HRExaminer Radio

HRExaminer Radio is a weekly show devoted to Recruiting and Recruiting Technology airing live on Friday’s at 11AM Pacific

HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Crystal Miller
Episode: 108
Air Date: August 17, 2015


Crystal Miller is Chief Engagement Officer & Employer Brand Strategist at Branded Strategies. Crystal is also known for her work as a Co-Host of DriveThruHR and as a source of inspiration in the Recruitment Marketing community for 19 years.


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Begin transcript

John Sumser:            Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host John Sumser. We’re coming to you today from beautiful downtown Occidental, California where the roses are coming back for a second round and the redwoods are keeping it cool in the California summer. Today we’re going to spend some time with Crystal Miller. Crystal is the founder and CEO of Branded Strategies, which is a recruitment marketing firm in Dallas, Texas. Crystal’s been a face of recruitment marketing and employment branding for the entire duration of the existence of the discipline. How are you Crystal?

Crystal Miller:           I’m good. How are you?

John Sumser:            I’m great. Now you’re an old veteran. Do you object to being called old?

Crystal Miller:           No I don’t really care but it’s funny to me. I don’t feel old. That’s not true. I feel old probably every morning but in the terms of this industry I still look to people with much more experience than I. It’s interesting to make that shift from newcomer to not so new.

John Sumser:            Right. Wallflower. Tell us the story of the Crystal career.

Crystal Miller:           I think my story is unique. I think everyone probably thinks theirs is. It definitely wasn’t a straight path. I don’t know how you think it was, but it was a very windy path. I started in traditional marketing in 1996, database marketing, actually, for Wyndham Hotels. It’s a sect of their conglomeration. That was really interesting. It was a very little cog in a very, very big wheel and I wanted to be a bigger cog.

That has never gone away. I started my own business when I was nineteen. That was great until I got a divorce and my ex-husband said, “You can have the business or you can have the kids, but it doesn’t really work to have both.” Chose the kids. Never really going to regret that. I think that was absolutely the right call. Then I had a lot of time on my hands. I thought I’d go be a doctor and it turns our I don’t like mucus. The dean of the program said, “You know you have business experience, you have education in marketing, and maybe you should go back to that because I don’t see you in medicine. Take a semester. If you want to come back I’ll let you back in.” Cool on my laurels for like a  semester and my then boyfriend said “You know, there’s a career where you get paid to talk and you should do that because you talk all the time. It’s recruiting. Go check it out.”

So I did. It turned out to be really, really well suited for me. I loved it. It had elements of marketing to it, it was helping people in a very positive way, and helping business. It was great but I noticed it was really disorganized in terms of crating marketing campaigns and themes and story-lines that were consistent. You had all of these voices and it just really confused candidates. I started working on recruitment marketing in 2004-2005, somewhere in there. That lead in to employer branding before it was even called that. Nobody called it that. The first book came out, I think, the year that I started working in that vein. It was a really exciting time.

I left it for a couple years to run HR.. Learned that was not for me. I have a lot of respect for people who run HR. organizations. It made me really miserable so I went back in to recruitment marketing and employer branding and it’s been a really good fit for me. I work with companies to help them tell their stories in a way that makes sense. That helps improve their reputation or deal with reputational issues that they’re facing in the market place and attract the right kind of candidates for them.

John Sumser:            Step me through the simplest kind of job that you do. What’s the bread and butter thing that you do?

Crystal Miller:           Probably the simplest job I do is creating social recruitment strategies. Social recruiting is not a thing and we really need to stop acting like it’s a discipline. It’s not. It’s channel marketing. I work with companies in creating campaigns for that particular channel or strategies for what the need to be doing to make that channel a little more effective. Right now a lot of companies don’t understand social and what it’s meant to do so they have very fuzzy metrics that make it hard to go and talk to the CFO.. The simplest job that I do is to create strategies that have metrics attached to them that a CFO. can understand and appreciate.

John Sumser:            Tell me the difference between one that a CFO. can understand and one that the CFO. can’t understand.

