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Can you hire top talent to work at a ‘no-name’ company?

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Dear Annie: A few months ago I was put in charge of recruitment for a relatively small but fast-growing financial-services company, and I couldn’t help noticing at career fairs this past spring that people were flocking to booths run by our much bigger competitors, who have been around longer and do things we can’t afford, like national TV advertising. We treat our employees really well, easily on a par with the employers on Fortune’s Best Companies list, but we need to raise our profile in the job market and make more people aware of the opportunities here.

We have an employee referral program that is working great. But what other ways are there for a no-name company to get a reputation among top-notch candidates as an “employer of choice,” without busting the budget? — Hopeful in the Heartland

Dear H.H.: What you’re hoping to build goes by the shorthand phrase “employment brand” these days. It’s “distinct from a company’s product brand, or its overall corporate image,” notes Lisa Schiller, a vice president at global recruiting and staffing powerhouse ManpowerGroup Solutions. “Instead, it’s your company’s reputation as a place to work, which can be a quite different thing.”

Schiller has advised lots of companies around the world, many of whom are “no-name” entities, as you put it, in the places where they’re trying to hire. “It’s fairly common to be well-known in Europe or Asia and unknown in the U.S., or vice versa,” she observes. “How do you compete for top talent when nobody’s ever heard of you?”

Simply offering more money than better-known rivals, even if you can afford it, usually isn’t enough. Consider: A recent Manpower study found that slightly more job candidates (33%) chose an employer based on employment brand than based on compensation (32%).

The survey also found that 96% of people considering a new job will look closely at a potential employer’s website. So, Schiller says, that’s a good place to start polishing your employment brand. Moreover, it’s where smaller, hungrier companies may actually have an advantage. “Big, well-known employers’ careers pages are often hard to find, or they’re not up to date,” she notes. “By contrast, smaller, lesser-known companies tend to put more into it.”

Make sure yours is compelling. “Basic as it seems, this can make all the difference,” Schiller says. “Do an audit of your site, pretending that you are a candidate. Ask yourself, ‘Do I see great opportunities here? Do I trust this company? Do they care about their people?’ If what you see doesn’t spark any excitement about what a great place to work this is, your web site needs work.”

At the same time, take a look at your company Facebook page. Manpower’s study found that 72% of job candidates trust what they read about employers on Facebook, vs. just 43% who say the same about LinkedIn. That may be surprising, but Schiller says it’s because “people have so many LinkedIn contacts that it can be overwhelming. Facebook is more personal—there are more people on it you actually know—so it carries a lot more weight.”

If the site isn’t already part of your employee-referral program, it should be. “Encourage employees to post news about interesting projects they’re working on, along with things like videos of themselves at company events or doing volunteer work,” Schiller suggests. “You want to use Facebook to convey a strong sense of the culture.” It works, the Manpower study notes, because the potential hires surveyed say they “find peer experiences more credible than many other sources of information.”

A third step toward a stronger employment brand: Handle job applicants with kid gloves. “The entire interview experience is crucial,” says Schiller. “If it’s bad, word gets around. If it’s great, it’s a huge boost to your employment brand. So make it great, even for the people you decide not to hire right now.”

This may mean sitting in on some job interviews to see what’s being said. “The weakest link is often hiring managers who are still taking the old-fashioned ‘Why should I hire you?’ approach,” Schiller observes. “But the job market has changed, and the most in-demand people have other offers. I’ve seen lots of companies lose great candidates just by not ‘selling’ them on why working for this company would be a terrific career move for them.”

Some employers, she adds, hire the best people simply by interviewing them quickly, “rather than making them wait weeks before even setting up a meeting, as many companies do.” Afterward, make sure hiring managers get back to interviewees promptly to let them know where they stand.

Building a strong enough employment brand to compete with better-known rivals takes time and creativity, but luckily it doesn’t have to break the bank. Word of mouth is, after all, both powerful and free. Says Schiller, “Keep treating employees and candidates well, and they’ll naturally want to talk about it.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve ever chosen a job at a relatively unknown company, what influenced your decision? Leave a comment below.