By Brandon Sanders, MTI Contributor
Over the past few years, I was privileged to have a hand in shaping my unit’s culture by using various social media platforms to effectively connect with the Soldiers. Since we are a part-time force, our time and resources are highly constrained. Free digital platforms allowed us to create an identity and build a culture of competence. This is the story of 3rd battalion 161st Infantry Regiment, the Dark Rifles, and how we leveraged social media to build a winning team.
Background: “Hunt, Race, Kill”
“You guys say “hunt, race, kill” and he says “lift, run, shoot.” They seem like they would go together,” my buddy suggested as I told him about our new battalion commander’s focus on social media. He suggested we directly engage hunting celebrity Cameron Hanes to help build our following and brand.
That random idea eventually launched one of the greatest stories concerning a National Guard unit and any social media platform. I attempted to contact Hanes multiple times on multiple platforms. All to receive no response. Finally, I decided to take things into my own hands and force him to respond.
I gathered up a photographer and two derelict lieutenants. I threw them in a van and headed to Eugene, Oregon. Every day, Hanes runs Mt. Pisgah, a local landmark, and jumps on top of the brass tree stump statue that sports a map of the local area. That day, he would have to jump over a battalion sweatshirt and a sign that thanked him for his inspiration.
As we drove back, 1 LT Tommy Barret’s phone rang. Our battalion commander, LTC Craig Broyles, had called to ask why we had a sudden influx of followers on Instagram. “What in the hell are you guys doing out there?!?” He had to leave a meeting with the state’s assistant adjutant general to figure out why his phone was vibrating so violently, only to find we were gathering followers by the 100s.
We celebrated as we realized our stunt had worked. People posted callouts to Hanes to get the gifts we left on Pisgah. Hanes responded, and we went from 200 followers to 1200 overnight. That placed us 300 Instagram followers ahead of our recruiting and retention battalion. A significant coup for some random infantry battalion of “part-time” Soldiers. (Cam Hanes Response Video)
Our Strategy: Why Social Media
“My son lives on this thing,” Broyles said as he held up his phone to a group of officers. He advocated that we connect with our lowest-level Soldiers and potential recruits by going where they were. Honestly, it was a revolutionary and contrarian attitude to take. Some of his peers proudly sported flip phones, and it was fashionable to avoid social media.
He outlined three reasons why we should focus on growing our online following. First, we needed to recruit talent. Secondly, we had an opportunity to build our reputation and our internal culture. Finally, we also needed to deter our enemies. If we were going to be a relevant force to be contended with in the modern era, we would have to invest in our digital footprint.
Recruit: New ways to solve our recruiting crisis
The Washington National Guard has a unique challenge when it comes to recruiting. Unlike many other states that draw from an under-employed population that is apt to join the military, Washington is the headquarters of companies like Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft. As a result, relying on traditional means of recruiting Soldiers has consistently proved challenging to say the least.
Our battalion had an upcoming deployment. We needed to fill several spots with new Soldiers. If we were going to do that, we would have to try something new. The saying “if you do what you have always done, you get what you always got” was ringing true. Social media was going to be our alternative way to solve the problem.
Deter: Needing to deter our enemies
The deployment was going to be unique. We would be responsible for the slight stretch of Poland between Russian-owned Kaliningrad and Belarus, known as the Sulwalki Gap. If the Russians decided to close the gap, we would be the road bump on their way through Poland. So if there was an advantage we could get, we needed to seek it for the sake of our Soldiers and mission.
Therefore, we turned to our Swiss Army knife of solutions, social media. We sought to project an image of competence and lethality to anyone curious about our battalion. Supposing the Russians would collect as much intelligence on potential adversaries in the region before they made a move, we wanted them to arrive at one thought only: “Don’t fuck with the Dark Rifles.”
Given that the last Dark Rifle left Poland on 23 Feb 2022 and the Russians invaded Ukraine on 24 Feb, I think we accomplished that goal.
Build: Building our Culture
The most important part of our social media effort, and the biggest reason I was at its epicenter as the battalion chaplain, was building our internal culture. A self-narrative is a potent tool. If an organization believes itself to be amateur, part-time, or incompetent, thus it will be. It is that simple. However, if they think they are the best, it won’t take long until they become the best. Thought is powerful.
How an organization thinks about itself will drive how it spends its time. If they believe they are the best in the Army, they will make decisions in their spare time to train, compete in physical training with one another, and seek excellence at every possible turn. Since we could get on our Soldier’s phones and demonstrate that they were the best, we could help steer the battalion’s internal narrative correctly.
Execution: How We Did It
As we grew and experimented, we bypassed some platforms and embraced others. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram became our social media tools because they all served distinct purposes.
We use Facebook to inform our families and the general public about our actions. These included “feel good” posts showcasing our Soldiers engaged in our mission to build relationships with our international partners and Polish hosts. Additionally, we would hold regular question-and-answer sessions over Facebook Live where the commanders, the sergeant major, and myself, the chaplain, would answer any questions the families back home had.
