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5 Elements of An Effective Phishing and Security Awareness Training (PSAT) Program

BY eSentire

December 2, 2021 | 7 MINS READ

Managed Risk Programs

Cybersecurity Strategy

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Regardless of the industry, a majority of cyberattacks occur due to a successful phishing attempt largely due to how simplistic and effective phishing lures are. After all, phishing scams target the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain–the user. In fact, 57% of survey respondents in a recent survey said their organization has dealt with a successful phishing attack in 2020.

This only further drives the need for organizations to implement a phishing and security awareness training (PSAT) program. However, it’s important to realize that not all PSAT programs are created equal.

An effective phishing and security awareness training (PSAT) is about building your company’s cyber resiliency by increasing your employees’ risk awareness, rather than trying to turn everyone into security experts.

PSAT programs are important—after all, the majority of devastating cyberattacks begin with a phishing email that tricks a user into aiding the threat actor. The more that your IT leaders know about why some PSAT programs work and why so many fail, the better equipped they will be to make decisions that lead to desired outcomes. This will only strengthen your organization’s overall cybersecurity posture.

So, how do you know a PSAT program will be effective for your organization? We believe that there are 5 key elements of an effective PSAT program:

A PSAT program should… Drive security awareness and behavioral change

Increased security awareness is only useful if it leads to behavioral change, and behavioral change is only useful if it’s informed by up-to-date knowledge of modern cyber threats.

An effective PSAT program begins by providing context about why the training is important for the participants and for the organization, and how the training will fit into the greater cyber defense strategy.

It should leverage realistic, relatable threat scenarios tailored to your industry and the cyber risks your business faces. So, the examples your team uses as part of the training should be precisely targeted because criminals are exceptionally skilled at targeting not only your industry, but also your specific organization. What’s more is that the threat actors will also populate lures with information about suppliers and customers, trends and news within the industry, and publicly available information (e.g., from regulatory documents, court filings, LinkedIn, etc.) to further entice victims into falling for the lure.

Effective training doesn’t try to shock and awe the participants, or rely on FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), because the reality should be enough to get everyone’s attention.

From awareness and attention comes engagement, and that engagement—combined with actionable lessons about what to look for and what to do when you spot that something is wrong—is what leads to behavioral change.

Phishing and Security Awareness Training

A PSAT program should… Test user resiliency

In a recent episode of our Managing Cyber Risk podcast series, Daniel Stiegman, Senior Insider Threat Intelligence Analyst at Equifax, relayed a lesson his martial arts instructor taught him: “The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle.”

No matter how much education you provide and how many ‘classroom’ quizzes and tests your PSAT participants pass, if their behavior doesn’t change then neither does your risk. That’s why real-world phishing simulations are essential to truly assessing changes in user resiliency.

These tests should use the same tricks as the real threat actors, which means employing knowledge of the organization and industry and using a range of lures, including:

If your prospective PSAT provider can’t run simulations or doesn’t use convincing lures, then keep looking!

A PSAT program should… Identify and measure improvement

Achieving improved business outcomes doesn’t happen overnight in one big jump. Instead, progress is made steadily, and progress is optimized when efforts are informed by a feedback loop that identifies what areas need more attention.

At both a macro (e.g., company, department) and micro (e.g., team, individual) level, an effective PSAT program identifies all risks and provides measurable benchmarks, tracks progress, and automatically assigns training modules as needed (for instance, when a user falls victim to a phishing simulation).

Although it can be tempting to fill progress reports with the things that are easiest to measure, a strong PSAT program will emphasize business outcomes and behaviors ahead of reaction and even learning metrics.

Bullseye Icon

Level 4


  • Losses to fraudulent financial transfers
  • Losses based on cyberattacks
  • Data breach costs
  • Operation savings based on optimizations or reduced workload
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Level 3


  • REPORT rates measure number of suspicious lures reported using mechanism
  • ENGAGEMENT rates measure subsequent communications with Security team
  • POLICY rate measures number of policy violations
  • REGULATORY rates measures number of regulatory of legal violations
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Level 2


  • OPEN rates measure detection based on inbox preview data
  • CLICK rates measure detection once opened and read
  • SURRENDER rates measure user credentials given over
  • LEARNING metrics (% or # trained and pass/fail metrics)
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Level 1


  • Subjective feedback forms to assess learner engagement, instructor performance and content usability or format
  • Passive metrics collected from online learning systems

A PSAT program should… Alleviate resource constraints

An effective PSAT program reduces the operational burden imposed by cybersecurity incidents by lowering both their frequency and severity. In doing so, it frees up IT and cybersecurity expertise so that these professionals can direct their efforts to other priorities.

However, to maximize the organization’s benefit, it’s important that these gains aren’t offset by the effort needed to design and administer the PSAT program itself.

So, engage a vendor who can take on the operational management of the PSAT program end-to-end. In addition, be sure that one of the questions that your team is answering as part of your program performance metrics is: “Have we freed up IT expertise to direct their efforts to other threats?”

A PSAT program should… Meet regulatory and third-party reporting requirements

Your organization may have many regulatory and third-party reporting requirements pertaining to cybersecurity programs, which are determined by your industry, operating regions, and ecosystem of third-party suppliers and partners.

Understanding these requirements and working with a PSAT vendor who can provide additional expertise and knowledge is a necessary step to fulfilling your regional, industry, professional, and contractual obligations.

However, it’s important to recognize that compliance does not necessarily mean secure. While maintaining compliance can check the boxes, fulfill regulatory obligations, and can meet cyber insurance requirements, it can also create a false sense of security.

So, we recommend implementing a risk-based approach to developing your cybersecurity program because it will allow you to direct your cybersecurity investments in the most effective way with the goal of reducing risk over time. In a world of scarce resources, this approach leads to superior security outcomes when compared to maturity-based or compliance-based approaches—and after all, outcomes are what matter most.

Engage eSentire’s Managed Phishing and Security Awareness Training

Effective PSAT programs can go a long way toward helping users make informed decisions and adopt safe behaviors, but it’s important to recognize that while user error plays a role in many security incidents, simply blaming users is an unproductive and misleading tactic.

Instead, change how you look at such incidents. Human error is never the cause, but merely a symptom of underlying systemic problems. Instead, we recommend that your team should:

Your PSAT program is an important part of the “what” and an effective program builds forward accountability into your wider cybersecurity programs. Getting PSAT right is a worthwhile endeavor—and may ultimately make the difference between a close call and a disaster.

If you would like to learn how eSentire’s Managed Phishing and Security Awareness Training can help drive behavioral change across your organization and build cyber resilience, book a meeting with a security specialist now.


eSentire, Inc., the Authority in Managed Detection and Response (MDR), protects the critical data and applications of 2000+ organizations in 80+ countries, across 35 industries from known and unknown cyber threats by providing Exposure Management, Managed Detection and Response and Incident Response services designed to build an organization’s cyber resilience & prevent business disruption. Founded in 2001, eSentire protects the world’s most targeted organizations with 65% of its global base recognized as critical infrastructure, vital to economic health and stability. By combining open XDR platform technology, 24/7 threat hunting, and proven security operations leadership, eSentire's award-winning MDR services and team of experts help organizations anticipate, withstand and recover from cyberattacks. For more information, visit: www.esentire.com and follow @eSentire.

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