For new consumer startups targeting young people, one of the most popular marketing strategies is an on-campus student ambassador program. Household names like Tinder, Bumble, and Red Bull leveraged these programs successfully in the early days (and still today) to grow their brands across the country, and today’s generation of startups continue to build on this playbook. When done right, college ambassador programs are a low cost way to acquire users, generate buzz, and kickstart the network effects that lead to massive growth and adoption.
In fact, I myself was an entrepreneur in college who tried using an ambassador program on campus as our primary go-to-market (GTM) strategy for my startup, Hang. While Hang ultimately failed (in part due to launching in the middle of the pandemic), I learned a lot of lessons along the way on what works for a college ambassador program – and what doesn’t.
When I joined a16z as part of the consumer go-to-market team, I got a lot of questions from startups and brands about how to launch and grow a successful college ambassador program, so I started talking with the campus directors and leads for other ambassador programs. Based on my own experience building Hang and research with both established brands like Bumble, Grubhub and Discord and startups like Fizz and Sidechat, here is a beginner’s guide on college ambassador programs for consumer startups. I’ll cover the what and why, when to launch a college ambassador program, how to get started and metrics for success, incentive structures, and more.
The Basics: The What and Why of College Ambassador Programs
A college ambassador program enlists influential students on a college campus to promote your brand and product to their peers. Ambassador programs are an excellent way to use a college campus to kickstart network effects within a group of like-minded target users with potentially lower costs than other strategies like digital advertising. Indeed, college campuses are natural environments for developing, testing, and growing consumer products.
A college ambassador program is ultimately, though, a user acquisition strategy that takes advantage of this consumer behavior petri dish. Brand activation strategies used by these ambassadors can catalyze word of mouth (WOM) sharing on campus, leading the product to find its users. Other benefits of college ambassador programs include brand exposure (an ambassador’s core objective is to show off the brand to their peers through both digital and physical activations) and lowering customer acquisition costs (CAC) over the long run.
While many kinds of startups could possibly leverage a college ambassador program, these three types are particularly well-suited to the dynamics of college campuses:
- New social platforms: Network effects are vital to the rapid growth of a new social platform, and an ambassador program is a great catalyst, particularly when targeting all of the specific social groups on a campus. While it didn’t leverage a college ambassador program, Facebook famously started by targeting college students. More recent examples include BeReal, Sidechat, and TikTok.
- Ecommerce startups: Ambassadors can distribute affiliate codes and post on their social channels about your products. And with the rise of live shopping, ambassadors can even be sellers themselves. Though not exclusively for college students, the REVOLVE Ambassador program is a great example of using an ambassador program to distribute affiliate codes. Another example is Curtsy.
- Marketplaces: Marketplaces can leverage similar activation methods as ecommerce startups through ambassadors for new demand acquisition. Examples include: Grubhub, duffl, and Snackpass.
When to Launch? (Hint: After Product-Market Fit)
An ambassador program is a great way to engage students and leverage these dynamics to grow brand awareness of your product – IF you have shown there is a need and desire for what you are building within a defined target audience.
A critical point to recognize is that if you don’t yet have product-market fit within your target demographic (especially if it’s college-age students), an ambassador program is not likely to drive retention and long-term usage. Instead, it is more likely to drive a lot of initial new users who then churn out of the product because it doesn’t yet meet their needs – burning through a lot of your core audience and making it harder to win them over later.
There is no marketing strategy that will fix a product that its core audience won’t use! Instead, leverage a smaller, tight group of college students in different micro groups to test your product and give you insightful feedback on your beta before jumping into a wider, more planned ambassador launch.
One way to know you’re ready to launch a college ambassador program is after hitting key retention benchmarks. Before leveraging growth channels and bringing their product to a college campus, Sean Rad, cofounder of Tinder, said in an interview in 2014 that within a week of launching Tinder with a couple hundred of users, they had a 99.5% daily retention rate. From there, they took the product to college campuses to further experiment. Of course, many successful products will never have a 99.5% daily retention rate, but it’s important to have a clear sense of what a good retention rate is for your product.
Some key questions to ask yourself before you decide to plan and execute on a college ambassador program:
- Do I have a group of beta users that are consistently using my product? Are my user retention numbers showing that this is the case?
- Is my product receiving positive feedback on the user experience and interface?
- Do our core targeted demographics align with a college campus?
- Do we have the technical team/infrastructure to make fixes on the product as the user base expands?
How to Get Started
Your business is ready to take in an influx of new users that it’s likely to retain, and you’re ready to set up your program. The three questions to ask next are: which campus do you start on; what are your goals; and what are the characteristics for your initial set of ambassadors.
Choose Your Campus
Different products are better suited for different types of college campuses. If you are a student entrepreneur, I recommend you focus on your own campus, as you know the landscape better than anyone.
