Thinking of launching a brand ambassador program? Read this article to learn how I did it!
Over the past six years, I’ve pushed myself into growth environments both personally and professionally. When I brainstormed ways to make an impact early on in my career, I realized I could carve out my own niche by using other another brand as a platform.
Six years ago, I had an idea looking over the empty seats throughout State Farm Arena, formerly known at the time as Philips Arena during my years as an undergraduate student with big ideas and no limit in sight.
Today, that same idea has turned into a $200,000+ program for the Atlanta Hawks that has hired more than three permanent full-time employees.
How Aspiring Entrepreneurs Can Launch a Brand Ambassador Program
As entrepreneurs, we often need to leverage other successful platforms and brands at the beginning of starting our own to establish the credibility we need to take the next step. This often takes the form of a job.
As a junior in college at the University of Georgia, I was leading the sports division of a student organization called Professional Entertainment and Sports Association (PESA).
One of my responsibilities was planning a career event and speaker series with Atlanta Hawks executives on a game night to educate students about the industry.
I reached out to hundreds of students on campus to attend the event, and ultimately sold more than 60 tickets. I couldn’t have been happier with the event; it was a major success that made a lasting impact on student career development for years to come.
On the day of, quiet observation turned into a big opportunity. During the second quarter, I looked out in front of me and saw 80% of seats in the upper bowl of the arena shockingly stood empty. I turned to the group of students at our event and asked this pointed question:
“Why is this whole upper bowl empty?”
Tickets were only $15, yet no one had bought them.
Wondering to myself, I asked another question that catalyzed a pivotal breakthrough:
What if all these empty seats were filled with students?
The answer? Launching a brand ambassador program.
At my next meeting with the Hawks executives, I presented my case. In response, they explained their point of view. The student market was hard to tap because of constant student group turnover.
Even though they posited this response as a dead end, I knew without a doubt there was a solution: a brand ambassador program.
In 2013, my realizations and corresponding action plan rapidly grew into an $80,000 program within year one thanks to the help of Eric Platte and Chris Weddige. Fast forward to 2019, and that number is now in excess of $200,000 in annual revenue.
Today, I’m sharing with you the key takeaways I learned while building out this process to successfully implement a scalable ambassador at the student level — one that not only builds awareness, but also generates real results in the form of tangible revenue.
Also, as a startup, a brand ambassador program is a great way to build community and brand equity on the ground floor. It’s a channel that if done right, lets people be part of something bigger than themselves.
Here are the 5 critical steps of building a successful student brand ambassador program.
1. Develop Objectives, Research, & Plan
Market Size: Looking back through my research, I noticed there were more than 150,000+ students within the 100-mile radius of my own backyard in Atlanta, GA. Regionally, this included more than eight colleges containing an untapped market with thousands of student organizations to engage.
Generally speaking, most alumni of colleges in Georgia tend to stay in the state post-grad. Using a data-driven perspective for early “capture” offered the Atlanta Hawks a lucrative opportunity to upsell students on everything from season tickets to membership once they entered the workforce and had more disposable income to contribute.
Creating a strategy to “penetrate” this market enabled me to position the Hawks’ brand in front of the right audience properly. If we could capture even just 5% of the market, I figured we could drive $150,000-$200,000 in ticket sales during the first year alone. Once we secured that outcome, we started to build a repeatable infrastructure that could serve as a solid foundation for years to come.
2. Customer Discovery
UGA was the training ground I used to figure out this system, and it’s never let me down ever since. If we got it right on one campus, I knew we could spread that same program to eight more universities with similar success.
I invited student group leaders from organizations like Greek Life and professional student groups to a roundtable discussion event on campus.
Free pizza guaranteed quick wins for attendance, since every college student wants free food. The panel served as the perfect opportunity to conduct customer discovery and test the viability of our program.
The more questions I asked, the more valuable insights I gleaned as I turned over some very important rocks.
An especially important connection was with the social chairs of sororities on campus, who planned events like date auctions and mixers with fraternities.
Entrepreneurs can think of this process as building a minimum viable product before you layer in all the bells and whistles of what would be features on software products or platforms.
Two concepts that many of the student leaders mentioned became the primary infrastructure for the program’s success.
First, they gave me some brutally honest feedback. Many of these women expressed how weird and uncomfortable it felt as young college students to be contacted by a 26-28-year-old male ticket sales reps. Especially in an industry so often dominated by men, many women who serve as leaders in Greek Life didn’t want to flirt with a ticket sales rep. I saw this as an opportunity for a brand ambassador on campus to serve as the liaison between the team and student group leaders.
Second, I learned the value of tapping into social events like sorority date nights. These social functions offer the opportunity to raise a lot of money for their charity, but at the time, it was hard to yield the dual benefit of driving revenue while focusing on the immediate goal of hosting a bonding activity for members of the participating sorority and fraternity.
We offered an easy solution: in partnership, the Atlanta Hawks could donate a percentage of every ticket purchased back to participating groups who promoted their games.
By the end of the “pizza party,” I had a crystal-clear picture of what this program could look like and how it could be successful. Since I was still in college, I had ample time and opportunities to test out my initial concept and build it into something sustainable for the long haul.
