Companies turn to students for innovative marketing

June 22, 2012 3:52:31 PM PDT
Imagine balancing college classes, internships, a part-time job -- and then signing up to work even more, but this time for free.

A new trend on college campuses has co-eds volunteering to for tech companies in exchange for references and resume fodder. These student ambassador programs are popping up in colleges and even high schools all over the country.

It may look like she's just passing out flyers, but UT sophomore Christi Williams believes she's building her future in the fashion industry.

Christi works as a student ambassador for the start-up fashion site, Stylitics. She doesn't get a salary or college credit. But ...

"I'm learning a ton," she said. "I'm definitely gaining a lot of leadership experience, and I'm gaining lots of stuff to put on my resume."

Experts say tech companies are flocking to college campuses, recruiting students to help them spread the word, in exchange for gift cards and t-shirts and resume building.

Higher Education Consultant Eric Stoller explained, "Students have access to places that companies and marketing and marketers don't have access to. And so, for example, in a residence hall, students can promote things to one another in ways that companies could never do."

The majority of students are not part of the company payroll.

Stylitics co-founder Zach Davis said, "We really focus on giving them a lot of perks, a lot of rich experience, strong networking."

Student ambassadors do everything from handing out flyers to creating Facebook pages and producing YouTube videos. Some companies are expanding to include high school students.

"I think that's pretty tricky," Stoller said. "I think when you're dealing with minors, I think that changes the landscape immensely. There's maturity issues involved. There's access, there's privacy."

Another concern? Ensuring enthusiastic ambassadors don't end up skirting college policies about marketing on campus. Some schools have policies against distributing advertisements for a for-profit company. And figuring out the rules is often left up to the student ambassadors, who may be held liable if they violate them.

"The companies would say, well it's an unpaid ambassador program," Stoller said. "If the student gets in trouble, the onus is more on the student, which is unfortunate."

As for Christi, she says balancing school, work and an ambassadorship can be tough at times, but she believes it's worth the effort.

These student ambassadorships aren't necessarily meant to replace traditional internships. Many students take on both. But, as our student told us, she believes her ambassadorship actually offers more national experience and networking opportunities than a local internship could, and she hopes volunteering now will lead to an actual paying job with the company in the future.

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