YouTube became a treasure trove of learning for our Soldiers. LTC Broyles, a SAMS graduate, would teach tactics for our junior officers to watch at leisure. Other contributions amounted to inspirational stories from old vets, tips for Ranger school, and even inspirational words from the chaplain.
By far and away, the most effort we placed on any platform was Instagram. The younger crowd we sought to recruit gravitated to Instagram. If we could portray the battalion correctly on Instagram, our recruiting problems would disappear. Further, we also knew that nearly all our Soldiers were on the platform. Our culture-building efforts would have the most significant return for investment on Instagram in particular.
We knew that we needed to reach our Soldiers and potential recruits. However, knowing what we needed to do and how we needed to do it was only one part of the problem. Figuring out what to communicate was the other hurdle we had to climb. Yet, after much reflection and studying, we arrived at three core messages: have an adventure, belong to a family, and be dangerous.
Have an Adventure
There is always a call to adventure if you pay attention to iconic war movies and shows like Band of Brothers, Fury, or Saving Private Ryan. Joseph Campbell considers this a critical part of “the hero’s journey.” Everyone desires to be a part of a great adventure, and that desire routinely sells stories like Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and other modern epics. Unfortunately, when you consider recruitment marketing, the Army is terrible at understanding this. So we sought to fix that.
Therefore, we wanted all social media posts to be a “call to adventure.” This involved showing Soldiers in action doing things in far-off places that are hard to imagine. If you were a casual follower of the Dark Rifles, we wanted to touch that part of your soul. Therefore, our posts always sought to invite our followers on a journey that started at the recruiter’s office and culminated in a far-off land doing the unimaginable.
Belong to a Family
Another core desire people have is to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be a vital member of a family, tribe, unit, or organization that allows them to contribute to a just cause. The best Soldiers enlist for primarily this reason.
We knew that if we were going to be successful in our social media campaign, we would have to paint a picture of the Dark Rifle family. Therefore, we frequently wanted to depict our Soldiers in teams as much as possible. This focus translated to success in recruiting those who wanted to belong somewhere and fostered a deep esprit de corps among our Soldiers.
We are Dangerous
There isn’t a person in the Army that hasn’t watched movies like Rambo, Shooter, or The Bourne Identity that hasn’t fantasized about being just like those heroes. So to deter our enemies and build a culture of competence effectively, we would need to provide our Soldiers the opportunity to become what they wanted to be when they were young.
Therefore, we emphasized action shots. Dark Rifle Soldiers shooting machine guns, jumping out of planes, and being next to explosions frequently depicted their capacity for danger. These posts communicated to our enemies that we could destroy them and formed an image of ferocity in our Soldier’s inner narrative about their unit.
The Dark Rifle Social Media Team
How do you avoid posting regularly on social media while not being weird, cringy, or completely irrelevant? Questions like that haunted us early in our social media adventure as we sought to figure out how to generate content, caption it, and post it effectively. It took us time to sort out the process, but when we did, it was unstoppable.
From my experience, many units and companies make the mistake of having a “social media guy.” It was painfully obvious early on that it would take much more than just one person if we were going to be successful on social media. Therefore, we built a social media team. This team spread from the team level up to the battalion commander. It consisted of twelve members responsible for research, content moderation, quality control, scheduling, and capturing content the companies couldn’t.
During weekly meetings, each team member chose from a list of potential topics to research provided by the officer in charge. They would report back the following week with what they learned. These lessons would be captured and used in our content. Over time, this process proved to be highly effective at refining our social media presence.
“I want to be the one to push the button, so if someone gets in trouble, it’s me,” was the guidance LTC Broyles issued initially. Ultimately, the social media team became like an additional staff section. I would manage it, build it, and tweak it as needed. However, using some third-party apps, the battalion commander ultimately posted everything on the platform.
We tried, in the beginning, to keep up with analytics. I would spend hours listening to podcasts and YouTube videos and reading articles educating myself on impressions, engagement rates, and metrics. In the end, I determined that it was all meaningless. The data simply wasn’t actionable for what we were trying to do. The metrics I began to pay attention to were memes generated about our page, the following we built, and the recruits we harvested in quantity and quality.
The easiest to pay attention to was our follower count. LTC Broyles watched our followers like a hawk. “It’s like keeping up with my football scores,” I heard him say many times. Getting a text or call about a sudden influx or drop in followers would not be uncommon. Soon we started adopting targets. We wanted to beat our recruiting and retention battalion at first, but we quickly blew past them. Then we would find some other unit with a following slightly more significant than ours and start targeting them.
The organic meme pages were an unexpected but fantastic measure of our success. If our Soldiers were making fun of what we were messaging, we knew we were effectively communicating our core message to them. They served as our feedback loop and an ongoing command climate survey.
Most importantly, we were counting recruits as they messaged the page. We regularly received inquiries about joining our battalion from all over the world. To date, we have steered inquiries from the UK, Germany, Canada, and India to our recruiters in Washington. In addition, local citizens from our home state show up at our recruiting offices asking how they can become Dark Rifles. But, of course, the most exciting recruits are already in the National Guard in other states. These are typically top performers with special skills who want to be a part of a unit with our reputation.
