Look, your recruiting strategy is effectively 98 percent the same as every other company.

You start with an ATS, you write and publish job openings on job boards and tell brand stories to fill the funnel, then you ask recruiters to vet and shepherd candidates through the interview process and manage the offer negotiation.

Sounds like you, right? I know it is, because that’s pretty much how everyone does it.

Talent acquisition and recruiting have effectively optimized themselves into a corner. You’ve been diligent about selecting best practices you found in blogs just like this one, which would be fine if you were the only company developing your recruiting stack this way and reading blogs like this one.

But you aren’t. Every great idea you found in the recruiting blog, pod, or Twittersphere is being seen and implemented by the very competition you are trying to find advantage over.

Remember: You can’t win by doing what everyone else is doing.

And remember this as well: You’re playing follow the leader instead of trying to be a leader.

Living and dying by best practices

You know the joke about how “if you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes,” right? The same is true of organizations that live and die by best practices. They are watching what other leaders do, and then they copy it. Not blindly, of course, but from a fairly rigid playbook.

But to what end? You don’t become the leader with a killer recruiting strategy by mimicking what Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon (GAFA) and the other “big names” are doing. You become a leader by trying new ideas and testing them to see what really works for you.

Spoiler alert: Recruiting strategists at those GAFA companies, the ones with huge budgets and resources, love it when you try and copy their recruiting strategy tbecause it means you’re playing their game. This is a game in which they have all the advantages over player like you.

Well, good luck with that.

When we look at successful companies and try to steal their secrets, we’re looking at the wrong end of the curve. Google didn’t become the revered “GOOGLE” by having the most money and fame. Once upon a time, they were just another new search engine competing in a crowded space (although without all the snacks, food and perks you could throw money at).

They weren’t famous. They weren’t listed over and over as the most desired employer in the world. Back then, they did things to help them attract talent and build a winning recruiting strategy, things they don’t have to do anymore because now they’re the lead dog.

But, we glorify the things near-unlimited resources can buy instead of looking at the strategies they used to evolve from small fry to major player. Unless you’re Google, copying Google’s tactics just leaves you further in their dust.

So if you’re tired of drafting off others’ ideas, I present four (4) radical ways to completely flip the apple cart and compete for talent in a way that those other companies can’t.

Fair warning: These aren’t easy models to adapt to, but that’s the point — if these were easy fixes, everyone would do them. Inventing a brand new future and a winning recruiting strategy takes guts and vision, not best practices found in a magazine or a blog post.

1. Education: Don’t find talent — build it yourself

Everyone complains about how hard it is to find developers and engineers. It’s not surprising as pretty much every company with more than 20 people probably needs a coder on hand. The demand outpaces supply, forcing everyone to scramble and increase salaries.

Since you can’t afford to pay people at the same level as those GAFA companies, your recruiters are trying to chase down increasingly less talented developers using relatively less attractive salaries.

So here’s a key to a great recruiting strategy– stop chasing talent. Build it instead.

Teach young developers to become better coders, and help them learn from your engineers’ experiences. This isn’t about altruism, but training new employees how to do the job, and, evaluating students before they apply.

You are creating the exact purple squirrel you need.

The same can be true for all your major hiring area. Sales people can train sales people. Finance folks can teach other people about risk and payment tech. Marketers can teach SEO and branding to others.

This commitment to education opens your brand up to a whole new audience you might not have been able to afford before, attracting people who are motivated by personal and professional growth for than base pay.

2. Referrals: Only talk to people your people know

Everyone knows that referrals are the best candidates in their pipelines. They have friends on the inside so they know the company culture and understand the value of the company. They also onboard quicker and tend to stay longer. Overall, they are just more valuable.

But most companies treat referrals like icing on a cake instead of the core of their recruiting strategy. In this model, we build our entire recruiting process and team around getting and keeping great referred candidates.

This means that your entire staff is now your recruiting team.

They will need some basic training on what the best talking points are, but from that point on, they should be on the lookout for people who would fit in. These are people who are under-recognized talent where they currently are — the people who just “get” what your company is all about.

referral programYour staff, who are already subject matter experts and company culture experts, will evaluate and vet the prospects before the recruiter ever hears their name, making for a short and smooth time to fill.

Think of the press as you publicly close your ATS, hide job descriptions from the public, and focus all your recruitment marketing on telling authentic and granular stories. That’s when you become an exclusive company, where people have to know someone on the inside in order to get considered.

Interestingly enough, many GAFA companies do this without realizing it. They get too many outsider resumes and applications, so they start with referrals, filling the role before they ever look at non-referrals.

3. Community: Create a fan-base, not a pipeline

Look, there are hundreds of companies who will sell you some sort of community tool or software package, likely as an add-on to something else. Please let the phrase “add-on” indicate its relative value and quality to you.

But what if you stopped thinking of your pipeline as the load-bearing wall of your recruiting house and started thinking about building a pool of fans who regularly get updates about the work you do, what teams are doing, and places you might hang out with them?

This would be a place where candidates get to ask questions of staff to understand the day-to-day work and how that work connects to the company and its clients (weren’t you just complaining about how woefully uninformed your candidates were just the other day?). It also gives them a chance to meet the people who make your company great.

What you are doing is simple: You’re enabling relationships and moving away from traditional transactional recruiting.

Most importantly, these people are expressing not only their professional interests, but their level of skill. If someone is asking really good questions of your marketing team, they might make an amazing member of the marketing team.

Everyone wins here — candidates get to connect with and learn from professionals, get educated about about your brand, and you get to learn more about them before reaching out.

But, keep this in mind: The only way this works is if you highlight how all recruiters will be looking at active participants in the community before considering referrals or outside candidates.

4. Get exclusive and go “Invitation Only”

Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept people like me as a member.”

It would be great if we all had that kind of flexibility, but we’re all looking to be employed by the very “best” employer we can. Maybe we can’t change the salary of the jobs we source for, but we CAN create a level of exclusivity to suggest to candidates that our brand is where’s its at.

This is a similar model to the referral-only strategy in that all staff are looking for talent, but in this model we are not starting with friends, but making the “recruitment“ of the candidate a recognition in and of itself. Think of it as a kind of MacArthur Genius Grant writ small.

The only way this model works is if you can create exclusivity first, making your brand very desirable — and then publicly applying the velvet rope to create that exclusivity. If you aren’t a well-known or well-regarded brand, that velvet rope will be seen by no one, making the whole strategy worthless.

Don’t let someone beat you to a great recruiting strategy

The longer we continue to cling to the ATS-based model of recruiting, the quicker more agile and innovative companies will claim position and eat our lunch. In fact, it will be the company that can’t afford a massive ATS install and HRIS team who will be “forced” to get creative and get serious about these alternative strategies. THEY will build a killer recruiting strategy.

And while you continue to do what everyone else does, THEY will be become the next huge GAFA company.

James Ellis

James Ellis is an authority on employer branding, focusing on companies who think they have no choice but to post and pray for talent. He is the principal of Employer Brand Labs, a bestselling author, keynote speaker, practitioner, and podcaster with a wealth of experience across multiple industries for almost a decade. You can find him on LinkedIn or subscribe to his free weekly newsletter The Change Agents.