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BU senior Trevor Guthrie made his pitch for Microsoft to fellow students.
BU senior Trevor Guthrie made his pitch for Microsoft to fellow students. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)

Building a buzz on campus

Companies enlist students to pitch products to their peers

During lunch at Boston University, five girls ogled a 6-foot-7 blond senior with a winning smile and high cool-quotient as he approached their table. He was cute, they agreed. But equally intriguing was his pitch.

''I heard this is amazing!" Pam Spuehler, a sophomore in general studies, said as she read a postcard touting the OneNote software program that Cody Gossett had handed her.

''It is," Gossett said. ''You should check it out!"

''I will!" Spuehler said, adding as she eyed the phrase ''Save Trees. Use OneNote" on his chest, ''How do I get one of those T-shirts?"

The exchange was a corporate marketer's dream -- and one, in this case, come true for Microsoft, which hired Gossett to peddle its notes-organizing software on campus. Microsoft is among a growing number of companies seeking to reach the elusive but critical college market by hiring students to be ambassadors -- or, in more traditional terms, door-to-door salesmen.

In an age when the college demographic is no longer easily reached via television, radio, or newspapers -- as TiVo, satellite radio, iPods, and the Internet crowd out the traditional advertising venues -- a microindustry of campus marketing has emerged. Niche firms have sprung to act as recruiters of students, who then market products on campus for companies such as Microsoft, JetBlue Airways, The Cartoon Network, and Victoria's Secret.

''There is a paradigm shift in the way that corporations are marketing to college students," said Matt Britton, a managing partner of Mr. Youth, a New York-based firm that specializes in college student marketing. ''The student ambassador tactic embraces all the elements that corporations find most effective: It's peer-to-peer, it's word of mouth, it's flexible, and it breaks through the clutter of other media. For all that, it's growing very quickly."

By the estimate of leading youth marketing firms, tens of thousands of students work as campus ambassadors nationwide, with many in the college-rich Boston region.

The students selected tend to be campus leaders with large social networks that can be tapped for marketing. Good looks and charm tend to follow. Many are specially trained, sometimes at corporate headquarters, Gossett said, as in the case with Microsoft. They are expected to devote about 10 to 15 hours a week talking up the products to friends, securing corporate sponsorship of campus events, and lobbying student newspaper reporters to mention products in articles. They also must plaster bulletin boards with posters and chalk sidewalks -- tactics known as ''guerilla marketing," which, marketing firms acknowledge, intentionally skirt the boundaries of campus rules.

Students are compensated with the products they hawk, and some are paid a small stipend. The bigger attraction appears to be the resume-worthy experience and a possible inside track for a job with a company after graduation. The companies generally track the work through self-reporting: Mr. Youth maintains an online portal where students log their numbers of fliers posted, e-mail addresses collected, and the like. Microsoft, Gossett said, monitors the work by counting the number of student downloads by school.

Colleges and universities say they have little say over student marketers on campus and are often unaware they exist. While many schools bar companies from setting up shop or sending nonstudent representatives to approach students on campus property, administrators say many campus spaces are difficult to restrict to students.

''We are not in a position to tell people that they can't talk to people," said Bruce Reitman, dean of student affairs at Tufts University.

College students have long been prime targets of corporate marketing because as they shop for themselves for the first time, they are poised to form brand loyalties. But the push to reach them is even greater now as their monetary clout has grown along with their numbers.

The college market accounted for $231 billion in consumer spending last school year, according to a study by Harris Interactive for Alloy Media + Marketing, a New York firm that is the leading supplier of campus ambassadors. The same study noted that there were more college students than ever -- 16.5 million -- creating the largest college population in the nation's history.

College students are, however, a tough crowd for marketers. Wired as the generation may be, its members not only tend to ignore traditional media -- television, radio, and newspapers -- but, studies show, they are no more likely to click open an Internet ad than older adults are. They do, however, listen to one another.

Gary Colen, an executive vice president of marketing at Alloy, said telecommunication companies were early users of campus ambassadors, but, increasingly, retail and consumer goods firms are relying on them to counter the cacophony of corporate messages.

The method is a blend of other emerging tactics: buzz marketing, in which people talk up a product to friends and family without necessarily revealing corporate representation; and street teams, young people who hand out stickers, fliers, and products.

But the use of campus ambassadors differs, specialists say, in that it is not cold-call salesmanship, used by street groups, and it is more forthcoming than buzz marketing. Campus ambassadors generally are not required to state their corporate affiliation, but most companies instruct them not to try to obscure it.

At BU, Gossett, 22, and his co-worker, Trevor Guthrie, 21, also a senior majoring in advertising, did not announce their corporate ties -- allowing their logo-bearing T-shirts to do the work. Students they approached said, in interviews after listening to the pitch, they did not understand the students' relationship with Microsoft, but that it mattered little.

''I probably listened to Trevor more because he's a friend," said Kelsey Henager, a sophomore studying public relations. ''Students come from your level, and you don't feel like they are just pushing a product on you -- it's more like they're sharing their opinion."

Youth marketing firms say that sentiment is echoed in their research, which indicates that students have a growing mistrust of corporate messages -- both because of the number of them and the recent string of corporate scandals. Student ambassadors also have the power to connect companies with the zeitgeist of a student body, which can differ from campus to campus.

''MIT kids understand MIT kids, BU kids understand BU kids, and Tufts kids understand Tufts kids," said Josh Velasquez, an MIT senior who is working as a campus representative for JetBlue this semester.

So how do you pitch to an MIT student? ''Bullet points. Numerical lists," Velasquez said. ''If it's too arty, people will overlook. Color is good, but not too much."

Velasquez, who heard about the JetBlue job though the career services center at the Sloan School of Management, said his marketing methods have focused on filling campus bulletin boards with company posters, placing flight schedule booklets on computer consoles at the campus computing center, and securing corporate sponsorship of MIT's fall festival. The website for the festival now includes the JetBlue logo.

Velasquez said he is continually brainstorming new ways of getting his message out. His latest: preprinted Post-it notes, the better for sticking to computing center monitors.

''We're supposed to break the rules a little bit," he said. ''Traditional media doesn't work, so you have to go out and be creative."

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