What Google, Apple, And Microsoft Can Teach You About Student Ambassador Programs

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The job of a university  recruiter is pretty simple: You want to get students pumped about the idea of working for your company. So how do you go about this?

You:

a) prep tons of T-shirts and water bottles to bring to your career fairs

b) get your marketing department to print up some slick brochures for you to hand out

c) hire a social media manager to update your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts

d) recruit a team of enthusiastic, well-connected students to distribute the aforementioned swag, market your brand more efficiently than any brochure, and communicate more effectively than all your social media accounts combined

We hope it’s obvious that the best answer is D. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with answers A through C, but it’s just that you can often accomplish more by getting students involved in this process.

So how do you get students involved? Many companies do this by creating a “student ambassador program.” We’ll get into some of the specifics in just a minute, but let’s start with why this model makes so much sense.

Successful university recruiting revolves around one main concept: branding. In the NACE 2013 Recruiting Benchmarks Survey, employers said that branding was the most important element of their college recruiting programs.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies get confused about how to brand themselves, says Mary Scott, President of Scott Resource Group. Mary identifies one of the major mistakes employers make with regards to branding is “Overestimating the impact of marketing materials. Ultimately it’s what students tell each other, not what a website or a brochure or commercially produced product might imply.”

Jeff Goodman, Principal Consultant for Campus Strategic Partners, agrees: “You can’t beat furthering your brand than hiring students, giving them good work experience, and then sending them back to campus so they can tell their friends and classmates about it.”

Don’t underestimate the power of a single student to make a big impact. Consider the example of former Khan Academy intern David Hu, whose YouTube video about his internship experience has gained more than 22,000 views.

Mary goes on to say, “That’s how to get traction the most credibly and quickly—through word-of-mouth. It’s a surprising paradox that the more technology we have available to us, the more the personal recommendations seem to make the most impact.”

So how do you get students to share their positive impressions of your company in this meaningful way? Sure, you can recruit them as interns while they’re still students and do everything you can to ensure they go back to campus with positive stories to tell.

But you can also create a formalized program to train and develop students, give them the opportunity to socialize and share ideas with like-minded students, and provide them with some incentives to stay active. Brands like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are already doing this. Let’s take a look at some of the key features of the student ambassador programs at these companies and how you can apply this knowledge to your own program.

  • They seek students who are highly motivated, tech-savvy, and connected on campus

Perhaps this goes without saying, but student ambassador programs thrive when they’re composed of students who are already go-getters. You’ll be trusting these students to conceive and execute events without much supervision, so it makes sense to focus on candidates who are highly motivated over-achievers who have strong social connections and can get the word out there about your company.

Check out the job descriptions for a few student ambassador programs here:

Note the use of phrases like “thrilled by new technology,” “involved in their school communities,” “comfortable planning and presenting,” and “game changers of the future.”

  • They think about the program structure and ideal outcomes

A student ambassador program gives you the opportunity to do several things. In addition to putting your brand name out there on campus and getting students to talk about you to their peers in a positive light, you can also use this as a way to test out new products or services and get feedback on them before they’re released to the general public. You may also want to use your program to maintain a relationship with former interns who have returned to campus—or as a way to source potential interns for future terms.

You’ll also want to think about the time commitment you’ll offer students and what type of compensation you’ll provide. Most companies ask students to commit to a few hours a week for one academic year (plus a few short trips to company HQ for training). They don’t disclose their compensation practices publicly, but they generally tend to offer company swag and early access to new products and services.

  • They give participants a chance to meet—and make it fun!

Apple, Google, and Microsoft all bring participants to their campuses for initial training sessions. This allows students to get to know each other, establish a sense of community, and learn from veteran ambassadors.

Check out the promotional video for Google’s student ambassador program and tell me that it doesn’t look amazing. Sumo outfits? Ping pong? Perhaps some Zumba-inspired dance class? Remember that students already have a lot of demands for their time, so if you’re going to ask them to give up a few hours every week, there should be something in it for them beyond the opportunity to bolster their résumé.

This also serves as a good model for what you expect of students. If you make your activities fun and easy to attend, they’ll be inspired to do the same when they’re representing your brand on campus.

  • They encourage independence AND interdependence

Successful programs provide guidance and framework for student ambassadors, but also give them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas. For example, in the Chronicle of Higher Education article “Tech Companies Expand ‘Student Ambassador’ Programs” Jeffrey R. Young gives the following example: “One of the Google student ambassadors at Emory University, for instance, helped conduct a survey of students about whether they were satisfied with the university’s current e-mail system (which is not provided by Google). The student representative, Emily Rubin, then showed the results to campus administrators, stressing that the survey indicated a hunger for new features like those offered by Google.”

Participants in Microsoft’s “Student Partners” program also contribute to a Facebook page where they can introduce themselves and leave questions and advice for their peers. Think about ways that you could encourage participants in your program to stay in touch and support each other throughout the school year.

  • They’re super selective… or not

Some student ambassador programs are super selective and only open by invitation or to past interns. Others, like the program at Mozilla Firefox, seem to be just the opposite. The Mozilla Firefox Program is open to any students currently enrolled in an academic institution. All participants need to do is fill out an application form and they are considered “student ambassadors.” Extra motivated and successful ambassadors may then have the opportunity to become Mozilla reps. Could you use a similar tiered system for your ambassadors or would it be better to be selective? What makes the most sense for your company’s structure and products or services?

The next step: If you’re planning to roll out a student ambassador program, think about some of the key features like which campuses you’d like to get involved, what the structure of the program will be, and what type of compensation or perks you’ll offer. If you’re not ready for a student ambassador program, could you get current or former interns involved on their campuses? What are some ways you could incentivize them to spread the word about your company and get their peers to apply for jobs and internships?

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