On a sunny afternoon last spring, JJ Anthony leapfrogged across the University of Pennsylvania campus. As collegiate stunts go, this one was a pretty tame: There was no alcohol, nudity, or avant garde political agenda—just a 21-year-old with a megaphone, hopping over a string of eager accomplices.
It was "really fun,"Anthony recalls. It was also a marketing ploy.
As he hopped through campus, Anthony, a senior communication major with a concentration in business, trumpeted the launch of Radar.net, a photo-sharing service for mobile-phone users. Meanwhile, his friends tossed promotional fliers and T-shirts to nearby students. "Check it out," they urged. "You're gonna love it."
Like a growing number of U.S. millennials studying marketing and/or business, Anthony is a "campus ambassador." For several hours a week, he works with San Francisco's Tiny Picture, the technology firm that developed Radar. His duties are diverse, ranging from brainstorming new marketing tactics to boosting brand awareness (hence the leapfrogging).
Almost every decent-sized company, from Apple (AAPL) to ZipCar, employs several campus ambassadors; their mere existence is nothing new. But as college-aged consumers become increasingly elusive (BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/08), more of these student employees—once relegated to passing out free pizza and product samples—are watching their roles expand.
At Tiny Pictures, campus ambassadors are "an integral part" of the company, says Ian Jeffrey, vice-president for marketing and communications. Last year, all 14 were flown to San Francisco for a corporate conference, where they helped revamp Radar's interface. During school, they routinely chat with senior executives, including CEO John Poisson, to discuss possible new features.
Recently, several ambassadors suggested that Radar users be able to make all their photos public (as opposed to friends-only) by default. The idea was implemented within weeks, and Jeffrey readily credits ambassadors for its success. Adds Anthony, who was part of the effort: "I feel like an actual employee."
Sun Microsystems (JAVA) in Santa Clara, Calif., takes a similar approach. To promote the brand, its ambassadors organize Sun-sponsored activities and start clubs centered on open-source technology. They also maintain blogs, which detail everything they've done on campus.
Fixing a Software Bug
But Sun ambassadors also expected—and encouraged—to critique old programs and develop new software. Experience level notwithstanding, they have produced results that rival those of their superiors, says Joe Hartley, vice-president for global government, education, and health care. Last year, for example, a student fixed a software bug in OpenSolaris, one of Sun's new operating systems. For weeks, the glitch had stumped professional programmers.
—College students just don't think: 'This won't work,'" Hartley explains. "They're willing to take fresh, new approaches, and we really appreciate that." Accordingly, Sun's 500-student ambassador program more than tripled in size this year.
StudentUniverse, the online ticket retailer, also expanded its program. This year, the Waltham (Mass.) company welcomed roughly 300 ambassadors, up 300% from 2007.
Their chief tasks are promotional. Examples include talking up low ticket prices and raising brand awareness via Facebook and MySpace (NWS). Yet ambassador input carries more weight than in years past, says Atle Skalleberg, vice-president for marketing at StudentUniverse. "We need these kids," he explains. "They understand their peers a lot better than we do."
Word of Mouth
Every day, college students view hundreds of advertisements, most of which they ignore—or speed through, if they're using a TiVo. If a message comes from a classmate, however, it's more likely to resonate, says Rodney Ferguson, a marketing exec at Lipman Hearne, which has represented more than 200 colleges and universities. "Young adults are fanatics about authenticity," he explains. "If they like a person, and that person likes a product, they'll give that product a chance."
Last year, overall spending on such word-of-mouth marketing surged past $1 billion in the U.S., according to findings from PQ Media. By 2012, that number should quadruple. Leo Kivijarv, vice-president for research at PQ Media, estimates that college markets make up at least 15% of those lofty figures.
Thus far, they've been worthwhile investments. After hiring campus ambassadors at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, Tiny Pictures watched Los Angeles rocket from its seventh-largest Radar Market to its largest. Skalleberg also reports a "huge" increase in brand awareness among the 90 campuses with StudentUniverse ambassadors.
Sun's Hartley suggests an alternative benefit. "A lot of our ambassadors go on to work at other prominent tech companies," he says. "When they do, they bring knowledge of Sun with them," which might encourage the firms to use Sun software.
Fiscally, these gigs don't cover tuition. In fact, with pay scales ranging from $50 a week (Tiny Pictures) to $16 an hour (Sun Microsystems), they barely cover the cost of a couple textbooks.
But Will St. Clair, a second-year Sun Microsystems ambassador and junior at the University of Texas-Austin, is chasing more than cash rewards. He revels in his responsibilities, which pair nicely with his advertising major. He also says he's "way more involved" than his ambassador friends, who represent Microsoft and Dell (DELL). "They're employed by [third-party brand rep agencies], not actual companies,"he explains. "They're curtained off in their own world."
Patricia Rose, director of career services at Penn, says dedicated ambassadors could get "a huge leg up" in the job search, especially if they're pursuing a career in marketing, advertising, or brand management. Sun wouldn't divulge specific hiring figures, but according to a company spokesperson, "a number of ambassadors" have accepted full-time positions. Tiny Pictures and StudentUniverse made similar claims.
That's good news for St. Clair and Anthony, who are both hoping their ambassadorships turn into full-time jobs after graduation. Until then, St. Clair will take solace in smaller perks. "My badge opens doors at headquarters," he says. "Pretty legitimate, right?"