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At Indiana University, a pair of tanned, blond twins in matching T-shirts hold up a banner for LIKEtoKNOW.it, the Instagram shopping app; at San Jose State, a group carrying polka-dotted shopping bags and giant balloons spelling out “PINK” poses for a Boomerang, tagging Victoria’s Secret PINK in the caption; at the University of Maryland, a senior sits in front of a mirror covered in #aerieREAL-branded Post-It notes with the kind of empowering messages that feature prominently in the brand's marketing (“Be Confident,” “Shine Bright”). All of them are campus ambassadors, recruited by brands to help spread awareness and drive sales, follows, and app downloads among their fellow students.
They also, like many of their cohort, have well over a thousand Instagram followers apiece, and dutifully use tags, hashtags, and calls to action (“click the link in my bio to shop!”) to channel the considerable engagement each post gets into results for the brand. Unlike the hollow shilling in most celebrity sponsored content these days — Scott Disick rhapsodizing about teeth-whitening products, say, or fitness bloggers posing for selfies with their favorite skinny teas — there is earnest enthusiasm to the updates; a sense of “authenticity” that all brands covet in 2017, and that many spend millions trying to achieve.
College brand ambassador programs were popularized in the early aughts as a means of reaching students who, thanks to the internet, were increasingly turning away from traditional advertising channels. Representatives hosted events, handed out flyers, gave feedback to the companies, and doled out freebies, ranging from cans of Red Bull to iTunes vouchers. Until a few years ago, Playboy had a fleet of more than 200 volunteer reps distributing free magazines and DVDs to fraternities, surveying their fellow students, and throwing parties on behalf of the brand, in return getting everything from exclusive gear to big-man-on-campus cred (including, in many cases, attention from the school paper) and the opportunity to win a tour of the Mansion.
Founded in 1999, Youth Marketing Connection was one of a handful of niche agencies to emerge during those years that focused on linking brands with the college demographic. While many of the strategies have stayed consistent (students rarely say no to free stuff, after all), in the past few years, social media has “changed everything,” according to marketing director Joanna DiGloria. “Back probably five years ago, social media was kind of a nice-to-have, [as in], ‘Oh, it’d be great if [students] could talk about this on their social media channels,’ but it wasn't always the primary focus,” she says. “Now it’s starting to become, ‘Okay, well, they need to talk about this on their social media.’” Part of what’s changed is simply a matter of reach: In 2012, an incoming freshman with thousands of Instagram followers would have been an anomaly (even Kim Kardashian barely had a million back then); today, they’re a dime a dozen. And even those without massive followings tend to get high engagement, a phenomenon you may be familiar with from visiting your teen cousin’s profile and seeing hundreds of likes and dozens of comments on every single photo.
Generation Z, the generation currently in high school and college, is the first to grow up fully immersed in the digital world, including social media. One survey found that 88 percent use Instagram and Snapchat, while another found that more than half report spending three hours or more per day on social media. Most don’t remember a time without Facebook. For marketers, this means reaching them where they are, ideally through someone they trust.
“With the rise of social media and the amount of paid and unpaid social ads that are out there, there’s a lot of lack of authenticity,” says DiGloria, “so we're really looking for ambassadors to not just post about the brand that they’re representing all day every day, to make sure that it comes across as natural, authentic, a product that they would normally use or want to talk about.”
YMC, which has worked with clients including ASOS, Express, American Eagle, and Adidas, relies on each brand’s legal counsel to determine what disclosures need to be made (all the Aerie ambassador posts include #ad in the caption, for instance), a must for any content that could be considered advertising in the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, albeit one even top influencers often neglect.
“The fact of the matter is that the FTC has been pretty clear on this from the get-go when they first came out with the revised endorsement guides,” says Andrew Lustigman, a New York attorney who specializes in advertising and social media, “and that is, where the person is getting something of a benefit in return [for posting], the FTC looks to have a disclosure of that.” This is especially true, he says, when there is a longer-term relationship between the brand and the individual, rather than, say, a one-off freebie — even if brands aren’t directly paying reps (say, if they earn commission on sales) or offer product in lieu of cash.
In many of the deals YMC brokers, students are compensated with both a per-semester stipend and product incentives, like new outfits to wear at campus events and on Instagram, as well as an employee discount to shop on their own dime, further fostering brand loyalty. Others, often negotiated outside of the agency framework, may be unpaid, offering discounts, freebies, work experience to add to a resume, or the chance to win prizes from the company.
