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A few weeks ago, IDC Research Manager Kyle Lagunas published a post on LinkedIn with a salacious headline — “The ATS: No Longer the Most Hated System in HR Tech.”

I was intrigued! I speak with hundreds of Talent Acquisition practitioners each year and I have yet to hear one say: “I love my ATS!” (Even the ones who have adopted a sexy, new startup ATS.)

Almost everyone in HR and talent acquisition will understand the oddity of that statement. The ATS — for all its necessary utility — has always been one of the least loved systems in the HR tech stack (sorry, don’t mean to call your baby ugly!). Yet, here’s Kyle, telling us that TA and HR leaders like their ATS. And not just “like.” According to IDC’s research, 48% of TA tech buyers are apparently “very satisfied” with it.

That’s kind of like hearing someone who lives an hour outside of LA suddenly loves their two-hour commute. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that, but I’ll give credence to data.

So if the ATS is no longer the most hated system in HR Tech, what is? Wait for it…


What Gives?

For better or worse, I’ve been in this industry a while, and I’ve had a front-row seat to the rise and fall (and rise again?) of the ATS.

In the early days, the ATS solved a very specific problem: move the application process online while keeping you in compliance (and out of court). It gave organizations the ability to systematically track every applicant’s progress in the hiring process. And the ATS does that job well.

The problem was that, as candidate behavior and expectations changed and technologies advanced, we wanted the ATS to start doing more. We wanted it to solve talent attraction and engagement pre-apply. We wanted it to optimize the candidate experience. To help us tell our employer brand story. To nurture leads ongoing for new roles. To make recruiters more efficient. To solve global warming and cure deadly diseases.

But as Kyle pointed out, that’s not what the ATS was built to do. It’s always been a conveyor belt— a tool to bring order and process to the chaos of the hiring process. And that’s all it will ever be.


The CRM: The Yin to the ATS’s Yang

Eventually, we wised up, and technology vendors became hip to the fact that practitioners needed something else. Something to, as Kyle said in his post, “do what the best recruiters have always done: keep candidate prospects engaged, mostly via email and content marketing.”

So practitioners started buying a CRM (Candidate Relationship Management).

The good news: The best CRMs in the market are great at that — and can do so much more than just engage warm leads.

The bad news: A lot of companies view the CRM as a new tool to tackle the same old talent acquisition playbook — distributing jobs, waiting for traffic, and pushing every candidate into the ATS for processing, regardless of qualification or fit. Instead of stepping back and thinking, “How can we do something different with this new tool?” … companies simply took their broken process and applied it to new technology. 

And that’s exactly why the CRM — not the ATS — is now the most-hated system in recruiting technology. Talent acquisition teams feel that the CRM, in all its shiny new glory, has failed them, because it’s simply hosting names, sending out blanket job alerts that annoy candidates and provide no value to the organization or brand perception. But really, they’re failing the CRM by not rethinking their experiences and building the expertise they need to succeed.


It’s Not Just the Tool, It’s the Approach

Just like the poor ol’ ATS, all this “tech hatred” really has less to do with the actual technology and more to do with the expectations and approach.

Technology itself won’t bring people to you, whether it’s an ATS, a CRM, artificial intelligence or a Recruitment Marketing Platform. Alone, it can’t help talent understand or differentiate your brand or your mission. That’s all supported by larger recruitment marketing efforts that require unique skills, processes and strategies. Unfortunately, most organizations haven’t aligned investments in expertise with investments in new technology. 

In the right hands, a hammer can build something beautiful or fix something broken. In the wrong hands, it can be useless (at best) or destructive (at worst).

We don’t hand car keys to teenagers and expect them hit the Autobahn, so why do technology vendors sell tools to customers without the support and education to re-skill their teams? I cite Kyle here:

“While the CRM can be a powerful tool for organizations struggling to evolve beyond post-and-pray recruiting tactics, these systems require skill and savvy that are completely different from those that we’ve relied on to date Without relevant and compelling content to share, recruiters default to the one piece of content that is never in short supply: jobs. And we all know how well that played in social recruiting efforts.”

SmashFly’s research supports this argument. In our 2016 Fortune 500 Recruitment Marketing Report Card, we found that just 1% of companies send content other than jobs to candidates who opted in to their talent networks and newsletters. Just 1%. Think about the opportunity there!

Often, this failure to move beyond jobs isn’t because companies don’t recognize the value of sending personalized, brand-led content to candidates — I know TA and employer brand leaders are much smarter than that, I talk to them every day. Instead, it’s the result of lacking the resources, training and leadership on how to create, deliver and scale those communications.


The Better Way: Pairing Technology with Strategy

People — particularly those hard-to-find passive candidates (we say opportunity seekers, because is anyone really passive if the right opportunity reaches them?) — don’t want to hear about your jobs. They all look the same. They all sound the same.

They want to connect with your brand — who you are, what you stand for, what your vision is, and how they fit into that equation.

I won’t mislead you: Making those connections isn’t easy. It takes work. You have to build a foundation first — creating content that attracts the right people, developing workflows that segment and engage those people, and generating data that helps you understand which behaviors and investments drive the right outcomes.

But that work will pay off. And once you have those foundational skills and strategies in place, the possibilities are limitless. Suddenly, the CRM isn’t a confusing tool or a black hole where your contacts are condemned to job alert hell. It’s the engine that drives your hiring strategy.

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