Reaching Opinion Leaders Through the Internet To Create a Support
Network for Military Recruiting
Chris Ames
James Biggerstaff
Michael Martin
Joint Course in Communication
University of Oklahoma
July 22, 1999

The following overview examines the future of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) efforts to use the Internet for recruiting. Although the DOD has developed extensive Websites for Internet recruiting, it is not meeting its overall recruiting goals (Borlick, 1999). This project submits that the role of parents and educators as opinion leaders in the recruiting process is not receiving sufficient attention in DOD Internet initiatives. The Theory of Diffusion of Innovations provides the foundation for this exploration of recommendations for the DOD about future direction for recruiting through the Internet. The project also summarizes the current state of DOD Internet recruiting efforts. Although further efforts at recruiting through the Internet will not solve the DOD’s recruiting challenges, if the DOD fails to include the role of opinion leaders in fostering the acceptability of military careers among American youth, Internet marketing is not achieving its potential.









The Internet offers the U.S. military a remarkable tool for recruiting. The World Wide Web allows recruiters and potential recruits to find each other through both active and passive advertising modes. Electronic mail (hereafter e-mail) can be used in cold-call or follow-up formats. Banner advertising may be purchased on a variety of popular Websites. Official military recruiting pages offer details to potential recruits about joining the military via front-line information provided by banners, television/print media advertisements or e-mail/telemarketing. Potential recruits can also access the official recruiting pages through on-line search engines. Recruiters can scan resumes posted on-line, either manually or through recently developed automated agent software.

This study assumes that Department of Defense’s (DOD) target audience for recruiting is the 26.7 million Americans who are between 18 and 24 years of age (World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1999). However, since DOD projections indicate that the current recruiting difficulties will probably not ease in the near future, this overview will also make reference to the Internet Generation, or "Net-gens," a technology-savvy generation of 88 million people who are presently 20 years of age or younger ("In the net," August 1998).

Although Internet users are too diverse to be reduced to a single profile, researchers have isolated certain demographic characteristics of these users. Fifty-five percent of Internet users are male and 45% female. By age, the largest group, comprising 44% of the population, is between 18 and 34 years of age. With respect to age, all members of this population are eligible for recruiting. Internet users are generally better educated than the national average, with 44% possessing a college diploma (Godin, 1997).

Internet users are distributed fairly evenly throughout the country with 23% in the Northeast, 19% in the Midwest, 31% in the South, and 27% in the West. They are also a high-income group with 73% having a household income of $40,000 or more per year. The majority (51%) has a household income of $60,000 or more per year (Godin, 1997). Although these income figures seem to indicate that military recruiting may not be very competitive in this population, it is likely that the younger segments of the Internet user population -- our target audience of 18 to 24 year olds -- are heavily represented in the 26% whose household income is less than $40,000 per year. This group of 26% of Internet users is comprised of millions of individuals.

This project contends that the DOD should not limit its Internet marketing efforts to 18 to 24 year-old potential recruits. The DOD is already exploiting the Internet to reach the target audience through a plethora of well-designed Websites (R. Burns, personal communication, July 20, 1999). However, in order to increase the size of the target audience, the DOD has already begun targeting the "Net gens" by including areas on recruiting Websites (see Parents and educators (hereafter opinion leaders) must also be included in marketing efforts to build broad-based support for military careers as a career option for American youth.

The demographic profile of Internet users stated earlier in this Introduction only shows a partial profile of a wide-open market. A different demographic profile, which categorizes age groups differently, indicates that 49% of the total Internet user population is between 35 to 54 years of age ("Netuser User Demographics," 1999.) Only 14% of the total Internet user population is between 18 and 24 years of age ("Netuser Demographics," 1999).

This study limits the category of opinion leaders to parents, teachers and guidance counselors. The support network for members of the target audience may include a variety of other individuals as well, such as clergy, civic leaders, significant others, siblings and members of extended kinship networks (Gill & Haurin, 1998). Limiting the study to parents and educators allows this study to view the impact of individuals who are traditionally consulted in career decisions by the target audience (Ketterson & Blustein, 1997).

This overview will employ Diffusion of Innovation Theory and Two-Step (Multistep) Flow Theory, to create policy recommendations about how increased opinion leader support, garnered through improved Internet marketing to the opinion leaders, will improve the acceptability for military careers for potential recruits. Over time, if the DOD reaches out to these opinion leaders through the Internet, a support network for military recruiting may be created.

Use of Electronic Mail in Military Recruiting

As all good salesmen know, follow-up with customers is vital to closing deals, and military recruiting is no exception. While the use of the telephone and face-to-face communication can never be replaced, e-mail is now, and should increasingly in the future, be used to interact with applicants.

