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.