Army Recruiters On a New Mission

SAN FRANCISCO If you think your marketing challenges are tough, put yourself in the Army’s boots. Faced with the difficulty of recruiting young people to join the military during a controversial war and amid daily reports of American deaths in Iraq, the U.S. Army has added a new tool to its arsenal: experiential marketing. And its strategy provides lessons for marketers of all stripes.

Since February 2007, the Army has gone on the road with the Virtual Army Experience, which includes a simulated combat mission using digital technology, real-life equipment and Army personnel. At places such as amusement parks, air shows, hot rod races and tech conferences nationwide, people have stood in line for up to two hours to climb inside Humvees, hoist realistic-looking guns and shoot at images of terrorists on giant video screens.

The simulation is essentially a giant, “real-life” version of the Army’s successful, five-year-old “America’s Army” video-game series, also used as a recruitment tool. (The multiplayer game puts people through basic training and combat.) But the Army’s experiential marketing exhibit also gathers personal information about each participant and uses it to customize each recruitment pitch during the simulations.

The target audience is 17-24-year-old males, but boys and girls as young as 14, as well as older adults, are welcome. (Anyone younger than 15 must be accompanied by an adult.) More than 73,000 participants have gone through the VAE tour since it began; of those, about 7,000 have been deemed Army material and have been courted by recruiters—a good ratio of total participants to prospective recruits, according to an Army rep, who declines to say how many of those have enlisted. (Due to the holiday season, the program has been on hiatus since mid-November and picks up again in late January.)

The experience “is fun and interactive … while effectively telling a brand story of teamwork, honor and respect,” says Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade, an experiential marketing agency. “Commercial clients should try to replicate this model … which gives users a realistic view of what the brand is about.”

Experience marketing is typically used to enhance consumers’ engagement with a brand. In a survey of marketing professionals by the Experiential Marketing Forum and Clickin Research in September, 83 percent of respondents said engagement issues such as building relationships and fostering trust were the goals. But the Army also needs to quickly identify top “sales” prospects and push participants into making a major life commitment.

“The program is very results oriented, there’s no fuzzy math here, ” says Eric Johnson, president of Ignited, the marketing agency that helped the Army develop the VAE.

As the need for recruits grew with the war in Iraq, the Army had little time to test and research its plans. In 2005, when it showed its training simulation at government trade shows, the Army was surprised by the number of attendees who wanted to try it just for fun. From there came the idea that the training tool could be used for recruitment. Research showed that the target audience also would enjoy seeing and trying actual Army equipment.

“There was an urgency to bring it to market,” says Johnson. “We fast-tracked the research phase and adopted a philosophy that we would test, improve and adapt” the program after it launched.

When participants show up, they fill out an online questionnaire, play the Army’s video game and are issued badges with a tracking device that stores the answers from the questionnaire and monitors their movements (e.g., which attractions seem to get their attention). They then see a video of soldiers briefing them on a mission to raid a terrorist stronghold.

Next, the visitors, in groups of 40, get into Humvees facing large screens. There they shoot fake guns at enemy figures and vehicles in the simulated raid. The vehicles shake and rock realistically, and the guns produce kickback. Soldiers then evaluate participants on their shooting and teamwork, show a video about Army heroes and introduce participants to one of the heroes in person. Visitors leave with a video game and prospects are contacted later by recruiters. Each visit lasts about 20 minutes.

Surveys taken by VAE organizers before and after the experience show some propensity shifts. Before each the event, 33 percent of attendees said “the Army is a job opportunity for me.” Afterward, it bumped up to 41 percent. About 22 percent of attendees agreed “the Army is a choice for those with no other options” before the experience; afterwards, only 11 percent agreed.

The Army’s use of storytelling, virtual-reality techniques and tracking technology is a potent combination that commercial marketers could learn from, say experts, especially those marketers who target young adults.

The event sells “the dream” of being part of an adventure and a team, says Erik Hauser, founder of Swivel Media. “The challenge for the Army, he adds, “is to shine a light on the part of the Army experience that sells. Strategically speaking, it’s very smart.”

So far, the Army has learned a variety of lessons, mostly about what works and, in a few cases, what needs to work better. These include:

1. A fully immersive environment overcomes past conditioning and brand biases. According to VAE project director Colonel Casey Wardynski, the “outside” world has too much “legacy information” that is inaccurate from pop culture, the media and veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “It’s vital that we define what combat looks like and not let it be portrayed by others,” he notes.

Captain Ryan Hansen, Ignited’s account director on the project—redeployed this fall, he’s currently a Special Forces officer in Iraq—says, “The VAE was an opportunity to show [the outside world] something compatible with my experience. It’s important that it’s realistic.”

2. Storytelling keeps the target’s attention.

“The key point is that the visitor is [an] action hero at the center of this story,” says Bob Rogers, CEO of BRC, Imagination Arts, an experiential marketing and design firm. Also, he says, the Army experience has a solid unifying story: Participants, he says, think, “We’ve located a bad guy, we make a plan, things don’t go perfectly, it is harder than we thought, but we work as a team, we capture the bad guy and we get home safely. We are congratulated [by our military bosses] and are told we have aptitude for this important work.”

3. Offer a free entertainment experience in exchange for personal information.

“We offer an entertaining, high-impact experience that might cost you $100, and in exchange we want to know about you,” says Wardynski. And questions are kept fluid. Recently, one about favorite recreational activities was nixed and information about tuition assistance was added due to interest in college costs.

4. Use the personal information to customize an on-site pitch.

The tracking devices give information to handheld devices used by soldiers at the exhibit, so they know how best to pitch the Army’s benefits. “If someone is there with his or her friends, then the soldiers talk about how people can go into training with their buddies,” says Wardynski. “If a prospect indicates … he came with his mother and she wants him to go to college, the … presentation [addresses] that.”

5. The best way to promote an event is to use the event itself.

To drum up interest in the road show, the Army uses national TV, print and Web ads as well as local radio and billboards. But Wardynski says visitors have said the ads were not all that influential, but that the sights and sounds of the exhibit itself convinced them to give it a try. “We also learned that a line makes a line,” he says. “When people see others standing in line, it prompts them to check out the event.”

As a result, midway through the road show the Army added a Jumbotron screen outside the entrance and next year it’s adding robotics and interactive kiosks outside the exhibit.

Industry experts say a high-end road show lasting several months costs about $5 million. Wardynski says the VAE’s cost per visitor is about $110. With about 73,000 visitors so far, that puts the VAE budget at about $8 million. Wardynski also says about 10 percent of visitors are promising candidates for enlistment, making the price tag about $1,000 per prospect. Currently the Army spends about $18,000 per recruit, he says. That includes ads, direct mail campaigns and recruiter salaries, making the VAE a relative bargain. He claims the Army does not have figures on how many people who have enlisted since February have participated in the VAE.

Wardynski, who is also director of the Army’s office of economic and manpower analysis at the West Point Military Academy, adds that the Army’s virtual experience road show was considered a “one-off” initiative when it started, but that the project’s results have changed the military service’s philosophy about recruitment. “Everything else the Army is doing will be designed to [match] this program” he says, and will be based on “activating the interests” of potential recruits and on “tangible actions and results.”