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
On our hero’s journey to breaking the mold of customer education (and breaking the glass ceiling while she’s at it) the groundwork had been laid. There was a vision, there was momentum, and there was funding. But as soon the excitement of the green light had settled, Jaclyn and her team realized that the real work on building Gusto Academy had only just begun.
If you’re caught up on Part 1, you know that we started with a vision to push the limits of traditional customer education. We saw how dry and lifeless most of it was, and we were ready to breathe new life into the space. We were going to elevate customer education from “learning where to click” to offering engaging, career-spanning professional development that could lift revenue through investing in the people that matter most: our customers. We were going to take Gusto’s people-centric ethos and truly embody it from bottom to top.
But how could we create content that would be specific to our customer and learner personas? Could our LMS even host it in the way we envisioned? And how would we keep our learners engaged every step of the way?
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In all of our research with the Product Marketing team on aligning learning journeys with our customer personas, we knew that Gusto Academy would have to go deep within certain areas of focus, and also have career-spanning breadth to appeal to multiple learner personas at different stages of their customer journey.
But what would that look like? Learning Tracks. We needed to create cohesive content pathways each tailored to a particular persona. Each of our three inaugural tracks would have a flagship certification program where we would encourage learners to start. Then, we’d offer track-specific electives that served as deeper dives into advanced topic areas. Learners could go deep within a track of their choosing, and then go broad by moving on the next, more advanced track.
And in order for it to be fully adopted by our partners, we’d need top-down buy-in from firm leadership. Meaning: both the end-learner and their managers would need to benefit from the training. No small feat.
We had already created the “People Advisory” certification in our first foray into customer education as a product, aimed at upleveling payroll services from a low-margin, compliance exercise to an inroad to higher-margin advisory services. From there, we expanded into the “Accelerator” program that helped firm leaders price and package their brand-new advisory services. But we needed to create a product offering that would act as the foundation of the Academy, the very first step on your path to success. Before you’re advising a customer on payroll-based insights, you need to know how to run payroll, right?
Enter: Gusto Payroll Certification. Finally, we had a customer-centric philosophy to ground our learning tracks with a value proposition for both firm leaders and their teams alike.
For entry-level accountants and bookkeepers, completing Gusto Payroll Certification meant taking that first step to level up their careers. For their team leaders, this meant making new employees billable, faster while they could focus on their own next step in the journey: People Advisory. And for firm leaders, this meant cultivating a culture of learning in their firm to drive both retention and growth while focusing on the final step of their own learning journey: Practice Management.
And the most compelling piece? The tracks we created mirrored both a typical accountant’s career arc and the desired customer journey with Gusto, allowing the professional development narrative behind it all to shine through while aligning with our internal goals.
Great. We had our learning tracks. But what do we fill them up with exactly? And where do we start?
From the bottom up. To identify the sweet spot of both customer and business needs, we began with a deep dive into internal interviews and data analysis. The team conducted workshops and one-on-ones with sales, customer support, marketing, and customer success. We pored over customer support cases, we reviewed data from Salesforce and Gong, and we partnered with our Help Center team to understand which articles got the most hits.
This work helped shape our early hypotheses about where we could help move the needle through education for our partners and for Gusto. And it carried us into our second phase of work: a month-long series of workshops with subject matter experts (SMEs) sourced from our accountant community. Our SMEs helped us understand their workflows, knowledge gaps, and motivations. Our lead instructional designer, Helena Tosh, pulled out invaluable insights from each firm member while identifying interdependencies amongst the group.
After a few late nights of whiteboarding, erasing, and then whiteboarding some more, the content within the learning tracks started to take shape. We took on the daunting task of creating Gusto Payroll Certification from scratch, designing our first ever, deep-dive electives, revamping our existing People Advisory Certification, and giving our Accelerator program a refresh. That’s a lot of f@#$@ content.
With the content and learning tracks laid out, Helena and the instructional design team at Gamma Media were ready to dig into the storyboarding phase…almost. First, she needed to know what the course architecture was going to look like. Are these epic 4-hour courses? Are we hopping on the micro-course bandwagon? Or is it something in between?
While the learning tracks provided the backbone for the Academy, we found that our different programs had different requirements. Gusto Payroll Certification could be modular. We could deep dive into a different payroll concept in each module, letting learners follow either a curated learning path, or take each one a la carte via a catalog. In contrast, we saw People Advisory Certification as a more conceptual offering that should be taken from start to finish. We needed the architecture of each course to complement the experience and drive home the learning goals.
Before we dive any deeper…let me share a secret with you real quick. Yes, I care about education. Yes, I care about community. But I also care about… Hitting. My. Numbers. And that marketing perspective has to help inform any successful course structure. The architecture of each course should improve the learning journey for the customer, but it should also increase the velocity at which learners move through it. It should be built to maximize the number of completions and drive those impactful metrics every marketer is looking for. Every course is a funnel. While I’m heavily dependent on cross-functional support to drive enrollment rates, my team can easily optimize for our middle- and bottom-of-funnel metrics by making the learning experience engaging and efficient.
Tactically, this meant a few things:
With our learning tracks, content plan, and architecture crafted, the team was feeling good. But we were still searching for something more. We didn’t need to mess with tried-and-true instructional design principles, but we did want to inject this classic narrative with moments that would delight—moments that would elevate Gusto Academy from required learning to a memorable professional development milestone.
Our position within the marketing department at Gusto gave us some leverage in the process. We know people don’t care about products; they care about how products can help them succeed. We wanted to make this about the learner and their career journey. It needed to be warm and relatable and speak to their values and pain points, not act as a marketing pitch for the tech it supported. It needed to connect.
Having previously worked for Xero, I had seen their best-in-class approach to education. They made eLearning look beautiful and well-branded, and they leaned into video that I saw could elevate otherwise bone-dry content.
So we came up with a plan to knock it out of the park:
It really felt like we were creating something unique—something the accounting profession had never seen before. Who would have thought that a traditionally boring topic (payroll) targeted at a supposedly boring audience (accountants) in a frequently boring format (eLearning) could actually be fun?
We started with a vision to rethink customer education, and so many of the pieces had already come together. But for every piece that came into focus, so did the tech we needed to pull it off. Our learning journeys would be based on our customers’ needs while remaining aligned with our internal goals and mirroring true professional development pathways in the accounting profession. So we needed a modern landing page experience that could be tailored to each of our individual learner personas. Our course architecture had to be built not just with the learner in mind, but also informed by the larger marketing metrics we needed to hit; the course itself should be built to drive more people to take more courses. So we needed the ability to host multiple learning paths curated across topic areas. And to get that high-level engagement, we needed to infuse every piece of our content with the entertainment value that is so often lacking in customer education—and even more notably so in the accounting space. We needed every piece of each individual learning journey to be warm and relatable—and branded. So we needed a powerful, customizable LMS that could elevate and reinforce our learning journeys while ensuring a seamless experience for our learners.
No sweat, right?
Jaclyn and team felt like they were building a customer education experience the accounting profession had been waiting for. But as their vision began to crystalize, one thing became abundantly clear: They couldn’t pull off the Academy without a top-tier learning platform with a best-in-class content authoring solution. And of course, they still needed to build the team who could bring Jaclyn’s vision to life.