With the Internet now a part of everyday life, Navy recruiters are using social media sites like Facebook to find their next candidate. Instead of unfamiliar, face-to-face meetings or awkward phone conversations, initial engagements between recruiters and prospects are taking place more and more online.

One recruiting station in south New Jersey has witnessed a rise of its own online efforts and can now make the claim that "Cyber-Recruiting" works.

Electrician's Mate 1st Class Grant Khanbalinov, a recruiter at Navy Recruiting Station (NRS) Toms River, actively uses Facebook to initially contact and message potential recruits.

"Cyber recruiting is exactly what it sounds like," said Khanbalinov. "Find an applicant (online) and have the Navy sell itself before they even come into the office.

This way, when they come in, they are ready to do the paperwork."

Sonar Technician (Submarine) 1st Class William Ullrich, who's been recruiting at NRS Toms River for almost four years, believes the 'new-school' approach of cyber recruiting is better than the 'old-school' way of making phone calls, which demanded a lot more effort for less results.

"The biggest difference between then and now is that before, the emphasis was on phone power-- getting a list of lots of numbers and 'cold-calling'," said Ullrich. "But people would usually hang up or not call back after you left a message. And most of the time, phone numbers would go to parents who didn't want to be bothered."
In the fall of 2014, Ullrich and his station decided to make a switch and engage in more social media prospecting.

"We minimized phone efforts and concentrated online. From lists of names, we located online profiles, made friend requests, and sent follow-up messages," said Ullrich. "Since then, I myself have more than doubled my (recruiting) numbers," said Ullrich.

Attitudes and communication preferences among millennial recruits could be why social media is an effective platform to recruit from.

"I think it's a generational difference," said Ullrich. "Most kids don't want to have a phone conversation. People won't open up face-to-face if they don't know you. Social interaction these days is more electronic."

Sara Asri and Dan Cusick, two recruits in the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) at NRS Toms River, are proof that cyber recruiting works. They were both recruited by Khanbalinov, who contacted them first through social media.

Asri, a first semester college student from Ocean County, became the first female from south New Jersey to qualify and enlist in the Navy's nuclear program. She credits online engagement with convincing her to join.

"I saw a photo posted on Facebook of an aircraft carrier surrounded by battleships," said Asri. "I liked the photo, then I was messaged, and everything afterwards was a positive experience. If that didn't happen, I would never have been involved."

Asri explained that she had never considered setting foot in a recruiting station on her own and shied away, but she warmed up to the idea because she was approached first through social media.

"I think there are deeply rooted misconceptions about the military, so it takes someone to help you look past them," said Asri. "But I would've been put off if I was originally approached in-person. For people who are passive, through social media there's no direct pressure. People will join more willingly if they can take their time and have a conversation online."

Cusick, a high-school senior, also admitted that he preferred being approached by recruiters first online. He said he had been approached by Army and Marine recruiters with a more aggressive style. One recruiter even showed up at his school unannounced. These approaches were more of a turn off.

But with the Navy, Cusick had online conversations first for about three weeks, which then made him feel comfortable to come in to a recruiting station and begin talking.

"Being online is a lot more relaxing of an environment," said Cusick. "It helped because instead of being face-to-face and feeling pressure to think on the spot, I had more time to ask questions naturally."

Because there is no formally recognized training for cyber-recruiting, Khanbalinov and his team had to come up with their own online tactics on the fly. Khanbalinov took an active lead in promoting the use of Facebook to his headquarters at Navy Recruiting District Philadelphia and even created his own training presentation about online recruiting.

"It's good to saturate your area, create a Facebook page for yourself and your station, and become known in your community, said Khanbalinov. This allows for free advertising when you post something. Also, don't limit your followers because when one person likes a post, everyone on his or her friends list will see it."

Khanbalinov pointed out that phone numbers for high-school students on school lists often connect to parents, but a message sent via Facebook will go directly to the applicant.

"I was raised as a recruiter under the 'first to contact, first to contract' mindset," said Khanbalinov. He and Ullrich both believe that utilizing the boost feature on Facebook posts is one of the most effective cyber recruiting tools because it allows for targeting of specific demographics such as age, gender, likes, and location.

"We can tailor our posts to whatever the mission is and make sure the right people get to see it," said Ullrich, who also added that his team always makes sure to engage audiences online with proper operational security (OPSEC).

"We publicize and share what we get from official sites like Navy.mil, where material is already screened," said Ullrich. "We also disregard useless messages and weed out the spam, but this doesn't happen often."
Boosting posts, however, is not free, so appropriate funding through official channels is something Khanbalinov would like to see happen.

"NRC needs to allow each station to have its own budget so they can strike while the iron is hot," said Khanbalinov. "For example, if I know there is a lifeguard competition in my area, before the event I need to advertise online towards a Special Forces audience. Getting traditional mail out would be too slow. Each station needs a Facebook page, and each recruiter needs a Facebook profile."

Out of 30 recruits at their station currently in the DEP, Khanbalinov and Ullrich said about 40 percent were found through cyber recruiting.

"There will always be a place for phone calls and face-to-face engagement," said Ullrich. "But social media is the future of recruiting, if it already isn't," said Ullrich.


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Updated March 1, 2017 (kbh)