If a high school athlete tweets about being named captain of the lacrosse team, he'll probably receive congratulatory messages from family and friends. Soon, he might also get one like this from the US Marine Corps:
"Congratulations, young man. We need more leadership like this."
Personal tweets could become an integral part of the Marines' recruiting strategy under a new partnership with SocialSphere Inc. of Cambridge, a small technology firm that tracks public opinion online for companies like Microsoft, Universal Pictures, the Red Sox, and The Boston Globe.
Founded by John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, SocialSphere promises insight into the minds of millennials. For the Marines — now the company's biggest client — SocialSphere will help shape marketing strategies and mine social networks for people who appear to fit the profile of the few and the proud: driven, patriotic, service-minded.
"It's not always overtly saying, 'You should be a Marine,' but recognizing characteristics in young people that connect to Marine Corps values and missions," Della Volpe said. "Whether it's somebody who's just helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity or shared something about their view of their country, those are people who are essentially raising their hand."
SocialSphere has performed occasional work for the Marines' longtime ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, since 2008. It helped craft the "Toward the Sounds of Chaos" campaign, which marked a strategic pivot in recruiting when it was launched three years ago.
The company's online research showed that many young people's vision of service centers on helping the needy, not killing the enemy. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Marines' status as an elite fighting force, recent ads have also shown Marines leading natural disaster relief efforts and distributing humanitarian aid in developing countries.
Now, SocialSphere will play a bigger role in its recruiting with a five-year contract to serve as an official research partner of the Marines.
Della Volpe said the volume of his company's work for the Marines will fluctuate from year to year, but he expects the deal to bring in several million dollars over the next five years and allow him to add three employees to a team of about 20.
Part of SocialSphere's mission is to help attract young men and women who otherwise might not consider enlisting.
"As perceptions about the Corps and enlistment behavior change among each youth cohort, [Marine Corps Recruiting Command] relies on research from numerous sources — including our advertising agency team — to understand how to address these fluctuations," said Master Sergeant Bryce Piper, spokesman for the recruiting command. "With the expansion of new media, Marine Corps Recruiting Command seeks to reach qualified young men and women through different media in the platforms they frequently use."
The partnership between the Marines and SocialSphere comes as social media recruiting has become a powerful tool used by terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
On Twitter, YouTube, and other networks, ISIS sells a sense of camaraderie and purpose in fighting for a cause.
From a purely strategic viewpoint, the US military could learn from its enemies, said John G. Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
"They've got the same kinds of challenges in that they're trying to reach young people and mobilize them to action," he said. "Of course, we're using it for noble purposes, and they're using it for theirs. But right now we're outgunned, outpaced, and outmatched in the social media sphere."