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
After six grueling months, our team of heroes was ready to share their vision with the world. But was it ready…and would the story they were hoping to tell connect with the community they needed to reach?
Our six-month-long journey had taken us from an idea that customer education could be so much more than just “learning where to click” to creating a true pathway to professional development unlike anything the profession had ever seen. We had successfully created 12 hours of eLearning bolstered by 85 videos and pulled off an LMS migration while we were building the thing. But how were we going to share this with the world? If connecting with our community of accountants was the goal, where could we drive the most impact?
Since Gusto Academy had always been treated as a product rather than a supporting function, we knew the big day was going to be a big deal. It was a tier-1 product launch with all the bells and whistles. This moment needed to elevate the story of the Academy and resonate with our accountant partners. So naturally, we announced it at our annual Gusto Next user conference. It’s both in-person and virtual. Our whole partner base is tuned in. It’s THE moment to launch. The Next date is what drove the entire insane Academy build schedule (that was admittedly a little too close for comfort).
And so the culmination of our six-month race to launch…was me. On center stage. Doing a live demo in front of 2,000 people. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Along with my big speech, we had scheduled a slew of launch-adjacent campaigns. We spent the weeks leading up to launch on an internal roadshow, selling the Academy to our own sales team. We empowered them with an enticing pitch deck, FAQs and a talk track on the Academy, along with demo videos offering walkthroughs of the incredible content we had created.
From a communications perspective, we had long-form blog posts announcing the Academy, articles in trade publications like Accounting Today, and we invested in paid influencer posting to spread the word even further.
We’d also shipped the testimonial assets to our testimonial subjects, our Accountant Ambassadors, and Intellum. We were generating as much social buzz as we could get our hands on.
And we knew we had recurring campaigns that would be activated annually at key times of year for accountants, during CPE season in December and conference season in May.
As exciting as Gusto Next was going to be, it was just a moment in time. Paid campaigns and buzz generation were just the cherry on top of our core approach. The foundation of our strategy was going to be truly evergreen. We started by identifying channels that could drive traffic to the Academy through an always-on motion rather than depending solely on campaigns to drive those stats.
We were looking to layer the Academy seamlessly into the customer journey—to weave it into our value propositions across every stage of the funnel. We needed to embed the Academy into the Gusto platform our partners know, love, and use every day. And if we did it right, we could keep the momentum we needed without having to rely too heavily on support from marketing.
Remember that customer journey we talked about in Part 3? This helped guide conversations with marketing and sales colleagues to ensure that the learning journey matched up with our marketing and sales funnels. It helped us make sure we were reaching the right partners in the right way at the right time.
AWARENESS (Ensure current and prospective partners are aware of the Academy)
Marketing: Created beautifully branded “product” pages for our current partners looking for resources as well as to act as landing pages for potential partners finding the program through organic search.
These pages don’t focus on the singular products themselves, but instead speak to the overarching educational and community value the Academy has to offer.
Sales: Our sales teams were trained on how to talk to prospects and existing partners alike about Gusto Academy as a differentiated part of the Gusto experience and how it can unlock people-led growth at their firms.
Lifecycle communication: Targeted email marketing that hits the “right course, right way, right time” sweet spot. From a technical perspective, this meant integrating our email marketing with Salesforce to trigger off of activity happening in Intellum. It also included updates about the Academy in new-partner nurture emails, in post-event emails for Gusto Next, and in our product newsletter for accountants, On the Margins.
ACCESS (Ensure partners can easily get into the Academy)
To make the Academy more accessible for our partners, we had secured holy grail, cream-of-the-crop, in-app placement: Left-Hand Navigation.
Our partners live in Gusto Pro, and the left-hand nav is where they find everything they do. Getting our Academy to link seamlessly from within the product would make it that much easier to bring people in. This was also where our SSO integration with Intellum was key.
The last piece of our long-term strategy puzzle was creating a sense of connection and community surrounding the Academy. According to Harvard Business Review, “If a company can transition from simply delivering a product to building a community, it can unlock extraordinary competitive advantages and both create and support a superior business model.”
If you recall from my original introduction way back in Part 1, my title at Gusto is Head of Community and Education. This is extremely convenient as it means I was already in charge of the community for whom the entire Academy was built! Gusto Connect—an online home for collaboration—was already a place for accountants to learn and grow, to share stories and ask questions. What better place to fully integrate the Academy?
