How the Marine Corps Enlists Big Data for Recruitment Efforts

The USMC Has Worked Closely with JWT Atlanta for Around 65 Years

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United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Raphael Hernandez is thinking about attending South by Southwest, the ever-expanding Austin music, film and digital-media fiesta to be held in March. Like countless corporations, brands and marketers, the USMC wants to learn about new approaches to media and data-driven marketing, bound to be a hot topic at this year's event.

"We look for opportunities to attend conferences that may provide us an opportunity to interact with early adopters. "There's definitely an interest in terms of my team attending," said Lt. Col. Hernandez, assistant chief of staff for advertising for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.

Today, the USMC analyzes data from the Department of Defense's own prospect lists, direct interactions through email or digital ads, third-party demographic data, 2010 Census data, voter file data and behavioral and purchase transaction data from outside sources including Acxiom.

"I spend the time and put resources against ensuring my team on the Marines side is provided further education of what's happening in industry in terms of big data," added Lt. Col. Hernandez. "We're not experts at it but we're getting a lot smarter."

The Marine Corps has worked closely with JWT Atlanta for around 65 years on its marketing and recruitment efforts. In that time the USMC, along with other US military branches have not only transformed from partially-drafted to all-volunteer, but opened their ranks to more Hispanics than ever before. This is an especially significant shift for the historically primarily-white Marines.

A goal for the Marines is to be "more representative of the face of the nation," said Arnel Santiago, director of analytics, JWT. The USMC's key recruitment targets are 17-24 year old males.

"It isn't as stark and as black and white as taking a look at a component like ethnicity," added Mr. Santiago. Indeed, with JWT's help, today the USMC has devised recruitment segments based on information such as purchase information and interests. For instance, they might start with a data point showing someone is a photo enthusiast. "We basically take a factor such as that along with 250 to 300 other variables, and when we put it through advanced analytics metrics…we paint a very complex picture of who these people are."

Added Lt. Col. Hernandez, "We've been able to define a correlation between groups of people who have similar interests. I don't believe it's any different from what industry is doing in terms of selling products."

The USMC modernized its approach to data-driven recruitment in 2007 with an in-house database. Before that the system was antiquated -- not unlike that of lots of current government bodies. Recruiters relied on a "10-inch thick" book filled with index cards for each potential candidate. It was like "Glengarry Glen Ross," said Mr. Santiago.

The USMC uses publicly-available voter file data along with other information to isolate regional pockets where likely recruitment candidates reside. It's not as crude as targeting areas that tend to vote Republican, said Mr. Santiago.

For instance, they looked at county-by-county voter data and determined nuances beyond voting district trends, determining, "This side of the fence is thinking one way and that side of the fence is behaving completely different."

Some innovations such as geographic targeting may seem like child's play to corporate marketers, but they've proved to be beneficial to the Marine Corps. For instance, communicating the message that a recruiter will be in a certain area or at a specific high school on a given day via email or social media is a simple yet helpful tactic.

"A recruiter isn't reliant on a young person running into him in the hallway," said Lt. Col. Hernandez. "In this day and age, young people that we're recruiting are constantly being connected. Their behavior is very different from my generation growing up in the '80s."

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The Marines are up against restrictions that might be difficult for corporate digital marketers to imagine. For instance, if someone submits contact information through the site, that information cannot be tied to that person's site interaction or behavioral data. Also, the USMC can't enable behavioral targeting according to Department of Defense rules for third-party cookies, which are not allowed on military sites.

This way, recruitment ads for the Marines won't follow around people who have visited the site the way an ad for shoes might chase down someone who recently looked at a retail site featuring footwear. In part, this is to ensure that the military is always perceived as an all-volunteer force. "Would I want to know that the Army is following my son around with sniper rifles and helicopters?" asked Mr. Santiago.

The USMC's ad program must contribute to 20% of contracts in support of recruitment, according to JWT. Today it's hit above the 30% mark. Last year, the Marines surpassed its goal to enlist 32,300 recruits, edging up to 32,215, according to Defense Department data. In 2012, the goal of 30,500 was beat by 14 additional recruits.

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