The hiring process for our new inbound marketing coordinator

The WhatCounts hiring process for our inbound marketing manager.

About a month and a half ago, WhatCounts announced an opening for an Inbound Marketing Coordinator, and we thought it’d be illuminating to share the process with you. One of our core values is that we invest in our team. As with any investment, however, what you start with can make a big difference in how your investment turns out. We wanted to hire the best person possible and in the fairest, most objective way we could.

The second goal we had in the process, making it as fair and as objective as possible, was equally important to us. In the age of social networks, where a person’s profile picture and media are available to all, hiring managers must work harder to remove bias, or if they knowingly carry a bias, work to remove their abilities to be subjective as much as possible if they truly want to find the best possible employees.

We started out by publishing a job description that was, to be charitable, somewhat unkind. In it, we explained things like the fact that you’d be working long hours for low pay with a difficult manager (me). Yet even with that job description, we received over 400 resumes. As this was a marketing position, the person we chose had to be a talented marketer. It’s the deepest irony that so many people who make the claim to be in marketing are truly terrible at marketing the most important product of all: themselves.

The first task was to narrow down the pool of available candidates to something manageable. Rather than read every single resume, we developed a simple metric (no, not Klout score) to judge whether the person had any understanding of digital marketing: how many recommendations did they have on their LinkedIn profile? Obviously, any candidates without a LinkedIn profile were summarily declined, on the premise above that if you’re claiming to be a digital marketer and you’re not marketing yourself in the premier job-searching social network, you’re probably not going to be a good fit for the position.

I picked out every candidate who had one or more recommendations on LinkedIn and advanced them to the second round. Why recommendations? To me, recommendations show more trust and effort on the part of the candidate than something like a Klout score. That trimmed the candidate pool from 400 down to about 50.

Every person who advanced to the second round was then given an assignment: given a product description from the developers, write a 1-2 paragraph piece turning what was essentially a useless feature into something that sounded marketable.

Product: WhatCounts Professional Edition Release 8.4
New feature: Sliced cheese
Brief technical description:

Release 8.4 has bug fixes and the usual assortment of goodies, but the new feature is that clients can specify a piece of real world physical cheese to be included with every email campaign. Right now dropdowns include the choices of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone, but Dev might include additional choices as cheese is available. Users will get a photo attached to the email and if there’s a postal address on record, the cheese will ship by 3 day mail. Can’t guarantee that it’ll arrive edible, but they’ll get cheese for sure. This was a feature request from the Dairy Association client. Can’t figure out how to retweet cheese slices, so we haven’t enabled it for social yet.


Since writing is such a core part of this job, we want to see how well you can write. Take the product brief above for what is essentially a worthless product, extract what value and benefits you can to clients and prospects, add marketing sizzle and your best copywriting, and compose 1-2 paragraphs of compelling marketing copy about the product, something that would be appropriate for a blog post, press release, or social media posting.

Marketers are asked to do this all the time at every company, and if you can write something compelling with very poor starting materials, you’ll do well when there are features in our products that our customers might actually want.

About half of the candidates responded with entries. Of those 25, 14 failed to follow the instructions given to them. This was and is an important part of the role: you have to be able to be creative and think outside the box without actually departing from the box. Some candidates went wildly overboard, creating multipage stories that were admittedly very creative, but not focused on the task at hand. Being effective given serious constraints (limited time, limited resources) is an important skill.

So far, so good – everything in the process has been objective and unimpeachable. We now had 11 writing samples to judge. Rather than take the risk of being overly subjective, we stripped all 11 samples of any personally identifying information and loaded them into an online surveying tool. We then sent out the survey to the entire WhatCounts team, asking them to rate each of the 11 entries on writing quality and how compelling the candidates made their sliced cheese descriptions. They ranked the entries, and from their scores, we chose the top 4 candidates for telephone interviews.

With telephone interviews and interviews in general, there’s a high potential for asking questions that are illegal (are you a US citizen, for example, is an illegal question. Asking if you are eligible to work in the United States for any company without sponsorship is not illegal as it allows permanent residents to be considered) and getting into discussions that can derail the ability to be objective. A scripted list of questions for the telephone interview works much better to stay focused and fair.

Each telephone interview was done on Google+ Hangouts to see how tech-savvy the person actually was, and each was asked the same 10 questions that had an internal scoring mechanism.