Crystal Miller:           “Understand” might be the wrong word. “Appreciate” might be the right word. The one that they do understand is things that have actual quantifiable conversions to them. They understand traffic. They understand applications. They understand referrals. A reach is another metric that they get but you have to tie that to something else. What they often see when people are asking for budgets in these organizations is things like “Well we’re raising brand awareness.” Okay, but what does brand awareness actually get you? This is not to say that there’s not a point to brand awareness. There is but that can’t be your whole point if you want finance to respect your budget request. Working on things like, we are trying to increase the numbers of our applications, drive traffic back to our website, do some predictive marketing by reaching out to these specific groups and we’re going to see how they respond to these messages. What can we get from them? What is the customer conversion? If you’re at a B to C organization and you’re trying to reach out to people, do they ultimately also convert to customer? How does it improve your reputation in that motor score? There’s a lot of metrics you can use that go beyond likes and Facebook shares.

John Sumser:            I see. You’re bringing sophistication and accountability to that process. Have you spent time looking at the recruitment marketing platform? Does that approach make sense to you? That recruitment marketing merits a platform?

Crystal Miller:           When you say that, are you talking the SmashFlies of the world?

John Sumser:            Yeah, SmashFly, Broadbean …

Crystal Miller:           To some extent it does. At some point tech can get a little too much for their intended user. There’s some bells and whistles that really aren’t needed that I think get pushed. You’re trying to get people in to predictive analytics and predictive marketing. I really am not a fan of Broadbean’s latest offering but I like Broadbean as a platform for companies. I think we’re asking HR people to be marketers and a lot of them are not. Giving them the tools that they need to be able to do better recruitment marketing is great. I think that’s a good thing so I like SmashFly. I like Broadbean. I am a fan of both of those platforms but I think that we have to recognize who our audience is. Let’s not try to teach our audience calculus when they barely grasped algebra. I don’t know. I just think that we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves in the technology that’s offered.

John Sumser:            Well that’s interesting. Can you peel that back another way? What’s overkill in that area look like? What’s an example in the kind of overkill you’re talking about?

Crystal Miller:           When we were at True London earlier this year, Broadbean was putting out … Broadbean’s the specific one that I was thinking of. They put out a new product and I shouldn’t have brought this up this early in the morning because now I’m not going to remember all of the nuances of their product. They’re going to come back and say “You don’t understand!” For the record, I welcome that conversation. Talk to me about it. You know how to reach me. The One Crystal.

When I was looking at their product when they did the demo at True London, it was very much like “Hey, we’re going to give you the ability to make these predictive decisions based off of candidates that apply but the way you can see off of your applicant tool and the jobs that you have coming. Like what you have to spend and where you need to spend it and how you need to spend it.” But the data that came back was really elementary and I think over-simplified. To the point where I don’t know if it was accurate. It was really clear that the user that would be using this, wouldn’t understand what it needed to have been. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

John Sumser:            That was a lot. I got lost a little bit. At first you said it was overkill and then you said it was too simple.

Crystal Miller:           It’s overkill of technology. I don’t know that we need technology to try to predict what we need to do in certain areas. It’s jumping the gun. That’s what I’m trying to say. They had moved a couple steps past where the market is. I’m not saying there’s not a place for predictive analytics. I think predictive analytics is important with the right groups but I don’t know that I want to hand recruiter technology that says “Hey, this will help you better predict hiring forecasts” or something like that. You know what, John? I have not had enough coffee for this conversation.

John Sumser:            Okay, great. What you would find is that I’m a big fan of that stuff. I like anything that produces more accountability.

Crystal Miller:           I think there’s a difference though between accountability … You know what bothered me about it? If you’re going to get in to the area of predictive analytics, make the data that you get back mean something. It really felt like big data for data’s sake. Right? What we really need is to better understand little data. We have a lot of little data that we could make much, much better decisions around. We don’t utilize that. Rather than jump in this big data or predictive analytics game to say that you’re in it, especially around employer branding and recruitment marketing, why not help people understand how to use the little data first? Get them comfortable with making good decisions around that and then move on. That’s what I mean to say.

John Sumser:            This is always the challenge with new technology isn’t it? In order for it to be new, it has to do things that people aren’t currently doing. You end up with new technology that shows you the path to the next generation of stuff. I think knowing that there’s a sort of a chattering class who will criticize whatever technology comes out is a really important part of how technology gets better. You have to try stuff and it’s the people who try stuff and make a big enough effort, so that there’s something to correct.

