3 things I learned about marketing from serving in the military

I’m the one on the right, if you can’t tell.

I’m a writer and marketing strategist, but I used to be a soldier in the US Army.

While I already had a degree in writing and had worked in the private sector in marketing and copywriting, I decided to enlist back in 2009.

Once in the Army, I carved out a job that fit my existing strengths. I volunteered for Special Operations in the Psychological Operations specialty. We were formally trained in marketing, public affairs, media, and other political skills. Then, we did our job of disseminating public-service style messages.

Despite the fact that the military seems at face value like a bunch of riflemen and tanks, the service branch actually helped make me the marketer I am today. Let me tell you just a few of the things I learned about marketing from the military.

The military is like a very, very large company.

Everything you do has to serve the same mission as everyone else. Alignment of objectives is key. But how do we know what to do on a daily basis? If we make a tactical decision, how do we know whether it’s in harmony with the objective?

Strategy.

Before ever starting a messaging campaign, we were forced again and again to check the objectives, set goals, and look at the resources we were working with. We were required to write everything down and never assume that we knew what to do. It sounds tedious, but it paid off in the long run.

One day, in Afghanistan, my team was asked to create a public service announcement to get local kids to go to school. We were already putting out messages asking them to go learn, but attendance was low.

We took a step back and got strategic. We went step by step:

  • The objective was to improve the welfare of Afghan citizens.
  • The goal was to support Afghan welfare by increasing access to education.
  • The behavior we needed to increase education was for more kids to show up at school.

The local kids claimed to love school, and those that didn’t go said they wanted to, but attendance remained low. Apparently, our strategy was incomplete and our tactics weren’t working.

So we made a strategic shift: We explored the possibility that the parents weren’t letting their kids go to school. We brainstormed possible objections the parents could have:

  • The kids were more valuable helping at home.
  • The education might not be in line with Muslim values.
  • The route to school might be dangerous.

So we created a radio broadcast in the local language with a few kids talking about how much they loved school. They spoke about how safe it was, how much they learned to help their family, and how it was a perfect fit with their local values.

Attendance went up by 400% within a month. Strategy had won the day.

The battlefield principal of strategy applied directly to the war of persuasion, and it was so effective that I still put strategy ahead of tactics every time I create messaging to this day.

These kids were freezing cold at school, so we had some family back home send jackets.

I have a lot of military stories about working hard (running for 12 hours with 70 pounds on your back makes a hilarious tale), but I want to stick to the marketing angle.

In business marketing, a lot of projects fail because of fear. I witness fear of wasted budget, fear of embarrassment from a bad marketing piece, and fear of lost time and opportunity. It’s natural, but it causes teams to stop working prematurely. Smaller budgets, timid attitudes, and short timelines mean we can’t commit as much as we should to see results.

The Army doesn’t usually have this problem.

Granted, it’s unwise to waste budgets or time, but the Army has vast amounts of both and still holds to General Patton’s suggestion that “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

So we often got to follow through on what looked like hopeless projects. Many of these seemingly lost missions eventually bore fruit and laid the foundation for my faith in content marketing, which relies on patience to achieve long-term marketing results.

Here’s an example.

We promoted ways for local Afghans to anonymously report dangerous activity. Nobody reported anything valuable for weeks even though our strategy told us that it should have been a big hit. It looked like a failure, but we stayed the course out of principle. We gave the project the time it needed to overcome any invisible variables holding it back.

We were close to being forced to quit around the time someone finally reported a bomb buried in the road. Our team sent a crew to check it out. The tip turned out to be legitimate, and we dug up the explosives. The locals were extremely pleased with the results of that first case.

Then the calls started pouring in. Confidence increased.

Things were awful until they were great, but we only found that out because we stayed the course.

We spent a huge portion of our military training focusing on selecting, researching, and connecting with audiences. At times it seemed almost absurd. We were smart, creative people who were good at communication. Whatever we said should resonate with whoever was listening. How much did we need to know about the audience?

A lot, apparently.

Despite all my training in audience focus, once I reached the real world, I sometimes still wanted to do things my own way. We were running a public service radio station with speaking segments in the Pashto language and music in Persian because that’s what the fact sheets said about our area.

But I hadn’t done and deeper audience research myself.

Our listenership plateaued, and we couldn’t seem to get more attention. Desperate for answers, I finally defaulted to my training. I did some hard research. Among other things, I asked my interpreter to find out more about the locals.

“Many of these people speak Urdu and listen to Indian music,” he told me.

“That’s Pakistan, not Afghanistan,” I told him, because I thought I knew my audience better than they knew themselves for some reason.

“Well, both kinds of people live here. Take this burlap sack full of bootlegged Indian music. Play it. I’ll do a speaking segment in Urdu every day,” he said. That’s the summarized version, but you get the idea.

We added the second style of music and alternate language. And you know what? Our audience grew immensely.

This stuff is what I learned about marketing by doing marketing in the military. I learned a number of other things about social life, business, and philosophy, but those are stories for another day.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to remember:

  • Strategy (be strategic before you start executing ideas)
  • Commitment (stick to marketing plans long enough for them to work)
  • Audience (always seek to understand the people you’re communicating with)

Good luck with your marketing. If it turns out you’re not that good at it, you can always join the military.

Entertainment writer and marketing strategist. Has gone by many names. Studied influence in Army Psychological Operations.