In the case of Air Force recruiting, (C. Marshall, personal interview, 1999) states he answers about 75 to 100 "ask the recruiter" e-mails daily from

Purchase of Advertising Banners on Commercial Websites

Unlike the traditional advertising mediums including TV, radio, print or billboards, provisions are usually written into Internet banner contracts which guarantee a certain amount of accesses (Marshall, 1999). Currently, the Air Force buys banner ads on 10 Internet sites including Music Television, and a science-fiction site. The MTV site costs $30 per 1,000 "unique impressions," with an estimated click-through rate of 1.5%, meaning 15 of the 1,000 people who saw the banner would end up going to the site, or $2 per visit. While this may seem expensive, public relations and advertising experts also understand simply looking at the armed forces logos is image branding so the cost/benefit is considered effective (Marshall, 1999).

Marshall (1999) says there are plans to create an interactive banner advertisement where an "enemy" aircraft must be shot down by a few successful mouse clicks before being transported to a recruiting site. In September, the Air Force plans to unveil another site to target 12 to 15 year-olds.

Recruiting Websites in the .com Domain

In addition to the service-specific sites mentioned above, the DOD maintains two commercial Websites to attract young people to military service.

The military recruiting site registers 3,000 to 6,000 sessions per month (E. Fisch, personal communication, July 13, 1999). The unusual fact is that sessions average eight to 11 minutes each which seems to be a very long time for today’s 18 to 24 year-olds, infamous for their short attention spans. Visitors can interact by voting on a new Website appearance and receive information about buying cars, personal finance, resume building and life after high school. The pages feature a lot of moving graphics and the text was obviously written to target the 18-24 year old. Examples are the feedback e-mail address of, and the ability to send postcards with the instructions ending, "…and it’s outta here!"

At, visitors will encounter a much cleaner and more simply laid out site with "click here" options to avoid any dead ends. One section titled "What’s In It For Me?" answers the questions common among "Net-gens."

Search Engine Key Words

Marshall (1999) says recruiting is working with five or six of the major Internet search engines to develop a keyword campaign where entries such as "military jobs" will return Internet addresses of armed forces recruiting sites.

Electronic Resumes Online

Fisch (1999) says resumes are typically location-specific (e.g., 22-year old male with experience in automotive mechanics seeks work in the Phoenix area) and while they may work for National Guard or Reserve recruiting, do not have wide application for non-prior service, active-duty military recruiting.

Online Job Fair

When the Air Force held a career forum, its site received 3,000 registrations (J. Hancock, personal communication July 19, 1999). From 2,000 to 4,000 "hits" per month view the archive version (Marshall, 1999).


Fisch (1999) says print ads, handouts including brochures and other free trinkets commonly given to prospects by recruiters typically list DOD recruiting URLs. The degree of success of this effort for referring potential recruits to Internet recruiting sites is unknown and is a viable study in itself. Currently, the only outdoor advertising (billboards) for the armed forces with URLs advertised are public service – not purchased advertising (Fisch, 1999). Finally, safety posters are distributed in high school shop classes which contain contact information (T. Clements, personal communication, July 20, 1999). A toll-free telephone number and recruiting URL are listed at the bottom of the posters (Clements, 1999).

Statement of the Problem

In 1998, the DOD did not reach its total recruiting goals (Borlik, 1999). Although the DOD will spend approximately $300 million on advertising in 1999, it only expects to net 200,000 recruits (Borlik, 1999). So far in 1999, the DOD is not meeting its recruiting goals. As of the end of February, the Air Force was more than 1,000 airmen behind the pace to reach its annual target (Borlick, 1999). The Army missed its fiscal 1998 recruiting goal by about 800 and the Navy missed by 7,000 (Borlick, 1999). This project examines how the DOD could more effectively inform opinion leaders about military recruiting. The project submits that opinion leaders heavily influence the career decisions of young people in the target audience. Some recruiters found that while many parents once told their children that it was all right for their kids to defend the nation, these same parents today can’t see their kids serving as peacekeepers for someone else’s battles (Barrett, 1999). Barrett (1999) also states that Pentagon officials realize most recruiting conditions will not improve until trends change and more young Americans show interest in serving.

To date, no DOD Websites have been tailored exclusively to the opinion leaders. In any society, these opinion leaders exert a tremendous amount of influence on the younger generation (Rogers, 1971; Ketterson & Blustein, 1997). The informal influence exerted by opinion leaders must be included in the DOD’s Internet marketing calculus if a support network for military recruiting is to be formed.