Crystal Miller:           I’m not knocking the fact that the technology exists. It’s not really to criticize it for criticising’s sake. What I think can be improved is the user pathway. Taking people from where they are in their understanding and education of the area to where they need to be. It feels like we are rushing in [inaudible 00:12:11] technology to get on this big data bandwagon that, to be fair, so is consumer marketing. We’re ten years behind that at least, in terms of understanding and practices. I don’t think we’re in the same place. Right now, when you’ve got people lecturing in conferences about how to use your big data and your big data is all of your social graph, that’s not what that means. We don’t get it yet. If you’re going to make that technology, make a roadmap that really helps your audience, that helps your buyers use it appropriately.

John Sumser:            That’s a very interesting critique. I don’t know how you’d do what you prescribe but it certainly would be great if when you invented a car, that roads were instantaneously there but it’s now what usually happens.

Crystal Miller:           I don’t think it needs to be instantaneously there but, you know what? Products don’t pop up over night. I mean, well, maybe they do. Good products like these companies are putting out. They don’t come up over night so hiring practitioners, making sure that you have a nice cross-section of customer to focus putting together foundational boards and panels of practitioners to ask questions and to help yourself learn as the technology provider, where your audience is and how they need to be educated. Those are all good places to start. Some people do it. A lot don’t.

John Sumser:            What’s happened to recruitment marketing? What’s the difference between strategy for a small company and for a big company. You’ve worked with the smallest, you’ve working with the biggest. What’s the difference between a giant phone company and somebody you’ve never heard of, in terms of … ?

Crystal Miller:           Some of it depends on budget but I think the first step is proper expectations of what you want and what you need out of that channel. A lot of the companies that I talk to just want to be there because they feel like they should. We need to be on social. To some extent, having a presence is a good thing. It’s where your candidates are but you don’t necessarily need to be in all the places or in all the different channels just because every one else is. We sit down and we talk about expectations, about what they want to get out of it, why they feel like they need to be there, what is their budget? To figure out what’s realistic for them because there are more hurdles to being seen and most of them revolve around in-platform advertising. Once we work through that and figure out what’s a realistic picture for them, then we look at what’s your ongoing resources? I mean in terms of people and being able to maintain this. Once we know what that is, we create story-lines that help them hire on the channels where their talent happened to be.

Crystal Miller:           For some companies that’s getting them really comfortable with the idea that “Hey, you may need to be on SnapChat and create some SnapChat stories and here’s how we can best do that and here’s the employee advocates that we can work with. Let’s make sure that you’re linked in or[inaudible 00:15:35].” When you work with bigger companies you’re really working more on media placement, media buying, media budgets, link tracking. Those are our areas where tactically it takes more time but they have more resources. That’s part of what we look at but it really starts in the same place. What are your goals? What are your resources? What are your timelines? What are your expectations? I don’t think that changes that much by company size.

John Sumser:            Okay, I think you just said that there’s not really a difference between being a small company and a large company when you’re doing employment branding. Is that fair?

Crystal Miller:           Where you start, there’s not a lot of difference. Where you end, there’s not a lot of difference. It’s the stuff in the middle that’s different. That’s all really based off of budget and resources.

John Sumser:            Okay. Do you think you need a different employment brand for each job?

Crystal Miller:           No, I don’t and that’s why I think there’s a difference between branding and recruitment marketing.

John Sumser:            Okay. Help me with that. That sounds like a lot of fuss about nothing. If you have to have something different for each job, what you call it, why would that matter?

Crystal Miller:           Employer branding, at least the way that I explain it, is the culmination of the promises and value that the employer over arching promises and values that the employer offers. Right? This goes over all of your job families. This is the employment experience brought to life. Job family specific marketing, falls under recruitment marketing to me. It’s going to have elements of that same employer brand that all of the job families will have but it’s more specific to hiring initiatives to specific candidate populations. It’s a marketing campaign. it’s really just a marketing campaign underneath a larger program.

John Sumser:            Then I think what you just said is that branding is for the company as a whole and assumes that there’s one giant culture and marketing is job by job and is tactical. Is that right?

