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What is a student ambassador program and why do you need one?

9 minute read

 

 

What's a student ambassador?

Universities have used their current students to help promote their institutions to prospective students for decades. We call them students ambassadors, and they have been the trump card for marketing, admissions, and recruitment teams at universities around the world.

But, as Gen Z’s expectations for authentic, digital-first engagement come to the fore, student ambassadors are evolving beyond open days and in-person, university fairs.

In this guide, you’ll find a definition of the role of a student ambassador, how that role is moving online, and the skills which make a student ambassador successful.  We’ll also run through exactly what makes a student ambassador program so valuable today. Spoiler: it’s about so much more than connecting after the Covid-19 pandemic sent the world digital. 

In fact, student ambassadors help you create an authentic body of user-generated content – cutting through the noise of traditional marketing and building trust at the same time. By the end, you’ll understand the “how” and  “why” of a digital student ambassador program. There are even some tips on starting your own. Let’s dive in.


  1. Student ambassadors provide a peer-to-peer perspective
  2. What does a student ambassador do? 
  3. The changing buying habits of Gen Z
  4. Cutting through the noise: user-generated and social media content
  5. Building trust with word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer marketing
  6. A complete solution for working with student ambassadors

Student ambassadors provide a peer-to-peer perspective

A student ambassador offers the next generation of best-fit students an honest and enthusiastic vision of life at your institution. Honest is the key word – it transforms the passion, knowledge, and friendliness of your ambassadors into an authentic endorsement. Trust, community, and belonging all flow from there.

Student ambassadors can effectively influence the emotional drivers behind student decision-making. We’re talking about hidden levers that don’t get answered by university websites and fliers. That could be anything from nitty-gritty questions about accommodation, to more personal worries about access and representation.

Student ambassadors as a unique and trusted voice

Essentially, student ambassadors offer something that even the best marketing team can’t: their unique, first-hand experience. This helps prospects with the decision-making process by giving them a real insight into what life as one of your students might be like.  With an ambassador’s honest help, they can make a confident and informed decision about their future.

That honesty means more interest, more applications, and more decision-making in your recruitment. Not only can you round up the best-fit students, every year, but you can address pain points in your admissions on a course-by-course basis, or across the student body as a whole.

Student ambassadors can support with outreach and inclusion 

Many institutions use student ambassador programs to target international student recruitment or to address specific faculty access issues, like the underrepresentation of women across STEM subjects. Overall, a more diverse student ambassador body increases the representation of minority groups at a given institution.

In this way, student ambassadors aren’t just about marketing but about making a positive difference for diversity and access at your institution.

So, ambassadors improve your outreach and inclusion and (at the same time) help you attract a generation of students who increasingly value forward-thinking institutions more highly. 

Important, value-based conversations can be difficult to generate in groups on open days. Interactions are all too fleeting to establish a meaningful relationship, and often it can be uncomfortable to bring up sensitive topics with groups of new people.

Student ambassadors make those conversations possible. 

You might be surprised how many discussions between ambassadors and prospective students turn to climate change awareness, mental health, and gender and race equality. 

What makes a good student ambassador? It’s not a role that requires an enormous time commitment. As you’ll see below, the qualities which make a student ambassador successful are simply friendliness, a good knowledge of your institution, and enthusiasm. As more of an ambassador’s role moves online, it’s never been easier to connect with prospective students.

What does a student ambassador do? 

So how can ambassadors get stuck in making a difference for your institution? And how is their role made even more effective by going digital?

A student ambassador can help you in two key ways: by connecting with prospective students directly, and by indirectly engaging them with content about your institution.

With the help of social media, the latter couldn’t be simpler. Many universities give their student ambassadors content goals as part of the role – whether that be measured in posts, engagements or time spent creating. 

Online platforms don’t just make it easy for your ambassadors to create, they’re the best way to connect with a generation of students who’ve grown up online. More on that below.

