May 10, 2018

Sydne Rensing wraps up her SIU career with groundbreaking research

by Christi Mathis

Sydne RensingCARBONDALE, Ill. — Engaged and successful college students are more likely to stay in school and complete their degrees, studies show. But how do you get students involved in campus life?

While working as a student employee in the marketing department of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Student Center, Sydne Rensing became determined to find out.

Rensing, of Albers, completed an in-depth research study and analysis and was quite surprised with the results.  

Student job piqued her interest

The topic was of personal and professional interest to Rensing, the daughter of Tom Rensing and Christina Horstmann.

She helped with Student Center marketing for two years while completing her bachelor’s degree in communication studies with public relations specialization and minor in marketing. She logged two more years as a graduate assistant while earning her master’s degree in professional media and media management; she’ll receive her diploma during the 5:30 p.m. commencement Saturday.

During that time span, she played a role, large or small, in the planning and coordination of countless special events and activities. Some succeeded with tremendous student participation. Others fell somewhat flat, and she wondered why.

The results are in

Rensing polled 460 students, using a wide variety of methods, aiming for a representative sample of SIU students.

More than one in five said they attend campus events weekly while nearly half do so one or two times a month. Another third said they go to campus events twice a year or less.

Why don’t students attend on-campus events?

Students’ biggest reasons for not getting more involved came as a shock, Rensing said. 

Almost one in three students said they simply didn’t know about the events. Many of these events had been promoted in a variety of ways, such as posting flyers all over campus, putting ads in local papers or creating social media campaigns. Rensing wondered how students were missing all of these promotions.

She quickly discovered that students are so busy and have so many distractions that even when they see information about an event, they don’t remember it or make plans to attend.

“It’s not that the information isn’t out there; it’s that they aren’t paying attention. They need to be reminded,” she said. She insists that multiple reminders, delivered in various ways, are appreciated and not bothersome.

How to best deliver the information

She had also assumed that since millennials “have a definite preference” for all things online, using social media/online venues to spread the word is best. But, she found that students get their information about campus from many different sources.

Here’s the breakdown (numbers total more than 100 percent because some students reported multiple sources):

  • Flyers/signage – 24 percent.
  • Social media – 23 percent.
  • This is SIU, a weekly e-newsletter specifically for students – 23 percent.
  • Word of mouth – 19 percent.
  • In class – 6 percent.
  • Informational tables on campus – 5 percent.

“We market through so many different avenues on campus, but what really surprised me is that if we took away any of them, we would lose so much in reaching our students. People are getting their information from every different avenue,” she said.

She noted that students still get information from traditional media, including newspapers and television, in addition to digital media sources.

“Traditional media and marketing are not dead, I can’t stress that enough,” Rensing said.

Creating a buzz

Step one in getting students involved is making sure they know about it. But, that’s not always enough, she discovered.

“On average, it takes students 4-5 times for it to register so getting the information out there multiple times on multiple platforms is really important,” she said “If they keep seeing it, they’re also more likely to think it’s something cool and that if everyone is seeing it, there will likely be a lot of people there, so they won’t want to miss it either.”

She said students appreciate a good multi-layered marketing campaign and it’s important to create hype and reiterate the benefits and fun involved with activities.

“If you talk about it and act like it’s a big deal and keep spreading the word about it, students will believe it,” she said. “Your attitude about it as a marketer comes through. You have to make it exciting to create excitement. And when you are successful in doing that, you’ll instill FOMO (the fear of missing out) and they will participate.”

Follow-up research led to more surprises

Rensing’s initial research sparked more questions for her, resulting in further study and some other unexpected discoveries.

Among them:

  • Many students were unwilling to participate in a quick and easy Instagram photo contest, primarily because:
  1. They didn’t want to ruin the aesthetic of their Instagram feed by adding an unrelated photo.
  2. The $100 gift certificate prize wasn’t enough to make them want to change their usual pattern of posts.
  • Students care very much about the appearance of all of their social media pages, which also explains why many have their Facebook set to require approval for any tag before it shows on their page feed.
  • Scrolling on social media is a given, so students prefer engaging photos they can scroll through or “boomerangs,” videos no more than 5-30 seconds long in most cases. They’re also more likely to watch videos on Facebook or Twitter and check out photos on Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.
  • Students are equally receptive to speaking with other students or faculty/staff at information tables as long as the person is approachable, engaging and excited about what they are promoting.

Expanded research reach

Rensing also met with marketing officials from Northwestern University to get their input and insights about how they market to students on their campus.

Those conversations and her own research led her to the conclusion that what works on one campus won’t necessarily work on another.

The important thing is to listen to the student body, find out what they want, give activities plenty of hype, then do follow-up assessments to see what’s working and what isn’t.

The results of Rensing’s research became her master’s thesis, “Marketing Within Student Affairs: What is the Silver Bullet?”

Far-reaching applications

 “Sydne’s work is innovative in that it includes such diverse methodological approaches. Although her work is mostly focused on students’ engagement at SIUC, the question that she addresses – how can we best engage our students – can be applied to other campuses struggling with the same issue,” said Cinzia Padovani, associate professor of radio, television and digital media and chair of Rensing’s master’s thesis committee. “She developed a multi-layered approach, which includes interpretative methodologies, such as participant observations and in-depth interviews, as well as content analysis of social media interactions over the entire 2017-2018 academic year. The more we are able to engage students in extra-curricular activities, the better their GPAs, which also means better retention.”

Putting ideas into practice

Rensing, who was chosen as SIU’s 2016 Student Employee of the Year, actually initiated several new student engagement and marketing initiatives. She maintained the Student Center’s social media and, after months of persistence, convinced Beth Alongi, assistant director of marketing for the Student Center, to let her start a Student Center Snapchat account.

“She kept saying, ‘Trust me, this is where the students are.’ She was right and developed quite a following with her weekly ‘Did You Know’ video stories,” Alongi said. “Even my sister in Nashville would say, ‘I can’t wait to see what Sydne is up to this week on Snapchat.’”

Rensing also launched a series of Facebook Live casts giving “behind the scenes” glimpses into Student Center Happenings and she planned and coordinated the big end-of-school Final Stretch Week.

It was also her idea to create a chalk wall inside one of the center’s entrances in summer 2016. Every two weeks, she’d choose a new theme for the student discussion board and it’s proven extremely popular. Students enjoyed expressing themselves about current topics, trying their hand at drawing a Saluki, and engaging in other ways.

Starting a business

Her studies, research and hands-on experience with Student Center marketing “taught me so many things about the do’s and don’ts of marketing” and communicating with people online and through various other platforms, that Rensing is confident she’s ready to take it to the next level.

After commencement, she and boyfriend Jeremy Clow, who earned his master of architecture at SIU, are moving to Nashville to run their own business. Clow Home is a home décor, design and manufacturing business and they’ve already got retailers in place to carry their line.

They also plan to flip homes, something they’ve done already in Carbondale, and offer the renovated properties to visiting tourists through AirBnB.