Brand Shill

Shill (plural shills)

  1. A person paid to endorse a product favorably, while pretending to be impartial.

“A megamillionaire who makes more money as a shill for corporate products than he does for playing basketball.”


This post was inspired by conversations and questions raised in a closed FB group. The opinions are my own but are informed by the experiences of others.

It is December and the height of the so called “silly season”, not the one where we commercialize festive celebrations. No, the silly season where sponsored riders compete and chase contracts for support from sponsors. That support can vary, from being a fully paid professional rider, to support for race entries, components, clothing etc.

The lowest level of support is that of the “Brand Ambassador”. If the supported rider system is a pyramid with paid pro riders the tip, then brand ambassadors are the wide base it is built off of. The ambassador role is seen as the first step to being a fully supported or paid pro rider. The rider receives a product and through its use at races and the sharing of social media content featuring said product, the brand gets some marketing.

A rider can be an ambassador for multiple brands, usually if they provide a different product, clothing and tyres for example. But the support is not always as straight forward as some free tyres or t-shirts. An ambassador is a part time job in some ways, the company that is supporting a rider will expect something in return, marketing.

Please find your discount codes below

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, twitter, blog posts, they all count towards what the company is looking for in return for its product. Sometimes an ersatz contract will exist outlining the correct hashtags to be used, the expected frequency of output and a fixed period (usually one year) for the association to exist for.

To become an ambassador there is usually an application process. Follow the right brands and around this time of year you’ll see the posts asking for applicants. Sometimes fortune favors the bold and a cold call asking for support and offering your services can work, more often than not, it won’t. But sometimes, sometimes you’ll be invited.

Being invited to be an ambassador, or more commonly, being asked to apply for the role can be very complimentary. A companies marketing officer has seen your Instagram and thinks a working relationship could benefit both of you. A little ego boost. But more often than not the adage of “no such thing as a free lunch” is more than true.

Congratulations! We would like to extend you the offer of being an Ambassador for our brand. Please find your discount codes below, if you require any further product please email as this code will expire by the (insert date). DO NOT share this code with anyone else, it is registered to you and is only yours to use.

This is an example of the sort of email you can expect to receive on becoming a brands ambassador. I wrote it, but I could have copied and pasted it from emails I have received in the past.

Should riders expect to have to pay a company for the privilege of receiving support? Is it unreasonable for a company to be expected to hand out free product for some marginal marketing that might not translate into sales? Who is the shill here?

I have no proof beyond my experience and those I have spoken too, but I do feel some brands, (usually less well established), use ambassadorships as a way of boosting sales. These brands use the invitational approach, commenting on peoples posts and feeds. It is essentially cold calling for the social media age.

Instagram cold calling

Then around early January the discount codes go out. People still have their Christmas money and they buy more than they would. The discount code is time limited and you as an ambassador are expected to have a range of the products on offer. The brand will then offer limited support or response to future emails etc., the sales have been made.

Obviously not all brands are like this, but that does not mean they do not expect unachievable quantities of exposure from their ambassadors. Specifying the volume and regularity of posts the rider must make to uphold the agreement. Whilst it is understandable that a company would want some quantifiable output from their modest investment. Doing so can dilute the authenticity of the output from the ambassador. Two posts a week featuring a product shot of a chain ring for a year can wear thin.

This product is awesome buy buy buy

Some riders get creative eschewing classic product photography, preferring instead to show the product being used in action shots. But the time and effort required to upkeep a high quality stream of content that will allow a rider to progress up the pyramid can lead to further investments being made. SLR camera, lenses, tripod, drone, microphone, rugged camera bag, you will look like a veritable media squid. ££££.

So I return to my earlier question, who is the shill here? The answer as always, is never clean cut. Both and neither.

The ambassador is working for the company almost like a freelancer, but they are being paid in kind with product. You as a rider are an unproven entity with minimal reach or real influence. A few discount codes for a rider to cut their teeth with, to learn how much work is actually required is to be expected. It might not be fair, but with the small budgets most brands have for actual marketing it can be understood.

Brands can be expected to support riders for their work as well. From sharing posts (to increase both reach and followers) to customizing kit (names on race jerseys for no additional cost), all of these things can add value for the rider at little or no outlay for the brand.

Essentially if a rider was going to be producing content anyway as they enjoy doing it, then why not be an ambassador and play the hashtag game. I have been ambassador for a few brands, some far better than others. Just don’t be lured in by invites and no real meaningful relationship with the brand dangling the discount code in front of you.

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I am an artist living and working in Aberdeen, I ride bikes and like to write about it sometimes.

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