Welcome to the Making of Gusto Academy. In this six-part multimedia series, we’re serving up a detailed, insider guide to imagining, designing, building, and launching an impactful customer education initiative—all wrapped up in a roller-coaster of a personal and professional journey.
No matter how or where customer education functions at your company, we’re here to show you how it can be more. We’re here to help you transform it from a languishing support function to a viable, valuable product...and have a little fun along the way.
The Chapters of Our Story
Our team of heroes had been searching for heroes of their own…but could they capture the connection and community that could truly transform customer education?
Hi, Jaclyn here. I hope you’ve been following along with the Making of Gusto Academy, but if not, you just may have stumbled into the most exciting piece of the journey yet.
Four months into our six-month marathon to change the face of customer education, we were starting to feel confident in what we had set out to do. Not just confident—we were buzzing with excitement. Our dynamic team had been working ‘round the clock to build an academy that wasn’t just a supporting function, but a valuable, viable product. And even more than a product, we were creating a people-centric home for professional development that could grow our customer base, influence revenue, and help those customers grow their own firms and careers in the process. But if we were trying to flip the script on customer education…we’d need more than just a script to do it.
One chilly April morning, as I took the ferry from the East Bay into Gusto’s San Francisco offices, I realized the video shoot we were planning had become the real heart of the learning content. It had become the heart of Gusto Academy. It’s no surprise that most corporate eLearning is pretty boring. Certainly payroll was no exception to that. But more than just boring, it can be lonely. If community is the remedy for that loneliness in learning, then we needed to create that community within the platform. And while videos were always a part of our content structure, it struck me that they needed to be more than just tutorials and how-tos. They needed to provide the heart and soul, tying the whole thing together…No pressure, right?
Being part of the marketing department at a people-centric company had already given us a leg up. We had access to the branding resources that could connect our platform to Gusto’s human-centered approach. Gusto’s tone across most of its messaging is a keen balance of warmth and sophistication. We had already hired a copywriter to infuse this friendly, human tone into our learning content, but we needed our set and our video scripts to match.
Our all-star instructional designers at Gamma Media had crafted a curriculum to hit all the learning goals our accounting partners needed. But when it came to the video scripts to support that content, they were like most of the learning that came before: traditional, dry, and academic. I get it—learning about payroll is about as dry as it gets. So how could we keep it engaging? How could we talk about complex accounting concepts while still maintaining levity, humor, and creating that connection we knew we needed? How could we align with Gusto’s existing branding while still differentiating the Academy? And how could we make each of our learning paths feel like truly tailored journeys in the process?
In our prior experience developing videos for eLearning, Elliott (our insanely talented Creative Director from 3Motion Creative) and I coined the following terms: Talent and Testimonial.
The Talent series features a personality delivering content to the camera. This is great for when there’s dry, theoretical, evergreen content to deliver. Great because your talent can bring it to life and great because you don’t have to update it.
The Testimonial series features voices from our community sharing their stories. This type of series delivers contextual storytelling that makes our learners feel that they are not alone—that their experience is mirrored by their peers, and that they can achieve their ambitions.
Here’s something our team does not do in video: product. A younger, more eager version of myself made 30 videos at the start of my Gusto tenure that became a huge burden to maintain. (Elliott may have given me an ultimatum about product screen shot videos: No more.) Luckily, the entire team had fallen in love with the product simulation feature in Evolve, which we used heavily throughout the Academy.
Will Lopez had always been the face of the accountant community at Gusto, and we knew he would be the leading face of our content along with our Ambassador team: Carla Caldwell, Nayo Carter-Gray, and Keila Hill-Trawick.
But we also needed to find people “just like you” for the testimonial series. We needed voices from the community to lend authenticity and credibility to the content rather than having me or some other internal people at Gusto telling you how to do your job.
So I did what anyone running her very first professional video shoot would do: I treated it like a casting call. I was adamant about having new voices represented, so I sourced talent from wherever I could. I reached out to my own network, I posted to LinkedIn, and I asked our sales and marketing teams for any potential stars. I was looking for diverse voices in terms of geography, race, gender, life experience, and more. If Gusto Academy had a learning journey for every stage of your career, then our testimonial talent needed to reflect that.
With a list of 30 potential stars (what…is that overkill?) I started the audition process. I spoke to each one through a 30-minute coffee chat. Except they didn’t know it was an audition. I was looking for how they communicated and if they had a story to tell. It was exhausting, but 30 cups of coffee later, I had a short list of folks we would fly into our studio movie set to shoot 85 different videos to become the core of our Gusto Payroll Certification and People Advisory courses.
