Like most concepts in modern digital marketing, brand ambassadors have a history going back to mid-20th-century media and beyond. In fact, brand ambassadors go clear back to ancient history if you believe #10 on the list of Roman gladiator facts: “the most successful fighters even endorsed products just like the top athletes of today.”
We’re more familiar with the celebrity brand ambassador. This isn’t just a one-shot TV spot deal. Celebrity brand ambassadors sign up for long contracts and act as a spokesperson for the brand for many new advertisements. The celebrity has to have a full career outside the brand advertising work, however, so “Flo,” the character actor in Progressive Insurance commercials, doesn’t count so much. Karlie Kloss, the face of L’Oreal cosmetics, does count. The cosmetics industry as a whole goes in big for influencer marketing.
We also see a lower pay grade of brand-friendly celebrities who happen to be voices of expertise in particular industries. Emeril Lagasse, a celebrity chef, has launched everything from spice brands to his own air fryer line. Domestic homemaker Martha Stewart has her own branded line of products at Macy’s. Even shock-jock political commentator Alex Jones has a store with survivalist products he endorses on the air. You can threaten to eat your neighbors and still sell products, that’s the American way!
But let’s dig a little deeper: What about non-celebrity brand ambassadors? We have a few instances of those too, and they’re typically the company founders themselves. For example, James Dyson has taken time out of his busy life to helm a vacuum cleaner company, based on technology he invented himself. The difference here is that, instead of having a big shot actor where it’s obvious that he is getting paid to say nice things about your brand, a non-celebrity brand ambassador is a common person like the rest of us.
Big corporations use non-celebrity ambassadors too. They just call them something else. Microsoft has a longstanding rank of employees it calls “evangelists,” peer-level social media influencers who comment on Twitter and Reddit and publish blog posts on Forbes, attempting to cajole hardcore geeks into the Microsoft way. Most tech companies, including Apple and Google, have more than a few advocates and ambassadors who market on a grassroots level.
What About Student Ambassadors?
Which brings us to the student ambassador, who acts exactly like a peer to the students whom your higher education institution would hope to enroll. Student ambassadors work for a college, university, school, or institute, in a role that is far extended from traditional marketing. They serve an educational role for their campus on social media, act as a student liaison for the school, and participate at organized events associated with the school.
Hold onto the thought of the “evangelist” model from Microsoft, because that’s the closest facsimile to an academic ambassador. The technology field is also steeped in academics; this is important because a programmer isn’t going to take just anybody’s word for it regarding which software framework to adopt. They want to hear an industry insider’s opinion. So tech company evangelists have to head for the trenches on Slashdot, YCombinator, or Stack Exchange to reach their market.
This illuminates a crucial difference in ambassador marketing: it is more intimate, face-to-face, and personal. An ambassador marketer steps down from the polished, professional company image to connect with marketing targets as a peer.
How Student Ambassadors Work
Students from today’s generations value authenticity and sincerity in their chosen brands. It’s easy to see why: younger generations have grown up under the most advanced electronic communication and media period in history, saturated by professional marketing. They grew up having everything from sugary cereals to video games pitched at them using the latest market focus study research. Consequently, they’re wise to all the typical marketing tricks.
That doesn’t mean that they’re anti-consumerist. They will accept marketing, but it can’t be a hard sell. They need to build some trust first. They want to connect and feel understood. They like transparent motives, even if those motives are “we’re in business to make money.” They may mute TV commercials, but if you come to them on Reddit as a peer with a cool idea you had for a product you’re now selling on Etsy, they’ll listen to that. You just have to cross the tribal boundary and speak their language.
The brand ambassador model is ideal for higher education since it’s easy to be genuinely passionate about the learning and personal growth opportunities you get out of the college experience. Any student who has benefited from their experience with your institution will have the “authenticity and sincerity” angle squared away.
Ideally, your student ambassador should see things from the recruit’s point of view and can act as a guide to incoming students. Students care about things like: how are the living arrangements at the campus, what’s the student dining hall like, and is the community accepting of people like me? The student ambassador can say “I’ve been there and done that.”
