadership candidates

Once you have your Target List, start reaching out to candidates. Before you start emailing folks wily nily, there are a few additional things to keep in mind.


  • Use company information to your advantage. Your target list has given you a lot of information about the company where your candidate is currently employed. So reference this information in your email. Say: “You’ve been with company X since the beginning and, given your work on transitioning your company from MySQL to Hadoop, I can guess you’ve worked on the type of scaling issues we are currently seeing here.  Or, if you are hiring a salesperson, say: “You’ve worked with large enterprise companies and I can guess that you’ve sold similar size contract deals to what we are selling here.”

  • Keep a template library. Don’t reinvent the wheel every time you write an email to a prospect. Keep a document (Google Doc, Word Doc, Mac Note, what have you) that allows you to very quickly copy and paste good content into email form. Update your templates frequently.

  • Track your progress. I’m not great at doing this, but my buddy Georges is amazing at it. He uses technology like to track email open rates and sent an automatic cadence for additional outreach. I track my progress the old-fashioned way by using spreadsheets and noting when I reached out to someone and what the outcome was.

  • Ask for help from your hiring managers. Getting an email from the VP of Sales is so much better than getting an email from a recruiter. So write your hiring manager the email and then ask her to send the email herself.

  • Ask your employees to send you good examples of emails. Learning what messaging resounds with your target audience is a great way to learn what you should be writing.

  • Own up when you make a mistake. I have sent about 20 emails in my life that had the wrong name in the salutation. Even worse was when I sent an email that started with “Hi Zucchini” (the guy’s name was Matt). To be fair, I was chatting with my coworker about a really good grilled zucchini recipe at the time. And I sent poor Matt an email 30 seconds later explaining what happened and included the recipe. He ended up responding to my email with humor, proving that owning up to your “recruiter fails” is a good practice and can sometimes work in your favor. I’ve also proved that you shouldn’t talk about recipes whilst typing an email.


  • Strafe. Strafing is a military tactic that evolved once man figured out how to fly and it is a terrible practice where you attack the ground repeatedly from a low-flying aircraft. Applied to recruiting, this means emailing an entire engineering team at one company in a single pass. If you are targeting more than one person at one company, stagger your emails and stagger your template.

  • Make silly mistakes. Don’t send an engineer based in NYC an email about a role in San Francisco. Don’t send a Senior Sales Executive an email about a junior Inside Sales role. Make sure your messaging matches your potential candidate.

  • Be rude. I’ve gotten five truly nasty responses from candidates in my career (which is not much given how many emails I send) and, even though I was sorely tempted to write back and give these candidates what was coming to them, I didn’t. It’s the age of the Internet and everything you write is discoverable by everyone with access to wifi. So watch your words and treat everyone, even the nasty people, with kindness and respect.

Subscribe Now!

Caitlin Wilterdink

Caitlin joined Greenhouse in October, 2014 as employee #42. Before Greenhouse, she managed technical and product recruiting for Conductor, Inc., another high-growth, NYC-based startup. Early career included stints as an agency recruiter and paralegal. She’s tried, and failed, to learn how to code and instead spends her free time figuring out how to Greenhouse @ Greenhouse. Other free time activities include hosting bar trivia, marathon-training and conquering an acute fear of flying.

Filed Under:

Recruiter Tips