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The Most Recent Brand To Turn To Digital: The U.S. Army

One of largest brands in the U.S. has been forced to pivot due to COVID-19 — the U.S. Army. 

In Mid-March the US Army was forced to shut down their 1,400 recruiting stations across the country in response to the crisis. Fortunately, the army had already been using digital channels. 

“The groundwork was set before the coronavirus,” explains Staff Sgt. Barry Harris. “Now it’s paying dividends because people are home paying more attention to our postings and information and have time to have conversations via social media and Skype.”

Digital advertising isn’t completely new for the army — but 100% virtual recruitment is still a challenge.

How did the U.S. army change its digital ads under lockdown? 

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Will 100% Digital Recruiting Work?

Online recruiting is not completely new for the army. In 2018, the army failed to hit its recruiting goal — its first miss since 2005. This resulted in an evaluation of the recruiting process, and ultimately a bolstering of its digital capabilities.

“We are very confident in our ability to operate in the virtual space,” explains Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, USAREC chief. “as it has become a primary method of talking to potential soldiers in recent years.” The brand had already been using this channel — but the coronavirus crisis forced leadership to go all in. 

The army is now turning to webchats, texting, and video conferencing in place of in-person recruiting.

Now with recruiting happening 100% digitally, this strategy is being put to the test.

“The U.S. Army Recruiting Command has already found success in reaching potential recruits through the virtual space,” says Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy. “It may change the business model over time of how we recruit people.” The brand may choose to shift away from the traditional brick and mortar format, in favor of a virtual process. One day, recruits may only meet with recruiters face-to-face when they sign their contracts. 

While army leadership seems positive about virtual recruitment efforts, others are skeptical. 

“The Army, for example, enlisted 5,500 fewer people in March than expected,” says visiting professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Nora Bensahel. To curb some of the recruitment and training pipeline challenges the pandemic has brought on, the army has offered additional benefits to future soldiers.

For example, the army is putting new recruits on payroll even before they ship out to bootcamp

The army expects to rally more future soldiers in Summer and Fall, but in reality, nobody knows how long COVID restrictions will need to be in place. Recruitment is most effective with face-to-face interaction, but the army seems optimistic about how digital efforts are making up the difference. 

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In response to the inability to do in-person recruiting, the U.S. Army has drastically ramped up its online advertisements.

In all of 2019, they placed $1.6M worth of digital ads. In Q1 2020 alone, the U.S. Army recruiting team ran digital ads valued at $5.5M. That’s a huge increase in such a short period of time. 

Much of the efforts ramped up when COVID-19 started shutting down many parts of normal life. The rise in advertising, week of 3/23, comes almost immediately after recruitment office closures. 

As states began to re-open, we saw spend slowly come back down.

US Army Ad Spend Digital Recruiting Ad Spend

Note: While these are the values of the ad placements, the actual spend may be less. Given the army is part of the government, it may be getting discounts or deals not normally offered.

General Muth explained that the army made it a priority to begin interacting with young Americans on the websites and platforms they prefer. Our analysis indicates they are doing this well. 

We have seen their ads on Reddit, Bleacher Report, YouTube, Rotten Tomatoes and more. The army even made a large investment in Snapchat.

While the value of the ad spend placements is cooling down, it is likely that the impact of 100% virtual recruitment is here to stay. We will continue to watch for those long-term trends in army spending. 

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