The new Army recruiter who never goes to sleep

SGT STAR U.S. Army recruiter boosts goarmy.com's Web site visits.

The U.S. Army’s latest tool for bolstering its wartime ranks is a virtual officer named “SGT STAR,” an artificial intelligence tool that uses a conversational style to answer questions from potential soldiers logged on to www.goarmy.com.

See: We ask the U.S. Army's new Web tool about girls, guns, gays and invading Iran

Wearing a beret, Army fatigues and a grim look on his face, SGT STAR is designed to answer serious questions such as “Will I be deployed to Iraq?” and “Can I join the Army if I am gay?” (The answers are that deployment is likely during wartime, and that homosexuals can slide by under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.)

SGT STAR can show a humorous side as well. A recruit who asks SGT STAR about his love life will learn that he is married and that “Mrs. STAR is my boss.”

Everyone who joins the Army still needs to meet a recruiter face-to-face, says Major Bret Van Poppel, a Web and interactive analyst at Fort Knox in Kentucky. But SGT STAR may be the first step towards allowing potential recruits to enlist electronically.

“Perhaps sometime 10 years down the road we might go to a completely virtual online recruiting process,” Van Poppel says.

SGT STAR, which stands for “strong, trained and ready,” launched on Aug. 2 and was promoted to the front page of the goarmy.com Web site Oct. 20. Goarmy.com received 10 million visits in 2006, or 27,000 a day, but the average user stayed on the site for just four minutes, Van Poppel says.

Now, SGT STAR accommodates as many as 1,000 sessions per day, and the average user sticks around for 16 minutes.

The software that powers SGT STAR was created by Next IT, a Spokane, Wash., company that specializes in self-service applications driven by artificial intelligence. Next IT began selling the ActiveAgent application one year ago, and Spokane’s Gonzaga University was the first customer, using its Spike the Bulldog mascot as a tool to increase donations from alumni, says Patrick Ream, a spokesman for Next IT. Now the university is using the tool to recruit students and answer financial aid questions, Ream says.

Company officials say they will announce two new customers soon, including an airline.

The product has to be customized for each customer. With SGT STAR, the Army wanted a smart, sophisticated, and funny fellow who wouldn’t seem like a pushy used-car salesman, Van Poppel says. The goal is to overcome the negative perceptions many people have based on media attention given to recruiter malfeasance, Van Poppel says.

“The instances of recruiter malfeasance are very low. But that kind of stuff tends to make headlines,” he says.

Jeff Brown, senior vice president of sales at Next IT, says one of his favorite questions to ask SGT STAR is “What is your favorite food?”

“The response is ‘I’m partial to the captain’s chicken fried MREs. They’re mmm… good,’” Brown says. MREs, meals ready to eat, are given to soldiers in the field.

Monitoring has shown that SGT STAR understands questions and can provide a response 92% of the time, according to Next IT officials. A large number of questions are about STAR’s personality, and STAR can often answer, the theory being that establishing a personal relationship will make potential recruits more likely to keep exploring the Web site.

In addition to answering questions, STAR provides links to other portions of the Army Web site related to each query. Sometimes, he will decline to answer a question. Ask SGT STAR if the United States will invade Iran, and he will say “I’m not here to discuss politics.”

When STAR doesn’t understand a question, he will say so. A potential recruit can try to phrase the question differently, or contact a human recruiter in a chat format during business hours.

The most common question for STAR is “will I be deployed,” says Paula Spilman, an IT project manager at Fort Knox.

After telling recruits that “deployment is likely,” SGT STAR says “all soldiers must be strong, trained and ready.”

As problems escalate in Iraq, SGT STAR is seen as an important recruiting tool for the Army.

“Yes, absolutely,” Van Poppel says. “SGT STAR is a marketing and messaging tool.”

The Army has no data yet of tracking the number of recruits who enlist after “talking” to SGT STAR, but is implementing a monitoring system to find out. SGT STAR is now on the Army’s MySpace page, and Van Poppel thinks his potential has not yet been tapped.

“Every time we’ve increased his presence on the Web site, the number of visits and duration of visits has increased,” Van Poppel says. “We don’t think we’ve topped out on his Web presence.”

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