Screw campus ambassadorships

Campus ambassadorships are a funny business.

College reps, student brand evangelists…whatever they’re called. I’ve done one or two, and I’m sure you have too. Planning events, handing out t-shirts, inviting people to Facebook Pages…the whole schpiel. Most people have had them, and even more will as more brands start setting up their own ambassador programs.

Brands have plenty of reasons for launching campus rep programs: to market towards an important (and easily influenced) consumer market still developing their brand loyalties, to counter the diminishing returns from traditional advertising, to leverage the viral power within campuses, and maybe even to develop a student talent pool to recruit future hires from. I’m sure there are more reasons.

There are some negative side effects, such as inauthentic brand evangelists and the loss of control over brand presentation (a Microsoft ambassador once unflatteringly described the Xbox Kinect to me as “video games for fat people”), but overall, the pros outweigh the cons, especially when you consider the low cost of execution.

What about the students, though? What do they get out of these programs?

Knowledge and experience, maybe? Hardly. Most of these programs are run remotely – aside from a few emails and the occasional phone call, students are essentially left to figure things out on their own. When employees on the brand side chime in, it’s usually to provide best practices on accomplishing specific objectives, like how to increase Facebook event attendees or where to target flyers. They rarely ever teach ambassadors about the bigger picture: stuff like the strategic approach to campaigns, and how to target and tailor content for specific audiences.

The biggest failure of campus ambassadorships is a completely uneducated approach to social media. These programs are often measured solely on vanity metrics, such as Facebook likes or Twitter followers, when they should be also looking at other data like brand engagement, mentions, sales, and sentiment. As a result, student goals for the semester typically may simply be to “get our page 1,000 likes.” Furthermore, without proper knowledge about social media, most social media “marketing” efforts consist of getting friends to do the ambassador a favor by clicking a button for them. What brand wants those kinds of fans or followers? What student wants to bother his or her network with brand spam? Most importantly: what future employer will believe that those efforts reflect expertise in digital marketing? After all, we’re only doing these ambassadorships to impress future recruiters, right?

It doesn’t help that brands seldom provide reps with proper (or any) resources to execute a good campaign. It’s rare that you’ll ever get a budget for advertising or promotional materials; most of the time, you’ll get cheap things like pens and t-shirts. What good do they do, anyway? Fans are earned, not bought, and even if they could be bought, a koozie wouldn’t do it.

The programs aren’t run well because the brands, agencies and corporations don’t care about the students. They don’t care about providing an optimal learning experience or sufficient resources. They clearly don’t even care about how their brand is represented – if they did, they wouldn’t hand creative control of it to a bunch of college students.

The truth is, they’re looking for new customers and relying on your personal brand to penetrate channels advertising can’t, and access your personal network. Think about it: never are you given enough of a budget to conduct a feasible advertising campaign on campus. Thus, you’re limited to promoting to your personal network, which is exactly in a way what the brands want.

Essentially, you’re getting paid (at least I hope you are) so that you can open a once-inaccessible door for brands to start spamming your personal network. Starting to feel uncomfortable yet?

On another note: students, is this the college experience we dreamed of? I know that the fear of graduating without a job offer has got us career crazy, but when did our priorities shift? Picking up samples instead of girls? Dropping brand facts instead of acid? None of us dreamed that we’d spend our Friday nights handing out energy drink samples, but here we are…being completely taken advantage of in every way by brands and corporations.

At the end of the day, we do gain something: a modest wage, and an extra sentence or two to put in our resumes. I believe, however, we lose so much more. We’ve sold our time, our work, our friends, our network, our respect and essentially our soul. All nobly sacrificed to help brands sell their hummus and tacky clothes.

We are, literally and figuratively, fucking sellouts.

Kevin Wang Kevin is a BU ad student, DJ, and a retired competitive eater, among other things. Please visit his website here or follow him on Twitter at @Mister_Wang.

View all posts by Kevin Wang

8 Responses to “Screw campus ambassadorships”

  1. Danielle Hohmeier

    I sort of agree with you. Brand ambassadors on college campuses are a way to hopefully reach that market… but usually it ends up just being friends doing other friends favors by liking a page or siging up for emails. Not very effective. The brand ambassador is a step too far away from seeing effects of this ‘marketing’. They don’t see ocnversions, sales, strategy, planning etc. They are just – oh wait, ambasaadors.

    You are signing up to be a work horse, essentially. The funny thing is, in marketing we are always looking for brand ambassadors – people who are passionate about our brand to spread the message. That generally means going after legit customers…. But college kids are eager. They will sell anything. Brands take advantage…. and can you blame them? It’s free usually.

    Skip the being a brand ambassador and look for a legit internship or job. HR can see right through the ‘Red Bull Campus Rep’ or “Bud Light Promotional Model’ on your resume. But if you ARE doing it, make it work to your advantage. You had to learn to approach people, which is valuable in business. You worked indepentently. You made your own schedule and hours and still accomplished _______. You actually used social media (which, in this day and age, all brands are looking for someone young who knows this stuff).

    It’s the same for any job. It isn’t WHAT you did… it is what you LEARNED from it, or at least what you say you learned.

    - Danielle

    • Kevin Wang

      Thanks for commenting, Danielle.

      I agree that students passionate about your brand are important. But I believe that there’s more value in converting them from fans to advocates organically via great brand experiences instead of paying them to do it for you.

      You’re also right about how everyone should always make the best out of whatever they’re doing. Still though, they shouldn’t have to if they know what they’re signing up for beforehand.

  2. Nicole Stockdale

    Wow it’s FINALLY been said. This has been on my mind a lot recently, especially with the absurd amount of spam I get in my marketing org’s inbox about marketing reps and brand ambassadors. I wish brands understoodthat these methods are not only unaffective but non-authentic and actually diminish the brand name. and it saddens me thinking about the number of students who think that these programs are really what marketing/advertising is all about. I’d like to put it in these terms, brand ambassador programs are like the classified section in the newspaper.Poorly executed and lack any strategic ideas.

    Kevin, I’m so glad you wrote this article. It outlined everything I’ve been thinking about these programs and I think all advocates need to read this. people need to understanding that marketing is SO much more than t-shirts and flyers. That promotionalcrap is diminishing our industry!

  3. Ryan

    I really appreciated your point about college students being so career-orientated that we miss out on life experiences at university. We have created this belief that unless you have a fully loaded CV, you’re not doing enough. While I do believe we all should be preparing for life after college, when do we actually enjoy our youth?

    • Kevin Wang

      Absolutely, Ryan. Ideally, you wanna work hard and play hard, but I find the most people have a hard time being able/finding time to do both.

  4. Rich Anand

    Ambassadorships extend far beyond the guerilla-type that you are focusing on here. For example, Google’s ambassadorships are set up to engage with past interns by offering multiple opportunities including: beta-testing new hardware and software, competitive hackathon-like events where the pool of ambassadors build something on top of existing Google technology. At my university, a Google ambassador held office hours every week for any student interested in working at Google or learning more about Google. It was a really cool peer-to-peer approach that is both beneficial for the student and the company. Obviously this is just one example, but you are solely emphasizing opportunities that are not as beneficial. Frankly (and thankfully for the matter), there are a lot of opportunities that truly do offer a pretty substantial ROI – whether it involves skill-building or even a simple getting the right foot in the door!


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