Dan Tudor

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November 2nd, 2010

Straight Talk on Negative Recruiting

We expect negativity in political campaigns.

I live here in California, and the 2010 midterm elections had plenty of mud-slinging.  In the governors race between Meg Whitman, the Republican, and Jerry Brown, the Democrat, negative campaigning was plentiful: The Republicans used negative ads, and the Democrats used negative ads.

Political pundits decry the use of negative ads in political races.  Most of us hate the junk mail that we get during elections, and we can’t wait until all the political ads stop cluttering the TV airwaves. 

So, why in the world do politicians continue to use negative ads when it’s clear that the rest of us – the voters – universally despise them?

Simple:

They work

There are even some scientific studies that explain why they work, and why politicians from both parties would be foolish to stop using negative ads to win elections.

Which brings me to the topic that is a little closer to all of our hearts:  Negative recruiting in college sports.

Let me say at the start that I never teach, nor do I recommend that a coach should engage in, negative recruiting.  I’ll explain why in a moment.  That being said, negative recruiting abounds.  Some coaches that you know and recruit against have probably used negative recruiting techniques against you at some point in the past. 

So why would a fellow coach stoop to such depths and sacrifice their personal integrity and reputation among his or her peers by giving their prospect misleading messages about their competitors?

Simple:

They work.

That’s right, for all the complaining and protesting that goes on, you have to admit that negative recruiting does work much of the time.  Here’s why:

  • It fills a void in the mind of the prospect.  Many coaches do a poor job of providing enough positive reasons for a prospect to choose their school.  That leaves an uncomfortable void in their mind.  They need something – even something negative – to help form an opinion about your program.
  • It satisfies an emotional needThe study I referenced earlier found that 100% of us have a significant emotional response to viewing a negative political ad.  Read that again…we all respond emotionally to negative ads.  That emotion helps us form a more complete opinion on a candidate, whether right or wrong.  When a coach slips in a little negative recruiting, it has a good chance of resonating with a prospect who is actively looking to form an opinion about another coach.
  • It gives them a reason to take action.  I can’t tell you how many times a client has come to us complaining that a competitor gave their prospect a short deadline for taking their scholarship offer, or else that offer would be pulled and given to another recruit.  To our client’s shock and dismay, the prospect takes the bait and commits to their competitor.  How can this happen?  Why would a prospect choose a coach who puts pressure on them and uses a forcefully negative tactic to gain a commitment while the other coach has given them plenty of space to make a decision and acted professionally throughout the recruiting process?  Many times, pressure elicits a response.  In the political world, candidates will use negative advertising to actually suppress voter turnout for their opponents!  Like it or not,whether it’s politics or college sports, it works.

O.K., let’s back up a little for just a moment.  Now that I’ve given you three solid reasons why negative political ads – and negative recruiting – works, how can I come out against negative recruiting as an effective strategy?

First, it’s not the ethical or professional thing to do as a college coach who should have the best interests of a high school student-athlete at heart.  Secondly, we find that the positive results are short-lived:  Prospects who are pressured into choosing a particular college are most likely to be dissatisfied with their overall college experience, or even transfer out of a program.

So, how can you ensure that you maintain your professional approach as a college recruiter, while insulating yourself against negative recruiters who are chasing your prospect?  Here are a few key ideas we’ve seen work over the past few years in working with colleges around the country:

  • Warn your prospect that other coaches might try to negatively recruit them.  Tell them that other coaches might try to scare them away from your college or program, and explain why this is a sign of weakness on their part.  One of the best things you can do is to frame the discussion in your favor…make your prospect focus on recognizing the act of negative recruiting itself, rather than the content of the negative recruiting message as it relates to your program.
  • Bring up a potential negative about your program, and tell your prospect what to think about it.  Many coaches we work with begin their client relationship with us furiously trying to hide potential negatives:  Older dorms, their remote location, bad athletic performance…whatever it is, we see a lot of coaches running scared much of the time.  We recommend taking the opposite approach: Bring up a negative, and let your prospect know how to think about it.  Older dorms?  That shouldn’t matter…it’s all about the great relationships that you’re going to build as part of your team, and besides, your team ends up loving their dorm rooms after they decorate them and make them their own.  Framing how your prospect should think of your dorms as soon as possible, in this example, is key to overcoming your competition’s negative recruiting later. 
  • Give your prospects a consistent, logical, passionate message as to why they should choose you.  Don’t leave any voids, and don’t allow them to look at another coach’s school with any questions left unanswered about your program.  If you want help crafting that effective message, click here.

One more important thought on this topic:  If you are seeing negative recruiting working against you, I would candidly tell you that you might be the reason for it’s effectiveness. 

The good news?  You also have the power to twart it’s effectiveness.  But you have to take action, and – just like a savvy politician – you’ll need to give your audience a passionate, logical reason to ignore those ”negative ads” and cast their vote for your program instead.

Determining the best strategy for your college’s athletic department can be challenging.  If you need help, click here to find out about our On-Campus Workshops that we lead at colleges around the country, and how we can help you and your fellow coaches to win more recruiting battles than ever before.  Or, email Dan Tudor directly at dan@dantudor.com for more information. 

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