An applicant tracking system (ATS) is arguably the most important recruitment-related purchase you‘ll make. Now that’s a pretty big statement.
But hear us out; the platform will drive your whole recruitment process, significantly impacting your candidate experience, employer brand, and reporting capacity. Get it right, and you’ll be looking at a multitude of benefits.
But what, exactly, do you need from an ATS? It’s important to do your homework and identify any existing gaps in your current processes. It's also worth checking out our 'choosing an ATS' pack if you're new to all of this.
working with a limited budget
An ATS simply isn’t viable for everyone. We’d recommend anyone with five or more vacancies a year to seriously consider one of these systems, but it’s not always the right option.
With that in mind, we’ve listed a range of alternatives to using an applicant tracking system over the course of this blog post. An ATS is a pretty comprehensive solution for anyone keen to streamline their recruitment, but certain features can be replicated by other free or low-cost solutions. After all, a solution that only does 20% of what you need is better than nothing at all. That may seem like a bit of a pessimistic view - everyone wants the perfect solution - but it’s also pretty logical.
You’re welcome to contact us if you do have any questions about anything we’ve said. Sure, we’re in the applicant tracking system business ourselves, but we’re always happy to give out free, impartial advice and will do our best to help.
a quick word about GDPR
Ah, yes. GDPR. The bane of every marketer’s life back in May, 2019, before becoming seemingly irrelevant to any company with your email address in the immediate aftermath.
In all seriousness, we don’t want to present you with options that might see you storing applicant data outside of the EU/EEA, as that would present significant GDPR-related issues.
1. using a online form builder as your ATS
There are dozens of online form builders out there, and most will allow you to do everything you need. They don’t require any major technical skills to build, either, as adding and removing questions is normally done with a simple drag-and-drop setup. Anyone who’s digitally savvy will be able to master this technology.
The only problem is that most providers are based outside the EU/EEA… which rings those GDPR alarm bells. Typeform, however, allows you to store your data in the EU, making everything far easier.
Like most form builder services, this tool is available at varying prices. There’s a free version, limited to 100 form submissions and 100mb of data per month, and different paid plans that provide increasing capabilities. You’re unlikely to need to go beyond their silver plan, which costs $29 per month and allows for 10,000 submissions and 100GB of data.
Typeform also has hundreds of pre-built templates, including several online job application forms, meaning you shouldn’t have to build your entire form from scratch.
We’ve used lots of online forms in the past, and Typeform looks like a pretty solid solution with very reasonable pricing. It will only manage the first part of the application process, but you’ll be able to ask your applicants all the key questions - required salary, notice period etc.
- Easy setup
- Can download all applicant data to CSV/Excel,
- Can capture applicant data, mobile friendly, free
- Will only support the first step in the recruitment process
- Application form setup time means you’ll probably just have one form for all candidates
- Custom branding only available with premium version
2. using a project management tool as your ATS
So online forms do the first part of the process, but you may find you face more challenges later on - with the actual ‘tracking’ of candidates. Each vacancy is essentially its own project, so using a project management tool actually makes a fair bit of sense. Trello’s great (and free!), but its data being hosted outside of the EU means a big red mark in the GDPR column.
teamwork.com is a project management tool from Cork, Ireland, where you can also visit and kiss the Blarney Stone if you’re interested in that kind of thing. According to legend, anyone kissing the stone will be blessed with the gift of the gab - i.e. the ability to speak well and command the room’s attention.
But, we digress. teamwork.com allows for a couple of views: the list view and the kanban style. The latter is perhaps the easiest to manage, with ‘cards’ (much like Trello) that can be used for each applicant. Simply dragging and dropping these ‘applicants’ into new lists, depending on where they are in the recruitment process, provides an excellent visual overview of your situation.
You can save documents, make notes, add tags etc. to keep all of your information on candidates in one place. Not only does a single location for your applicants aid GDPR adherence (applicants can request their data to be deleted or ask to see what you have on file), but it also makes collaboration between recruiter and hiring managers much easier.
teamwork.com really holds its own in a competitive project management sector. As an ATS, it can certainly do part of the job, but has its limitations as it wasn’t ever intended for this purpose
- Allows for collaboration with your hiring managers
- Central store for all comments/documents etc.
- Free for 2 active projects (think 1 project per vacancy)
- Helps you understand where you are with each vacancy
- Manual process to get your applicants onto your project board
- Does not automate the communication to candidates
- Potential for confusion - one board per vacancy could see the same candidate being processed for two different jobs with two separate cards
3. using Excel and Outlook as your ATS
If we had to guess at the most widely used ATS in the world, then we’d go for a combination of Outlook and Excel. Not only is it a truly awesome solution, it’s also something that everyone most people actually understand. Most organisations recruiting for 1-2 vacancies a month are using their Outlook inbox and, if they’re feeling fancy, perhaps creating a spreadsheet to manage their active candidates.
No-one ever got fired for using Outlook and Excel as their ATS. It’s essentially the equivalent of not making a decision and just going with the flow. Even if you have absolutely no budget, we’d advise moving away from this type of setup.
- No time needed to learn the software
- Free/you’re already paying for it
- Very manual process of adding candidates to a spreadsheet and keeping things updated. Easy to misplace data on both platforms.
4. using a job board as your ATS
If you’re using a job board, you can probably use the job board’s candidate management system for processing. Depending on the job board, you’re likely to be able do certain things in bulk - like rejecting multiple candidates to trigger an automatic email. You will also likely be able to rate applicants, using something like a star system.
Some job boards, such as Indeed, might refer to their back-end candidate management system as an ATS but we’d dispute that. The main issue with relying on them is that you’ll only be able to process applicants from one particular board; candidates from other sources (internal applicants, agency submissions, other job boards etc.) would need to be managed on a different system.
There’s a reason why job boards don’t build applicant tracking systems. The fundamental flaw is that job boards want you to use their service alone, so they’re unlikely to promote a feature that effectively encourages you to mix and match. Job boards are also pretty complex web applications these days, so there’s unlikely to be much spare capacity in the development to build an ATS. It’s a solution that can work for you, but only if you get all of your applicants from one place.
- Free/you’re already paying for it
- Easily rate applicants
- Likely some capacity to process candidates en masse with auto emails
- Only works if ALL your applicants are coming from this one job board
- Limited functionality (it is not an ATS)
- Unlikely to be able to publish vacancies to your website
5. using Indeed as your ATS
How is this separate from our previous point? Let us explain - Indeed offers an ATS and a free candidate management system. We’re going to focus on the free product in this case.
Indeed is a very very large company and, like most internet companies of a similar size, the people there love data. They really want you to do more than just post your vacancies on their platform, encouraging you to manage the entire candidate journey through to hire. This tells them not just which candidates are applying to which jobs, but also who’s being hired. It’s easy to see why they’ve put a bit more effort in here.
Indeed is clearly making a play to be the only recruitment tool you will ever need, from job advert creation through to hire. It looks like a good tool from what we can see, but we’re yet to meet anyone who uses it as their full ATS. Indeed’s paid-for customers are typically companies struggling to source candidates in tough areas, so these organisations are unlikely to put all their eggs in one basket.
- More sophisticated features than most job boards’ candidate management solutions
- Offers you the potential to build a jobs page to link to your website, free!
- Job page build options are very limited
- Will only help you manage your Indeed applicants
to sum up
There are lots of easy-to-use, free, and low-cost technologies available to help streamline parts of the recruitment process. If you don’t have the budget for an ATS, then these options are definitely worth exploring.
Do check on this last point, however, as an ATS might not be as expensive as you think. Our next article in this series is looking at GDPR compliant low cost and free ATS solutions.