Before the days of social media influencers, getting a job in college typically meant rocking a hairnet at the dining hall, asking alumni for donations at the call center, or working at a nearby mall or restaurant.
But as major companies began to value influencer marketing, brands like Amazon, Microsoft, Teach for America, TikTok, and Victoria’s Secret PINK launched campus ambassador programs that bridge the gap between part-time jobs and internships.
The positions, where students earn cash or prizes for promoting brands, can serve as a door into marketing departments at well-known companies. And in an academic year where traditional campus jobs are less abundant, major companies actually are still hiring brand ambassadors. Plus, the positions can lead to skills that are predicted to grow in demand in the coming years: From 2019-29, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Services predicts the availability of product promoter jobs will increase 3% and marketing opportunities will increase 5%.
Chris Nyland, chief operating officer at The Campus Agency, a marketing agency that helps brands connect with college students, says he’s seen an increase in companies valuing access to the college demographic over the last three to four years, in part because their generation isn't as moved by traditional advertising and marketing.
“Training students to execute marketing campaigns on their campus is a scalable model for converting students into paying customers,” Nyland adds, of why companies are adding — and keeping — these roles.
But while ambassador positions “are taking the place of work-study and delivering pizzas,” according to Nyland, they could result in more work for less pay for students, who usually have to attend campus events, present to student organizations, and post on social media. The social media component plays an even bigger role this year, as COVID-19 continues to disrupt in-person campus activities. Many ambassador programs have adapted to hosting virtual events and meeting with clubs online, too.
In some ways, ambassador programs were ahead of the curve in adapting to working remotely. The companies Nyland works with at The Campus Agency have offered virtual training and relied on video technology for years as a means of staying in touch with campus reps throughout the program. Brands will also host mid-semester video chats to get students’ feedback about their product.
“We usually see more results from our programs when students feel like they're actually connected to the brand and there's not, like, a brick wall between them and the client," Nyland says.
Even prior to the pandemic, a brand ambassador’s boss would likely be remote. Without an in-person supervisor, “training is a big part of students having a good experience,” says Peter Corrigan, associate director of employer & alumni connections for University of Arizona’s Student Engagement & Career Development. “And getting paid, because a lot of employers just offer unpaid or commission-based opportunities.”
Swag for Social Media Posts: The Ambassador Experience
As COVID-19 began to affect campus closures in the spring, Zach Schwartz, a Kaplan Student Test Prep student brand ambassador (SBA) at the University of Central Florida, says his managers reacted quickly and stayed accessible after students left campus.
Ashly Howton, who’s the director of Kaplan Test Prep's Student Brand Ambassador Program, says SBAs have been able to continue to do their jobs — like offering Kaplan resources and discounts — on their personal social networks and through virtual student meetings.
“While the channels through which we connect with the students may have changed significantly, much of what SBAs share remains the same,” she says. “Our SBAs have become pros at Zoom and Google Meet.”
Student brand ambassadors at Kaplan are part-time employees who work at least five hours weekly, earning between $15-$25 per hour biweekly, depending on the testing program (GRE, LSAT, USMLE, etc.) they promote.
“One of the appealing parts of the role, too, is that we give our SBAs a Kaplan course,” Howton says. “Courses can be upwards of a few thousand dollars.”
Schwartz took advantage of the complementary course as he prepared for the MCAT. Completing the class also allows him to talk up the product to his peers.
“Enticing them to use Kaplan is our main focus,” says Schwartz, who also signs students up for Kaplan emails featuring sample test questions.
TikTok also switched its campus ambassador program to an “all-digital model” for the fall 2020 semester, which includes digital activations like hashtag challenges and virtual meetups, according to Julie Jatlow, marketing partner at Fuse, which handles TikTok’s program. Digital delivery service goPuff, meanwhile, provides its “Crew” members with masks, gloves, and sanitizer if they choose to hand out flyers or door hangers, but they’ve also launched more social media and distanced initiatives this year, goPuff Communications Manager Brigid Gorham says of tasks such as posting online and creating chalk murals on sidewalks.
Both companies pay ambassadors, although they declined to offer an exact rate. (When ambassadors are paid, they earn an average of $15.49 an hour, according to Payscale.com.) Gorham notes, however, that pay at goPuff “varies depending on how active ambassadors are within the program.” They can also receive swag and goPuff credits to celebrate achievements.