Gusto Connect would become a true reflection of the community we were trying to build—encouraging accountants to branch out on their path to professional development, to challenge themselves, to grow, and to be more.
Within Gusto Connect, we created forums dedicated to the Academy; we created challenges to help motivate learners to uplevel and complete more courses, and of course, we gave them tons of points and badges and swag to keep up the momentum.
And for that extra community boost, we created study groups with accountant ambassadors to tout the value of the programs online and off and get people involved from day one.
With our evergreen strategy in place, we tacked on a full day of live, instructor-led trainings to the conference to drive excitement and buzz while testing the waters with our in-person partners.
But we weren’t just testing the product—we were testing the story as well. Our approach was a far cry from the usual, “Hey, we have a clickety-click training. Eat your vegetables and do it.” This was about upleveling the entire narrative surrounding our partner program, positioning Gusto and the Academy learning tracks as tailored paths to valuable professional development focused on bolstering the community they were built to serve.
Our ILTs at ‘Academy Day’ were headed up by Annie Arthur, and holy smokes—it was everything we could have hoped for. It was engaging; it was interactive. It was electric. In our breakouts for the certification tracks, our partners couldn’t stop raving. The biggest complaint they had was that they wanted “more time to talk to their tables.” They were proud of their achievements—they were beyond excited to wear their new Certification badges.
You could feel that people were connecting the dots on upleveling their firms and investing in their people. The story we were telling was hitting home.
Academy Day (Annie beaming, our swag, and workbooks)
Now I just had to tell that story to 2,000 people from center stage with a live product demo to boot. If you’ve been following along in this series, you know the narrative of career-spanning professional development had underpinned the Academy from day one, but it’s a story we had only told internally. Now was the big moment to nail it with the people who matter most: our customers. Luckily, our creative director, Elliott, had my back every step of the way. The same effort that went into our video scripts went into my speech.
We weren’t just talking about what some tech can do. The speech was me sharing my own journey of professional development—one that mirrors what we believed about the Academy—that investing in people is the heart of any business. We had already seen this narrative hit home with our ILTs the day before. Part of that narrative is connection. It’s vulnerability. It’s a story we had been telling and selling with the Academy all along, but now it was something different. It was real, and tangible, and was something our partners could see and feel in what we were doing.
It was exhilarating…and terrifying. I got on stage and told the story of the Academy—and my own personal story—in front of my boss, my boss’s bosses, and their boss’s bosses. I had put so many months of my life and put everything I had into bringing this vision to fruition. Our lead instructional designer Helena flew in from the UK; Lizzi flew in from Intellum in Atlanta. All of the incredible partners we had in building the Academy were there to support us—and me—when it mattered most. The moment felt as big as it was.
Looking back just two months later, everything at Gusto Next was a blur. We were making changes and getting things ready up to the last minute... our QA on the Academy didn’t even finish until two days before I did that live demo. But at the end of the day, it didn’t just work—we nailed it. Winning the ACE Program of the Year award cemented in me that every chance we took to go off-script and do something different was the right move. It reminded me to trust myself. Farewell, imposter syndrome…I’m back, baby!
The story we were telling resonated with our partners because it was a real one. Professional development isn’t always neat and linear. My own path was a squiggle. You start learning, you hope that your boss believes in you enough to invest in you, and that’s part of the same story we were telling with the Academy.
In this way, the Academy was truly contextualizing what Gusto offers as a platform.
Everything is about leveling up. The Academy is about wanting to level up yourself and your career. It’s about firm leaders wanting to level up their employees, which ultimately allows them to level up themselves and their firms in the process.
But we were also upleveling Gusto’s own narrative at the same time, creating real differentiation about what this product could do. We weren’t just spinning a yarn to sell more products; we created a product that did what we said it would. We created a customer education platform from the ground up with our accountant partners at the center of it all. We created it with them and for them, so we didn’t have to exaggerate the value of taking this training or make it seem like more than it was. Gusto Academy would be the home for professional development for accountants from entry-level to firm leaders, Gusto Connect would be the community they relied on, and Gusto would be there with them every step of the way.
Coming Up in Part 6:
As successful as Gusto’s public launch was, Jaclyn knew there was one last piece that would determine the real success of the Academy: measuring its impact.