For Alessia Catania, a sophomore at Penn State, VS Pink’s Campus Rep program seemed like a good way to make friends in her first year of college, especially coming from a small town. Each college involved in the network (now more than 100) has about two reps, and then these reps recruit a small group of underclassmen volunteers to their “team,” assigning them tasks like managing the brand’s school-specific Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook accounts or assisting at events. Catania joined the team her freshman year, applying through a post on her class Facebook page. This year, she’s one of the official reps, chosen by VS Pink through an online application process that included a video component and a Skype interview with the team. In July, the company flew all 200-odd reps to its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, for brand certification (while the program is unpaid other than in free product, VS covers travel, room, and board for training) — and, naturally, made sure there were plenty of Instagrammable moments to document.
Catania says the company never explicitly asks reps to post about the brand on their personal social profiles, but that most do anyways, which is evident from the nearly 1,500 posts tagged #pinksponsoredreps. On YouTube, some reps go the extra mile with vlogs about how they got the gig and unboxing videos of the swag the company gives them during training and throughout the year, some of which have over 100,000 views.
While much of the PINK gig involves IRL events and promotions, Catania also works with a brand called University Tees as an on-campus marketing intern, a role that involves posting pictures of herself in the sorority-branded products the company sends her monthly and promoting it on social media, which in turn gives the company a steady stream of content to use in its own feeds. Other than the free gear, the role is unpaid, but it's easy to see the appeal, especially for those who go to school outside major cities and don’t have the same access to internships as those in, say, New York or Boston. Framing it as such gives students the chance to boost their resumes with tools already at their disposal: their smartphones and social media followings.
Brands, meanwhile, get to reach consumers at a critical stage — despite their Keystone-and-ramen budgets, young people are usually making their own purchasing decisions for the first time in college, forging habits that will become increasingly hard for companies to change later on — without shelling out for expensive advertising campaigns. Through a one-week #ASOSonCampus campaign with YMC, for instance, ASOS took in $458,000 in sales and added more than 1,100 new U.S. customers.
For some companies, leveraging social media is also the most natural fit. LIKEtoKNOW.it, the six-year-old shopping tool owned by influencer-referral platform rewardStyle, has been inextricably linked to Instagram from day one as a means to monetize influencers’ posts on the platform by making screenshots shoppable to followers. Last month, the brand launched LIKEtoKNOW.it Loves, its college ambassador program, choosing, out of hundreds of applications, 40 reps at 27 schools across the country to promote the app, many of whom already have thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of followers.
On top of their resumes, career goals, and involvement in campus clubs and activities, the team looked at applicants’ social followings and the overall aesthetics of their feeds. “We were looking to see whether or not they already had a social presence as an aspiring digital influencer,” says Emily Vogt, rewardStyle's communications coordinator. “We wanted somebody who's really in touch with their personal brand, somebody who has a cohesive feed and a cohesive voice online.”
Loves were given plenty of swag — backpacks, T-shirts, baseball caps, stickers — all in made-for-the-’gram millennial pink, along with a strong incentive to start posting early and often, since all were on-boarded to rewardStyle’s invitation-only monetization platform, which allows them to earn commission from retailers. They’ll get paid for the gig, in other words, when they start driving sales — and the more of their followers that download the app, the more likely this is. They also participate in challenges (posting three times in a day using the tool, say, or talking it up at a campus event) and earn points that, for the top rep, can earn them a meeting with co-founder and president Amber Venz Box, and the opportunity for an internship with the company.
Volunteering to become an online billboard for a brand is becoming more and more commonplace as social-media marketing infiltrates platforms at all levels. Whereas a few years ago, a student might not have known what a brand ambassador did, now it's more like, “‘Oh, yeah, yeah, I know what that is. My friend does that,’ or ‘I’ve seen that before,’” says DiGloria. “It's very easy to get them on board with what the idea of it is.”
Some companies have even started recruiting as young as high school, building a fleet of enthusiastic ambassadors who are no doubt familiar with sponsored posts through their favorite YouTubers or Instagram celebrities. Paid or not, the gigs have cache among young people: Glossier’s 500-strong rep program, which counts among it many students, offers the second-hand glow of beauty’s cool-girl brand. Bumble reps, or “Honeys,” get cute, Instagrammable swag like branded sweaters, “1-800-BUMBLEHONEY” tees, and yellow bandanas. #ExpressU ambassadors get regular deliveries of new outfits to wear and post on their feeds.
“We're trying not to get them to [say], ‘Here's this great skirt that I bought. It's awesome. It cost this much. You can buy it here…’” says DiGloria. “It’s more about, ‘Hey, I wear this skirt when I go out with my friends on Saturday night, and here’s a picture of me in it.’ It's more of weaving it into what they’re already doing, rather than it being an overt promotion. We’ve found in this world, with all the social media advertising, you have to find a way to cut through that and make sure that what the ambassadors are doing feels natural to their audience.”