The key to success of any consumer-oriented company is the ability to effectively acquire and scale its user base. As college students interested in consumer-focused startups, we see many founders trying to figure out how to acquire new users in a repeatable and cost-effective manner. We’ve noticed an increasing number of consumer-oriented startups have pointed to a campus ambassador program as a key pillar of their user acquisition strategy.
So we asked ourselves, with so many startups targeting the college demographic and using students to promote their products, is this strategy really working? How do college students feel about ambassador programs, both as a potential job opportunity and a way of discovering new products and services? We interviewed dozens of startups with campus ambassador programs and surveyed roughly 200 current college students to see what we could learn.
Campus Ambassadors: Yesterday and Today
Campus ambassador programs have a long history — established brands like Red Bull and Anheuser-Busch have been using college students to promote their products at parties and football games for years. Tech giants such as Microsoft and Google have also used students to maintain a consistent brand presence on campuses for over a decade. The logic behind this is simple — who knows the college market better than college students themselves? Hiring students allows companies to tap into trusted insiders who have access to thousands of other students through their dorms, mailing lists, private Facebook groups, clubs, and classes.
Recently, startups have adapted the traditional campus ambassador model to generate buzz and get students to try out their product or service — which typically involves downloading a new consumer app. With small marketing budgets and limited bandwidth to manage a team of students, these startups are coming up with creative ways to incentivize student ambassadors, often offering swag, letters of recommendation, and sometimes even equity.
The college ambassador strategy in the age of consumer-focused applications was perhaps most notably pioneered by Whitney Wolfe of Tinder, who criss-crossed the country getting sororities and their brother fraternities to download the app. This strategy is widely credited with providing the initial spark for Tinder’s growth. While this wasn’t a formal campus ambassador program per se, if using college students to recruit their peers to a mobile app worked for Tinder, why wouldn’t it work for others?
Current campus rep programs differ from those in the early 2000s (when campus ambassadors first started to gain prominence) because today’s technology allows companies to better monitor the effectiveness of individual ambassadors by tracking referrals and unique invite codes. Instead of putting up posters and passing out fliers, companies today can granularly measure what (and who) is driving user growth. Perhaps even more importantly, companies can also make use of their campus ambassadors’ social media accounts to gain access to school-specific social media platforms that most advertisers are unable to penetrate.
One of the benefits of campus ambassador programs is that companies could ask campus representatives to post on private Facebook pages and other things they can’t get to as outsiders. With college students still using Facebook groups and spending more and more time on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat (not to mention group messaging apps like GroupMe), it has become increasingly difficult for brands to reach students where they spend the majority of their screen time.
What Do Campus Ambassadors Do?
Out of the roughly 200 students we surveyed, 17 had worked as a campus ambassador, and 90% of the previous ambassadors said they used at least one social media platform in their marketing efforts. Facebook was the most popular (all of the ambassadors used it), followed by Yik Yak (33%), and Instagram and Twitter (17% each). 73% of the campus ambassadors reported that their social media efforts were successful.
However, some of the students we interviewed said that campus ambassadors can be reluctant to take full advantage of their social media connections to promote a brand, as they don’t want to pollute their carefully-curated online accounts with brand-focused content.
“People don’t want to turn their personal profiles into an advertisement,” said one Boston College student. “I would feel like I was selling out if I was posting on social media about a product. If someone is always posting about something, you feel like there’s something up.”
“I would feel like I was selling out if I was posting on social media about a product.”
Word-of-mouth marketing was the next-most-popular method of promotion — 75% of ambassadors said they used it, and 73% of them said it was a successful method of promotion. Just over 50% of the campus ambassadors we surveyed said that they hosted events for their company, but only 55% of them said that this was a successful.
For anonymous apps, campus ambassadors can serve a different purpose — populating the app with content. Clay Jones, co-founder of WhatsGoodly, said that the company’s campus founders are asked to flood the app with content when it first starts gaining traction, and are later responsible for maintaining a “healthy community” by steering the conversation towards new topics if it starts to get stale.
Being a Campus Ambassador — Cool or Not?
We also asked students about how ambassador programs are perceived on campus, and found that overall, students had either neutral or negative associations with campus ambassador positions. Of the students we surveyed, 25% said that campus ambassador positions were desirable, and 26% said that they were not desirable — the majority (54%) were undecided.
So why be a campus ambassador? 82% of the students we surveyed said that just getting experience was important, 45% said that pay was a significant motivator, and 45% mentioned the reputation of the company as an important factor — students are more willing to work for a well-known brand like Google or Microsoft.
Students also noted that some of the perks of these jobs are that they are relatively flexible, can be done remotely, and don’t typically require a significant time commitment. Despite this, some students remain unconvinced that campus ambassador positions are worthwhile. One student we surveyed mentioned that campus ambassadors have to “spam” their email lists, Facebook groups, and other social media accounts to try to get friends to download an app, often resulting in a “high chance of failure.”
“These apps usually rely on networking effects, but either are not useful enough to use frequently, or would be useful if it did not already have a highly functional and pervasive counterpart,” the student said. “It’s a tough job, but it seems that the desperate will do it.”
“It’s a tough job, but it seems that the desperate will do it.”
Several students also mentioned that while companies hiring campus ambassadors are looking for upperclassmen involved in sororities or fraternities, athletics, and student groups, the ambassador positions themselves are typically only attractive to underclassmen that don’t have as many other opportunities.
Many ambassador programs may also have difficulty recruiting upperclassmen because the compensation can be relatively unattractive. Out of the 26 campus ambassador job postings in October on Handshake (which powers Stanford’s job posting service), 27% were unpaid. An additional 46% of the jobs were commission-based or pay-per-download, which can be an unattractive incentive scheme for students who want a more consistent salary.
Are Campus Ambassador Programs Successful?
Out of the roughly 200 students we surveyed, only 21% said that they ever downloaded an app or signed up for a service as a result of a campus ambassador, and the campus reps we interviewed noted that it was more difficult than anticipated to get students to download apps.
Even when campus ambassadors can get students to download the app, retaining them is difficult. Only 7% of the students we surveyed said that they still regularly use an app that they downloaded as a result of a campus ambassador, and most of the apps they still use were already popular (e.g. YikYak, Uber, and Snapchat) — not new apps that they first heard about through the ambassador.
Struggling with retention isn’t unique to campus ambassadors — plenty of apps have difficulty getting users to continue to engage after the first few uses. However, when most campus ambassadors are paid by download, there’s little incentive for them to do the hard work required to boost retention.
With the rise of mobile and proliferation of social, both established brands and startups are searching for new avenues to reach the highly-coveted college demographic. For many companies, hiring campus ambassadors seems like the obvious answer. However, while more and more companies are pursuing ambassador programs in the hopes of sparking that elusive growth, college students report that both as a position and as a source of discovering new applications, the average ambassador program fails to live up to expectations.