Trail’s Platform For Teaching Digital Literacy Skills To U.S. Job Seekers Exits Beta & Launches In Spanish At TC Disrupt

Trail is a rare thing indeed: a startup not aiming to appeal to elite geeks. Quite the opposite in fact: Trail targets the circa 60 million+ Americas who aren’t digitally literate and could benefit from help to learn how to use the Internet. Its core service, JobScout, launched earlier this year as an iOS app, offers free lessons to job seekers on using the Internet to find work.

And indeed, more broadly, on how to use the Internet itself — from basic stuff like what a URL is, to covering off more sophisticated aspects of the digital world such as privacy, security and how to be media savvy. “Simply put, it’s for those who might need to master URL before they get to HTML,” explains Trail CEO and co-founder Christina Gagnier.

JobScout’s 39 lessons are self-paced so users can progress at a speed they are comfortable with, use learning aids such as screenshots, quizzes and challenges, and incorporate social gaming features such as badges as learning incentives. There’s also a social element, where JobScout users get to network digitally with each other — and learn social networking skills along the way.

Trail’s JobScout service is seeking to disrupt the traditional approach of workforce institutions to the jobless — i.e. of running in-person training programs, which are obviously expensive to scale up. It also competes with existing digital literacy services, run by libraries and the like. Gagnier says these typically take a walled garden, rather than an open approach — meaning users have to come to the library to use them, or be a library card holder.

“We have an open approach,” she says. “We have mobile apps, we’ve used gamification — and the experience is far above what those platforms offer, and it’s cohesive and coherent — so we’re hoping we can edge into this market,” she says.

Trail is coming out of beta and launching its Android app today at TechCrunch Disrupt, along with a Spanish language version of its platform — which will set it up to expand outside the U.S. Its initial focus has been on California but Gagnier says it intends to expand the service nation-wide and then roll out internationally, over the next six to nine months, likely targeting Mexico and South America initially (hence its translation to español).

Trail’s softly-softly approach to launching to date has been what Gagnier terms a “non-traditional beta”, that’s seen it piloting its service with libraries across California (its funding to-date has come from a federal grant, the Library Services and Technology Act grant, administered by the State of California) — to learn about the sorts of things its users need from its digital literacy and online job-search lessons, and also find out about the kinds of data that institutions that typically help the jobless/digitally disconnected want to see too. Why does it need that data? Because Trail intends to become a business in its own right, as well as a quasi-social services platform.

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To that end, it’s building out an analytics platform — called Compass — that it will look to sell as a service to relevant organisations such as government agencies, NGOs and institutions that need data to help them shape job-related services. Part of its slow-burn launch has been spending time talking to organisations that work in the job-seeker space to gather intel on what it is they want to know about America’s unconnected — to feed into this “full scale” analytics platform.

Examples of the types of in-demand data it’s hoping to be able to provide include things like number of jobs applied to, whether job seekers are scheduling interviews, and whether resumes are being created, Gagnier tells TechCrunch. “We’re also working on helping organisations track where people have access to the Internet are they going to an offline institution to get that access. So helping organisations paint a better picture of who they’re serving, and how successful they’re being in the job search process,” she says.

“Our users of the site, about 35% to 40% of them at this time are actually non-Internet users. So their first interaction with the Internet and learning how to use it is with the JobScout platform… Compass allows institutions whether it be a library, an education institution, a workforce development centre, a social services office, or a non-governmental organisation, or any kind of government agency to meaningfully track how users are interacting with the JobScout site.”

JobScout is not currently tracking how many people have found a job using its service but offering that metric is on Trail’s roadmap, it’s just got to figure out the best way to capture that data. It’s initially working on developing self-reporting mechanisms, says Gagnier, but is also looking at partnering with hiring organisations “who would commit to hiring JobScouters and providing feedback on whether or not they hired JobScouters”. “That’s in our roadmap to happen,” she adds.

That being said, she does stress that the thrust of JobScout is not simply about finding a job — but offering its users help to learn how to use the Internet to improve various job-search related skills. So that specific ‘yes I found a job’ metric — however sought after — is by no means the be-all and end-all of JobScout’s mission.

“A core part of the mission of our platform is digital literacy learning. So the metrics that we’re tracking are a combination of success in achieving digital literacy skills and then immediately applying those skills,” she says.

Beyond analytics, Trail also sees potential monetisation opportunities in being able to provide access to a demographic that’s traditionally difficult for digital advertising to reach. “We are the first experience of the Internet for a large group of our users. And as we roll out the platform nationally and internationally we presume that our group of non-Internet users will be much larger and so we think there will be a variety of opportunities for us in terms of introducing meaningful products and services to the people that are using our platform as well,” says Gagnier.

Trail also intends its platform play to extend beyond the job-seeking skills space. Gagnier says it has plans to launch a HealthScout offering in the next six months aimed at helping people navigate wellness, healthcare and health insurance information online. It also has another two platforms on its roadmap: a CivicScout to address civic engagement, and a FinanceScout offering aimed at providing personal finance information for the unbanked.

“Trail’s ultimate vision is to help people use the Internet, help people to discover the Internet. And so for one person that might be healthcare, someone else that might be jobs, for someone else it might be personal finance. Our larger vision is to have an integrated platform experience where you can use JobScout or HealthScout and earn badges in a more meaningful and cohesive way,” she adds.

Currently, Trail has around 20,000 users of its JobScout web platform and apps. Around 40% of these users fall into the 16-30 age-group, with another prominent group of users being aged 55+. JobScout’s web platform has had the most use to date, but accessing the service via tablet devices is second most popular — something Gagnier puts down to public libraries offering their users the ability to check-out a tablet for use within the library, and families buying a low cost tablet device to be their main Internet access device, using it with public Wi-Fi networks to keep costs down.

Q & A

Q: I’ve tried to teach people in the past to use the Internet and it’s really hard — how do you know it’s going to work. How do you know your interface will be easier and will do it better than other companies?

A: We’ve been beta testing in California libraries for about a year — so we’ve been getting feedback for the past year.

Q: Do you have any metrics to say people are much more likely to be able to do a specific task with your product than they were on their own. How are you measuring success?

A: We have a unique challenge in that there aren’t really direct competitors… that kind of is our brand experiment — how can we drive people? That’s why we use social gaming.

Q: It’s a wonderful initiative… but how is this really a business? Libraries and governments are hard places to get to pay…

A: As we were testing we had organisations come to us and say how can we test this?… People came to us — that’s how we got our market model. [Also] we have a tiered subscription model

Q: What’s your biggest barrier to entry in getting people who need your help? How do you find the right people?

A: First by using trusted institutions [like libraries]… and then by providing mobile apps [to make the product accessible].