1. What was the last marketing book you read and what did you take away from it?

Score: 1 point for valid answer, 0 points for none. A very binary question: if you’re not actively reading and learning about your profession, you’re not going to do well in digital marketing.

2. What marketing-related blogs do you read daily and why?

Score: 1 point for valid answer, 0 points for none.

3. Given a situation with multiple, conflicting priorities and multiple stakeholders, describe how you’d resolve a conflict in which 3 equally important people senior to you want 3 different, nearly equally important things.

Score: 1 point for a methodology that made sense (time, priority, seniority, or any combination), 0 points for none or an answer that made no sense.

4. Why do you want to work for WhatCounts?

No score assigned to this question. It’s a softball.

5. What 2 or 3 marketing metrics do you pay attention to most and why?

Score: 2 points for generally accepted KPIs like conversion rates, sales, or end business goals. 1 point for any reasonable marketing metric. 0 points for no answer or an answer that made no sense.

6. Describe your opinion of the differences between B2C and B2B marketing.

Score: 2 points for differentiating between methods that were en masse versus more personal, 1 point for making any sensible differentiation, 0 points for hosing the question.

7. Take a look at the WhatCounts website, shown here. Pick one thing you think we’re doing wrong and explain why.

Score: 2 points for picking out something legitimately wrong (there are several things), 1 point for picking out anything reasonable, 0 points for saying something nice like, “Oh, it’s not wrong at all”. The ability to be critical even in a situation requiring you to put your best foot forward is important.

8. Describe your most successful marketing project that you accomplished on time and on budget for which you were the largest contributor.

Score: 1 point for an answer that included the results, 0 points for a nice story that did not make sense or answer the question.

9. What is your opinion of the email marketing industry, and what do you think is the next big thing in email marketing?

Score: 2 points for answering both questions, 1 point for answering either question, 0 points for a senseless answer.

10. WhatCounts is known for its slogan, find and grow your email marketing ROI. Describe how you compute and measure marketing ROI.

Score: 2 points for nailing the narrow definition of ROI, 1 point for answering with anything involving actual money, 0 points for senseless answers like return on conversation.

The scoring was simple and straightforward. 14 points were available total. The candidate with the highest number of points was awarded the job, with the caveat that if no candidate scored above 10 points, we’d start the process over again.

So after this lengthy process, how did we do? Please welcome our new inbound marketing coordinator, who you’ll see writing for our blog, as well as working with our Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter profiles, Sarah Zibanejadrad.

You’ll find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ as well. Welcome aboard!

Christopher S. Penn
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts

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  1. Welcome aboard, Sarah! Looking forward to interacting with you moving forward!

  2. This was a great, compelling post. It made me consider what my own answers to these questions are. It also made me realize that we, as marketers, should often especially reflect back on our past successes to determine why those efforts were successful and how to replicate them. On the other hand, what mistakes have we made in the past and how could we have done things better.

  3. Fantastic! Love the approach, the description, the requirements – it’s sort of a wake up call for all would-be marketers in our day and age. It’s a wonderful check list for me as I’m in charge of doing the online marketing for our company – and a way to anticipate the future of online marketing in our company with other folks to share the load.
    Many thank yous for making what is usually implicit explicit.

      • Not so much kind (although I’m glad you think so!) as just plain honest. It’s the process that fascinates me – organized, on point, and as unbiased as one can be when trying to hire. Hiring employees is difficult – and what is hidden in this post is the fact that you were able to identify the unseen liabilities that go with hiring an inbound marketer.

  4. Great approach. It makes me want to back and examine all my successes/ failures. I look forward to reading Sarah’s posts!

  5. Your post offers some really useful advices that I

  6. I really want to read what Sarah wrote about the new cheese feature! Would you be willing to post that?

  7. Thanks for sharing with us this unique hiring process Christopher! More companies should be doing this.

    Best of luck Sarah and congratulations.

  8. Despite the fact that many people are looking for work in a challenging job market, I am faced with open positions that stay that way for months because the quality of candidates is so dismal. Why don’t marketers see that they are instantly evaluated as a marketing professional by the way they present THEMSELVES? If you can’t tell me the story of you, you can’t tell my company’s story.

    I love your ten questions approach and am going to deploy it as a screener for our candidates.

  9. Chris – Would you mind shedding some light on why you chose to hire versus outsourcing your inbound marketing effort?


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