Work, fun blur for Web-savvy students

Brand ambassadors use social media to market products to peers

tstilwell@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2011 

When Duke sophomore Christian Drappi sees someone using a Square credit card reader, he pulls out his phone, snaps a picture and uploads it to Twitter.

"It just kind of spreads like wildfire through retweeting," said Drappi, who is a campus brand representative for Square. Started by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, the company makes miniature credit card readers for smartphones and offers competitive swipe rates.

Companies are increasingly using college campus brand ambassadors to spread the word about their products. These representatives often rely on word-of-mouth tools like social media to publicize the company and any promotional events they host.

Though the brand ambassador is no stranger to the college marketing scene, social media is changing how these representatives interact with their peers and how effectively their message is communicated.

Companies like Red Bull, Microsoft, Verizon and Twitter all have ambassadors on Triangle campuses dedicated to spreading good news about the brand.

Square has a large presence on the West Coast but is trying to expand its grasp eastward. One way it can do this is through campus representatives, said Adam Bassett, who runs the SquareU program.

Campus ambassadors approach students groups, local merchants and other prospective users to demonstrate how the card reader works and its advantages over traditional machines, Bassett said.

The gig - technically an internship - pays $600 per semester, with bonuses based on the number of customers students sign up.

Drappi, a math and physics double major from New Jersey, said he was encouraged by Square to use Twitter to help publicize the product. His UNC counterpart, Jane Hall, also uses Twitter to announce meetings she has with campus groups, using the hashtag #SquareU to collate the tweets.

"It's a lot easier to do through a student than from someone in San Francisco," said Hall, a junior majoring in advertising who wanted the internship to help build her resume.

Cord Silverstein, executive vice president of interactive communications at the Raleigh advertising agency Capstrat, said social media has made it easier than ever for college students to share opinions on a product with their peers. Companies who take advantage of this have a significant edge in reaching the student market segment, he said.

"The ones who are winning are winning because they are supplying their brand ambassadors with great content, and this content is being shared in a way that engages with college students, that speaks to them in the world they live in," Silverstein said.

"Someone's peer, someone they respect like a student or a professor, these people are having much greater impact and influence on what college students think, like and don't like because they trust their opinions."

Kimberly Summers, a junior from Charlotte, works with American Eagle Outfitters' campus ambassador program at UNC-Chapel Hill. There she runs the group's Facebook profile, "AE Student Union," which has more than 1,200 people who "Like" the page.

The group's most recent promotion was the "Drop Your Jeans" event, which offered students a chance to donate their denim in return for a branded tumbler, a store coupon and an opportunity to win a $50 American Eagle gift card.

"A lot of people heard about it through the Facebook page," Summers said. "We can see the impressions, how many people actually saw it, so we know how much influence we have. It's really great."

Cathy McCarthy, who heads the campus ambassador program for American Eagle, said the company has brand representatives at 48 schools in 31 states and Washington, D.C. The ambassador program at UNC is the only one in North Carolina.

When looking at ambassador applications, McCarthy said the company looks for outgoing students who are social-media savvy. For the retailer, whose clothing targets college students, the ambassador program is an ideal fit.

Summers uses the group's Facebook page to interact with UNC students about the retailer's products.

One post, soliciting "Likes" for a photo of sunglasses to be distributed before a Saturday football game, garnered more than 114 responses. Summer said she also posts photos of the group's events and people who attended them.

"When we get a picture of someone, they may make it their profile picture," Summers said. "They're usually holding some branded material from American Eagle. They're promoting the brand, and they don't even know it."

Heidi Hennik-Kaminski, a marketing and advertising assistant professor at UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said the peer-to-peer referrals brand representatives provide can be invaluable for companies that target students.

"Most college students in that age demographic end up trusting each other more than recommendations coming from corporations," she said.

Despite this, Hennik-Kaminski said companies need to be cautious about saturating the target market and inundating students with social media promotions, a symptom often called "Groupon fatigue," because some customers of the online deal service grew annoyed at receiving daily email offers, many of which they had no interest in.

"The question becomes, 'How do you break through the clutter?' Because everyone's trying to break through that space," Hennik-Kaminski said.

"Three years ago, four years ago, brand ambassadors on campus were a novel idea. Now companies have them everywhere. There's only so much mindshare to capture."

Stilwell: 919-829-4649

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