Crystal Miller:           No. No, that’s not right. It’s all marketing. Employer branding, branding in general, is marketing. It’s types of marketing. It’s just types of marketing campaigns and who you’re trying to reach. To me, recruitment marketing and job family marketing, it’s more targeted. It does address things like subcultures that exist and if you’re geo-marketing. When you look at culture I think there is a … There are elements of company culture that exist across boards, across location, across job families. Then there are subcultures that exist within locations, with teams. I think to say that there’s one homogeneous culture is doing a massive disservice to an organization because that’s rarely the case. There are flavors of leadership and elements of culture that you can see across all locations and it will change the kind of candidate that you need to try attract. It won’t necessarily change all of the candidates that apply for you.

I think a big misnomer of employer branding is that you’ll put together this program and you’ll execute it and now only the candidates that you want will apply. That’s never going to be the case. To me, the importance of employer branding and recruitment marketing, a lot of it falls in getting certain kinds of people to not apply, to self-select out of this program by accurately reflecting who you are. There’s ways to do that without saying “Hey, we’re this awful soul crushing organization.” Really focusing in on things like micromanagement. Let’s talk about that for a second. If you have an organization that struggles with micromanagement, you don’t want to talk to people about how they’re going to be able to make autonomous decisions. That’s a bad story to tell because it’s not true. Right? If you can talk to people about who you will get a lot of guidance and you will get a lot of oversight, and we will help you make the right decisions and improve your career. You’re attracting a different kind of personality in telling that story.[inaudible 00:20:16]wide areas of discretion and berth.

John Sumser:            How do you reconcile the fact that this isn’t all marketing and branding with that thing that you just described. Which is a need to be accurate in the representation of the underlying culture. It seems like in the final analysis, marketing and branding is about putting a good face on things and transparency is something other than that. How do you reconcile those two things. You don’t want to go out and say “Boy this is a micromanagement client. Stay away from here unless you want some one to tell you what to do every minute of every day.”

Crystal Miller:           Again, I think it’s in how you say it. We’ve been saying things in this radio show where I say one thing and you say “Oh, well what you’re really saying is this.” Right? Of course, mine’s a little more flowery and yours is a little more cynical  and that’s okay. That’s part of the fun of having these conversations. Marketing is a lot of the same thing. Right? You take a concept and you generalize it to the point that it’s palatable while still being true. I can see Matt [inaudible 00:21:29] and a half a dozen other people right now getting ready to skewer me but that’s marketing. That’s okay. What’s not okay is saying that you are something that you’re not. There’s a difference. I can say that I’m fluffy and it means the exact same thing as saying I’m fat. It sounds better. It’s probably shades of gray but it’s an important shade of gray for an organization.

You don’t want to scare people off but at the same time you can’t not say anything. If that makes sense.  You can’t say that you are something that you’re not. We really do work on things like “How do you represent who you are in the struggles and challenges that you’re going through?” Sometimes the challenges aren’t things like we’ve got a bad culture. Sometimes we’ve got rapid growth. With rapid growth comes chaos. People get kind of stuck in the cracks or left in the cracks and things get overlooked and you’ve got to work a lot of long hours. There’s way to tell those stories as well.

I think that there was a really interesting piece on recruitment marketing and employer branding that was put out last week I believe, by Jenny Tinuith with RealSelf, when they were talking about Code Tuesday. It’s a really fun video, really neat. I really love it. It’s a parody piece but they’re talking about working late nights and how they work off hours and how coders actually functions and how it functions outside of our normal perceptions of nine to five. It’s a great piece of marketing and it doesn’t say “Hey, you’ve got this dream job where you’re going to work five hours and day and everybody’s going to let you do whatever you want” and all of this stuff. No. It’s people that are proud of what they do and they’re working long hours and they’re working off hours. They have to go back and redo things and sometimes the printers don’t work and you have to do it again and there’s tight deadlines and you’re accountable to your CTO. All of that is within that video. Those messages are there and the right people will hear the things in between the lines in that song, if that makes sense.

John Sumser:            We have zoomed through our time together. What should I have asked you?

Crystal Miller:           What should you have asked me? That’s a good question. Why bother with employer branding at all? If people will apply anyway, what does it matter? That’s the question I don’t hear asked a lot but it’s …

John Sumser:            Why does it matter? Tell me why it matters.

