Study: Most Job Seekers Abandon Online Job Applications

Here’s how to increase conversion rates

By Dave Zielinski Mar 8, 2016
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The problem of job candidates abandoning online applications continues to plague the recruiting industry.  According to CareerBuilder, 60 percent of job seekers quit in the middle of filling out online job applications because of their length or complexity.

Other industry sources say that abandonment rate may be conservative.

The fallout for organizations from this persistent issue is the loss of top talent, poor word-of-mouth from candidates frustrated with the process and the higher costs associated with abandonment in cost-per-click recruiting models.

Traditional thinking holds that lengthy applications will screen out apathetic candidates and good talent will be dedicated enough to fill out more information, said Sarah Gregory, director of research at Punchkick Interactive, a Chicago-based mobile application and Web development company. The CareerBuilder survey suggests this mindset still holds sway. About 50 percent of responding employers said the length of application processes is a positive because it "weeds out" applicants. 

"But, in reality, the opposite is true," Gregory said. "Good candidates know their time is important and they have plenty of opportunities in the job market. Their tolerance for jumping through hoops is much lower" than many employers think. 

Streamlining Applications 

What can recruiters do to increase the odds of applications being completed via mobile devices or on desktops? Experts say the first steps are to remove "nice to have" questions that aren't required upon first contact with candidates and to limit the number of screens people have to navigate. The idea is to balance what's convenient for recruiters with what's user-friendly for applicants.

According to a study from recruitment company Appcast, recruiters can boost conversion rates (candidates viewing a job ad who go on to complete an application) by up to 365 percent by reducing the length of the application process to five minutes or less. The study tracked 500,000 job seekers looking at online applications across diverse platforms and more than 30,000 completed applications. 

Completion rates drop by almost 50 percent when an application asks 50 or more questions vs. 25 or fewer questions, the Appcast study found.

"Ask yourself what kind of information you really need upfront to decide if you want to move candidates to a next step," said Tiffani Murray, manager of talent management systems for the Pulte Group in Atlanta. "You need name, contact information, and a resume or LinkedIn profile. If you have an application process that is five or six screens deep and a candidate is filling it out on a smartphone, in many cases they'll drop off."

According to the strategic consultancy Kelton, 86 percent of active candidates use their smartphones to begin a job search. 

Asking candidates to re-enter work histories into fields in an applicant tracking system (ATS) is another cause of abandonment. Even when an ATS scrapes information from a resume and automatically fills it into form fields, the amount of reformatting and editing candidates often have do is time-consuming, Gregory said. "Candidates hate re-entering resume information after they've already submitted a resume file," she noted.

Another barrier to completion is asking candidates to create one account to log on to a careers site and a second account to apply through an ATS, Murray said. 

Requiring these double logins can turn off applicants.

Murray also is mystified by companies that ask for references upon first contact with candidates. "Why not wait to ask for references when you reach the offer stage?" Murray said. "You don't need to add that information burden to candidates when a high percentage won't make it to an offer."

The loss of top talent isn't the only price companies pay for high drop-off rates. The problem can drive up recruiting costs as well. 

The Appcast study found that recruiters who use special platforms for recruiting cut their cost-per-applicant by up to 250 percent by reducing the time it takes to complete an application form from 15 minutes to five. In cost-per-click pricing models, recruiters pay per click, regardless of what the candidate does next. So when completion rates are low because of cumbersome application forms, sourcing costs are commensurately high, the study found.

Mobile Apply and Job Descriptions

With an increasing number of job seekers applying via mobile devices, recruiters also need to ensure that platforms are mobile-friendly. Application length is exaggerated on phones or tablets, especially if responsive design isn't used to make forms render effectively on small screens. Some mobile devices also can't store resumes.

"Companies that allow you to apply with LinkedIn profiles or upload your resume from Dropbox [or Google Drive] are those getting some of the higher mobile apply completion rates," said Kristen Fife, a recruiter in the Seattle area with experience at multiple Fortune 100 companies, most recently as a senior technical recruiter at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

The content and length of job descriptions also influence whether candidates complete applications. 

The Appcast study found that job descriptions should be of "Goldilocks" length for highest impact—not too short or too long. The sweet spot is between 250 and 2,000 words for a maximum conversion rate. That length delivered conversion rates five times higher than job descriptions of 170 to 250 words. 

"It's important to get the job description right on the first swing," said Marisa Vrona, talent engagement manager at the Wunderland Group in Chicago. "You want to ensure all the right details are there, but not too many to overwhelm candidates."

Spending resources on social media channels to draw candidates to job openings only to have them click through to poor job descriptions negates those marketing efforts, Fife said. 

"In today's market, candidates want to know not just the tasks they'll have to perform on the job, they want to know more about the team they'll be working with and the company culture," Fife said. "They want to know what's in it for them, not just what a company is looking for." 

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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