On a recent Friday night, 15 or so young people crowd into a chat room, posting questions and answers in such rapid-fire sequence that it becomes difficult to follow a single thread of conversation. Some eager participants repeat their questions two or three times before getting a response, and a few complain about being ignored and abruptly leave the room.
A visitor might initially think he’s landed in a Yahoo singles chat room, except this is GoArmy.com, the recruiting Web site of the U.S. Army.
Big, big money
In the fiscal year 2003, the Army will spend $250 million to recruit just over 100,000 new soldiers for active duty and the reserves, which makes it the largest recruiter in the country. Of all the forms of advertising the Army tracks, its Web site is the most successful at attracting new soldiers. About 4.4 percent of leads that come to the Army from the Internet will actually convert to signed contracts. Since October of last year, the Army has received 189,000 leads from the Internet. Once a visitor actually enters GoArmy.com’s chat room, the conversion rate jumps to 10.4 percent.
"The largest corporations could easily take this as a lesson in creating an experience for the job seeker that is guaranteed to produce results," says Gerry Crispin, principal of CareerXroads, international consultants on staffing, process, technology and strategy.
The challenge for the Army--and corporations--is to entice potential job candidates but to also give them a realistic picture of what it’s like to work there. "The problem of overselling in a corporate environment is different than in the Army," Crispin says. "If you get the person to sign up in the Army, they’re legally obligated for the next three to five years. [But in a corporate environment], if you’ve oversold me and I walk in the door and find out you didn’t tell the truth, I turn around and walk out. I don’t stay three to five years."
Day in the life
Crispin and other experts say that you should give job candidates realistic expectations right off the bat. One way to do that is to show candidates the kinds of people who work in an organization and what a typical day is like for people in various positions. Instead of trying to be an employer of choice to everyone, organizations should clearly outline the types of candidates they seek, says Nick Burkholder, president of Staffing.org, a nonprofit organization.
In a 2003 Benchmark Report, Staffing.org found that when organizations communicate the reality of their work environment, it improves their recruiting effectiveness, including the interview-to-offer ratio, offer-to-acceptance ratio and acceptance-to-start ratio. "There are even indications that it helps with retention too," says Burkholder.
The more information that candidates possess, the easier it is for them to determine whether a company fits their needs, a process called self-selection. For instance, theNational Security Agency takes the secrecy out of what it does by showing would-be spooks the six career paths it offers and the skills required for those positions. Other companies whose Web sites try to drive self-selection includeBurger King,Vanguard,Disney,Marconi andCorning.
The Army’s recruiting Web site, GoArmy.com, tries to drive self-selection by featuring profiles with lots of pictures and video demonstrating the experience of various soldiers in the Army. The Web site took its current shape in January 2001, with the launch of the "Army of One" advertising campaign. Along with profiles, the site features basic information about jobs and life in the Army. And, of course, there’s America’s Army, a PC video game described as "highly realistic." The tag line says you can "gain experience as a U.S. soldier without leaving home."
It’s a controversial topic. Some bristle at the thought of including a game on GoArmy.com, saying it doesn’t give young people a realistic idea of the risks associated with working in the Army. "War is not a game and it’s not safe," says Bob Fitch, a coordinator of the draft and military alternatives program at the Resource Center for Nonviolence. "As the young men and women are testifying in the newspaper today from Iraq, they’ve experienced the anguish of killing people that are civilians and not army and are experiencing the anguish of death around them...this is not virtual reality," he says. "Whether one enlists as a medic or a truck driver or clerk or pilot, it’s all the same."
The Army downplays the game as a recruiting tool, saying that potential soldiers are more interested in the soldier profiles and being able to ask questions of recruiters, who are former or current soldiers. Many candidates show a great deal of interest in Basic Training, a Web series that follows six recruits through nine weeks of boot camp. "One of our reasons for starting with Basic Training as a subject was that our research showed this was one of the things that put people off, scared them about the Army," says Louise Eaton, a media chief in the Army.
Filtering people out
In September, the Army will add another Web series to GoArmy.com--called 2400/7--which follows nine soldiers around the clock. One of the Army’s recruiting challenges is to differentiate itself from its sister services, and this series highlights the variety of career fields in which soldiers can serve. "All of the other services added together don’t equal the size and scope of the options we offer," says Eaton.
Still, even Eaton admits that because the advertising campaign resonates so well with young people, it does at times encourage a response from individuals who are not qualified. The Army uses the chat room to filter those people out, saying that its cyber-recruiters can be brutally honest. Indeed, the Friday-night chat in August included a Swedish man named Morgan who wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army. The recruiters told him that he needed a green card before he could apply.
Another would-be soldier, with the screen name ArmyBratt, had just been caught shoplifting $35 worth of merchandise that day and wondered whether he would still be eligible for Warrant Officer Flight Training, also known as the high-school-to-flight-school program. The recruiters didn’t hesitate to tell ArmyBratt that while he could still enlist in the Army once the charges were cleared, admission to the flight school program is so competitive that he shouldn’t bother to apply with shoplifting charges against him.
Even with all this honesty, somehow the discussion of would-be soldiers actually going to war fails to come up during a half-hour spent in the chat room. In fact, GoArmy.com stresses themes like individual fulfillment, adventure and teamwork but does not address the battlefield, or the fact that soldiers may indeed risk their lives for their country.
What the Army has accomplished, though, is the creation of a site that is "enormously engaging for a 16-year-old male," says CareerXroads’ Crispin. "By the time they’re 18, they can’t think of doing anything but joining."