The coolest college clique to join this year isn't a sorority or the lacrosse team. Students from the University of Southern California to Dartmouth College are lining up to become on-campus volunteer marketers for technology start-ups.
Students are slipping into lecture halls to write brand names and company URLs on professors' white boards, making cold pitches to strangers on college-town streets, creating Facebook pages, producing videos and lobbying school newspapers to plug the businesses of entrepreneurs in New York City and Silicon Valley.
Students earn neither cash nor college credit. Instead, ambassadors say they garner a different type of currency: résumé fodder. Many "ambassador programs" are modeled after those run for decades by music labels in which students got free records and cassettes in exchange for splaying posters around bars and libraries promoting album releases and concerts.
Many of the start-ups give students titles like "Campus CEO" or "director of social media." Rent the Runway, an online designer dress-rental service, planned its program before the company even launched in July 2009. It now has 750 representatives on 150 campuses, with plans to grow. Foursquare, the app that lets users "check-in" at locations and businesses they frequent, uses student ambassadors to work directly with school administrators to help them create a presence on the social network.
For start-ups, college students are marketing gold. They love Web products and tell friends, real and virtual, about everything they do, see and buy. They will work, free, at a time when even nonpaying internships are harder to land. Sometimes the students identify themselves as company ambassadors; sometimes not.
Shira Berg, a senior at Syracuse University, has helped promote efforts to get fellow students to use Foursquare to, say, alert their friends that they are attending a basketball game at the Carrier Dome. She also persuaded "The Odyssey"—a student-run publication chronicling the college's Greek system—to run a story on which fraternities and sororities have the most "check-ins."
"A start-up is a great thing to be part of because you feel like you're making a difference," says Ms. Berg, 21 years old.
When Christi Williams, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas was looking for internship listings, she noticed a posting for an ambassador program from Stylitics, a new fashion-focused social-networking site. She applied and was accepted in January.
Since then, she has created a Stylitics-UT Facebook page on which she posts fashion stories from local blogs. She passed out fliers during the South by Southwest festival in Austin last month and she approaches cutely clad strangers in her dorm to tell them about the website.
"I've gotten 'Top Ambassador' the last two months for getting the most amount of people to sign up," she says.
When Rohan Deuskar, 29, and Zach Davis, 31, conceived of Stylitics in 2010, one of the first things they decided to do was create a college-ambassadors program. Mr. Davis had worked as a manager in the music business and had noted how record labels utilized students.
Colleges are fertile ground to create word-of-mouth because they comprise a close-knit group of consumers who can help bestow an aura of cool on a brand. Both men spend time speaking to business- and fashion-school classes, where they find many ambassadors.
Stylitics plans to roll out an ambassador program for high-school students this spring. "Some of the younger sisters of our ambassadors want to get involved," Mr. Davis says.
Stylitics.com lets members create virtual closets filled with clothes they own and covet. Users catalog what they are wearing on what day and for which occasion, and share their fashion influences with their followers.
After making the information anonymous, the company then sells this data to retailers to help them figure out which items to remake for another season and what window displays will best reflect the trends that are connecting with consumers.
Some of the most detailed profiles, and some of the richest data, come from the 80 students working as ambassadors at 75 colleges, including Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., and Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Stylitics ambassadors recently produced videos answering questions about their preferences in bluejean styles, brands and prices. At Mr. Deuskar's Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment—which doubles as Stylitics's headquarters—an intern culled the clips for a video conveying insights about consumers' buying habits for Stylitics clients such as retailers Lucky Brand and Forever 21 Inc.
"We're a start-up so we couldn't afford to do this sort of thing on our own," Mr. Deuskar says.
He and Mr. Davis say that in lieu of offering payment or school credit, they try to find other ways to reward their ambassadors. They organize a monthly conference call in which ambassadors hear from fashion-industry leaders like Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, a co-founder of flash-sale website Gilt Groupe. They also help ambassadors spruce up their resumes, write letters of recommendation for them and impart job advice.
Emily Armstrong is a Stylitics ambassador and junior at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In the fall, she helped create a fashion-trend report that Messrs. Deuskar and Davis passed on to brands they are working with. A graphic-design major, Ms. Armstrong looked for chic people around campus, photographed them and then laid out the visuals on her computer.
She says has benefited from having to be professional and assertive in approaching strangers. "Working for Stylitics has been very helpful in developing those skills," says Ms. Armstrong, 21.
Rent the Runway—which employs about 100 people—has created a salesforce, marketing arm and customer base in its 750-person college rep team.
"We view this as a group we're investing a lot of time in as fashion-market leaders," says company co-founder Jennifer Hyman.
Reps at certain schools can earn college credit and sometimes are rewarded with free or discounted dress rentals.
This past weekend, about 150 college reps and their friends convened in New York City for the second annual Rent the Runway Rep College Capstone Weekend. To take part, college students were required to write a post for a company blog and produce a one-minute video promoting the service. A spokeswoman says it was "recommended" that attendees rent a dress from the company for the event.
On Sunday, company executives met with the reps to interview them for five available full-time positions. Ms. Hyman says the company previously hired four former college reps.
Madison Sims and Erin Fox, both seniors at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., attended Rent the Runway's Manhattan event. They listened to presentations from representatives of retailer Lilly Pulitzer and cosmetics maker Lancôme. Then, students did each other's makeup using Lancôme products, and uploaded photos to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Then the company offered for sale to the students some of its older dresses.
In 2009, when Michael Green, was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University in College Station and working part-time for the school's marketing department, he urged the school to create an official Foursquare page. As a result of his early adoption, Mr. Green was asked by Foursquare to join its ambassadors club, which has since allowed him to network with other Foursquare reps through a private Facebook page.
Mr. Green is proud to note on his resume his role in helping his school use social media. And he also likes the branded T-shirts and other swag.
"We get cool stuff," the 22-year-old says.
Katherine Rosman, The Wall Street Journal. April 4, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.