Pentagon Web site redesigned to appeal to younger audience

The Defense Department on Monday unveiled a fresh look for its Web site, focused on increasing two-way communication.

The redesigned site is hosted on the new URL Defense.gov and highlights social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. The primary goal of the makeover, Pentagon officials said, is to engage the public, particularly 18 to 24 year olds.

"We need to embrace these technologies," Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs, told the American Forces Press Service, the Defense Department's news service. "We need to use them because that's what the young people use these days. …If we just stick to the traditional ways of communicating, we leave out a huge portion of society."

Unlike most other Web sites, the former Defense home page, DefenseLINK.mil, attracted more visitors over age 45 than under, according to Floyd. Attracting younger visitors -- while retaining the existing audience -- will be one of the Pentagon's key challenges.

Steve Radick, an associate at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton's social media/Government 2.0 practice, said the Pentagon's focus on engaging with 18 to 24 year olds likely is an extension of its recruiting goals.

"They want to tell the story and connect with these people so [young people] hear directly from the Pentagon and troops, rather than just the media or their parents," Radick said.

Steve Ressler, founder of Young Government Leaders and GovLoop, a social networking site for federal employees, said Defense is taking a big step in the right direction by offering visitors choices about how they connect. The new home page prominently displays links to subscribe to the Pentagon's RSS Feeds, podcasts and widgets. It also invites users to "connect with us" via the DoDLive Blog, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, UStream or YouTube.

Defense public affairs officials, who designed the site, modeled it after WhiteHouse.gov, which has avenues for members of the public to submit policy recommendations.

"We do live in a democracy and that feedback from people is important to know what they're thinking, what they believe is important," Floyd said. "It's their national security policy, it's not ours. I think we might be surprised by the issues and policies that are important to the American people, versus what we think are important."

Rather than simply delivering information, Defense.gov allows visitors to submit questions for the Defense secretary, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and other top officials. Every few weeks, the Pentagon will ask users to vote on which questions they want answered and officials will address the top five, Floyd said.

While officials identified outreach to young people as a primary goal, Defense will miss key opportunities if it doesn't use social media tools to connect with other audiences and age groups as well, Radick said. He noted some media platforms, such as Twitter, are used primarily by those 25 and older. Planning will be critical to the site's success, he said.

"It's definitely a really good step forward, but right now it's at this point of wow that's great, all these channels for interaction and engagement, but how will they use these social media tools to help further the mission?," Radick said. "What is the communication and public affairs mission, and are they using it to fulfill those or are they just cool tools?"

The department is encouraging commanders to launch their own social networking sites, but is cautioning people to be mindful of operational security when posting information online. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn III has asked the department's chief information officer to assess the risks involved in social media use, Floyd said, and a uniform, departmentwide policy for social networking sites will be announced by the end of September.

Time will be the true test of Defense's devotion to social media, Radick said. "I'm excited to see where they take it and if they commit to this in the long term rather than just now when Gov 2.0 is hot."

The department must remain nimble to keep up with constantly evolving technology, Ressler said.

"It's not just about putting something up," Ressler said. "It's easy to do that. You have to continue to engage and reinvent, you have to keep providing new content and add value and be aware of new technologies. It's hard to know what's going to be cool in a year or two."

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