Virtual sergeant does recruiting

Army creates an intelligent search tool to assist overworked service recruiters

The Army has created a beret-wearing, fatigue-outfitted virtual recruiter to answer visitor questions on the GoArmy.com Web site. Analysts familiar with the virtual sergeant’s recruiting techniques say he represents the next generation of search and customer service.

The Army has trained Sgt. Star to quickly and accurately answer difficult questions about all aspects of basic training and Army life. When a question is too complex or personal, Sgt. Star will direct the visitor to Web pages for additional information, or he will pass a prospect off to a live recruiter for a one-on-one chat session.

“He’s pretty smart,” said Paula Spilman, information technology project manager for information support activity at the Army Accessions Command. “A lot of times, people will try to stump him with silly or really tough questions, but then they’re like, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool,’ and then they will turn around and start to ask more serious questions.”

Army officials said the tech-savvy 17- to 24-year-olds who are the service’s primary recruiting targets are comfortable interacting with the virtual sergeant.
In little more than a year since Sgt. Star came onboard to assist with recruiting, GoArmy.com has experienced a significant jump in traffic.

Go.Army.com’s stickiness has increased, too. Stickiness is measured as an increase in the average visitor session, from 3.5 minutes to more than 17 minutes for Sgt. Star. Since August 2006, he has received almost 200,000 visitors and answered nearly 1 million questions.

Much of Sgt. Star’s appeal, analysts say, derives from his accuracy — he correctly answers 92 percent of the questions posed to him — and his persona.

“People know he’s not real, but they treat him like he is,” said Sue Feldman, IDC’s vice president of content technologies. “It makes the interaction almost human, and I think it’s why it’s been so successful.”

Upfront work
The technology behind Sgt. Star is ActiveAgent, a software program developed by Next IT. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies use similar technology to monitor chat rooms for illegal activities. But its use as a Web search tool is relatively new. The Army is only the second organization — Gonzaga University being the first — to use it that way.

Unlike traditional search tools, ActiveAgent can understand context and the searcher’s intent, said Patrick Ream, Next IT’s marketing vice president.

If a visitor asks Sgt. Star a general question about housing, for example, the sergeant doesn’t try to guess the answer based on a key word or return a long list of links. Instead, because the question is broad, he will seek clarification by asking the visitor, “Are you married or single?”

In programming Sgt. Star, the Army had to do a significant amount of initial work to make interactions effective and human-like. That work included analyzing the 15,000 documents on GoArmy.com for relevant content, talking to recruits and recruiters to identify the questions visitors were likely to ask, programming accurate responses to those questions and then making sure that all responses were translated into civilianese.

“We trained the brain, so to speak,” Spilman said. While conducting focus groups in New York and Phoenix, the development team realized that the same question could be worded slightly differently, she added. “We had to program Sgt. Star such that he could provide the same answer, even if the question was asked in 20 different ways.”

Sgt. Star can answer questions that the static information on GoArmy.com alone cannot. He has answers for questions about almost anything, including taking showers in basic training and the likelihood of enlistees being sent to Iraq. To the latter question, he responds, “In times o
war, deployment is very likely.”

“He’s blatantly honest with them, so now they trust him more, and they’re more likely to take the next step because of the
bond that’s been created,” Ream said.

In the first year the Army used Sgt. Star to help with recruiting, 10 percent of visitors accepted an invitation from the sergeant to talk to a recruiter in the site’s live chat room, Ream said. Thirty percent of them returned to Sgt. Star to ask him more questions.

Spilman said the Army has been surprised by Sgt. Star’s success. The virtual sergeant answers frequently asked questions that used to dominate chat sessions, which gives recruiters more time to focus on complex questions.

Sgt. Star also provides useful data on visitor behavior and interests. And he attracts visitors who might not otherwise be interested in learning about the Army.

Sgt. Star could ultimately help improve the quality of recruits, Spilman said. “This will help young men and women get all of their questions answered and have the knowledge they need to know what they’re getting into,” she said. “If they understand fully, they’ll be happier with their decision and happier with the Army in general, and hopefully they will stay on and make the Army a career.”

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at
hbhayes@cfw.com.

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