Key Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Campus
- How are social groups on campus perceived? In particular, are there Greek Life organizations in good standing at the school?
- How do the particular seasons affect the social environment? Should I plan my launch around a particular time of the year?
- What are the largest social gatherings on campus? How can my ambassadors partner with those events?
- Every school has a main event during the year that every student gathers to celebrate/or attend. Whether it’s a welcome week, spring week, or charity gathering, students are sure to be social during this time.
- Example: In Boston every year, the Beanpot hockey tournament draws students from the area to come and watch their schools compete (BU, Northeastern, Boston College, Harvard). At an event like this, an ambassador activation could be used to not only further engage Boston University students, but also to introduce your startup to the other competing schools, as well.
One strategy is to concentrate on infiltrating one particular school in a city with multiple schools (think Boston, Washington D.C, LA). Think of it as an ambassador program beta test: observe what works and what doesn’t on one campus before expanding. Each school may have a slightly different playbook due to varying social dynamics. Be willing to adapt your strategy as your program expands. Your ambassadors are sure to have friends in similar social groups at other schools; this is an excellent way to get personal referrals to grow your business!
While COVID-19 and school restrictions contributed to the digitization of many students’ experience over the last few years, the current landscape has allowed for schools to reopen. Be sure to be up to date on what is allowed and not on certain campuses, as going against school restrictions can put your brand and ambassadors at risk.
Define Your Goals:
When evaluating what goals you would like to set for your ambassador program to achieve, first understand the core metrics of your product and which of those an ambassador program is most likely to move. Examples include:
- Brand engagement (for social channels in particular: number of comments, likes, shares)
- Downloads/new users
- Reduced CAC (often through an increase in “direct” or non-attributed new users)
For these last two, you may not be able to directly attribute them, depending on the kind of activations you’re doing, but you can still observe a correlated uptick in downloads or reduction in CAC when you have activations in progress with your campus ambassadors. Evaluate these metrics on a weekly and monthly basis, as well as on the time structure of the school (e.g. quarters, trimesters, semesters, etc).
While those lagging metrics are critical for your business success, there are also leading metrics to measure the success of an ambassador program more directly and immediately. Depending on your tactics, here are some common metrics to see if the program is working:
- Brand awareness
- Increased social following for your brand
- Event turnout
- Ambassador churn:
- Are students who still have time left in school continuing as an ambassador? More retention = higher ambassador satisfaction.
- Find what percentage of non-graduating students return as ambassadors or refer a new hire.
Identify and Hire Your Ambassadors
Not all college students will be the right fit to be an ambassador. Here are some key questions to ask yourself before recruiting your first ambassadors:
- What are the characteristics of my ideal user? And who is most likely to be able to connect with that audience? (e.g. if you were building a tutoring product, your ideal user will be someone who prioritizes school. What type of on campus ambassador is someone who prioritizes school likely to listen to? Someone who is consistently on the dean’s list)
- Who is perceived as trusted by their peers?
- Do our possible ambassadors have a strong online presence (and followers who are also ideal users)?
Once you’re ready to begin recruiting, your first hire will be your Campus Lead Ambassador. Your lead ambassador should know the ins and outs on campus and should be responsible for helping you connect with the groups who have the most influence on campus. This person will be your primary point of contact for all activities on campus, but should still be a student.
- Responsibilities of the campus lead
- Help source and hire ambassadors
- Delegate tasks and track completion
- Manage budget
- Qualities to look for in your campus lead and ambassadors:
- Leadership experience
- Strong organization skills
- Naturally social and charismatic
- Sample interview questions:
- Have you held leadership roles in your on campus organization?
- How would you describe your digital presence?
- What would you do on campus to grow awareness of our product?
Work with your lead ambassador on campus on the initial hiring plan. The number of ambassadors you hire will depend on how large the school is and how many major groups of influence there are to cover who are specific likely users of your product.
Understanding the ways in which different groups connect is tribal knowledge to students on campus. You do not need an ambassador in every major group on campus, but your ambassadors need to have a way to get in touch with each. One campus lead, with two to three ambassadors, likely gives you enough touch points to get to all the student groups you need to get started. While you can post job descriptions or application pages for the roles, personal referrals are the best way to get to the right people.
Examples of groups on college campuses that could be targeted for an ambassador program:
- Clubs: Every college campus has an abundance of hyper-targeted clubs of passionate followers. For example, Discord targeted Computer Science and Gaming clubs to get them on board.
- Greek Life: Greek Life organizations have been the one of the most popular places for ambassador programs to be launched. The advantage of most fraternities and sororities is that the majority all live together in a central location, meaning communication and interaction is frequent. Additionally, fraternities and sororities are constantly socializing with each other. This network has the social infrastructure in place to spread the word on a product.
