A Game Plan for the Class of 2020

To the graduating class of 2020, I am so sorry that you are wrapping-up college just as COVID-19 challenges our nation’s health, our economy and, let’s face it, your job search. Even in the best of times landing a great job after college can be difficult. And with our current health crisis, it will be even more challenging in the months ahead as hiring slows.

Given this reality, what should you do now class of 2020?

I have a suggestion.

The best strategy for these times is to expand your professional network. And the most effective tactic to expand your network? It’s actually the same answer today as it was last year, and the year before, and the year before that: Informational Interviews. Informational Interviews are distinct from traditional interviews in that you are not asking for a job, rather you are asking for a conversation with a pro to learn more about an industry in which you would someday like to work. It’s an easy ask and you will find that many professionals are quite open to connecting and sharing.

The biggest benefit gained from Informational Interviews are the relationships you will develop as you expand your network through the process. When hiring returns in earnest (and trust me, it will) your job search will be much more successful if you’ve built a network of industry pros who already know you.

From decades of personal experience as a hiring manager I can tell you that every single time I’ve had an opening, the first question I’d ask of my team was: “who do we already know that we can get in here?” And that’s how getting hired often works. Despite what all the ads from ZipRecruiter would have us believe, most of us get our jobs through people we already know.

And the best way to get to know industry pros? That’s right, Informational Interviews.

And pursuing Informational Interviews is a pretty straight forward process. I’m not saying it’s easy because, like anything worthwhile, it takes effort. And a bit of courage. Here’s my step by step guide:

Step 1: Identify your Target Industry

My go-to recommendation is that newly minted college grads target industries aligned with their major. I advise this because you’ve not only mastered the subject matter but you’ve also invested serious time and money to gain this expertise. And, a super important point here, if your goal is to find the “perfect” industry choice as you depart college, your biggest risk is paralysis. It is a very human trait that in the pursuit of the perfect we can end up stuck and taking no action. Don’t let that be you. Actively push aside any fears about missing out on something better, or something else, and choose a lane (like what you majored in) and go for it. And remember, given the rate of change in the modern business environment, each of us will pivot multiple times — likely dozens — during the course of our career journeys. The exact industry in which you start is less important than just getting started.

Step 2: Identify Companies Where You’d Someday Like to Work (aka Target Companies)

With a little help from Google it’s super easy to find top companies across any industry in any city. Phrasing your search something like “top ad agencies in San Francisco” or “leading accounting firms in Seattle” will yield great lists. Typically you will find multiple data sources which you can cross-reference to create a master list. I always suggest identifying at least 20 target companies for starters. And it’s important that your target list be geographically focused to a city or a region since your network will offer the greatest value if your contacts are geographically concentrated where you want to live and work.

Step 3: Identify Contacts

LinkedIn will be your best friend (by far!) to identify contacts at your target companies who work in departments that interest you. LinkedIn’s premium services are worth the investment and you will find many more contacts if you subscribe to their Premium Career product for $30 a month. A simple search including company name and department, like “Amazon, marketing” yields numerous contacts. And you can refine your searches further by adding to your query. For example, you will find that alumni from your university will be particularly open to your outreach and expanding your search to “Amazon, marketing, your university” will yield a list of pros from your alma mater.

Step 4: Outreach

Email is the single best tool for outreach but email + phone will always yield the best results. Remember that almost all email is read on a small screen so brevity is essential, eight sentences max feels about right, following a structure something like this:

Sentences 1–2: Greeting + Intro

Sentences 2–4: State why your are writing

Sentence 5: Demonstrate knowledge of them/their company

Sentences 6–8: Ask for the Informational Interview

Here’s a sample email. If you like this template feel free to use it.

Dear ___________:

It is my most sincere hope that this note finds you well.

My name is Rick Boyce, a soon-to-be graduate of the Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University with a BA in Strategic Communication (Advertising).

As our world changes daily, we are all adjusting and dealing with many new challenges and, of course, this also holds true for graduating seniors like myself. Given the impact of COVID-19 on the job market, as I tranistion from college to career, I’m particularly focused on expanding my network through informational interviews with industry pros like you.

I’m a fan of (company name) and I love the work you’ve done for ________, _________ and ____________.

I would so appreciate it if we could connect for an informational interview, via phone or video, as I’d love to learn about your career journey, your experiences in the industry and any advice you might have for an aspiring future ad executive.

Please let me know if you’d be available for a quick chat either the week of _____ or week of _______. My schedule is very flexible so please let me know what’s best for you. If now is not a good time I completely understand and wish good health to you and yours.