What Student Ambassadors Do
The first role of a student ambassador is to act as your institution’s digital spokesperson. They will represent the school in digital events, promoting them ahead of time on social media channels, assisting during the event, and participating in the afterview. A few examples of a student ambassador in action:
- Conduct campus tours
- Promote career fairs
- Meet and greet the family of students, alumni, or special guests
- Support student orientation
- Organize mentor programs
- Assist with convocation and other ceremonies
- Support the organization of study groups
- Build awareness for various campaigns
- Assist with fundraising efforts
Not all of these are functions where the student ambassador wields direct, actual authority. The student ambassador takes your message, packages it so that it is more palatable to the younger masses, and amplifies it through digital means. They are your media support. Say that your college wants to promote more gender diversity; the student ambassador could arrange a women’s history conference, compose blog articles spotlighting women in business and industry, or select a champion woman student to be a guest on their podcast talking about their positive experiences on the campus.
Of course, most of the student ambassador’s tools are in the digital media toolbox:
- Email for direct marketing and newsletters
- Social media channels
- Videos on YouTube
The most important skills for a student ambassador are the talents of a good communicator, possessing strong multimedia skills, and being a bountiful fountain of creativity. Online, they are a media facilitator, the first person a student should speak to or seek out about a concern. Offline, they might have a hand in community outreach and recruitment programs.
They might also attend faculty meetings and bring their insight as a student representative to the administrative staff. Ambassadors can provide the student perspective to the dean and administrators, yielding a valuable insight that can cut through the usual information channels to get to the point. If there’s an issue rumbling around in the student community, your student ambassador already heard about it first.
As you might guess by now, you may want more than one student ambassador! People have to sleep sometime, after all. Why, you might even need a whole team here, which means you’ll need a program to organize the process.
Launching a Student Ambassador Program
The first thing you have to do when you appoint student ambassadors is to find some candidates.
Sounds easy? It actually is! College students are in just the right age bracket to have a positive outlook on life and a “can-do” attitude, combined with being in a natural environment that’s stimulating and filled with possibilities. That’s almost enough to qualify people for the role right there.
Your student ambassador program will, of course, be tailored to your own university’s needs and circumstances, but in the general sense it should have a shape sort of like this:
- A plan for what you hope to accomplish through a student ambassador program
- KPIs to measure your success
- A documented job description of duties and responsibilities
- A benefit or compensation package
- A review process for candidates
- A training and intake process
- An oversight and management process
Give some thought to how you’ll be using brand ambassadors. Will they be handing out fliers at local job fairs? Will they have a role in attracting STEM students, perhaps justifying them canvassing the local school’s science fair? Are they a pep squad for your athletics team? There are reasonable ways ambassadors can further any agenda you have, but also be mindful that they may balk at doing your P.R. department’s “dirty work.”
The best student ambassador candidate is a natural leader. You can spot these in the student population with a little observation. Every school, indeed every workplace and even every family, has the one person whom everybody else naturally goes to for help. That’s the thing about student ambassadors, you probably have them in your ranks already on an unofficial basis.
One of the first questions a student ambassador will have about your program is “What’s in it for me?” You can offer a salary, which doesn’t have to be a lordly sum. You can offer a scholarship program or arrange other discounts on student expenses for participants. You can also arrange perks, such as early access to new facilities and programs—after all, they won’t be much use as a guide to other students if they don’t know the way themselves.
Keep in mind that a student ambassador position is a perk in itself for a college student because it gives them networking opportunities, and hands-on experience in media, marketing, and even leadership experience. All of which will look great on their resume.
We should caution that student ambassadors are not occupying a recognized profession. Your institution should not start seeing student ambassadors as all-purpose “gofers.” At the same time, student ambassadors do better when they’re not micromanaged. Once you have a student ambassador blogging, maybe they’ll say something on their blog that you’re not entirely sold on. If you censor them with a heavy hand, however, you run the risk of damaging their authenticity and credibility with their audience. Student ambassadors are not the campus’ propaganda squad. If they have a reason for saying something, hear them out.