Crystal Miller:           Everyone has a story. Many companies are doing a very good job of learning to take control of that story so that they can get the right people involved in their process that may not have looked at them, that may not have applied. To some extent this does go back to passive candidate marketing. You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money marketing to the person that’s going to apply to you anyway. Just like you don’t need to spend a lot of money going out and trying to acquire customers that are already buying your product. You do need to look at who isn’t applying and why aren’t they applying. Employer branding can help you address some of those things.

If you don’t do it, here’s what happens. You still have a story. You still have a reputation and people will still talk about you. You just, at that point, no longer get a voice in that conversation. If you don’t have a voice in that conversation you can’t in any way, shape, or from control your reputation. That’s sad. I kind of look at Amazon right now and they do do employer branding. They’re not as far along with it as I think they’d want to be. That’s the last conversation I had with representatives of their organization. That’s true for most companies so I don’t fault them for that. Maybe if they had done more, maybe the conversations that are going on now would just be on some news channel or some print thing saying “This is not the Amazon I know. This is not the Amazon that we recognize.” Maybe that wouldn’t need to be as big of a thing if there had been more out there from the employees. If there had been more out there from Amazon, maybe he wouldn’t have needed to have said that much. I don’t know.

John Sumser:            The Amazon employment branding story is something that people are going to talk about for years after this last weekend.

Crystal Miller:           I think you’re right.

John Sumser:            It’s the case study and it seems to me that the New York Times articles was maybe the single greatest employment branding story ever.

Crystal Miller:           You think?

John Sumser:            What exactly would you do to have your company’s employment culture described on the front paper of the Sunday New York Times in twelve or thirteen thousand compelling words? Jeez, you don’t get that opportunity very often. What they described was an environment that’s not for everybody and they were very clear that it was an environment that is not for everybody. If you weren’t cut from a certain cloth, you’d rinse out of the environment. It isn’t any different than how the navy seals have to get their employment branding. Again, because it’s not for everybody. I think it was a home run. I think it clearly tells you who you need to be if you want to go to work for that company in a way that nobody’s ever done before.

Crystal Miller:           I wouldn’t disagree with that. I could see why it strikes a nerve with the company in a negative way. Nobody wants to hear that their organization is soul crushing. I also think it’s a really interesting example of how little things matter. Some of these micro events where companies think “Oh, it doesn’t matter if one or two bad things happen” and I’m making a sweeping generalization. Some of those stories, like the woman who was sent on a business trip the day after she miscarried twins and told then maybe it wasn’t the right organization for her if she was trying to have a family. That’s the subculture at work, right? Once those things get out, that’s a reputational marketing issue that has to be addressed.

I feel for the people in the Amazon employment branding area and their PR because they’ve got some work to do. At the same time, what a fascinating challenge? What a really interesting project? Trying to turn those perceptions around. You’re right in terms of, over arching here’s’ who we need to survive in this organization. If I were them, I’d embrace that. I would embrace that and say “Yeah, we are a high performing organization” and it’s almost like how GE used to be. I think it’s neat challenge but I also think it speaks to the need for consistent employment branding and recruitment marketing messages if you want to make sure that you’re being portrayed as close to as how you see yourself as how you actually are as possible.

John Sumser:            Very cool. Is there anything you’d like to make sure that the people in the audience take away? What do they need to remember from this conversation?

Crystal Miller:           There’s no one perfect path to the right employer branding or recruitment marketing. There’s no one way to do it. There’s a lot of different ways that you can get to a good end result but you’ve got to do something and you need to start by understanding who your organization is and what you can actually do before you put together a plan. Once you put together a plan and you got out there and you botch it, it’s so much harder to redo something than it is to sit down and do it right the first time.

John Sumser:            That’s good, good advice. Crystal, please reintroduce yourself and tell people he to get a hold of you.

Crystal Miller:           I am Crystal Miller sans coffee and you can get a hold of me on the internet pretty much anywhere at THEONECRYSTAL. My company is branded strategies and you can reach that at

John Sumser:            Well thanks very much Crystal. It’s been great having you on the show today and thanks everybody for tuning in. Hope you have a great week. Thanks again.

Crystal Miller:           Thanks.

John Sumser:            Bye-bye.

Crystal Miller:           All right, buh-bye.

End transcript

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