Youngstown State University

A university redesign that evolved into so much more.


From branding to website redesign — and now — digital marketing, we are proud of our ongoing work with Youngstown State University.

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Y and Proud

Youngstown, Ohio, situated between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, is a former steel town. Like many others in the “rust belt,” Youngstown has faced the challenges of deindustrialization.

But that’s not the story they’re interested in telling, because that’s not who they are. Rather, the city and its namesake university embody a culture of pride and perseverance.

Located in the heart of the city, Youngstown State University serves a student population of close to 12,500 students enrolled in more than 115 undergraduate programs and 40 graduate programs. The university boasts a top 25% engineering program and specialized online programs including a Master of Respiratory Care, Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and the Master of Science in Engineering Management.


Understanding Y

YSU is emerging from an enrollment slump, and is gaining some positive attention and investing more in direct marketing. To support that strategy, the website has to be ready to welcome and convert new traffic to continue growing enrollment.

“YSU is poised to take the next step and get their enrollment up. They have a lot of opportunity — they’re on an upswing,” said User Experience Architect Jennie Salamoun.

In addition to enrollment, serious accessibility issues with the previous site were a driving force for redesign.

To create the best solution for YSU, we spent time getting to know the university and discovering what makes the people there tick. Through that process of research, workshops, conversations, and stakeholder interviews, the NewCity team developed a deep appreciation for the unique character of YSU. “YSU students are pragmatic and down to earth. They live very real, very busy lives,” said Jennie.

The team came up with the “Y and Proud” tagline to reflect the pride of YSU’s hardworking and talented students, alumni, faculty, and staff; and also of the community and city to which they are inextricably linked.


Streamlined Strategy

Based on survey results, the top challenge reported by visitors to the old site was difficulty navigating to information like the list of majors, curriculum, graduate programs, deadlines, and events. Users also complained about outdated content and missing information.

Before the redesign, the YSU site consisted of about 10,000 pages and just as many documents spanning seven college websites, with separate information silos for their programs, faculty, departments, and administrative pages.

Streamlining the site and improving the navigation were high priorities for the redesign, which ultimately involved moving away from a website architecture based on the internal organization of the university and toward one that focused on users.

“We focused on simplifying the content and its structure. This would not only make it more web-friendly to read, but it would also make the site more accessible across the board. We brought essential tasks to the top of the site and made it easier for prospective students to engage with YSU’s marketing funnel,” explained Jennie.

Goals for the new site included:

  • Answer prospect questions, but serve current students’ tasks, as well;
  • Streamline the prospect inquiry process;
  • Include strategic conversion points; and
  • Improve accessibility through Section 508 compliance.

An Edgy Design

According to Ross Morrone, the director of marketing for YSU, the redesigned site needed to, “establish a look and feel that not only reflected us as a university, but as a community.”

The site’s design was conceived to convey the feeling of Youngstown and reflect the personality of grit and determination embodied by its students.

Brian Maddox, the creative director and lead designer on the project, explained the concept: “We wanted it gritty, but we didn’t want it to look like entropy and steel. We wanted it to look more like it had a hard edge to it, so everything is very crisp, there’s not a lot of shading, and there are elements that look like broken glass pieces. It gives the look of something in progress.”

Iterate, Test, Improve

The process for creating the “About” page is a great example of how a “design, test, iterate” approach shaped the site.

We conducted research with college students and parents of high school or college students that compared a YSU “About” page comp to a comparable page from a peer institution.

In the initial test, parents preferred the competitor 61% to 39% and students preferred the competitor 60% to 40%. Based on feedback collected, we revised the design comp and repeated the test. On the second round, parents preferred YSU 55% to 44% and students preferred YSU 77% to 23%.

Comments included:

  • “As far as the content goes, it had a lot more entertaining and interesting information and statistics, relative to the other school’s.”
  • ” photographs that communicate activity and energy… I would call this the dynamic and user-friendly choice.”
  • “Far more contemporary. I feel like the other page for [the competitor] was more traditional. The fonts were older, more classic… this page felt younger and more vibrant. I would think this school would be more up to date on technological trends.”

Y We’re Proud

A major point of pride for us on the project is the great working relationship we built with the client team. The YSU project evolved from a web redesign into a branding project because that’s what they needed, and now, it’s shifting to focus on digital marketing to drive traffic to a site that’s primed and ready to convert.

The redesign launched in Drupal 7 in the fall of 2016, and it’s performing well, with a noted increase in requests for information even 90 days post launch. “I’ve always said the site is here to accomplish business goals. It’s the top of the funnel, right next to advertising and marketing. People come to the site to explore our degrees. This design has put our degrees in the limelight and focused that funnel,” said Morrone.

Analytics show that the site is resonating with its primary intended audience. A Google Site Satisfaction Survey showed that among 18 to 24 year-olds, satisfaction has increased significantly and task completion has increased by 24.5 percentage points.

“As the director of marketing, I have been able to center our responsibilities with managing the website and that impacts our enrollment funnel and user experience. Our website isn’t just a place to store information, it’s a channel to educate and enroll students,” said Ross. “It’s our number one marketing vehicle.”