My very best,

Rick Boyce (of course, be sure and include your contact info in your email signature)

If you choose to use the phone in addition to email (and I suggest you do), remember that people rarely answer calls from unknown numbers and you will go to voicemail nearly every time. So, be ready with a scripted message. I’ve found the best way to use voicemail is to leave a message as a follow up to an email sent earlier the same day. Something like this:

“Hi, this is Rick Boyce, a soon-to-be graduate of Washington State University, and I’m calling to follow up on an email I sent earlier today inquiring about potentially scheduling an informational interview. If you’d be open to such a conversation, I’d be grateful if you would reply to my email and suggest a convenient day and time for you. If now’s not a good time, I totally understand. Thanks so much and have a great day.”

This said, there’s a chance they’ll pick up so be ready for that possibility too and have a rough script at the ready.

In terms of frequency of outreach, since you are connecting with very busy people and asking them to do you a favor, you don’t want to be annoying. In my view, three polite outreach efforts, spread over two weeks, feels about right. Personally I like a Tuesday, Friday, Tuesday sequence. If a contact doesn’t reply after 3 attempts never take it personally. They’re just busy. But do identify other contacts at the target company and repeat the outreach with them.

And a quick note on finding email addresses. Determining corporate email formats can take a bit of sleuthing. Does the company use first name dot last name, or first initial plus last name, or some other format? The best way to figure this out is to visit the company’s web site and look for press releases. Almost every press release will include a contact name and their email address which will provide the company’s email format. Other good sources are their web site’s Help and Contact Us pages. If you can’t find the company’s email format you can always reach out using LinkedIn’s InMail messaging service.

For phone outreach, cell numbers and direct dial numbers are almost impossible to find without using a paid service like ZoomInfo which is quite expensive. For your purposes the company’s main phone number will suffice and you can navigate through the phone tree to get to the right extension. Sometimes people will leave their mobile number as a contact option on their outbound voicemail and, if they do, you should feel free to dial it.

A final word on outreach. It is critical that you establish a disciplined habit of outreach to new contacts to ensure that you continually expand your network. To establish that discipline, set achievable goals for outreach within a weekly timeframe. For example, before you graduate and are still in school, sending email to 5 to 10 new contacts each week, with the goal of securing a single informational interview each week, would be a good place to start. After graduation, when you have more time, perhaps you triple your outreach with the goal of securing 3 informational interviews each week. Regardless of the targets you set for yourself, to create outreach habits that stick, it is essential to establish goals that are realistic and achievable and to hold yourself accountable to those goals.

Parting Suggestions…

  • Do your homework, and enter each Informational Interview well informed on their company, their industry and the person you will be speaking with.
  • Be prepared with a list of questions you’d like to ask at every Informational Interview, ten is not too many.
  • Make smart talk not small talk by bringing knowledge and awareness to the conversation to help you add insightful observations and ask intelligent questions.
  • At the end of each Informational Interview, always politely ask for two more contacts they would be comfortable sharing to assist you in expanding your professional network.
  • Make every contact you meet through an Informational Interview part of your journey by sending them periodic email updates. For example, let them know when you’ve connected with someone they’ve referred you to. Ask them if any positions have opened at their company. Let them know when you land a job, etc. Recency keeps your name top-of-mind and you want to show up in their inbox on a regular basis, once a month is about right.
  • Connect with every contact you make on LinkedIn!
  • Send a thank you email after every Informational Interview the same day. Do this every time, always, no exceptions. I’m amazed at how often this most basic courtesy is overlooked.

Well class of 2020, you’re entering a challenging job market but you are going to be all right. Remember that you have the support of millions of industry professionals who will take your calls, respond to your emails and generously share their valuable knowledge as you expand your professional networks through Informational Interviews. You’ve been dealt a tough hand, no doubt, but there are things you can do, and actions you can take, to make the best of this time ensuring that you are well positioned for the economic recovery, and the hiring rebound, that will inevitably follow. Good luck!

A 1984 graduate of The Murrow College at Washington State University, Rick is a life-long advertising, media and marketing professional. He has served on Murrow’s Professional Advisory Board since 2012 where he established the Murrow Mentor program. Since inception, Murrow Mentors have supported more than 200 Murrow graduates as they’ve navigated the transition from college to professional employment. Say hello at rickboyce@me.com.

Internet ad pioneer, led sales for world’s first ad-supported Web site, Wired magazine’s HotWired, 1994–2000. More recently Lycos, IGN, Monster & Quantcast.