As social media continues to change the way we communicate with each other, perceive the world, and get our information, a lot of companies are catching on to a new form of marketing: the social media brand ambassador. In the running world, almost everyone I follow on social media (Instagram in particular!) represents a brand of athletic apparel, equipment, wearable technology, sporting event, or nutrition that offers products and services for athletes and runners.
So, what is a social media ambassador?
Like social media itself, this concept is evolving. The best equivalent is to think of a professional athlete who wears a sporting brand during their professional sporting events, or a celebrity endorsement of a certain product. Each of those representations is a contract of some kind between the athlete and the company, that they would wear or use the product when training or participating in an event with a lot of eyes on it, but the general idea is that the use of a celebrity endorsement would attract new customers to the brand. This is kind of like that, only without the multi-figure contract or commercials and, instead of a lot of eyes being a live sports event, we use our own social media accounts to give a brand some visibility.
In the amateur running world, we post updates about our training and gain followers who are typically other runners. I swear, people I actually know and am actually friends with in real life are probably about 25% of my social media following and the rest are other runners or people I have met through running. Social media is the new word-of-mouth in running circles, and I’m almost always willing to try something new if a runner friend of mine endorses it. It really makes the concept of being a brand ambassador kind of genius. If you’re a startup and trying to get the word out without spending ad dollars, this is pretty much the best option there is. Even if you’re a well-established company, using amateur athletes who have often tens of thousands of followers and post daily training updates is cost-effective.
The concept of a brand ambassador isn’t new. In my professional field, I have worked with members of grassroots campaigns or advocacy teams to help promote public policy goals by using the voices of those who understand the issues best. It’s much easier to talk about something when you have felt the impact of it, whether it’s a government regulation or a product that changed your life somehow. Volunteers are another example. But no one ever said you can’t use those same dynamics to make a profit, right? I mean, why not? #capitalism
Why be a brand ambassador?
Being a social media brand ambassador is a win-win for us runners. The vast majority of athletes are amateurs who don’t always have the means to get the newest recovery tool, try the latest nutrition trend, or sport the swankiest GPS watch. Most of us are full-time working professionals, parents, or both, with the drive and self-discipline to train almost exclusively on our own and when our schedules allow. We self-diagnose our injuries, plan vacations around running races, and hope dark beer and eggs for dinner is enough to rebuild our muscles when we’re three days out from pay day (maybe that part is just me). Getting to represent top brands by using our social media platforms sometimes means that we can access our favorite running gear at discounted prices or even for free while telling other runners about how they benefit our training. I’ve also learned about brands I’d never heard of, some of which I can’t live without now, just by following other runners, so even when I’m not representing a brand, I still get the benefits.
Why use a brand ambassador?
For companies that use a social media ambassador program, well, it’s free marketing and advertising. Or at least very inexpensive advertising. Most runners are already incredibly motivated, but in a world where each “like” on a picture has a little bit of validation, it’s definitely like aiming a can of hairspray at a lit candle when we post pictures that get a lot of little hearts or a tweet is retweeted and favorited. That only pushes us to keep up the good work, which means the brand name gets out there a little more. I mean, we’re pretty much always going to post a photo or status update about our run that day: why not encourage a plug for the product that helped make it happen?
I think there’s a separate analysis that can be done to explore how often a photo or tweet results in a sale, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day or to someone whose line of work is in that kind of field to discover.
My Experience as a Brand Ambassador
For my own experience, I have been lucky enough to be selected to represent 4 brands total. In 2015, I was part of the Annapolis Running Classic Ambassador program. In 2016, I was chosen to be on a 4-member team of social media ambassadors to promote the 2017 Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run. I was also selected as a DRINKMaple Athlete Ambassador for 2017 and most recently a 2017 Lumo Run Ambassador. All of these experiences have been very different but equally rewarding to me, as it only helps me connect with other runners and feel like my running matters and makes a difference somehow. I also love to share with others my favorite races and products because I enjoy helping others and promoting what makes running joyful and fun.
Based on my experiences, each brand ambassador program has been different in terms of what corporate values or philosophies are part of the product, what the company is trying to accomplish on the business end, and how the team can be structured as leverage to reaching those goals or meeting those values. All of my experiences have been positive, and I have even been able to use that experience in my professional world.
However, there are some things to consider before you hit “submit” on a brand ambassador program application. Based on what I have learned in my ambassador adventures so far, I’ve put together some considerations.
What To Consider
1) It helps to have a personal connection to the product. While getting free or discounted swag is definitely a perk, it can also have an air of insincerity if you’re just in it for the free stuff.
- One example comes to mind: Once, I used a product from a company that specializes in hydration and, while I loved the flavors, it made me nauseous to drink while running and I was constantly annoyed that it would squirt out of my water bottle and leave a sticky residue all over my hands. But I love their water bottles– I have about 6 of them. But I can’t drink the product itself, so I had to let that opportunity pass me by.