From a public affairs perspective, the DOD should expand its conception of who is included in the target audience. The target audience is not simply the 18 to 24 year-old potential recruits, but the people around them who influence the major life decisions of the young people in the target audience. Since humans exist in a web of relationships, marketing to strategic points on that web, specifically the lines of intersection occupied by opinion leaders, is even more important than marketing to individual points in that web (Goldhaber, 1974). Rogers (1971) observed such networks as multiple-person communication chains, which are comprised of dyads that are linked together. This system "in which the receiver in one dyad is the source in the next," and the network itself, is well designed to create a firmly rooted system of support for a given program in society (Rogers 1971, p. 82). Marketing military careers through networks and their opinion leaders may be more effective than focusing on isolated individuals.

Recent efforts by the DOD to reach the target audience via the Internet have tended more and more to focus on marketing approaches that appeal to today’s younger Internet users (Borlik, 1999). Younger Internet users like flashy, intuitive Websites that hold their attention (R. Burns, 1999). Tapscott (1999) recommends that those who market to "Net-gens," should familiarize themselves with their target audience.

The DOD webpage,, attempts to market the military to young people by providing information about matters that concern people in the target age group. Information on personal finance, careers -- even buying used cars -- is included on the Website, Military recruiting information is also available on this Website, but the recruiting information is only one link among many. This approach is consistent with Tapscott’s (1999) recommendation to provide as many options as possible when marketing to "Net-Gens."

Review of Literature

Opinion leaders and members of the target audience are linked in the Two-Step Flow model as well as in the Diffusion of Innovation Theory (Infante, Rancer and Womack, 1997). In the Two-Step Flow model, it is the opinion leaders who are active information seekers while the members of the target audience are primarily passive information consumers (Infante, Rancer and Womack, 1997). Hence, DOD efforts that neglect these opinion leaders have been focusing their recruiting efforts on a primarily passive audience rather than the active information seekers.

Littlejohn (1996) maintains that interpersonal networks are of primary importance in the diffusion paradigm. Littlejohn (1996) also indicates that mass-communication may play significant, albeit, secondary roles in diffusion. The Internet offers the DOD a mass communication medium to reach individuals involved in interpersonal networks with potential recruits. However, the DOD may not yet have penetrated the important interpersonal networks. Research should be conducted to determine the degree of penetration DOD messages have achieved among opinion leaders.

Littlejohn (1996, p. 337) states: "Interaction is important, for diffusion appears to be a product of give and take rather than the simple transmission of information from one person to another." Rogers (1971) envisioned the network as one possible mode of relational analysis in the process of diffusion of innovations; under this conception, the information flow is two-way. Opinion leaders and the targets of their messages interact, acting and reacting to the interlocutor’s messages (Littlejohn, 1996).

Dominick (1996) indicates that opinion leaders serve as a filter for mass media influence. This intermediary role conditions the effectiveness of mass media. If opinion leaders support the option of a military career for young people who are close to them, the mass communication efforts of the DOD will reach potential recruits who have support in their community for such choices.

Trice, Hughes, Odom & Woods (1995) found that parents have a significant impact on their children’s career choices. However, in this study of 949 students, other factors, such as gender roles, prestige and ability, were found to mitigate parental influence (Trice et al., 1995). Young and Friesen (1992) identified parents as "active agents" of influence in the career choices of their children. These studies substantiate the role of parents as opinion leaders with respect to their children’s career choices.

Parental authority is, however, limited and the degree to which parents serve as opinion leaders for their children with respect to career choices varies with the individual parent-child relationship (O’Brien, 1996). Weidman’s (1984) research suggests that parents have decreasing influence on the career choices of their children as the children grow older. The implication of this study for DOD recruiting is that parents as opinion leaders may tend to exert more influence on the career choices of potential recruits who are younger.

Teachers and secondary school guidance counselors also exert influence on the career decisions of their students. Teachers have long served as mentors to students, affecting student career choices through that role (Marshall, 1999). The DOD, specifically the Air Force, attempts to reach these educational professionals through programs such as Randolph Air Force Base’s annual three-day familiarization program for educators (Marshall, 1999). The "Troops-to-Teachers" program, which is directed at transitioning former military members into careers in public school teaching, offers another way for the DOD to capitalize on its own assets to reach out to opinion leaders who are educators (See

Cassel (1998) says that guidance counselors are career planning specialists whose primary purpose is to set up career plans and career goals for students. Guidance counselors become particularly important opinion leaders for students after the students enter the 9th grade (Cassel, 1998). As with parents, however, the dynamics of the relationship between the counselor and the individual student vary (Lozada, 1997). It is possible that this relationship conditions the degree to which students view their guidance counselors as opinion leaders.

Recently, teachers, guidance counselors and parents have been meeting at fora on career development for young people (Murray, 1999). One university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seeks to educate parents on their children’s career planning with the hope of working through parents as opinion leaders (Harris & Jones, 1999). Still, involving parents in the institutional setting of career planning is also difficult because some parents are overly demanding or excessively zealous about their children’s careers (Murray, 1999).