- Athletics: Depending on the school, athletes have a tremendous amount of influence on campus, but up until 2021, they were unable to get paid. Now due to NCAA changes in their regulations, athletes can be compensated and could be targeted as paid college ambassadors. Reminder: These athletes can have strong influence, but understand they already have a full time job as a student-athlete and are less likely to have time to spare.
If you’re not currently a student, in order to find these organizations, look for your school’s student activities office page online. Almost every school will have a full directory of student organizations (including Greek Life) and the main point of contact (for example, check out USC’s page). Many also will link to their social pages, which can be a more reliable way to get in touch.
Incentivizing Your Ambassadors
While you might be focused on what college ambassadors can do for your product, it’s more important that you think about it from their perspective: what do they get from being your ambassador? Some common incentives for ambassadors include:
Brand affiliation: First and foremost, an ambassador that loves your product and genuinely wants to share it with their friends is the ideal! You want your ambassadors to feel proud to be promoting your product to their audience because the affinity provides them with social capital. An ex-Discord Ambassador shared that he felt incentivized to bring more students on the platform purely because of how much he loved Discord and that more people needed to enjoy the benefits.
Resume-building: College campuses are filled with fierce competition for top jobs once graduating. While most students focus on just getting the best internship for that particular summer, working as a brand ambassador for a hot startup can be a unique and valuable experience that can help them land a coveted internship or job later.
Access to benefits: Give your ambassadors access to early versions of the product to make them feel more connected through exclusive access. If you are building an ecommerce startup, give your ambassadors free/discounted products. If you’re building a social app, perhaps they get a few more invites to hand out than the average user or the ability to try a new feature before anyone else.
For example, ecommerce startup Curtsy advertised in their job description: “All members get 20% off everything on Curtsy (excluding our weekly sale brand or category) and welcome credit to use on our site. Winners of competitions receive gift cards. You’ll also get a personalized unique referral code to share with your friends & community!”
Community building/social or professional networking: Most college students aren’t taught how to build a professional network, and your college ambassador program can be another affiliation group that helps them build connections for life after college. Work to create a strong sense of community, bringing your ambassadors together in social settings. The dating platform Bumble holds ex-ambassador events even after they graduate from the school. Given most college ambassadors won’t convert to full time employees after graduation, Bumble created a post-grad community where there are networking events, wellness retreats, and unique job opportunities.
Fizz, a debit card for students that helps build credit, hosts ambassadors for a “quarterly event with investors, founders, personal finance experts & more”.
Earning money: If you are paying your ambassadors (which is not a requirement), there are a variety of pay structures that have been successful for established brands. The common thread between them all is carefully keeping track of the tasks completed.
- Pay by task completed: assign weekly tasks and pay your ambassadors after photo proof of completion (Bumble)
- Hourly pay: have ambassadors log hours (Red Bull)
- Weekly stipend for achieving goals with bonuses (Discord)
- Cash rewards per user download or referral (Sidechat)
How to Structure Your Program
Length: Keep your ambassador programs to a semester/quarters length to make sure that the ambassadors you have are consistently engaged and do not simply fade out. Allow them to reapply and encourage them to do so. A major problem ambassador programs face is the constant churn of students to busy schedules or graduation. Leverage your best graduating ambassadors to help find their own replacements. In my experience, many who joined a college ambassador program were direct referrals from folks already at the company.
Ask for feedback from your ambassadors, the ones who leave and the ones who come back. How could their experience have been better? Would they have wanted more direction or more autonomy? How could they have been better incentivized?
Training: The most important component to training your ambassadors is making sure they are able to clearly communicate what your product does. If your ambassadors are unable to speak clearly on your value proposition, the mission and purpose will get lost in translation.
Hold Zoom meetings with your ambassadors to practice until they can clearly articulate. Your ambassadors will get asked many questions and are expected by consumers to know the answers. Put another way, think of the questions that you as a founder are constantly asked to clarify – your ambassadors will get the same ones! Have an active group messaging thread (Slack, Discord, Whatsapp, iMessage, etc) so your ambassadors always have an open line to ask questions.
Create a playbook for your ambassadors to refer to. Playbooks provide an easy and clear way for your ambassadors to understand their responsibilities, practice the value proposition, and answer FAQ’s. Leverage your best ambassadors to help refine your playbook once you begin to launch at other schools.
Communicate your metrics/expectations clearly to your ambassadors and hold weekly syncs to make sure they are on track. Hold your ambassadors accountable to these metrics!
Budget: How much overall spend you allocate toward your ambassador program depends on what you think the best marketing channel for your business may be. If your business is make-or-break on college student acquisition, lean more heavily into funding the ambassador program vs other marketing channels.
Within your ambassador program budget, different activation strategies have different costs. If the ultimate goal is to spur word of mouth, be creative with lower budget marketing options that get students talking about your product.
