Student Ambassador Programs: A Quick And Simple Guide

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Have you ever thought to yourself, “Wow, I really wish I had waited until later to start recruiting college students”? Unlikely, right? Most recruiters feel like they’re in a constant battle with time, always trying to catch up with other companies who seem to have started much earlier and stay ahead of the lightning-fast college recruiting cycle.

It’s one of the paradoxes of university recruiting that the actual recruitment process (when students apply to, interview for, and accept jobs) is actually very short, but all the stuff that comes before that—establishing your brand on campus and building relationships with students, professors, and faculty—takes a looong time. Dan Black, Director of Americas Recruiting at EY, puts it this way: “building preference, getting students excited—that happens over the course of years and takes a lot of time and effort.”

What’s the best way to get students fired up about your company and the opportunities you offer?

Mary Scott, Director of Scott Resource Group explains, “What students are interested in is what has been the experience of their peers—either at their university or other students in general—in terms of workplace experience. Did it meet their expectations? Was it a positive experience? That’s what students care about rather than the brand that’s conveyed through your logo and commercials.”

How do student ambassador programs fit into your university recruiting program?

So how can you get started earlier in the recruiting process while also giving students the chance to learn about your company from their peers? Student ambassador programs are a great way to achieve both these goals. And if you engage former interns in this process, you get an additional benefit of extending your relationship with them and potentially increasing the likelihood that they’ll convert to full-time positions with you after they graduate.

Wondering how to make the case for starting a student ambassador program at your company? It comes down to one important recruiting concept: pipeline. “By all means, start a campus ambassador program immediately,” says former Director of University Relations at Monsanto, Johnny Torrance-Nesbitt, “It will feed your hiring programs. And the employer branding opportunities are immense as well as the chance to diversify your workforce and partner with key research universities. You must commit to this program over the long term and stay with it, even during recessionary and downturn periods; even if you have a hiring freeze, still show up on your campuses.”

How do you get started?

In an ideal world, you’d have a dedicated team to help you launch a student ambassador program, but what if that’s not the case? You can actually start a student ambassador program on a small team (yep, even if it’s just you), and/or you can ask an intern to oversee the planning and launch of this project.

Just ask Ashley Collins of AgCareers. She explains, “I actually came to AgCareers as an intern and my intern project was coming up with the student ambassador program. This was the idea that I pitched and it was adopted so I came on full-time and kept it underneath my wing.” The AgCareers program has now run for ten years! Read the full story in this post.

Your pilot program doesn’t need to be too involved, either. At Monsanto, says Torrance-Nesbitt, “We encouraged all of our students to be ‘goodwill ambassadors’ on their respective campuses, to help us at the career fairs when we were on campus, and to help us identify key students who would be a good fit for Monsanto. So, to that extent, our ‘Ambassador’ was loosely structured and not mandatory—no training required or delivered, except for why Monsanto was a great place to intern.”

Who should your ambassadors be?

The easiest way to find your ambassadors is by getting your former interns to take on this responsibility when they return to campus. They have the advantage of being familiar with your company culture and mission, so it will be easy for them to provide that firsthand experience that Mary Scott mentioned was so important.

You can simply ask all your former interns who are returning to campus to take on this role, or you may want to be more selective and focus on specific campuses. For example, Sarah Brubacher, Head of University Programs at eBay Inc., explains that eBay Inc. tends to choose interns who are returning to the company’s target schools.

In Ashley Collins’s case, her organization (AgCareers) doesn’t have a large pool of interns to rely on and her target schools change every year, so she goes through a traditional recruiting process with job listings and simple phone screenings with applicants. You may want to follow a similar process, or think about which qualities are most important in your ambassadors and come up with a screening process that helps highlight those. If you want ambassadors to work independently, for example, ask them to come up with a proposal for their first event, including a budget and desired outcomes.

How should you compensate ambassadors?

There can be a lot of variation here depending on the time commitment you’re asking your ambassadors to make. You’ll also probably want to provide students with swag for them to distribute, and potentially furnish discretionary funds so they can put on pizza parties or whatever type of event the kids are into these days.

Some employers, like AgCareers, supply their ambassadors with equipment, discretionary funds, and a lump sum payment at the end of the semester. Sarah Brubacher at eBay explains that at eBay, They’re given swag to give out and discretionary funds to spend as they feel appropriate to build the eBay brand on campus.”

Monsanto did not provide compensation for ambassadors when Johnny Torrance-Nesbitt was there, but he suggests the following for creating a compensation strategy: “I would take their summer monthly rate and calculate an hourly rate from that and pay them (taxable) an hourly rate. I would ask them to submit time sheets every two weeks or monthly. For an example, kindly see the Motorola campus program for college students.”

What should ambassadors do?

In the simplest sense, your ambassadors should help spread the word about your organization and build your brand on campus. But what are some specific ways they can do that?

It could involve asking your ambassadors to make themselves available for “office hours” to other students who’d like to hear about their experience, as is the case for eBay ambassadors.

Other common ambassador activities include reaching out to student groups and presenting at their meetings, or working with administration to help them understand a product or service and how it can benefit students. Former LinkedIn INBassador Courtney Sanford mentions that she “collaborated with administrators in career services to help them plan and strategize how to present LinkedIn to students in the future.”

If your organization is doing any on-campus recruiting or nearby trade shows, you can also ask your campus ambassadors to get involved, as Ashley Collins does at AgCareers. In these settings, ambassadors can share their personal experiences and give potential applicants a realistic impression of what it would be like to join your organization as an intern or new hire.

And you may also ask your ambassadors to help spread the word about your upcoming campus visits and other cool initiatives, as Johnny Torrance-Nesbitt suggests, “In 2014 and beyond, I would obviously ask/encourage them to take to all facets of social media and have them blogging, ‘liking,’ following, tweeting/retweeting, and ‘friending.’

Still looking for some examples of how other companies manage their ambassador programs? We provide a snapshot of a few others in this post.

What else should you know before you start?

Even though it is definitely possible to manage a program and a group of ambassadors on a small team, be aware of the fact that it will take time and effort. Ashley Collins explains, “While you’re not managing six full-time employees, they have a lot of questions and need a lot of guidance… There are a lot of things that come up when you’re dealing with students because their schedule is not 9 to 5. The success of the program boils down to the person’s ability to manage the team and be dedicated.” It’s also important to keep in mind that most students have classes during regular business hours, so if you’re planning phone calls, Google Hangouts, or Skype sessions, they’ll most likely need to be well after your working day is over.

Now you have the framework for setting up an ambassador program, regardless of the resources you’re starting with. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with starting a small pilot program and making refinements and adjustments as you go along. The important thing is just to go out there and get started!

Have any questions about student ambassador programs that we haven’t covered here? Let us know in the comments and we’ll address them in a future post.

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