Rationale and Research Question

For the purposes of this study, the following research questions will be employed:

R.Q. 1: Is the Internet being used as an effective source to disseminate information to the necessary audience, particularly opinion leaders of the decision-making process?

R.Q. 2: Is the massive investment the DOD budgets for Internet recruiting reaching all members of the target audience?

Although each service, and the DOD itself, already has a number of webpages directed toward recruiting, this study searches for ways to improve military recruiting both through the webpages already employed and by observing the current efforts from a new perspective that incorporates the role of educators and parents as opinion leaders in the major life decisions of potential recruits in the target audience. Recent DOD statistics indicate that recruitment bonuses, expanded advertising budget and restructured Websites have not resulted in meeting the DOD’s established recruiting goals (Bruce Spreecher, personal communication, July 13, 1999). With this in mind, there could be factors outside the existing marketing plan that are not being exploited fully to reach potential recruits in the target audience. Specifically, the aforementioned opinion leaders are not being cultivated by the current marketing plans.


This study suggests that the DOD conduct a survey about how opinion leaders perceive the military. The results could be used to determine how to most effectively reach the target audience and opinion leaders through the Internet. DOD Websites, and other media channels, must be used to reach opinion leaders. Although the DOD Website, which is visited by 3,000 to 6,000 people monthly, contains a page for educators, the main recruiting homepages for the four branches of the U.S. military do not prominently feature information directed at either educators or parents, our opinion leaders for the purposes of this study.

The proposed survey should seek to reveal the attitudes of these opinion leaders by random sampling with an appropriate instrument. A Likert-type scale would reveal opinion attitudes on a continuum from favorable to unfavorable attitudes about military careers for potential recruits. Since the subject under investigation centers around Internet marketing, the scale could be administered through the Internet. See Appendix.

Projected Results

We expect to find that if the DOD conducts a study of opinion leaders, and uses this information to tailor Internet sites accordingly, the Internet could be better utilized for military recruiting. As a tool to inform opinion leaders, DOD and branch Websites can stimulate the process of diffusion to persuade opinion leaders to support the military as a viable career option.


Katz, Levin and Hamilton (1972) view diffusion of innovation as a sociological process that is linked to a specific communication channel and a cultural or values system. In Katz et al.’s (1972) view, if innovations are not tied to a specific cultural or values system, the innovation could flounder as it would without employing a specific communication channel. Although the Internet can serve as a specific channel for the diffusion of innovation – in this case, the acceptability of a military career among members of the target audience – the specific cultural or values system supporting this innovation in mainstream American society is weak (Barrett, 1996).

Parents and high school guidance counselors who want young people to obtain the best job available after graduation influence potential recruits (Marshall, 1999). Often a career in the military is looked at as a dangerous job that will delay career plans. (Barrett, 1996). Changing such attitudes may require a cultural shift (Katz et al., 1972).

Military recruiters are working 12 to 16 hour days fighting "surmounting myths and misperceptions about the military shared by recruits and their parents" (Barrett, 1996). Unfortunately, if the opinion leaders are not informed about recruiting and military life directly by the DOD, such misperceptions about the military will endure. Misinformation expands as the diffusion process, which takes place whether the DOD reaches out to opinion leaders or not, operates within a social group (De Fleur & Rokeach, 1975). When opinion leaders relay information, they inevitably interpret this information and send it on distorted through the opinion leader’s own subjective lens (De Fleur & Rokeach, 1975). Hence, opinion leaders are both friend and foe of the DOD recruiting initiatives recommended in this study. Armed with accurate information that was gleaned first-hand from a DOD Website, and possibly other media channels, parents and educators may operate as opinion leaders to counter misinformation. However, without such first-hand sources tailored to their needs, these opinion leaders will still operate as opinion leaders in an environment rife with misinformation. The latter is the worst-case scenario for the DOD.

The implications of research on parents and educators as opinion leaders with respect to the career choices of this study’s thesis, which is essentially that opinion leaders should be targeted with messages on military recruiting through the Internet, is two-fold. First, since the interpersonal relationships between the opinion leader and potential recruit vary, the DOD must recognize this in its marketing plans. Second, the DOD should consider creating cyber-fora that facilitate interaction between educators and parents on the subject of career choices. Also, more research is needed on the present state of perceptions of opinion leaders on the military.

Public affairs professionals in the DOD employ the tools of professional communicators to analyze current DOD problems. Recruiting is a major issue for the DOD and public affairs must lend its expertise toward working through the current challenges. Public affairs can play an active role in reaching out to opinion leaders through established community relations programs and support for recruiters.

Forward Home