Christopher Coppola, a Coca-Cola Company ambassador at Seton Hall University, says that student reps there get paid for attending monthly training webinars, plus the eight to 10 sampling events per semester they typically host and five monthly social media posts they publish. Ambassadors can also earn an end-of-semester bonus for meeting all the monthly requirements.
Along with ongoing virtual training, ambassadors usually receive summer training at Coke’s Atlanta headquarters.
“They do an amazing job of helping us do step-by-step planning of the semester,” Coppola says. “They make sure we're not overwhelmed.”
When Morgan Evans worked as a Rent the Runway campus rep at Syracuse University from 2011-2013, she received gift cards, discounts, and complementary dresses, but she didn’t get paid for hosting monthly trunk shows, helping meet renting goals, and sending reports to advisors. Evans also interned at the brand’s New York City headquarters for two summers.
”They gave college ambassadors the leg up,” she says. Despite ultimately turning down the company’s full-time job offer in favor of moving home, “It was a great experience and people always ask about it on my resume,” Evans says. “I stayed in touch with the founders because we worked hand-in-hand.”
Southern Tide campus reps also don’t get paid, because, as CEO Christopher Heyn puts it, “they’re doing this for their passion.” Heyn keeps in contact with campus ambassadors, who he says he considers family. For the fall 2020 semester, the company selected 15 new ambassadors from over 1,600 applicants.
Instead of a normal paycheck, ambassadors get gift cards and clothing for serving as consultants and coming up with photos and copy to post on Southern Tide’s social media accounts.
“And in three or four cases over the last couple years,” he says, “ambassadors have come in and worked at Southern Tide.”
Nyland, of The Campus Agency, sees brands he works with offer ambassadors internships or jobs as well. Coppola himself accepted a summer internship at Coke’s experiential marketing agency You Are Here.
Tips for Students Before They Sign Up to Be a Brand Ambassador
Payment and perks, mentoring, and career opportunities vary by brand, so University of Delaware Career Center’s R. Lynn Sydnor-Epps suggests students, “Take in as much information to help you make the most informed decision possible.”
Here’s how to do that:
- Look for opportunities outside of brands’ corporate websites. Coppola’s gig goes through Campus Commandos and Nyland’s Campus Agency works with Adobe, Harley-Davidson, Pepsico, YouTubeTV, and Walgreens.
- Be prepared to post on your own social accounts. Coppola and Schwartz use their own pages to share paid content, though Howton, at Kaplan, assures, “We don't want to abuse that privilege.”
- Ask how many hours a week you’ll be expected to put toward ambassador work. Think about whether that feels feasible with your course load. “Know your comfort zone and know that school is more important,” Corrigan says.
- Learn about how the pandemic impacted the company’s business. Maybe you’re looking for a brand that instituted a long-term work from home plan, or perhaps you want to see that a multi-billion dollar corporation made a sizable donation to coronavirus relief efforts. The shift in the workplace culture this year showed that a job should work for you and your life, and accordingly, Sydnor-Epps urges students to consider how a brand aligns with their values. “If you’re representing someone you want to make sure that it will work with who you are and what you’re looking to do,” she says.
- Never pay to be an ambassador.
- Determine whether you’ll be classified as a part-time employee or an independent contractor. Companies are overwhelmingly classifying students in these positions as independent contractors, says Rutgers Law School professor Stacy Hawkins. The difference comes down to pay and legal rights. “Employees are required to be paid a minimum wage under federal or state wage laws and oftentimes the state minimum wage law is higher,” she explains. “If they aren’t employees, they might get paid by the tweet or for a certain number of events or tasks they perform.”
- Ask for additional perks. “If you're negotiating a contract as an independent contractor, you can negotiate for valuable compensation that’s not cash,” Hawkins says of advantages like free merchandise, brand discounts, a (virtual) seat in corporate meetings, and networking opportunities such as lunch and learns with other departments or one-on-one chats with company leadership.
- Consider how the ambassadorship fits your goals. If there's not a direct link between an ambassador position and your field, it can still be useful to work on what Sydnor-Epps calls "skill-get areas." If, for example, you're majoring in a tech-heavy subject but want to improve your communication skills, she says. “It’s about the education, the experience, and building that professional network.