Air Force plans new campaign, social media partnerships to address recruitment shortages

Amid a high-profile recruiting crisis, Air Force leaders and experts are increasingly noting the challenging long-term trends the service is facing in attracting young Americans to join: Declining numbers of eligible candidates, reduced interest and willingness to serve, and less contact with military personnel and service.

But while executives see no “silver bullet” to solve these problems, the Air Force Recruiting Service is pushing to attract more women to the service. Acting Secretary of the Air Force Kristyn E. Jones, in written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, described the Women in Sports Campaign, which she says is “focusing DAF recruitment on women athletes through direct marketing as well as enduring partnerships that… encourage women’s participation in sports.”

The target of the campaign, she said: “About 7.6 million 18-24 year old women [who] Watch women’s sport on YouTube.” As a group, “these viewers form an important demographic for DAF’s recruitment efforts,” Jones added.

The Air Force Recruiting Service plans to expand the reach of young women through social media, officials told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

The Women in Sport campaign is slated to launch this summer and hopes to inspire more young women to stay fit and consider ministry.

“Less than 25 percent of women ages 18-24 are actually eligible to serve in the military,” said Lara Stott, senior strategic advisor for marketing at AFRS. “And one of the main reasons is obesity and the lack of form and other health problems that come with it.

“So we worked to build an enduring branding initiative that was really focused on putting the Air Force front and center as a champion for women in sports and girls in sports,” Stott continued. “And we want to use this as an opportunity to be a kind of catalyst for the next generation of young women to pursue sport at whatever level.”

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By encouraging more girls and women to participate in sports, the USAF hopes to increase the percentage of young women who are fit enough for service.

“When they get to that 18-24 age bracket, when we’re actually trying to hire employees, it’s a lot harder to teach them those healthy habits if they don’t already have those healthy habits,” Stott said. “It’s really about instilling that feeling, making that an important part of your self-care as a woman.”

To convey that, Stott said, the Air Force will:

Expand exposure at prominent women’s sporting events. Build new partnerships with brands and influencers that have a greater “focus on the next generation of female athletes.”

But the Air Force isn’t going to break its budget all at once. “We could spend a lot of money on the upcoming Women’s World Cup and that would be great for a moment,” Stott said. “But we want this to be something really permanent.”

expanding its reach

Air Force Recruiting had approximately 1 million followers on Facebook, 349,000 on Instagram, and 153,000 subscribers on YouTube as of March 31. However, Jones told congressional department heads that they believe they can significantly increase reach by partnering with appropriate social media influencers.

“We’re looking at how we can better leverage YouTube influencers,” Jones said.

Stott said it was a matter of range. “Now if you go on YouTube, in addition to the Air Force Recruiting Service and the Air Force’s official YouTube channels, there are all kinds of channels that are heavily Air Force focused. I think all of these are potential partners at this point.”

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Influencers can come in many forms, Stott added. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to tell that authentic Airman story. And if that’s coming from someone at Nellis Air Force Base who just made us a cool piece of content about a day in the life, then those are the real kinds of stories we want to tell.”

It’s about connecting with young people in a more personal, genuine way.

“Obviously, as a young cohort, Gen Z is one of the brightest generations,” Stott said. “They know if you’re not sincere, they can see through you. So we’re looking very carefully at where we can take Air Force and Guard and Reserve — all of our components — where we can match those attributes and Gen Z attributes, and where those overlap.”

Some Airmen and former Airmen with established social media presences have expressed concerns about mixing the official Air Force branding with their personal ones, but recruiting officials insist they don’t want to stifle Airmen’s voices, and they’re giving the partners a big one Giving leeway to express their creativity.

Stott conceded that “there’s certainly a risk involved with that.” But she added, “I think we’re willing to take a little bit of that risk because the reward will outweigh that risk.”

Outside the Air Force

The Air Force also sees potential for partnerships with influencers and brands that will connect with the audiences the services need to reach.

Super Girl Surf Pro, an annual surfing competition; Athletes Unlimited, a growing basketball league; and Amanda Sorenson, a driver in formula drift motorsport competition, all have appeal to women the Air Force doesn’t believe it can now match. With tens of thousands of followers on social media, they represent growth. Further partnerships are pending.

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But AFRS isn’t just striving for the longest possible range, Stott said.

“What we don’t want is just to be construed as if we’re not real,” she said. “Again, I really think Gen Z would see right through this. And I think we all know examples of brands in the past where they made the mistake of entering into partnerships that didn’t really have a natural connection to their brand’s message, their brand values, if you will. And when that happens, they face a lot of backlash.”