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From Ann Arbor to Ithaca to Palo Alto, campus recruiting is no longer business as usual. As corporations go back to school this spring in search of a small but elite group of future "top performers," they face stiff competition from other hungry, albeit finicky, corporate recruiters. An increasing number of sophisticated corporations, however, are effectively attracting and hiring these graduates away from their competitors by employing a previously unheard of weapon in the recruiter's arsenal: marketing.

Ironically, while many corporations are masters at marketing their goods and services to consumers, rarely do they apply their marketing know-how to selling themselves to their future managers. Surprisingly few companies do any market research to see what their reputation is on campus, for example, or employ any competitive analysis to see who their real competition is and what recruiting programs they are using.

Consumer goods companies-generally considered the preeminent marketing experts-are some of the worst players on campus at positioning their "product" (a job) in the marketplace. Consequently, the names Kraft General Foods, RJR Nabisco, PepsiCo and others hold little cachet among job-hunting graduates, instead yielding the spotlight to the more trendy high-tech, financial services and consulting sectors.

To compete for talent in the next century, corporations must descend from their own ivory towers and begin viewing graduates more as "consumers" in a market of job choices. They must research what their target market-top gradu-ates-is looking for, and design recruiting programs that speak to their needs. In summary, a corporation serious about capturing top talent should consider the following marketing initiatives:

Invest in objective market research: Perhaps the first and most important step in designing and implementing an effective campus recruiting program is to toss out your outdated, anecdotal data and conduct some fresh, objective market research (querying students in interviews does not count!), If it's MBAs that you want, have an independent organization conduct research to see what MBAs think of your company in comparison to others in your industry, and why.

Forward-thinking corporations have already begun to do this, as college placement directors report an unprecedented number of student focus groups being conducted on campus this year. (I do not recommend that companies conduct these focus groups themselves, however, as the student responses tend to be biased in favor of the host company-they are, after all, looking for jobs!)

Identify and benchmark your competition: Companies fail to recognize that they are often competing with companies outside their own industry. A large agribusiness company, for example, was mystified as to why it had such a poor offer/acceptance ratio, given that it paid a very competitive salary compared to other compa nies in its industry. After doing some research, however, the company dis covered that its tar geted students were comparing their of fers to those made by companies in the chemical fertilizer industry, which were significantly more attractive. In the market for tal ent, the company had simply mis judged who its com petition really was. The smartest corpo rations are already sponsoring compet itive benchmark studies to see what kind of early identi fication programs other companies have, how their in ternships are struc tured and what their faculty rela tions programs look like.

Design a strategic staffing plan: Don't settle for the cliche, "We're looking for the best and the brightest." Assess the skills and attributes you need in your management pipeline, determine which schools are your best sources (your chairman's alma mater isn't automatically the best) and design a recruiting strategy that makes optimum use of your resources.

Develop a selling strategy: Once you know what your target market wants, decide which selling points about your company you want to communicate. If you want to present yourself as creative and dynamic, for example, don't show up to your campus information session with a scripted, boring slide presentation.

Advertising materials should be designed around your research. Instead of packing campus recruiting brochures with empty, "corporate happy talk," companies should include the information that today's sophisticated graduates are looking for. And if you are really serious about attracting top talent, your company's on-campus information session and presentation should employ the same quality graphics that your company would use for a 30-second spot.

Utilize all distribution channels: Too often companies utilize only the college placement office as a means to connect with students. Television, radio and even direct mail are all available channels to communicate your message to students. A case study focusing on your company, for example, presented by a professor in class, is one of the most effective strategies for building name recognition and bolstering your image on campus.

Companies must begin to market themselves better on campus to compete for talent in the next century. For corporate recruiters, it is not a buyers' market anymore. While the average student is still finding a job hard to come by, today's top graduates are receiving an unprecedented number of job offers at increasingly higher salaries. With companies today more focused than ever on hiring only these top graduates, effective marketing is crucial.

Mr. Hanigan is president of Hanigan Consulting Group, New York, consultants on strategic staffing issues and campus recruiting programs.

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