When it comes to direct engagement, the three most effective ways to reach students are:

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Take part in online chats

Not only do online chats approach prospective students in a medium they are familiar with, but they also make it easier to keep up an open channel of communication. In person, you can facilitate a limited number of fleeting interactions in a certain country or region; online, you can chat across the globe and keep the conversation going.

How to get the conversation started?

Some institutions host a slick, Facebook-style roster of their ambassadors, for prospects to search by course, nationality, and even hobbies. Others, like the University of Adelaide, connect applicants straight away; each prospect gets a personalized link with their offer email which leads them to an ambassador with something in common.

Conducting virtual tours

Student-led, virtual tours deliver a unique perspective on campus life. There’s a knock-on effect too: if done well, virtual tours can create a 30% increase in physical visits to your campus. That means more applications and a bigger conversion to acceptances and enrolment.

Virtual tours aren’t hard or expensive to create either – you can try them for free here. Like online chats, taking tours online means tearing down time barriers and recruiting more international students.

Staying in touch

Checking in with students throughout the enrolment process is far easier online. Once they’ve connected with an ambassador, they can talk through any issues or questions in their own time, from anywhere in the world.

That means spreading the workload of your admissions team and making sure prospective students aren’t struggling in silence with their application.

Win-win! Staying in touch is just as important after enrollment. As if that wasn’t convincing enough already, student ambassadors who stay in touch decrease dropout rates too.

The changing buying habits of Gen Z 

Gen Z students expect a level of digital engagement when making any purchasing decision. Shopping around for their perfect university is no different.

The Covid-19 pandemic put this trend on a fast-track: a recent survey found that, before the pandemic, 46% of institutions offered very little recruitment online. Now those same institutions have doubled down on digital recruitment, focusing 82% of their efforts through the internet.

So, while Gen Zers had digital expectations before the very first lockdown, they can now find more higher-education options online than ever before. If you’re not there yet, you’re missing out and prospective students will miss you.

We can all learn from an example like Swinburne University, in Australia, where Swintopia (a gamified campus experience hosted in the Metaverse) increased open day registrations by 240% in its first year.

Innovative approaches like this lean into the expectations of your students, without necessarily losing the merits of face-to-face engagement. 

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Research highlights the importance digital interactions

Take these two studies. In 2018, McKinsey found that part of their experience as ‘true digital natives’ means Gen Z are much less likely to distinguish between friends made in a real place and those they’ve met digitally. Meanwhile, our own Director of Asia Pacific, Luca Cella, found that student experience is the ultimate differentiator between universities. More than anything, prospects want to know what to expect.

Together, that means an honest digital interaction with an actual student is infinitely more meaningful to a prospective student than a static website or even a face-to-face visit from your admissions team.

In other words, student ambassadors are your most precious and trusted marketing asset.

Cutting through the noise: user-generated content 

So, the next generation of students expects higher education to market itself digitally. Marketing researchers have noticed another change influencing their purchasing: authenticity.

Young prospective students are increasingly motivated by a feeling of connection with a brand and its reputation, not just its product.

It’s true of everything they buy. An overwhelming majority of millennials (over 90%) say their decisions to support a brand rely specifically on its level of authenticity.

So how can you create an authentic, digital image of your institution? And how can student ambassadors help?

At The Ambassador Program, we have countless experiences helping universities connect with students and we’ve worked it out. The answer is user-generated content or UGC. 

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User-generated content drives online engagement

Pulling together a raft of studies and consumer data, Trustpilot found that websites with UGC can see a 20% increase in return visitors and up to a 90% increase in time spent on site. And if you’re looking for engagement on social media, UGC posts see a 28% higher engagement rate than your brand posts.

We’ve looked into the top three ways student ambassadors can enhance your UGC marketing, and the secret is in working across platforms. That includes everything from a TikTok takeover, to campaigns on Twitter or Instagram. By cross-promoting one platform with another, like YouTube, you’re maximizing your audience.

We think today’s students are more than justified to expect authenticity from their higher education. Choosing a university means choosing a home, in many cases for three years or more. If you’re targeting international student recruitment with your ambassadors, this couldn’t be more true.