2) Consider that it will be on your social media feed where employers or professional connections may be able to see it. Some people only use their Twitter account, for example, as a professional tool, so having personal tweets intermingled with professional tweets may present a problem. If so, it might be worth considering setting up a separate account just for personal use.
3) I bet this is more common in a place like Washington, D.C., but if you work for an employer who represents a competitor brand or work in the public sector where ethical lines are present, that’s probably a situation you at least need to know about beforehand. I’ll let someone with a law degree take it from here. Just something to think about.
4) If the program requires you to meet a certain quota, ask yourself if that’s something you are able to meet as part of being on the team. At the end of the day, it’s free marketing for the company on the work you did do, but you should at least be willing to put in some effort to keep the process fair and honest on your part.
5) Evaluate your use of social media before agreeing to the program. Most companies are looking for visibility and a lot of followers with an unlocked account, because even a 10-second scroll through an Instagram account has some value to it.
- Back in the day, when stories of teachers getting fired for drinking margaritas and posting the pictures on Facebook were making the news, I locked my Facebook account because I was working for a lawmaker, and I didn’t want anything to not only misrepresent him but affect my ability to get a job elsewhere. I’ve kept it on lock ever since, and I only use it for personal stuff. Luckily, I think this is somehow understood, that people use Facebook for more personal connections than any other platform. I’ve never been turned down for not making my Facebook account public.
- A few months ago, after being excessively trolled on Twitter (and due to their reluctance to stop it), I decided to stop using my account except to post to it externally because the stress was a little too much for me. It definitely limits my audience.
- Also, if you are not comfortable with making your profile public, consider that it may impact your application. Personally, I would rather not make the request to follow someone’s private account unless I know them and have met them. That can be viewed as a lost opportunity from a brand perspective.
- Some friends I know have a public and a private account, one that is used for connecting with the running community and one that is only for friends and family. The downside is that starting over with a new social media account may mean you lose your following, which is definitely something most companies consider as part of your application.
6) If the program you are looking for asks for a lot of blog posts, for your participation at events, or for certain things to be tweeted during various campaigns or promotional pushes, consider that it may not be the right program for you unless you can keep up.
- One time, I was approached and asked if I could be a brand rep and write 5 blog posts per month for the website. I would be paid for each posting, earning up to $125 a month, but I had to turn it down because I barely have time to keep up my personal blog let alone another blog. On that note, the content that I wrote would no longer be mine. I write this blog for truly personal reasons, which allows me the freedom to speak my mind and say what I need to say and write for myself as opposed to writing to attract an audience and write in someone else’s voice. It was enough for me to say no.
- However, another program requires frequent blog posts as part of its program participation requirements and I felt fine with this because I wasn’t “selling” my work to have it edited and re-worded for audience appeal. I can still write and be my authentic self, and the content would no longer become proprietary.
- In addition, some brand ambassador programs ask for your attendance at events. Before agreeing to represent the brand, make sure you can meet those commitments. Yes, work and real life takes priority, but at the end of the day, I don’t like to feel like I am stealing or taking advantage of a brand or company. I want to hold up my end of the deal and be sincere in those efforts.
7) Let some of your friends and family know that you’re getting involved with a program and to expect a lot of posts about the brand. Sometimes, in a world of work-from-home companies, people can get annoyed with posts that promote various products. It’s your social media page, so post what you like, but just let folks know that they are coming. And then ask for their support!
8) Just like when you apply for a job, make it about the company. In your application, be sincere and tell about your personal connection to the product or the company’s values. Think about the kind of person they would want representing their brands, and take a page from their book when submitting an application.
9) Some programs may want you to wear a team jersey at an event, or may ask that you only wear a certain athletic apparel brand that sponsors them. Just consider if that is something you would be willing to do and ask if it’s an absolute must if you think it could be a problem. It’s likely not that big of a deal either way, but I always just want to be fair about it as a brand rep.
10) Consider that you’ll have a great time! I love being part of the programs I am in, and I love the products that I’m helping to promote because I truly believe in them. And the races I have represented in the past, well, there’s a reason why I agreed to apply: Because they were a ton of fun and something I look forward to every year. Plus, I enjoy being able to get discounts from my runner friends’ programs. There is a reason this is spreading like wildfire.
How do you get involved as a brand ambassador?
Every opportunity I have been given, I learned about it through either another runner friend or by following the brand on social media. Sometimes, the company itself reaches out and asks if I am interested. And it never hurts to ask someone at the company yourself!
Above all else, there are many opportunities to get involved with your favorite brands and to share your training secrets with the running community and your following. Maybe some of these are considerable; maybe they are not. Just have fun, be sincere, and let me know some of your discount codes! 🙂 Be sure to use mine!