US Army sees real results with virtual recruiter

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Given the US military's current involvement in the Middle East, American young men and women have to think long and hard before entering into a career in the Army.

But what may be surprising is the vast range of questions that need to be addressed before someone between the age of 17 and 24 makes the decision to join. In addition to big picture topics such as "Will I be deployed," recruiters also have to reassure potential enlistees on a variety of other subjects, some of them fairly mundane.

"One of the most common questions asked is, æHow often do I shower during basic training and do I have to shower in a room with a bunch of other people?'" notes Patrick Ream, marketing VP with Spokane, WA-based Next IT.

In order to provide those answers - and to avoid having their target 17-to-24-year-old demographic feel like they're being rushed or sold to - the Army turned to Next IT to help create a virtual guide as the centerpiece of a new direct marketing campaign on their GoArmy.com Web site.

The site's main virtual character, Sgt. Star, has many of the brand attributes the Army wants to convey to their target audience, including strength and trustworthiness. But he also has been given a personality of sorts, capable of providing reassuring answers to most of the questions potential recruits may have about the Army.

"We created Sgt. Star to attract people who aren't in a situation where they are willing to receive information about the Army from a live recruiter," says Paula Spilman, an Army IT manager, charged with overseeing the Sgt. Star program. "But they do become interested in Sgt. Star when they come online, and in that process they find out something about the Army, and go from æI never would consider a career in the Army' to æI didn't know this about the Army. Maybe I'll investigate further.'"

Like many good direct marketing ideas, the Sgt. Star program was created out of necessity.

"We were operating an open chat room where you had multiple threads going. It was place where kids could find out information about the Army at their own pace, without having to talk to a recruiter," explains Spilman.

IT managers and those who manned the chat room found the majority of those queries covered the same topics, while the Army was only able to man the room and answer questions during limited hours.

"We figured there's got to be a better way to do this," says Spilman. "We know from our market research that kids want to get information 24/7, so creating Sgt. Star would be a great opportunity to capture those questions, and put them out where individuals could get at them when they wanted."

Coming up with actual character design was the easy part, as the Army simply ported Sgt. Star from The Army Game, a popular PC video game that has been used as a recruiting tool for several years.

Giving Sgt. Star a real interactive personality that would resonate with 17-to-24-year olds was the next obstacle, and that's where Spilman and her team partnered up with Next IT, a top innovator in designing intelligent self-service applications driven by proven artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Ream explains that the backend infrastructure for Sgt. Star is quite technical, but the user interface does a great job of mimicking real interaction.

"When you're chatting with Sgt. Star you're chatting with our technology and [our] agent, which creates a very conversational model with elements of voice, text response and, when appropriate, page navigation," says Ream. "We found this is a very familiar communication or style preference for that target demographic because it really emulates the chat or text messaging that most of them have grown up with."

Spilman and her team took the Next IT off-the-shelf solution and then did what they term "training the brain."

"We started out with all the most common questions asked in the chat room and we loaded up the answers," she says. "Then we had six weeks of intensive work groups where we brought in both recruiters and other subject matter experts from across the command, and we sat and tested it to see what we thought he needed to know."

In addition to being this virtual search guide/ answer man, the Army and Next IT did all they could to give Sgt. Star tastes of his own, so he can answer questions such as "Are you married?" "What's your favorite color or food?"

"One of the key attributes of our solutions is the persona of the agents we deploy," explains Ream. "In this case, they all help enforce the brand the Army wants to convey - strong leadership and all the attributes associated with that."

Since its formal launch, Sgt. Star has proven to not only be a great brand ambassador for the Army, but a very sticky one. Sgt. Star answers about 92 percent of the questions asked of him. Spilman notes, "The average time online [at] GoArmy.com before Sgt. Star was four minutes. It's 16, almost 17, minutes per visit with Sgt. Star."

While the Sgt. Star program has been great as a branding tool and in getting targeted information to a key demographic, it does have limitations for gathering data on specific individuals within this target market. The program - and all of the Army's Web-based direct marketing efforts - have to adhere to strict government restrictions that prohibit the use of tools like persistent cookies.

"Everything we learn about activity on the Web on behalf of this client is at an aggregate level," explains David Hohman, SVP at MRM Worldwide, the direct marketing arm of McCann World Group. "When someone gets there, whether they've been there before, [or] are there frequently, what they're doing relative to what they've done before, is all lost."

The Army is currently looking to have some of those restrictions eased, but for now, Louise Eaton, of the Army's Media & Web, Advertising section in Fort Knox, says there's a limit to what insights the Sgt. Star program can provide as a research tool.

"We do a whole lot of research with our target market, including talking directly to the people themselves," says Eaton. "For us, Sgt. Star's biggest marketing advantage is the neat/cool factor. To have an artificial intelligence agent operating apparently autonomously on our Web site is pretty neat and cool - this is an avatar times 10."

MRM Worldwide also must follow government restrictions when doing work for the Army, but Hohman says there are opportunities to gather information on specific potential recruits through voluntary opt-ins.

"We've got direct mail programs and e-mail programs that are acquisition-based, as well as re-engagement and re-contact," he adds. "We need people to volunteer the information, [so] we need to make it worth their while to register and one way to do that is with programs like Sgt. Star."

MRM works with other McCann World Group companies, to make sure all these direct marketing initiatives tie back into the Army's overall marketing and ad message.

"What we are trying to do is show people that the Army makes you stronger today and in the future," Hohman says. "It is a great place to get training, get a leg up, build self-discipline, strength of character [and] leadership - qualities that will serve them well throughout their lives."

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