The Content Machine
To post daily, we needed to create a system that would allow for content to be generated, curated appropriately, scheduled, and posted automatically. It was apparent early on that it would be impossible if we relied on just one or two people to do everything. So, over time, we arrived at a system allowing organic content capture from the lowest level.
Simply taking pictures and videos was quite the feat. I relied on my mobility as the battalion chaplain in the early days to help facilitate it. I would take photos myself as I circulated and use them for posts. However, this soon got in the way of my chaplain mission, and I realized I needed a photographer. As the battalion became progressively busier, this approach began to fail. I could only be in one place at one time.
Soon, we concluded that the individual companies would have to capture their photos, videos, and other content and send them to us. So we found volunteers in each subordinate unit and provided them with a place to drop all their pictures. Not only did this work, but it also created a spirit of competition across the battalion. It wasn’t long before “getting on the BC’s Instagram” was a point of pride through our formation.
One of the great things about being in a National Guard unit is that our Soldiers are all multitalented. Since everyone has a civilian job and a military job, each individual, brings a very robust and diverse skillset to bear on any problem we have. For example, in our formation, we had many professional photographers. Leveraging their talents was as simple as unleashing and empowering them. Some of our photographers, that were hobbyists, grew their skillset so much that they started their own wedding photography business when we arrived back in Washington.
After the content was gathered and uploaded to a central location by the individual photographers, the battalion social media team took control. We built hashtag pyramids to index each one correctly, credited the photographers accordingly, and scheduled them to post later using third-party software the battalion commander provided. This process allowed each post and caption to be reviewed weekly before hitting our Instagram account. In addition, this ensured that we only used high-quality pictures that were on message.
Over time, we significantly refined this process. We learned that short-form videos gave us the best return digitally. Therefore, we communicated that to our photographers and emphasized the importance of video in their content creation. We also saw that posting too often was a mistake as people grew used to us. Instead, we sought to post three reels per week, evenly spaced out, to maximize their effect.
Most importantly, engaging weekly showed us how frequently the platforms changed. Soon, I found myself watching YouTube videos of other influencers to understand how they conducted their operation so I could improve ours. When this became too much, I began assigning reading to team members. They would read through the material and present the lessons learned at our weekly meetings. I would then capture those lessons in our social media handbook.
“Can I have your autograph?” is not a phrase I have ever heard someone ask a battalion commander in 17 years of military service. However, while in Poland, an active-duty Soldier passing through our area stopped by to get LTC Broyles’s autograph. He had found us on Instagram and become a committed follower. So now, our battalion commander was being elevated to celebrity status. Though that is incredible, it was only the beginning of our social media’s impact.
Before we began our adventure into social media, we were at 60% strength. Today, we have only a few vacancies. Given the low cost of social media, it is easy to see the return on investment. It is well known in the Washington National Guard that our battalion’s social media efforts have long since outpaced other forms of marketing for enlistments. With the Army’s current struggle to find recruits, the Dark Rifle social media approach offers a real-world example for other units to follow to solve their manning problems.
Another benefit is our reputation. While this is hard to quantify, it has a severe impact on what a unit is capable of accomplishing. Our mission to Poland was to build bridges with our NATO allies. While there are many examples of how our social media efforts helped with this, the most impactful is with the Polish Territorial Defense Force. After one of their members discovered us on Instagram, they eventually clicked their way to our YouTube page. From there, the Dark Rifles went viral. The Polish TDF elected to use our YouTube to develop their officer and NCO corps.
Most importantly, we achieved brand relevance with top-tier units in the hearts and minds of our Soldiers. Before we launched our social media campaign, it was common to hear battalion members say, “Don’t they know that we are just the Guard” when asked to do something challenging. Today, things are different. Now we are routinely told to pull back, reign it in, and the same Soldiers find themselves saying, “We are the Dark Rifles. Don’t they know what we can do?”
That makes a unit unstoppable.
The “So What”: Lessons Learned
Cast a Big Net
To my knowledge, we are the only battalion that regularly has Soldiers wanting to move states to join. I have never heard of people from other countries wishing to join a National Guard battalion, but we get inquiries frequently on our Instagram. So our market for recruits is no longer just those close to our armories. Given the recruitment challenges we now face, this is significant.
Control the Narrative
Having a robust social media presence allowed us to tell our Soldiers what we wanted them to hear at the individual level. Doing this allowed us to sidestep much of the filtering that happens when messages are transmitted traditionally. It also allowed us to do it frequently and tweak it as needed.
Meme Pages are Gold
The unit that replaced us in Poland decided to hunt down and punish the owners of meme pages that made fun of them. This approach is about as short-sighted and insecure as you could be. Our meme pages served as a great way to understand what Soldiers were unhappy about and how well we were communicating our message to them. In addition, they served as an incredible feedback loop. If something on a meme page made us uncomfortable, it usually was cause for investigation into the topic at hand, not the meme maker.
One of the biggest takeaways from our adventure in social media is that what you communicate to your formation about who they are is unbelievably essential. If the Soldiers believe they are winners, they will win. It is that simple.
Brandon Sanders is a freelance writer and chaplain in the Washington National Guard.
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