Before launching a new marketing campaign, Jen O'Neal first ran the idea by her board. O'Neal is CEO of Tripping, a San Francisco–based Internet start-up that connects world travelers with local hosts, who offer sightseeing tips, conversation, and sometimes a free place to crash. To promote the site in Barcelona, O'Neal was considering hosting evening events on college campuses. Board member Jacopo Bordin shot down the idea. After class, he said, young Europeans aren't hanging out on campus—they are relaxing at wine bars and outdoor cafés.
Bordin should know. A 23-year-old student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, he grew up in Italy. Bordin sits on Tripping's social media board, a 10-person team of twentysomethings who advise O'Neal on marketing to students, the site's primary users.
O'Neal and her co-founder, Nate Weisiger, came up with the idea for the advisory board last year after hiring an intern to manage the company's blog, Twitter feed, and other social media efforts. Some 200 young people applied for the position. After making her choice, O'Neal sat down to toss out the rest of the applications, many of which included enthusiastic stories about travel and studying abroad. "I didn't want to delete the e-mails," she says. "I hated the idea of releasing all these people and not coming into contact with them again."
At the time, Tripping had just three employees and didn't have the resources to hire any more. But O'Neal and Weisiger thought the young people would make great advisers. To determine which candidates had the most creativity and enthusiasm—and ability to get the word out about Tripping—the co-founders decided to hold a contest. They went through the intern applications and challenged the 40 most promising candidates to vie for spots on the board. The contenders had three weeks to generate as much online buzz as possible about Tripping. About half of the people O'Neal contacted took her up on the challenge.
The contenders used various tactics to get the word out about the company. Because Tripping markets itself as a place to get insider travel tips from locals, Katy Birnbaum, then a San Francisco State University senior, made an online video of the 1 a.m. swarm of people lining up for fresh doughnuts at Bob's Donut & Pastry, a popular hangout for college students. Lauren Nicholl, a graduate of the University of California, Davis, contacted popular travel bloggers and raved about Tripping. She also took to Twitter, posting information about Tripping as well as links to travel articles and famous quotes about travel.
Whenever O'Neal updated the company's blog, the young people would flood it with comments. The CEO was impressed by the group's eagerness. "You could see this rivalry," she says. "They were trying to edge each other out. We didn't think people would work that hard to get a seat on this new board we just invented." In the end, O'Neal chose 10 of the applicants for the board—Birnbaum and Nicholl made the cut.
The board members don't have daily responsibilities. They primarily act as brand ambassadors and offer the co-founders opinions, advice, and ideas. "It feels completely different than an internship," says Bordin. "You feel more involved, more rewarded."
Already, the board members have contributed many new ideas. "They have grown up with technology in ways I didn't," says O'Neal, who is 31. "Some of the best ideas came from people who barely had any work experience." Birnbaum, for instance, came up with a feature called video validation, which helps travelers vet potential hosts in other cities. Since its founding, Tripping has encouraged users to rate and review hosts, but O'Neal wanted to add another level of verification for young travelers who would be meeting up with strangers or staying in their homes. Birnbaum suggested that Tripping interview hosts remotely using Skype; Tripping would ask them to show their passports and proof of address during the video calls and would keep a record of the information.
O'Neal loved the idea and had Birnbaum head up the project. Not only has the video validation feature been popular with Tripping users, says O'Neal, but conducting Skype chats with hosts also provides valuable customer feedback that the company has used to improve the site.
Board members aren't paid, but they receive training from Tripping's co-founders. Weisiger teaches board members how to write Web code and create Facebook ads. O'Neal helps them with job hunting, polishing their resumés, and conducting mock interviews and introduces them to other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
Each board member determines his or her level of involvement. Bianca Cloutier, a recent Dartmouth graduate, already had a full-time job at a nonprofit in New York City, but she joined Tripping's board because she wanted to get experience at a tech company and learn more about business development. Jeff Manheimer, Tripping's vice president of business development, invited her to tag along when he went to meetings on the East Coast. She watched him create promotional partnerships with groups like university study-abroad programs. Working nights and weekends, Cloutier eventually signed up six new partners, including the alumni network of AmeriCorps, a student volunteer organization with more than 600,000 alums. "This was perfect for me," says Cloutier. "The flexibility was great."
The social media board has also become a useful recruiting tool for Tripping. Since creating it, O'Neal has hired four board members as full-time employees. And she plans to keep adding members to the social media board as the company grows. "It's so easy to see who is passionate," says O'Neal. "Some of them really shined."
For tips on assembling an advisory board, including how to choose the right members, compensate participants, and structure board meetings, go to www.inc.com/building-a-board-of-advisors.