The bonus I didn’t know we were getting was that these real, live voices helped me and our instructional designers understand how particular features and products fit into their workflows as accountants. It’s almost as if asking your customers how they use your product…can help you better understand your product! These insights helped shape the scripts as we were filming them, elevating them even further into a piece of true professional development and away from the clickety-clicks of product training.
With the right people on board, the next step was to reimagine all of the video scripts that our instructional designers had so painstakingly created. Our first read-through became a two-day rewrite. Elliott and I were looking for that voice that would connect with learners and break the mold of what professional development for accountants was supposed to look like. We wanted it to be conversational, punchy, friendly, and warm.
We knew our “talent” ambassadors Carla, Will, and Nayo personally—so how did these scripts fit in with their voices? Is this something they would say? Then we rewrote each script with them in mind.
No matter what industry you’re in, the core of any successful eLearning platform is connecting with people. Because it’s the only thing that will keep them engaged and make them care. That human connection is what transforms technology from a piece of code to something that provides real value. If our video scripts were tediously instructional, no one would even be paying attention. And everything else we had worked for would be worthless.
But something was still missing… Enter: PROPS. Elliott is a self-proclaimed “big prop guy.” When we started thinking about different props that could liven up each video and turn boring payroll topics into relatable learning moments, we realized those props would also serve as a metaphor for the content of each course. This wasn’t just about making it goofy and fun (which it did and was) but props are a tool to aid connection and retention of a concept. If our ambassadors were here to connect with learners and tell a story, then that’s what we were going to do. These seemingly silly props would be part of the storytelling that would keep our learners engaged and get them to care about and connect with these stories.
With a bucket full of silly props and some freshly rejuvenated video scripts, we were ready to pull it all together. We knew this needed to be a cohesive academy, not 85 disparate videos. Elliott had a vision for each of the learning tracks to be color-coded to align with Gusto’s existing branding as well as the branding we were using across the eLearning, both on the Academy homepage and within each individual learning track. Gusto Payroll Certification was “guava,” People Advisory was “kale,” and Practice Management was “ginger.”
We wanted it to be cohesive across all of these surfaces so that each learner felt the journey they were on. And to keep that cohesion, we went all out. We found kale and guava paint and props and backgrounds to pull the whole vision together. It was truly impressive to see it come to life, and that branding lent itself to elevating the entire shoot. When our testimonial talent came to the set they saw how big a production this really was…that inspired them to step up their game as well.
With absolutely zero experience doing any of this, naturally not a single thing went wrong along the way. Just kidding. What started as a one-week shoot quickly turned into three. What started as maybe 30 videos turned into 85 videos with 13 different themes (check out this video installment for a behind-the-scenes peek at everything that went wrong).
But in a flash of somewhat successful forward planning, it was clear to me that we’d want to milk this shoot for all it was worth. The learning content videos we were shooting would be gated behind the LMS. But how about we produce some top-of-funnel content to promote the Academy on social? What’s a few more videos when you’re already making 80?
So...we did it! We created a 'trailer' for each course, a single video for each testimonial subject to use on their own channels and to promote the Academy, along with a few videos to promote our new offerings from our education home.
For most of us there on set, this was our first real video shoot—myself included. To make it feel like the experience it was (and not just another day at the office), we rolled out the red carpet. We showered the partners we flew in with dinners and swag. At the end of the shoot, Elliott gave out ‘Gusto Academy Awards’ to each person on set, played music, and popped champagne. We were doing something different for accountants for the first time, and everyone there felt that.
Our lightning in a bottle wasn’t just the videos we were creating for the Academy, but what we had created there on the set. We had truly built that sense of community we were trying to share.
Learning doesn’t have to be painful when it’s done right. It absolutely shouldn’t be. If we could make payroll interesting, engaging, and exciting, then there’s no industry that can’t be jazzed up with some friendly faces, some great branding, some human stories, and a whole lot of props.
But making a successful video series that truly connects with an audience doesn’t mean just writing a script and hitting ‘record.’ We were blessed to have Carla, Nayo, and Will representing Gusto along with all of our testimonial partners, but we had to dig deep to help our talent find those stories that could help to inspire their peers—that show relevance and impact and drive that connection we’re all looking for.
All of these things—finding the right on-camera talent, adding props for concept retention, and having cohesive branding—are all pieces of the puzzle that can elevate eLearning from instructional to inspirational. But at the end of the day, “people-first” can’t just be a slogan. The way we lead our teams has to embody and embrace that. You can’t phone it in. Going through take after take, looking to find that humanity, the humor, the levity—that connection and energy has to exist behind the scenes in order to make it in front of the camera.
Coming Up in Part 5:
Jaclyn and team had done what they set out to do. They had captured lightning in a bottle with videos that would anchor their content and create a real connection with their learners. Now they just needed to launch the Academy.