Here’s another example of why digital student ambassadors are a win-win for you and your students: studies show that feelings of belonging directly bump up social and academic engagement

Ultimately, by engaging students with ambassadors who share an authentic image of university life, you get more applications, and the students you choose perform better.

Building trust with word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer marketing

A program of ambassadors isn’t just about converting prospects individually. Managed correctly, student ambassadors become more than the sum of their parts – they help create a community around your institution.

Countless marketing studies show how important a sense of community is to prospective buyers – and how a successful community grows itself.  On one hand, over 92% of consumers trust word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer recommendations over any other type of marketing. A recent report from, McKinsey found that  84% of consumers will admit they do not trust advertisements anymore.

Those stats are true of every purchasing decision, from a Mars bar to a car, so imagine how much more valuable trust is when choosing the institution your students will call home for their years of higher education.

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Engaging with parents and caregivers too

We also know that for most students their parents or caregivers will be an important influence on their choice of institution. That’s another reason peer-to-peer marketing is so valuable. While digital and social media content reaches Gen Z students effectively, the sense of trust created by peer recommendations sways purchasing power across generations.

For this reason, institutions like Dulwich College Singapore mirror their student ambassador programs with forums for prospective parents to chat with current parents and staff.

An interactive community

You can think of your ambassador engagement as a platform for interactive peer reviews (which are trusted 78% more than direct marketing messages by consumers). They get you away from conventional advertising and help you instil trust and community. 

That’s double the firepower. The same McKinsey report found that word of mouth is the primary motivating factor behind 20% to 50% of all purchasing decisions; and 50% to 80% of word-of-mouth comes directly as a result of personal experience with a product or service.

Done well, student ambassadors can give any institution the tools to generate trust, authenticity, and honesty in the space they create to engage with prospective students.

In all of our work helping institutions transform their recruitment numbers, we’ve found that student ambassadors are game-changing because they harness the power of peer reviews; turn those reviews interactive by engaging with Gen Z students in a digital era, and generate powerful word of mouth testimony on- and off-line.

In practice, they work by generating social media content about your institution for prospects to discover, or by directly communicating with new students. That could be by giving virtual tours in application season, chatting online with admitted students, and by staying in touch with those who enroll during their time studying.

Given their transformative impact, perhaps the most surprising thing we’ve learned about digital ambassadors is how easy they can be to incorporate into your admissions and marketing teams.

A complete solution for working with student ambassadors

Here at The Ambassador Platform, we can help you every step of the way. We’ve already helped institutions around the world: from Singapore to Surrey; from Queensland University of Technology to Queen’s College, Oxford.

We can help devise a program to suit your institution’s pain points, draft job descriptions and train the students you recruit. Most importantly, we’ll then help brainstorm the best way to connect your ambassadors and prospective students.

So why wait? You can start building a gold standard program of digital ambassadors at your institution today. Even better – The Ambassador Platform can start helping right now by signing up for a free account.

There simply isn’t a better way to engage with the changing face of higher education, and generational marketing at the same time. 

Whether it’s international student recruitment, student satisfaction, or access and diversity, a digital ambassador program is the not-so-secret weapon to transform your admissions process.

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Words by Daniel Shailer

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How to build a student ambassador program

A step by step guide to setting up and running a student ambassador program.

What our customers say

The University of Sheffield

"We were looking for a way to incorporate more of our student voice into our clearing campaign. We've tried web chats in the past but TAP enabled prospective students to make an instant connection with our current students when they were needing to make quick but important decisions."

The University of Sheffield

Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge

"One of the most crucial and beneficial elements of school visits to Caius is the chance for school pupils to interact with undergraduates, who may be from a similar background and have themselves embarked on a similar journey to get to Cambridge. In the current circumstances, it is important to keep this interaction going as far as possible, and [TAP] seemed a perfect way to do it."

Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge

RMIT

"The ability to speak to current students who have gone through the same things they have, we felt was really important. TAP really gives us an opportunity to showcase those students, what country they're from, what their interests are, and what they're studying."

RMIT