Delivering digital training to small businesses

Insight - Capacity Building

December 2023

Delivering digital training to small businesses

This insights page is regularly updated and highlights what Strive Community is learning about delivering digital capacity-building programs for small businesses. Do you have best practices or insights to share about this topic? Reach out to us.


Globally, more than one billion dollars is spent annually on training entrepreneurs and small businesses. Despite this investment, a typical training program improves business practices by only five percentage points—so if a course tries to teach firm owners 20 new practices, they adopt one of them on average. Classroom-based training has remained the most popular method to deliver training. But digital training for small businesses has shown increasing promise, especially with COVID-19 and the shift to online alternatives. Additionally, delivery costs for digital learning are considerably lower than classroom-based training, and digital delivery channels can reach a greater number of people, increasing its cost-effectiveness in the longer term.  

This brief focuses on delivering training to small businesses using digital channels. There are many ways that training can be digitally delivered: messaging apps and chatbots, videos, virtual reality, learning platforms, and live streaming. When designed well, digital learning can integrate techniques that increase knowledge retention and user engagement, leading to positive impacts on small business capacity building. See this complementary brief for design considerations for digital training programs

Below, we outline some of the evidence on the impact of digital training and delivery methods on small businesses. We also share insights on delivering digital training more broadly, as well as across specific digital channels.

Evidence on the impact of digital training for small businesses

As discussed in our complementary insight brief on designing digital training programs, evidence on the impact of digital training on small businesses shows positive impact, especially in the short term, on advancing capabilities and adopting business best practices. However, we find that most of the evidence is not vigorously measured and not well linked to long-term impacts.

Research in the educational sector over the last few decades has found positive benefits for students. Importantly, researchers concluded that impacts are not necessarily determined by whether technology is used, but by how the technology is applied to support learning. The way digital technology is used to deliver training for small businesses, such as by leveraging digital tools and channels already in use, is paramount.

Organizations that support small businesses have also captured positive evidence on the impact of digital training on small business owners via a variety of delivery channels.

  • Arifu (a Strive Community partner) found that their digital training programs using chatbots have yielded positive improvements in practices across financial services and agriculture sectors. For instance, merchants in Kenya—who were part of the Jaza Duka program—that received business and financial education training (with support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth) saw increased frequency and amount of debt payments relative to those who did not engage with the chatbot training.
  • Research in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, UC Berkeley, and Arifu on Kenyan micro-retailers provides the first experimental evidence that training via SMS technology effectively helps drive the adoption of modern business practices, such as book-keeping and lending and raises business profitability.
  • Juntos Global, an interactive mobile messaging provider, provided small businesses in Colombia with business training via SMS messages. Juntos documented nearly 4,000 actions tied to the training content, illustrating the potential of digital to nudge business owners to positively impact their operations.
  • When PwC studied the effects of virtual reality (VR) on soft skills training, they found that employees who had learned via VR were four times faster to train than in the classroom, and 275% more confident to apply skills learned after training. 
  • Strive Community partner XRGlobal, a company focused on VR training and development in emerging markets, found compelling evidence for increased knowledge retention. It noted a significant increase in pre- and post-training test scores for learners trained through VR compared to those trained by an instructor. 
  • A randomized experiment in the Western Balkans tested the effectiveness of online group-based training and one-on-one remote consulting in overcoming constraints to exporting by adopting digital tools. It registered positive results—firms were able to improve their digital presence, attract more customers, and improve exporting at the intensive margin because of the training.
  • More recently, research found that training female micro-entrepreneurs via Zoom in Mexico was not only feasible but also improved the business practices of the trainees in the short term. 

While digital holds a lot of promise for delivering training, McKenzie et al. identify two limitations for small businesses: poorer microenterprise owners may struggle with both technological literacy and a lack of sufficient internet connectivity; and many online programs have high drop-out rates, making it unclear whether firm owners will fully complete online-only programs. Further, with limited time and competing priorities, TechnoServe (a Strive Community partner) found that entrepreneurs wanted digital training that was efficient and highly structured. Conversely, the flexibility that digital training courses offered meant entrepreneurs felt no pressure to complete them. These limitations and preferences (among others) should be factored into the delivery of digital training programs for small businesses.

Insights on delivering digital training to small businesses

Below, we outline some insights that Strive Community is learning about delivering digital training programs for small businesses. We will continue to update this page with new insights and information as our work progresses.

Meet small businesses where they are

Understanding small businesses' familiarity with and use of digital devices, channels, and tools is important when delivering suitable digital interventions. Leveraging digital channels and tools that entrepreneurs already use increases the likelihood that training programs are adopted, while reducing the risk of technology pushback.

