Air Force Plans New Campaign, Social Media Partnerships to Combat Recruiting Shortfall

Amid a high-profile recruiting crisis, Air Force leaders and experts increasingly note the challenging long-term trends the service faces in convincing young Americans to join: Declining numbers of eligible candidates, lower interest and propensity to serve, and reduced exposure to military people and service. 

But while leaders see no “silver bullet” to solve those issues, the Air Force Recruiting Service is pressing ahead with a push to attract more women to serve. Acting Undersecretary of the Air Force Kristyn E. Jones described in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week the Women in Sports Campaign, which she said “aligns DAF recruitment with female athletes through direct marketing as well as enduring partnerships that encourage female participation in sports.”

The target of the campaign, she said: “Approximately 7.6 million 18- to 24-year-old women [who] watch women’s sports on YouTube.” Taken as a group, “these viewers constitute a key demographic for DAF recruitment efforts,” Jones added. 

The Air Force Recruiting Service plans to expand outreach to young women via social media, officials told Air & Space Forces Magazine. 

The Women in Sports campaign is set to launch this summer, hoping to inspire more young women to stay fit and consider service.  

“Less than 25 percent of females ages 18 to 24 are actually eligible to serve in the military,” said Lara Stott, senior strategic advisor for marketing at AFRS. “And one of the big reasons is due to obesity and being out of shape and other health issues that kind of go along with that.

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

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

“By the time they hit that 18- to 24-year-old range when we’re actually trying to recruit, if they don’t already have those healthy habits, it is much harder to teach them at that point,” Stott said. “ It’s really about instilling this sense of making that an important part of your self-care as a woman.” 

To get that across, Stott said, the Air Force will:

  • Expand presence at prominent women’s sporting events 
  • Build new partnerships with brands and influencers with greate rfocus “on the next generation of female athletes” 
  • Highlight Air Force and Space Force athletes from the U.S. Air Force Academy, ROTC, or the Air Force World Class Athlete Program

But the Air Force isn’t about to blow it’s budget all at once. “We could go drop a lot of money on the Women’s World Cup coming up and that would be great for a moment in time,” Stott said. “But we want this to be something that is really enduring.”  

Expanding its Reach  

Air Force Recruiting had about 1 million followers on Facebook, 349,000 on Instagram, and 153,000 subscribers on YouTube as of March 31. But Jones told Congress department leaders believe they can increase reach considerably through partnerships with appropriate social media influencers. 

“We’re looking at how to better utilize YouTube influencers,” Jones said.

Stott said that it’s a matter of outreach. “If you go on YouTube right now, there are—in addition to the Air Force Recruiting Service and official Air Force YouTube channels—all kinds of channels that are very Air Force-focused. I think all of those are potential partners at this point.”

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

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

“Obviously Gen Z is one of the smartest generations as a young cohort,” Stott said. “They know when you’re not being genuine, they can see right through you. So we are 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 intersect.” 

Some Airmen and former Airmen with established social media presences have expressed reservations about mixing the official Air Force brand with their personal ones, but recruiting officials insist they don’t want to stifle Airmen’s voices, and they will give partners wide latitude to express their creativity. 

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

Outside the Air Force

The Air Force also sees potential to partner with influencers and brands that connect with 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 the Formula Drift motorsport competition all have appeal to women the Air Force doesn’t think it reaches now. With tens of thousands of followers on social media, they represent growth. Other partnerships are still to come. 

But AFRS is not aiming for simply the broadest reach, Stott said. 

“What we don’t want to have happen is for us to just be construed as not being genuine,” she said. “Again, I really think that Gen Z would see through that immediately. And I think we can all think of examples of brands in the past where they’ve made that mistake of pursuing partnerships that didn’t really have a natural tie to their brand’s message, to their brand values, if you will. And when that happens, they face a lot of backlash.”