Another framework for setting your college ambassador program budget is to benchmark it against other paid acquisition costs and your overall CAC. Say you’re an ecommerce startup and calculate your CAC to be $75. By having college ambassadors hand out flyers with credit toward the product for $50, you could acquire users more cheaply, assuming the costs of the credit, your ambassador’s time, and printing out the flyers all comes under $75.
Types of Ambassador Activities and Activations
So what do college ambassadors actually do to get the word out about your brand? I like to bucket them in three different ways, with each having more distinct advantages depending on your budget and the type of company you’re building. Prioritize what you feel is best for your product.
For all of these activation categories, it is important to “Know Thy Campus”, and listen to the tribal knowledge of your ambassadors. Encourage your ambassadors to be creative and think outside the box of how they can connect/get the attention of students. It could be something as simple as handing out pizza slices from the best pie shop everyone raves about, encouraging debate between the best sandwich places on campus on Twitter, or raffling off VIP concert tickets when a major artist comes into town. Including great food or free drinks with brand activations is always a strong way to engage college students!
Best for: ecommerce startups, lower budget
Social posts reach college campuses and student groups at scale, given posts are easily shared and engaged with. This is also the most budget-friendly option. Be sensitive to the fact that digital identities are important to college students, and suggesting too many posts on social media can be counterproductive (once a month is a good target). Make sure to have a full-time team member responsible for the brand’s social media account, so when followers of your ambassador come to your page, they see more relevant content and stay.
- Post pictures on Instagram with company – relevant hashtags
- Create unique TikToks tied to brand
- Post unique affiliate codes to receive product discounts.
Ex: Grubhub’s “Campus Tastemakers” program gives ambassadors rewards for posting content of their orders from restaurants around campus.
Best for: new social platforms, larger budget
Sponsoring events are generally a more expensive ambassador activation but are great for creating a fun environment to engage potential users. Events are prone to pumping up inorganic downloads (students who download the app purely for “free entry/drink”) but still they can still create brand recognition. To drive attendees, promote competitions between organizations so that whoever brings in the most downloads/sales gets a reward.
For example, Bumble gave their ambassadors a budget to organize a bar event to boost downloads. Everyone who attended the event first had to show the person at the door that they had downloaded the app and made an account. Given that some people had already downloaded the app, the team measured success by how many drink tickets they had handed out at the door. While some people downloaded the app purely to get into an event with their friends, if someone who attended the event eventually wanted to use a dating app, they had had a Bumble experience and it was ready on their phone.
Best for: all!
“In real life” (IRL) on-campus activations are a great way to have a direct, personal connection with the audience you are trying to reach without the formality of a large event. Basically, place your ambassadors in a popular location where students are going to be anyways and have an excuse for your ambassadors to speak with their peers. For example, social platform, Sidechat, had tables around campus handing out cookies for everyone that downloaded the app. You are able to speak directly with potential customers, get on the spot feedback, and answer any questions they may have.
What’s the difference between an ambassador program and an influencer program?
While they share a lot of common tactics, ambassador and influencer programs ultimately have different playbooks and different goals. Isa Lampson, former Bumble ambassador and ambassador lead for Nate describes it this way: . Ambassador programs go straight to a defined, targeted audience, so that you know your marketing efforts are reaching the right folks. Influencer content is being spread to a much broader and less specific audience. With an influencer marketing strategy, she noted, your goal needs to be specific in order to see the value, given how expensive they can be.
I don’t have the budget to pay my ambassadors. Can I still operate an ambassador program?
Yes! While many programs offer direct financial incentives to individual ambassadors, students can be motivated by a variety of factors. Given these students won’t be making money, it is then critical to design the program in a way that emphasizes the benefits of what they are getting out of the program.
I’m not sure when exactly my product is going to be ready. Should I still plan my program?
It’s always good to be planning ahead and taking notes on what kinds of strategies and tactics might work in your circumstance, but it’s better to wait to launch an ambassador program vs go too early.
In particular, if you’re considering launching your product with an ambassador program, remember: launch dates are hard to manage in the best of circumstances, and it becomes even more complicated when you have a set of college ambassadors waiting on you at the same time.
Set reasonable expectations for your ambassadors and users, and make sure to sync with your tech team consistently so that launch dates are not pushed back after planning infrastructure was put into place. Slipping on your launch date multiple times can damage your reputation and waste a hype cycle of a pre-launch product. Make sure the product can handle scale when users join!
These guidelines are meant to help founders get started with a basic framework for how to structure a college ambassador program. But the best college ambassador programs are the ones that get creative; there is not one set playbook a startup has to follow to be successful!
Thank you to Isabella Lampson, Maya Malde, Shaina Zafar and Noorie Dhingra, Sean Doherty, and Thomas Yee for sharing their valued experience with me for this guide!