Designing digital training for small businesses

Insight - Capacity Building

December 2023

Designing digital training for small businesses

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


Training programs that are delivered digitally show promise for small business owners who have limited time or want to access key information when they need it. Digital training is convenient, cost-effective, and engaging so long as it is designed well. This insight brief discusses the potential of digital training for small businesses and best practices for designing digital training programs.

This brief focuses specifically on design considerations for digital training programs, while our complementary brief focuses on delivering training on a variety of digital channels.

The potential of digital training for small businesses

There is a substantial body of evidence on the impact of digital training on small businesses. This past year, Strive Community released the Small Business Evidence Map, an interactive tool that charts the impact of digital and data-first support on small businesses, including digital training. Our analysis of the evidence that looks at the impact of digital training, specifically on small businesses, finds that the positive impacts of digital training programs are often short-term and that digital training alone is often not effective for long-term impacts. 

However, digital training is most effective when targeting skills related to customer acquisition, such as marketing and communications. For example, research found that Chinese e-commerce sellers who underwent training improved their marketing skills, attracted more customers to their sites, and communicated more effectively with customers, which led to higher sales. In the Balkans, small firms employed search engine optimization and a more professional social media presence, contributing to a 10% increase in sales. Further, digital training is most impactful when it is bundled alongside other digital solutions, such as access to digital financial services and/or digital business tools. This enables small business owners to put new skills to use right away.

Insights on designing digital training programs

Below, we outline some insights Strive Community has learned about designing digital training programs for small businesses. Many of these insights come from our own evaluation of our programs offering digital training to small businesses around the globe. We will continue to update this page with new information as our work progresses. 

Integrate peer-led content

Small businesses engage more with peer-led training content that features fellow business owners and entrepreneurs. Many Strive Community partners tailored their content to include authentic, inspirational quotes from local small business owners. For example, our partner Bayan Academy shared that the content that garnered the greatest reach by small businesses featured other entrepreneurs who told their positive stories about going digital. 

Peer-led content is also an important element of our Strive Community partner Shujaaz Inc’s approach, which hired fellow small business owners as the trainers for their upskilling videos on the MESH platform. Videos were shot in the business owner's place of business and in their local language. 

Apply user-centered design processes

Designing digital training programs that small businesses find valuable means understanding target users: their business stage, needs, pain points, and goals. User-centered design—an iterative design process that puts users and their needs at the center of the process—is a valuable framework for building this level of understanding. Providers that assess the business needs and contexts (among other aspects) of small businesses are better able to determine the most beneficial training topics and delivery methods. 

User-centered design is at the core of our Strive Community programs. For instance, TechnoServe (a Strive Community partner) employs user-centered design to initially connect with the entrepreneurs in its training programs to better understand their needs and priority topics. Then, it designs a program focusing on these issues. With this approach, TechnoServe has found entrepreneurs are more eager and motivated to participate in the program and apply what they learn to their businesses. Similarly, Shujaaz Inc has spent more than a decade developing its user-centered research method, called ‘GroundTruth,’ to understand the needs of micro-entrepreneurs.

Additionally, user-centered design also involves translating content into local languages and examples, as our partners Tumbu Accelerator, Bayan Academy, WISE, and Hoob Marketing have done in their respective markets. Similarly, when creating content for Mexican artisans and connecting them with digital tools, our partner FUNDES Catalyst used peer-focused language to establish trust and make the adoption of digital tools more approachable.

Streamline training content

Digital training content and solutions should be short and to the point. For small business owners with limited time to dedicate to learning, digital training is often most successful when it’s short and delivered “just in time.” For organizations that support small businesses, it is also important to recognize that digital training cannot solve all of the problems that small businesses face. Design training content that focuses on specific topics is more likely to generate positive outcomes. For example, our analysis of digital training found that focusing on marketing and communication practices is one of the most common pathways to improved small business outcomes.

TechnoServe has learned over time how important it is to streamline and simplify content for small businesses. “We committed the mistake of trying to teach a whole MBA to our entrepreneurs,” explained Juan Carlos Thomas, Global Entrepreneurship Director at TechnoServe. “That doesn’t work at all. So, it’s key to focus on a few skills and behavior change that are really going to drive immediate and significant improvement in business performance.” To do this, TechnoServe identifies training topics—such as specific skills development—that are important to entrepreneurs and that would lead to easy business improvements.

Additionally, microlearning—digital training modules that are only a few minutes in length—can be completed on the go, seamlessly integrated into the rhythm of a workday. Strive Community has leveraged microlearning in the digital training content for small businesses we’ve developed with our partners. EduMe, a platform that enables microlearning, has found that it holds learners’ attention and helps information stick better.