3. Map it Out
Once I had gained sufficient clarity, I presented a 15-page plan to key organizational members of the Hawks. As soon as I got the green light, I focused on the specific type of student group I knew had a compatible need in the market. Greek Life organizations needed regularly scheduled events like sports games to host functions like date nights, especially if those events could generate charitable kickbacks.
Think about it like this: when you build a startup, there are many different options for markets to attack.
Instead, build something perfectly for one specific target market you know you can penetrate. Once you do, it becomes much easier to cross-pollinate to the next market.
For us, that demographic was Greek Life.
I did my due diligence by thoroughly scraping the websites of every sorority and fraternity on campus to find relevant points of contact. Once I had my data together, I organized every single president and social chair I could find into a streamlined Excel document.
At the time, this is what the spreadsheet looked like:
Since I was trying to build a friendly relationship with these Greek Life leaders, the intuitive next step was to connect with them on Facebook. Social media platforms are the best tool to use for more casual, one-on-one outreach. Using my spreadsheet as I guide, I patiently sent out sent a friend request to every “lead” I had identified during my research.
As my friend Chloe Belangia says, “The Medium is the Message.”
College students don’t usually reply to emails or regularly check LinkedIn, so you have to arrive at their doorstep where they hang out.
As soon as these friend requests were accepted, I sent a followup message like the one featured below.4 before the program launched in the summer of 2014.
This is where my social selling skills were truly born.
Even though I made a small little error with the name, Tori ended up becoming an integral part of the program at Georgia College and State. Later on, she even become an active contributor to the website for my first startup.
N.B.: When it comes to social selling, focus on adding value for the type of person you are reaching out to. Expressing how this program would benefit the people I contacted was an important step, and I only had 10 seconds to do it right.
4. Build a Scalable System With an Operations Manual
As I mapped out the program with my boots on the ground at UGA and started to see it was working, I immediately realized I needed 10 versions of myself stationed at different campuses. I knew that I would personally have to figure out a final version of the system, and then eventually hand it off to capable contacts on different campuses to execute the job.
It quickly struck me that it was going to be much harder to establish the authority I needed to make these connections at other colleges because I didn’t hold the same key relationships I did at UGA.
I needed an army, and decided that at least two people on each campus would be the ideal. After I explained the process, I outlined how to communicate with student leaders on campus, track results, and hand off “leads” from student groups like sororities who planned social events to the sales reps at the Hawks to close the deal.
On each campus:
- Georgia State
- Kennesaw State
- Georgia Tech
- Georgia (I owned)
- Georgia College & State
I sourced student leaders who fit the following key criteria:
- Actively social on campus with authority on decision-makers in prominent student groups at the college level.
- Had a keen desire to put the Atlanta Hawks on their resume and gain experience in sports business.
Breaking into the industry as a student is a huge challenge, so this opportunity was ultimately an easy sell that many applicants found appealing.
In return, we created incentives for students to execute on campus. Rewards we offered came in the form of free tickets, swag, professional development, network relationship building with the Hawks staff.
The most important consideration we discovered was playing to students’ internal desires so they would buy into our program and find something greater in it for them.
We did just that by generating plenty of buzz on campus as we sold each group on deals between $2,000 – $10,000 — Talk about lots of dopamine!
5. Review the Results for Yourself
By the end of the program’s inaugural year, we had put a highly scalable model in place. We generated $80,000+ in revenue, had several active ambassadors, and established a framework to build a scalable and effective model. After this successful period of growth, the Atlanta Hawks decided to make this program official. Currently, it yields $200,000+ annually and has a team of three full-time hires running operations with unprecedented access to the student market that had always been right at their fingertips.
- Many brands think it’s sufficient to simply slap a generic brand ambassador program on campus and think it will raise awareness, yet they don’t hold students who participate accountable. Having a clear program design with set intended outcomes at the business level will ensure your investment is well worth it.
- Keep in mind how much turnover there always is at the student level. When ambassadors graduate, you need to have a set turnover procedure in place. Make the program feel exclusive so it’s something everyone wants to be a part of by keeping the number of spots available limited.
- Students need very simple instructions – literally, use laymen’s terms! They have so many responsibilities, and they’re in such a formative time of life, that most students are just trying to figure it out to stay afloat. Your brand ambassador program should make sense and be easy to execute. Make sure it aligns with students’ goals, allows them to learn, and teaches them how to build professional relationships and use their campus as a test pool for future endeavors.
- Create valuable and visible incentives for your brand ambassadors. If you don’t —or can’t — pay them for their work, at least take the time to understand their motivations and make an effort to help them fulfill goals like securing internships or jobs in the long term.
- As a brand, one of the most valuable approaches at your disposal is tapping into an audience the right way — while they’re still in college. From a data and targeting standpoint, this is a mission-critical step that will yield returns for years to come. Figure out a system that works properly on at least one campus before you expand to five, 10, or eventually 50. Understanding the right infrastructure for you will position you to attain the maximum level of success.
Special thank you to Jon Babul, Andrew Steinberg, Peter Sorckoff, Eric Platte, Joe Rickert, and Chris Weddige for helping me get this effort off the ground.