Noah Lamfers, a senior at the University of Northern Iowa, had never tried a 5-Hour Energy drink. But he still signed up to promote the brand online, getting paid to post images of himself and bottles of the product on his personal Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts. He tagged each one with #5houruintern.
Elizabeth Gabriel, a recent graduate of the University of Texas, posted a photo on Instagram of herself relaxing in her last year with a glass of wine and gazing at the latest Samsung tablet. It was one of 12 similar photos she posted for AT&T over 12 weeks. Her payment: a Samsung Galaxy smart watch and an Apple TV.
Alana Clark, a 21-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, is one of more than 200 college students across the country using their Instagram accounts to promote Victoria’s Secret Pink sportswear and undergarments. She also hands out free underwear on the quad.
Paying college students to push products is nothing new for companies. The exuberant undergraduate wearing a Nike cap and giving out samples is as common on American campuses as football fans tailgating at homecoming.
But now, like so much in the advertising world, the big action is online. As students return to campuses, they’re constantly checking their Instagram, Snapchat and other social media accounts — so companies are turning to many of them to promote products right alongside photos of family, friends and the new puppy.
For busy students, it is an easy, low-pressure way to make extra money or get free products. For marketers, it is a simple way to reach young people — a supplement to their other social media efforts, including hiring full-time promoters.
Though there are no comprehensive data for how many college students promote brands online, interviews with university officials, marketing consultants, brand representatives and students make it clear that the social media platform is big business on campus. Many of the deals are for Instagram posts, but some brands also have students posting on other services, like Twitter and Facebook.
Riddle & Bloom, a marketing agency specializing in building “meaningful relationships with millennial and Gen Z consumers,” employs students from more than 500 schools in all 50 states, according to its website.
On the Victoria’s Secret website, you can search for the names of its representatives at 100 campuses, in schools from Columbia University to Grand Valley State University.
At Virginia Tech, as many as 1,000 of the 30,000 undergrads are being paid to promote products as varied as mascara and storage bins, according to an estimate by Donna Wertalik, director of marketing for the university’s Pamplin College of Business.
“We see so many brands that have it,” Ms. Wertalik said. “A lot of start-up brands will do it. They’ll look for students with credibility and influence to give them credibility and influence.”
Ms. Wertalik oversees a student-run ad agency called Prism. Of the 45 undergrads employed there, she estimated, half are paid to promote products on Instagram.
Companies outline expectations for what the sponsored posts should include, such as specific hashtags or promotions for particular items. Many also ask students to hold or attend events on campus.
Isabel Senior, a student at Duke University, worked for LaCroix, the sparkling water company. Each week for six weeks, she had to post one Instagram photo, one Instagram story and one post on a platform like Facebook or Snapchat. She also gave out cans of LaCroix at campus events like five-kilometer races and university-sponsored concerts.
Every Sunday, Ms. Senior had to send in a form with three photos from her weekly sampling event, along with screenshots of her posts. The company paid her in money and LaCroix products, and if she didn’t complete a task, she said, it docked some of the pay.
The job isn’t always as simple as it may sound.
“I think the time commitment was what I expected,” said Annabelle Schmitt, a senior at Pennsylvania State University this fall, “but how hard it was I did not expect.”
Ms. Schmitt worked for Aerie, a lingerie retailer, along with three other Penn State students during the last school year. The company required that she post at least one Instagram photo, Instagram story and Snapchat post each week using the products, like sweatshirts and lounge pants, sent by the company.
Ms. Schmitt also hosted events like a swimsuit promotion that helped women find the best suit for their bodies, and a screening of a documentary about the singer Demi Lovato followed by a discussion about self-love.
Creating the images took Ms. Schmitt at least two hours each week. She was paid with money and company products.
“Because I take my branding seriously for my personal blog,” she said, “I try to work with photographers to get really high quality.”
The payments to the so-called campus influencers appear to vary widely, from cash to merchandise, and brands say little about them.
Riddle & Bloom’s website says it pays out a total of $2 million to its campus representatives, but during an interview its president, Darren Ross, would not go into detail or confirm the website’s numbers.
Azita Peters’s work as a brand ambassador for Alex and Ani, a jewelry company, started off with a perk. Ms. Peters, a student at Virginia Tech, enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to Rhode Island, complete with free jewelry.
She and 12 other women from colleges like the University of Alabama and Ohio State University — “big state schools with football programs,” she said — spent three days at Alex and Ani headquarters there. They toured the work space and received instructions on curating their Instagram feeds.
Under Federal Trade Commission rules, people using their personal social media accounts to advertise products are supposed to disclose on their accounts the brands they represent. For instance, Ms. Gabriel tags AT&T in her posts while also including the hashtags #sponsored, #ad and #att.
But these guidelines are often ignored. In April 2017, the trade commission sent more than 90 letters to influencers and brands reminding them of the guidelines.
Companies use numerous methods to select campus influencers. Sometimes the students apply directly to the marketing agencies; sometimes the marketers identify the students.
Students can go to the Riddle & Bloom website and apply for one of the 2,000 “internships,” which last for a semester.
Some students land the job through old-fashioned networking. Ms. Senior, the student at Duke, heard about Riddle & Bloom through a sorority sister, who had posted a link to the online application in their sorority group chat.
And sometimes, students have no idea how they were selected.
Advertisers hire Riddle & Bloom for access to its database of student applicants. The company says it has a close working relationship with university officials through the National Association for Campus Activities, a trade association, noting that they even share an office in Columbia, S.C.
Representatives from the association say that they do not give out either personal or contact information about students without permission, but that they do steer campus leaders toward Riddle & Bloom.
Ms. Gabriel said she hadn’t considered being a brand ambassador until, out of the blue, AT&T reached out to her via direct message on Instagram. She attributed the company’s interest to the down-to-earth photos she posts and the number of comments she gets.
“My follower-to-like ratio is probably something that caught their eye,” she said.