Embrace storytelling

Storytelling is an important aspect of effective communication in a variety of circumstances. Sharing stories helps foster empathy, trust, and familiarity—as well as offering benefits for learning. As a teaching mechanism, storytelling can be effective because it works for all types of learners. Storytelling makes the content relatable, and it helps to simplify complex or abstract content

Digital training programs that have embraced storytelling have been able to successfully engage and retain the attention of entrepreneurs.

Make training personal

Self-assessment tools and customized learning journeys can make digital training more practical, personal, and useful. Digital self-assessment tools offer guidance on which business areas could be strengthened or improved with training.

One of the main challenges with diagnostic tools is encouraging small business owners and entrepreneurs to take action following guidance. This can be addressed by approaching learning as a journey: offering personalized training content and tools across a variety of formats, delivery channels, and sources. Users can self-select training content or follow a suggested learning journey. For example, Mastercard’s Strive UK Initiative, in partnership with business support organization Enterprise Nation, offers small businesses a Make a Plan tool, enabling entrepreneurs to access personalized learning journeys and tailored support services from across the ecosystem aimed at helping their businesses thrive. This enables small businesses to identify content that is most relevant and needed, which can encourage greater learner action.

Where digital training is designed for large groups, a way to make it more personal is by adding one-to-one sessions. For example, research in the Western Balkans, as mentioned above, tested the effectiveness of online group-based training coupled with one-on-one remote consulting to overcome exporting constraints by adopting digital tools. Through qualitative interviews, researchers found that small firms that improved their exports through the use of digital tools said they benefited from advice offered during remote consulting sessions as it helped address firm-specific issues.

Link training to digital tools

COVID-19 has shown small businesses the importance and value of bringing their businesses online. However, small businesses may struggle with the breadth of digital tools available: how to decide between them and how to implement them. Combining training with digital tool adoption can increase its relevance to small businesses. Providers can better support small businesses to learn by doing, leading to impactful behavior change and increased adoption.

This was the case for Fundación Capital in Colombia, which realized that micro-enterprises were aware of the importance of adopting digital tools but needed guidance on how to do so. It launched the DigitAll project, which aims to improve the business skills and knowledge of micro-entrepreneurs and guide them through the process of implementing digital tools. Fundación Capital mapped and tested existing digital solutions in the Colombian market to ensure they met the needs of small businesses. This information has enabled them to build a menu of high-value-added digital solutions, coupled with guidance, for microenterprises to select, implement, and use. In Mexico, our partner FUNDES Catalyst pivoted an earlier version of its Pymental platform to become a practical “how-to” micro-learning and hidden digital tool marketplace platform that connects Mexican artisans with relevant digital tools and the skills to implement these tools in their businesses.

Utilize incentives, rewards, and games to motivate and engage

Small business owners are often bombarded with content, products, and services vying for their attention. Our evaluation found that small businesses tend to engage more with content that they find rewarding and that makes use of incentives and gamification principles to continue or deepen their engagement. Similarly, research in Brazil found that the use of incentives, gamified design elements, and nudging systems encouraged higher engagement rates with content. For instance, the researchers found that on its own, a business training program delivered over WhatsApp had no effect on business practices. Coupled with micro-incentives, however, the training significantly increased adoption of key business practices and affected entrepreneurs' decision-making.

Digital training programs can consider adding gamified components—such as interactive scenarios, quizzes, feedback, points, badges, and leaderboards, among many others—to engage users and encourage them to continue their training. Grab, a Strive Community partner, experimented with using gamified learning (quizzes) and a cash incentive prize draw for completing training modules. In months when incentives were offered, user engagement was double the average of other months. Similarly, Accion (a Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth partner) worked with BancoSol to develop a gamified app, GanaSol, to encourage positive savings behaviors for small businesses in Bolivia. Customers can earn prizes and rewards when they perform key tasks, such as using digital channels to manage their bank accounts, depositing cash regularly, and retaining a certain monthly balance. Accion found that 90% of GanaSol users reported the product helped resolve key financial challenges, such as not saving as much as they would like to, and 65% reported the product improved their business growth. In Brazil, Flourish Fi (a Strive Community partner) is testing gamification with a fintech to help small business owners develop better financial habits. By integrating gamified elements into digital training programs, providers can increase learner motivation and engagement. 

Design with multiple channels in mind

We discuss this further in our brief on delivering digital training for small businesses, but leveraging a mix of digital channels that small businesses already use can keep training content engaging. For instance, this could include a combination of 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). 

Looking ahead

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

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