U.S. military recruits on the Web
April 27, 1999
by Maryann Jones Thompson
(IDG) -- A sword embedded in a smoldering metal sphere rises from primordial mist. The comic-book-style illustration appears at the center of a stark black Web page as hand-lettered words fade in: "They are born in an inferno that tests both mind and body. Those who complete the challenge become beacons of honor, courage and commitment. What does it take to be one of the few? The answer lies within."
If you enter, you reach the "processing" page: "Tell us a little about yourself and we'll tell you what it takes to become one of us." This is no superhero adventure. It's a recruiting site for the U.S. Marine Corps.
The armed forces are in a recruiting crisis; even the popular Air Force may miss its enlistment goals for the first time in 20 years. And the Defense Department says the conflict in Kosovo has done nothing to inspire – or discourage – enlistment at the national level.
All four branches of the U.S. military are turning to the Web for help. "We know our site is working because we had 2,000 visitors per day a year and a half ago and we're up to 5,000 visitors per day now," says Maj. Mike Shepherd, U.S. Army Recruiting Command chief of marketing communications. Growth in Web-generated leads has increased over the past 18 months "to the tune of about 200 percent," Shepherd says. URLs are now incorporated into broadcast ads, posters, CD-ROMs and printed brochures for the four branches of service.
Launched in August 1998, www.navy.com has a patriotic feel. The homepage features a sailor saluting, the Blue Angels flying in formation and the waving Stars and Stripes. "It says honor, courage and commitment," says Paul Krygowski, creative director at Organic Online, the company that built the site with the Navy's ad agency, BBDO.
The site aims to increase awareness of the Navy's extensive technical training and career opportunities, something that usually makes kids think "Air Force." One section features an interactive game, in which the player helps a Navy pilot complete his mission while learning about a variety of Naval careers. A redesign will place even heavier emphasis on education, training and travel opportunities, which are what interest potential recruits the most, focus groups show.
In May, the Army will debut a redesign of its own. Originally launched in 1995 with the help of ad agency Young & Rubicam, the current site suffers from its own success. Each group within the Army wanted a piece of the homepage, and as a result, www.goarmy.com is an unfocused portal that channels visitors into separate sites for openings as diverse as the Army Chaplains and the Special Forces. The new site will maintain the breadth of job offerings but will have a more consistent look and more interactivity. "We want to show everyone pictures of people in action so that they can look at it and say, 'Hey, that could be me,'" says Shepherd.
The Marines have a different agenda: They want to be sure potential recruits are familiar with their unique culture. "Kids join the Marines to be a Marine," says Rob Cherof, group account director and senior partner at J. Walter Thompson in Atlanta, which helped develop the site. "That in and of itself is an end."
Among the four major branches of the armed forces, the Marines are, well, unique. The service requires the longest commitment – four years – and has the smallest active-duty force. This enables the Marines to focus their recruiting efforts at a younger demographic to fill the enlisted ranks. Hence, the comic-book boot camp.
At www.marines.com, launched in January 1998, a drill sergeant barks at the visitor, who must respond by typing in "Sir, yes, sir" or "ma'am, yes, ma'am" and then clicking on buttons marked "Ooh-Rah." If surfers forget or can't figure it out, they never make it to the page where they submit their names. "In some ways it's a self-screener," says Cherof. It's also distinctive. "Once you start showing military pictures," he says, "all of [the armed services] start to look the same."
Most of all, it's simple. Capt. Kevin Foskey, a paid media officer in the General Marine Corps Recruiting Command, says the site is purposely "not too wordy" because research suggests that potential Marines don't want a lot of facts up front. "All we want is to get these kids to a recruiter and then the recruiter can provide all the necessary information. That's our whole goal – to spark that interest."
The Air Force pulled out all the stops. Developed by its agency, the CPS Group, the site is called the Air Base. In the "Super Sonic" version, frames mimic a dashboard. Using buttons, visitors can navigate to different parts of the base, where pictures and text provide day-in-the-life profiles of dozens of Air Force careers. The most fun is "The Training Center," with Flight Test and Canyon Maneuvers simulator games. "It's not really any different than the Nintendo games kids play today," says Technical Sgt. Charles Marshall, interactive media account executive for the Air Force recruiting service, although there's not a lot of shoot 'em up on this or any other military site. The recruiters say they'd rather highlight job opportunities than war games. Their true enemy, after all, is private-sector jobs.
The problem is that the economy is good. parents have less of a need for financial assistance to send their kids to college, and financial need is the No. 1 reason kids enlist. So interest in military service is waning. The Department of Defense reports that in 1990, 32 percent of young men ages 16 to 21 were interested in active-duty service. By 1998, that figure stood at 26 percent. At the same time, the military's recruiting objective is increasing: It's aiming for a 5 percent increase in recruits in 2000 over 1998.
Technology companies that gripe about finding qualified programmers don't know how good they have it. Combined, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines must sign up nearly 200,000 recruits during the fiscal year 1999 (October 1998 to September 1999). That amounts to replacing 14 percent of the work- force of 1.4 million active-duty soldiers every year – and they can't turn to India for help.
In February, President Clinton and Congress approved an emergency 4.8 percent pay raise and increase in retirement benefits to help make military compensation more competitive with private-sector wages. Congress granted the military a big increase in its 1999 marketing budget, with the Air Force one of the primary beneficiaries. Although most funds will go to television advertising, online ad spending will nearly double to around $1 million, according to Terry Young, management supervisor at the Air Force's ad agency, the CPS Group.
The Navy will spend almost $1 million on interactive media, while the Army will spend $1.5 million. The Marines don't yet have a specific interactive budget but are testing banners on a variety of sites. Most of the military dollars are channeled onto sites with youth-oriented content, such as music and sports, but general-interest properties, such as search engines, news sites and recruitment postings, also make it onto media buys. The Navy in particular is a major advertiser on such minority sites as Black Collegian and Hispanic America Online.
Recruiters say that Internet marketing attracts better prospects. "The Internet leads convert at a better rate than all other leads," says the Army's Shepherd. Leads from other sources "convert" at an average rate of 3 percent over 90 days. Net leads enlist 7 percent of the time, and it takes them only 45 days after their Web visit to sign on the dotted line. (No one enlists directly online; after a candidate signs up via the Web, a human recruiter follows up. A Navy recruiter typically contacts potential sailors less than 48 hours after they enter their information online.)
Marshall says the Air Force's Net leads have a higher propensity to enlist, and they score higher on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test than non-Net leads. Potential recruits who sign up online are generally "more qualified" than others, says the Navy. The Marines report getting a disproportionate number of officer leads from the site, possibly because four-year college students are routed through a more sophisticated, comic-free career center on the site.
"We'll continue to use the Internet to reach out to young people and show them that the Air Force is a fantastic organization, that we are on the cutting edge of technology, and that we have great opportunities to share with them," says Marshall. "The Internet is the right medium for that message."
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