To better understand the digital capabilities of small businesses, tools like Accion’s Digital Maturity Assessment for MSMEs can help guide business support organizations through digital product design based on the needs and digital experience of their MSME customers. Other considerations—such as when and how people use their digital devices—may also be a factor when designing digital training programs. Arifu found that different user groups engage with their devices in different windows of time: later in the evening for those in urban areas and earlier in the evening for those in rural areas. CARE, who partnered with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth on its Ignite program, found that women entrepreneurs in Peru had an average of five minutes per day available for online training, which they were completing online training between 10 pm and 4 am. Grab (a Strive Community partner) found that drivers preferred to receive training via videos, and that Grab’s merchant partners preferred to complete their training during the afternoon and late evening. Our partner Shujaaz Inc. developed “listicles” from its video content—short articles that summarize the best practices mentioned in a video—to meet the internet bandwidth needs of its young entrepreneur audience. Digital training programs should be delivered with user data, such as availability (and other considerations), in mind.

Create a learning flow with multiple channels and content formats

Digital training content that is delivered in a structured way using multiple channels and formats can help small business owners and entrepreneurs stay motivated and interested. For TechnoServe, a combination of independent learning, group learning, and one-to-one advisory sessions across a regular schedule with structured deadlines may work best for their entrepreneurs in their cohort-based accelerator programs.

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Figure: A sample structured training program on multiple channels and formats. Information courtesy of TechnoServe.

Leveraging a mix of digital channels that small businesses already use can keep training content engaging. For instance, this could include using videos and interactive exercises for independent learning on WhatsApp or live-streaming a Q&A or group discussion on Facebook Live (or Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter—the majority of social media apps offer a live-streaming option). 

Delivering training using specific digital channels

While the selected channels below are not meant to be exhaustive, they shed light on some of the insights we’re learning about delivering digital training content to small businesses. These insights will be updated regularly as the Strive Community evolves.

Messaging apps and chatbots

Given their global popularity and prevalence, messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger offer a promising channel to deliver digital training. Training over messaging apps can be facilitated by an instructor, or even delivered using a chatbot. Both methods are showing promising results for learners. For instance, an MIT GOV/LAB assessment of a leadership development course for community activists delivered entirely over WhatsApp found the course encouraged learning and information exchange in a novel way. Similarly, Arifu found that their training using chatbots yielded positive improvements for learners across financial services, agriculture, and gender-related programs. 

Training programs via messaging apps have many benefits: they are relatively low cost for participants, are easy to replicate, and offer flexible timing. However, it can be challenging to maintain participant attention, and technology or connectivity requirements may exclude some users. 

Strive Community has identified a few insights for leveraging messaging apps to support the training needs of small businesses:  

  • Be informal and conversational. Chat provider has found that content for messaging apps should be informal and conversational, with short sentences using an active voice that is as human-sounding as possible. Content should be easy to scan, with subheadings, bold text, and bullet points, and multimedia (such as video or audio clips) can help bring content to life.  
  • Incentivize learners. Maintaining learner participation in training courses on messaging apps can be a challenge. South African organization Grassroot found that they were better able to incentivize learners in their WhatsApp course by using personalized communications, offering regular detailed participant feedback, providing airtime and data incentives, and awarding certificates of completion. 
  • Understand operational restrictions. While WhatsApp offers many benefits for training small businesses, providers should be aware of some operational restrictions. For example, MercyCorps found that when using the WhatsApp for Business API in Ethiopia, the government agency they were working with was not allowed an account, so they had to become the locally approved implementing partner. In Colombia, Juntos found that, despite their training content for merchants being purely educational, WhatsApp rejected many messages because of their strict templates to prevent spam, resulting in only 42% of intended messages being delivered successfully to participants. 

Synchronous digital training sessions 

Unlike other delivery channels, synchronous digital events—which happen in real-time with participants and instructors attending together—most closely mimic the traditional classroom setting. Beyond Zoom, Google Meet, and other virtual meeting software, most social media apps also offer a livestream option (whether video streaming, like Instagram, Facebook, or Youtube or audio streaming, like Clubhouse), enabling engaging and interactive experiences between participants. However, given the increase in distractions that digital devices offer, maintaining user participation and engagement can be all the more critical and challenging. 

For organizations who are considering synchronous digital training sessions for small businesses, Strive Community has identified a few insights to keep in mind:

  • Be prepared, consistent, authentic, and flexible. Organizations that embrace the four principles of going live, including being prepared, consistent, authentic, and flexible, are better able to deliver engaging live sessions. Preparation includes both the training content and technical setup. A thorough understanding of the subject matter and prepared talking points can help reduce the pressure of ‘going live.’ Testing the technical components and setup are also critical preparation—LinkedIn recommends upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps and at least two additional people to facilitate a livestream: one to operate the camera and the other to moderate questions and comments during the livestream. 
  • Encourage interaction between participants. The value that real-time digital training offers is the live interaction between instructors and participants Organizations that leverage this are more likely to keep learners engaged. For instance, most virtual meeting software and social media livestream functionality enable participants to interact by commenting, asking questions, voting in polls, reacting with emojis, or sharing their thoughts. These affordances can be leveraged in many ways. For example, when Zoom staff converted their four-day in-person training for new hires to an entirely virtual experience, they created a leaderboard to track the number of points participants earned each day by answering questions, using In-Meeting Chat and the Raise Hand feature.  
  • Time live sessions appropriately. With live training sessions, organizations should determine when the majority of small business participants will be able to join, especially if the training is being delivered over multiple sessions. This may mean during the evening or other times of the day when most participants are available. However, for those who miss the live session or want to review the content, providing a session recording that can be downloaded (especially for those with unstable internet connections) is valuable. 

Virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive, interactive, and effective channel to train entrepreneurs and small businesses on both operational and soft skills that can lead to greater knowledge retention and engagement. Additionally, the private, low-pressure, and risk-free environment that VR creates—in addition to the ability to repeat training lessons and activities—offers an opportunity for learners who may need more practice and those who may feel intimidated by traditional training methods. In Kenya, we’ve partnered with XRGlobal to test the potential of virtual reality for training tractor owners to grow their businesses through the Hello Tractor app.

For organizations looking to train small businesses using VR, Natalie Miller, Chief Growth Officer at XRGlobal, has a few recommendations to keep in mind, including:

  • Understand end users’ comfort with VR. Organizations should spend time understanding their end users and how they might interact with VR technology. Let users guide the level of interactivity in training sessions.
  • Dedicate extra review time. Organizations should dedicate extra time to reviewing the storyboarding and the draft script—it’s much easier to fix language issues, the structure of assessment questions, and the planned design of the VR scenes before development and voiceover begin.
  • Build a proof of concept. Given the novelty of VR, organizations that build a proof of concept can use it to gain internal stakeholder acceptance. Further, testing the proof of concept on a small group of users and integrating learnings into the wider rollout ensures users will find the training useful.

Learn more about using VR for training small businesses in our blog post.


COVID-19 has caused many training courses to move from physical classrooms to digital alternatives. With global online video consumption growing—more than a billion hours of videos on YouTube are watched daily—videos are becoming a highly engaging and effective channel for training. For small businesses that may find themselves with limited time to learn new business skills, watching videos offers a promising channel for support via just-in-time training. 

To better understand how videos can be used to support the training needs of small businesses, Strive Community has identified a few insights: 

  • Combine video formats to increase interest. For some organizations, using a range of formats in a training video works best for their training needs—the combination can keep users interested and engaged. Additionally, combining video formats may keep production costs low, by allowing the integration of a shorter amount of a specific format. 
  • Keep videos short. Generally, research shows that shorter videos are more engaging. Researchers analyzed almost 7 million watch sessions for four EdX online courses and found that that videos less than 3 minutes had the highest levels of engagement. Our Strive Community partners have also found that shorter videos (those less than three minutes) have higher levels of engagement. For example, Tumbu has experimented with removing the prologue from a video on YouTube to shorten it, testing the effects on viewer engagement. So far, this technique has been effective—on average, the video was watched for 2.45 minutes, compared to 1.2 minutes previously.

Learning platforms

In the wake of the pandemic, online learning platforms have become a popular channel for delivering digital training. For instance, learning platforms Coursera and Udemy both saw exponential growth in enrollments during lockdowns, with increases of 644% and 425%, respectively. Learning platforms—also known as learning management systems (LMS), virtual learning environments (VLE), or learning content management systems (LCMS)—are a set of interactive online services that provide learners and instructors with access to information, tools, and resources to support online training delivery and management. For learners, platforms often enable interactive and personalized learning journeys, which makes digital training more practical, useful, and tailored to their needs. In a recent evaluation, Strive Community found that small business owners were much more likely to engage with content they saw on dedicated learning platforms. Why? We believe it’s because small business owners seek out these channels expecting to learn new skills.

For organizations who are considering a learning platform to deliver training to small businesses, we’ve identified a few insights to factor in:

  • Consider platform specifics. When implementing a learning platform, one key decision is whether to select an open-source or proprietary option. Both come with pros and cons which should be carefully considered. To help with this, FAO eLearning Academy provides a comparison between the two.
  • Determine your priorities. There are a huge number of learning platforms available (this site includes more than 900 options), so organizations should identify what factors are most important when comparing options. For example, Moodle, an open-source learning platform, argues that the five key criteria for selecting a learning platform include: the overall cost, the level of support offered, the platform’s simplicity, whether a mobile app is available, and the quality of reporting and analytics available. Others suggest that a combination of your training goals, technical requirements, and skills of those you’ll be training should inform your assessment criteria.
  • Trial to ensure requirements are met. Before committing to a learning platform, organizations should demo or trial the product to ensure it meets their training requirements and user needs. Trials should be arranged once a shortlist of three to five options has been established. Tech marketplace G2 recommends building a few possible scenarios and use cases and testing each platform to get a feel for it.

Looking ahead

Through our programs and partnerships, Strive Community will continue to insights and best practices on using delivering training programs for small businesses across a variety of digital channels. Learn more about some of the programs we’re working on.

Further, we have developed digital training content for small businesses that scale partners can access for free. This content is completely available to use at no cost—we welcome organizations supporting small businesses to reach out to discuss using this content.

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