Kaylin Marcotte became theSkimm’s first employee herself as an engaged fan of the newsletter. Her fierce desire to help the co-founders with the challenges they were facing as a freshly seed-funded startup earned her the job.
Her first challenge to tackle?
“We have 100k readers, we need 1 million in a year, and we don’t have any money for you… so go!”
How do you find your ambassadors? If you're doing it right, they should be right in front of you.
It thus seems only fitting that Kaylin’s idea for the brand ambassador program also came from theSkimm’s readers themselves, who were, like Kaylin, already expressing their love and a desire to help out with the brand. The brand ambassador program was the result of the marriage between readers’ desire to help and theSkimm team’s need for growth.
What do you look for when selecting brand ambassadors? Diversity and Hustle.
The team started with college campuses, because of the existing infrastructure there, and picked ten schools with a wide variety of profiles, from small liberal arts colleges to big state schools. This would help them to figure out what factors would be most important in their user acquisition. For example, would Greek life be important, or would schools with strong journalism programs be more resonant? The team also made sure to select a diverse group of initial ambassadors as well, from eager freshmen to more experienced seniors, from political science majors to journalism majors to communications and marketing majors. “We wanted those 30 to represent a different user profile of what a college student looks like everywhere,” said Kaylin.
It also became apparent how important it was that the ambassadors could hustle. The first 30 ambassadors who applied to the program were required to get 50 new signups. The importance of this skillset led to more ambassadors who were social media, communications, and marketing majors, as opposed to journalism majors, which had been an initial hypothesis.
You have your ambassadors, now what? Test, test, test.
After the ten campuses and first crop of ambassadors were selected, the team broke down the college semester into manageable weekly tests to quickly get valuable feedback on how best to position the brand. One week, for example, the ambassadors would be told to email Greek life list-servs with a certain template giving a full value pitch of the brand. Another week, the team would ask the ambassadors to try a different angle in their messaging, for example, simply asking their peers to do them a favor. The next week, they might be asked to email certain professors in different departments. The impact of each message was carefully tracked and measured, and it allowed the team to develop material that they knew worked.
How do you know if you're ambassadors are engaged? Make sure they're rewarded for hard work.
Kaylin kept close contact with all Skimm'bassadors, making the work as easy as possible for them to do, and speaking with them every week. In the process of doing so, the team was also able to learn more about their ambassadors’ own motivations for participating in the program (marketing experience and free stuff!). This information helped in the creation of a smooth onboarding flow and user funnel.
The team was then able to take what they learned and the processes they had developed from the pilot campus program to rework and expand the ambassador program to the entirety of The Skimm’s readership and scale up. By the end of the year, they had grown from their 30 campus ambassadors to 1200 Skimm ambassadors, and then 13k at the end of the next year by revisiting all the important touch points they had discovered during the campus program. Along the way, they learned how to scale, how to be preemptive rather than reactionary, and how to put an infrastructure in place to maintain the intimacy and personal connection that the team valued about the program.
As you start growing, what's the most important focus? Building authentic community.
“Personally responding to every email, writing cute notes that go out with totebags when someone becomes ambassador is not sustainable with 13,000 people,” Kaylin said.
Part of the new infrastructure involved using tools such as Facebook groups and guiding the conversation in those groups with prompts to create a safe place for intimacy and connection between ambassadors.
“People ask for advice, share personal stories, and we started doing events for them around the country. We’ve done at least 150 collectively around country over the last two years, and they’ll meet up in person. One girl met her boyfriend through it! There’s some great testimonials to what the programs mean for people,” said Kaylin.
Thus, while the program originally began as a growth vehicle, today, the ambassador program is more about nurturing the community itself, and thinking about how to add value to the program for its participants.
“There are probably three big categories of [ambassadors]:
1. some are just really altruistic, ‘We love your brand, we just want to share.’
2. Some are really driven by the community, the networking, so for them there’s a FB group, we do a list-serv, and we do another newsletter just for that community.
3. And then there’s the very tangible, transactional ambassador. Whatever you are of those three, it’s about making sure that we’re satisfying your motivation and need and keeping you incentivized and involved.”
Although an ambassador program may seem like a solution specific to a media startup like The Skimm, the principles of building a program like The Skimm’s can be applied to startups in other industries.
“Brands aren’t just brands anymore. For the most part, consumers want a more personal connection, and I think we experimented a lot with surprise and delight,” said Kaylin. “It’s about rewarding people for their loyalty and engagement, whether it’s an official brand ambassador program connecting them with each other or building a community to start recognizing the people who are going above and beyond. I’ve seen the power in just recognizing your hyperusers, whether it’s tangible rewards or just an email. Those personal touches go a long way with building loyalty and connection.”