Student ambassador programs typically give the ambassadors some ownership of the program. The staff can make sure the students have the best understanding of the institutions’ brand and intended message, then trust the ambassadors to know how to get that word out. This doesn’t mean that you just turn them loose without supervision, however. You provide feedback, hold meetings with them, and adjust the program to be better aligned with your school’s goals and the realities of student needs.
Student Ambassador Conduct Guidelines
It’s entirely reasonable to establish a code of conduct. Your student ambassadors should always remember that they represent the school. Nay, they represent the very best that this school can achieve. They should be seen as role models, acting with integrity and a high level of professionalism. At the least, you could have a checklist for expected conduct:
- To attend all required staff meetings
- To be present at all possible events
- To always be welcoming in their interactions with new students
- To uphold a policy of equal opportunity to all ethnicities, genders, orientations, religions, ages, and other measures of a diverse population
- To abstain from scandals involving illegal activity
- To do their best to represent a positive image for the school
- To avoid conflicts of interest between your institution and other entities
Students, like all young people everywhere, crave validation and recognition. So being in the student ambassador program should be seen as a mark of prestige. They are the elite, with top honors. Play this angle up a little bit and students ought to be eager to join the program.
Student Ambassadors as the Voice of Your Brand
By putting student ambassadors in charge of media channels and brand marketing efforts, you’ll have to let them take the wheel when it comes to deciding how to promote your message. They will definitely have some ideas on what social media platforms are popular with their peers. Actual mediums may be a compromise between what student candidates are consuming and what skills the student ambassador team brings to the table.
By all means, you can help student ambassadors by sharing communication best practices and giving them a comprehensive training package, which in itself can be another perk. You can lend workspace, access, and equipment for podcasting, video production, graphic design, or blogging. This can be an important experience for individuals pursuing a media career later on. Students who are majoring in media, humanities, technology, or creative arts are already prime candidates for this kind of work.
Once again, as long as the ambassadors are briefed on your brand and message, and are acting in good faith to communicate it, you should let them put their own “spin” on the message. This isn’t the same thing as hiring a marketing agency where you get to veto designs until they make one you like. If they take your message and then turn it into a hip hop video posted on TikTok, as long as they’re working within the job description, you have to live with it.
Social media, especially, is a boiling kettle of constant turmoil. You need people who use social media every day and stay abreast of current events, and then you have to trust their insight.
Following social media culture is like subscribing to every tabloid in the world and then consolidating them into a stock market ticker: K-Pop is still big, Tiger King is old news, and how did MySpace become a thing again? We mentioned TikTok back there, but whoops, TikTok may fall from grace soon. Harry Potter is popular with the kids, right? Not after J.K. Rowling’s Twitter rants. Keeping up with this is exhausting. Trust us, leave it to the kids. Save your sanity.
Student ambassadors are becoming fixtures at every major higher-ed school. We may yet see them fleshed out into an official faculty position, especially with the latest shift towards more remote learning and virtual campuses. Goodness knows, with all the upheaval in the education industry in the context of the broader 21st-century picture so far, we can all use some people who can smooth over rough edges.
“Smoothing over rough edges” is the kind of thing that student ambassadors are good at when it comes to reaching out to the student community and funneling new candidates into your intake system. We hope we’ve made this takeaway clear: student ambassadors should neither be underestimated in their importance nor relied upon exclusively to perform whole departments’ worth of tasks. Even on the marketing front, you should have a marketing campaign as a stand-alone effort, rather than count on ambassadors to do all the lifting.
Managing a posse of student ambassadors is bound to feel a little like herding cats. But then, you got into the university line of work because you enjoy working with those kids and all their crazy energy, right?
Student ambassadors complement social media marketing and content marketing strategies. They give your brand an authentic voice, build trust with your audience, and result in more effective digital marketing campaigns.
If you’re interested in building a student ambassador program at your higher education institute but aren’t sure how to get started, feel free to contact us. We can help you develop an integrated digital marketing strategy that helps you attract more students.