This Is Not Your Father's Army National Guard

Social Media, Technology Have Become Key Marketing Tools -- Soon Potential Recruits Will Even Be Able to Apply by Smartphone

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It has nearly 910,000 Facebook likes and 16,000 Twitter followers, a YouTube channel with 7 million monthly views, a Nascar sponsorship, smartphone apps and cutting-edge social-media campaigns.

This is definitely not your father's National Guard. Today, National Guard marketing relies heavily on social media with immersive campaigns like "Moments of Pride" and, most recently, "Epic," which enables potential recruits to create customized music videos of the citizen soldier experience.

According to Col. Porter, 'The hardest thing for a recruit today is that they have to have their cellphone taken away from them.'
According to Col. Porter, 'The hardest thing for a recruit today is that they have to have their cellphone taken away from them.'

Helming marketing efforts is Col. Rob Porter, the U.S. National Guard's answer to a CMO. He's chief of its Strength Directorate, which houses education, recruiting and marketing.

Mr. Porter's role is critical for the Guard, which not only needs to build its brand and awareness, but also needs to attract high-quality recruits. Social media is proving indispensable in reaching its 17- to 24-year-old target , and while that may not be surprising, the speed and proficiency with which it has embraced social media is notable.

"We need the creative X-Game type mentality that can look at the world with the 18-to-24 lens and understand that smartphones have replaced PCs as access to the internet," Col. Porter said. "When you talk to a recruit these days, they're not concerned about the physical demands of basic training such as road marches, running, push ups, sit-ups and the instruction. The hardest thing for a recruit today is that they have to have their cellphone taken away from them."

In an interview with Ad Age , Col. Porter explained his marketing challenge and how it differs from that of traditional marketers.

Ad Age : Traditional marketers are struggling to understand social media and its ins and outs, while the National Guard quickly became a savvy veteran. How did that happen?

Col. Porter: If you look at the target demographics, especially 17- to 24-year-olds, they are heavy into smartphones and social media. We fully grasp the importance and the viral impact of social media. We're starting to see great returns both in advertising in social media as well as the applications.

Ad Age : What are those "great returns" on your social-media investment?

1. I'm a die-hard fan of the Detroit Lions, Pistons, Redwings, Tigers and the U of Michigan Wolverines.
2. The highlight of my military career was going on stage after the secretary of defense to speak to 40,000 Boy Scouts at the 2010 Scout Jamboree.
3. I'm a closet tree-hugger.
4. My favorite food is nut rolls from Louie's in Marshall, Mich.
5. I'm a firm believer in "math solves everything."

Col. Porter: We're seeing a much greater return from our social-media side than we are from our event and sponsorship side. For example, the "Moments of Pride" campaign had 12 million direct views, but there was a [bigger] viral part to it. It had a Facebook link, so they could post it on Facebook, for instance.

I'd say it's been a double-digit return on investment in social media. That's in tracking the number of leads generated, in increased traffic to, and -- it's harder to estimate this -- but I would also say in National Guard awareness.

Ad Age : What about mobile media, which you mentioned is important to your target audience?

Col. Porter: [In mobile], we have a new movement called "Path to Honor," which is an online process for finding out information about the Guard, as well as [to determine whether] you qualify. In the next four to six months, the potential applicant will be able to process his application right from a smartphone.

Ad Age : What about traditional media?

Col. Porter: Our TV, radio and billboard advertisements are covered under the NCSA [Non-Sustaining Commercial Announcement program for nonprofit and government ads]. We partner with the broadcasters' associations for non-paid, nonprofit advertising. We're unlike the Dept. of the Army and others, where they pay for paid advertisements. Since we cannot pay for paid advertising, we are allowed to use broadcast association, and we receive quite a bit of benefit from that . We have Guard commercials, Guard billboards and Guard radio spots that air -- and I hate to say this -- but more or less in "filler" time.

We do work with ad agencies for some of our bigger projects. And we do have some contracted personnel, but the bulk are "green suiters," or military individuals.

Ad Age : What is the new "Epic" campaign?

Col. Porter: We wanted to keep the theme of , "picture yourself in the Guard." We're starting to do that with augmented reality in applications. "Epic" uses music and the ability to create your own video by choosing a genre and special effects, and it even takes personal information from Facebook. We want to portray that the National Guard is on the forefront and cutting edge, leveraging all types of technology. And that you see yourself as part of that . "Moments of Pride" had 12 million views that directly correlated to a 200,000 increase in the number of our Facebook fans. We're expecting that same level from "Epic."

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