Air Force Takes Aim at Higher Recruiting Goal With Web Series

'The Circuit' Targets Tech-Savvy Audience, Combats Idea That Service Is 'Just About Pilots'

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LOS ANGELES ( -- The new slogan at the U.S. Air Force: "Aim wide."

The Air Force has increased its recruiting enlistment goal more than 15% this year, and has turned to a tactic employed by private-sector behemoths such as Sprint, IBM and Coke: It's launching a branded web series.

The five part series, titled "The Circuit," begins airing today on YouTube and a variety of online destinations favored by tech-savvy males such as, Yahoo Technology and -- yes, in a nod to its geeky side -- even "Star Trek" fan sites to help the Air Force reach its ambitious goal of 32,000 new enlistments, up from 27,000 last year.

Departure from previous efforts
But the tone is a departure from both previous and current marketing efforts by Air Force that play up sleek fighter jets screaming across the skies. "The Circuit" focuses instead on the "nation's best young innovators and their inspiring innovations," such as the doe-faced mechanical-engineering student from Pittsburgh who has created an ultra-lightweight building material, or another kid who has reverse-engineered a motor scooter from a weed whacker.

"There's this misconception that the Air Force is just about pilots," said Amanda Bottger, an account manager at the Air Force's ad agency, GSD&M Idea City, who said the campaign is designed to attract highly skilled "tech-tinkerers -- people who are hands-on, minds-on."

She added, "We want to build awareness, but ultimately we want people to become [recruitable] leads."

The Air Force has little choice but to recruit online. The Air Force is short some 500 recruiters, according to Rod Powers, a 23-year Air Force vet and the author of "Veterans Benefits for Dummies," so Air Force Air Education and Training Command officials acknowledge that meeting their newly increased goal will be challenging.

What's more, the high-tech Gen Y member the Air Force most wants to recruit isn't spending much time with traditional print or broadcast media, said Jim Askins, the account executive at Air Force Recruiting Services overseeing the "Circuit" initiative.

'Not reading TV Guide'
Mr. Askins said the Air Force will spend at least 85% of its enlistment marketing dollars online, because its target audience of 17- to 27-year-old males is "not reading TV Guide like they used to. They're living online."

Indeed 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds are members of online social networks, according to the latest data available from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Complicating matters, though, the Air Force faces additional marketing challenges the private sector does not. Everyone and anyone who wants to buy a can of Coke and has 85ยข in their pocket can do so. But unlike Coke, the Air Force rejects fully 70% of those moved to try to enlist.

"We run into all sorts of restrictions: age limits, drug issues, obesity, medical conditions, people in trouble with the law, folks who have salary issues," Mr. Askins said.

That's why the Air Force needed more than what Digital Broadcasting Group CEO Chris Young calls the "post-and-pray approach." Digital Broadcasting Group maintains a network of highly trafficked, video-heavy websites such as The network is a client of Idea City, which handled the media buy.

"Traditionally, that's what branded entertainment involved," Mr. Young said. "You'd spend a gazillion dollars and then have to hope, 'Please, dear God, let it be viral!'"

Seeded like advertising
Instead, he told the Air Force that the "Circuit" campaign will reach 8 million viewers, because while "The Circuit" may look like just another web series, the Air Force has paid for it to be seeded as if it were an ad across Digital Broadcasting Group's network. As for the cost of the media buy, Mr. Young said there is an "implied" cost per thousand visitors that can be derived by looking at the sites' general traffic, but he would not comment on the CPM, the cost of the "Circuit" production or the media-buying budget for it, nor would Mr. Askins or Idea City.

Mr. Askins would say only that his entire budget for both commissioned and enlisted recruitment was less than $14 million for fiscal 2009.

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