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Setting up a New Phish Simulation Program - Part Two
Published Jun 10 2021 09:30 AM 6,907 Views


In the first part of this blog, we covered how to determine your Program Goals and what Resources and Dependencies you would need for a successful program. In this part, we’ll be covering the other critical questions you’ll need to answer to fully land your program for maximum success.


If you are interested in going deep to get strategies and insights about how to develop a successful security awareness training program, please join the discussion in this upcoming Security Awareness Virtual Summit on June 22nd, 2021, hosted by Terranova Security and sponsored by Microsoft. You can sign up to attend by clicking here.


The first question you must answer for your simulation program is "Who should I target?". The answer to this question can be complicated, but the short answer boils down to "everyone who needs it". Spoiler alert: everyone in your organization needs it. This includes your executives, your frontline workers, everyone that might interact with email and that might have access to organizational resources. Microsoft has seen an enormous variation on how different organizations have approached the audience question, but we think the best ones start with the assumption that every member of the organization should be exposed regularly, and that higher risk and higher impact members should be targeted with special cycles (more on this below with the frequency question). You should think through partner and vendor relationships and consider requiring training of any users that have access to your organization's resources. The best tools are ones that will integrate with your existing organizational directories, so figuring out how to segment and target these audiences should be as easy as searching for groups or users in your directory and adding them to the target list.




The second, significantly more complicated question is "How often should I do phish simulations?". The answer to this question is something along the lines of "As often as you need to minimize bad behavior (clicking phishing links), maximize good behavior (reporting phish) of your users, and not significantly negatively impact their productivity." Like with targeting philosophies, Microsoft has seen enormous variation with different organizations. We understand that your organizational risk culture, risk tolerance, and resourcing will define the best answer to this question for your organization, and so you should take the below recommendations with a grain of salt. Most organizations try to balance how much time and energy goes into actually creating and sending out a phish simulation against the potential productivity impact to users. Doing more frequent simulations can be a lot of work for the program owner, although more data can be very helpful in maximizing the impact of the training on end user behavior.


  1. Every user in your organization should be exposed to a phishing simulation at least quarterly. Only do this if your training experiences are differentiated and short. Longer training, of the exact same content, required quarterly, will not produce better results and will irritate your users. If you can confidently differentiate your training per user, and constrain the educational experience to a few minutes, quarterly is a healthy cadence to remind your users of the risks of phishing.
  2. High-risk or high-impact users should be targeted more frequently, at least until they can consistently demonstrate an ability to correctly identify and report phishing messages. Daily or weekly simulations don't seem to produce significantly better results, so we recommend a monthly cadence for these groups.

One consideration we think you should make when determining your simulation frequency is that the work of actually selecting payloads, target audiences, and training experiences for users is significant, but that automation can ease this burden. So long as your phish simulations positively impact behavior, and don't negatively impact productivity, you should strive to engage users in this very common, and very impactful malicious attack technique as often as you can. More on this in the section about Operationalization.


Payloads are the actual email that gets sent to end users that contains the malicious link or attachment. As mentioned in the goal setting portion above, click-through rates for your simulation are, in large part, a function of the payload you select. The conceit of any given payload will hook different users very differently, depending on their personal motivations and psychology. Every quality tool will include a large library of payloads from which you can select. We think the following criteria are important considerations when selecting your payloads:

  • Research shows that trickier payloads are better at engaging end users and changing their behavior. If you pick payloads that are really obviously phishing, you may end up with a great, low click-through rate, but your end users aren't really learning anything. Resist the urge to pick low complexity, or 'easy' payloads for your users because you want them to successfully avoid getting phished. Instead, rely on mechanisms like the Microsoft 365 Attack Simulation Training tool's Predicted Compromise Rate to baseline and measure actual behavioral impact. More on this below.
  • Use authentic payloads. This means that you should always seek to use payloads that are created by the exact same bad guys that are attacking your organization. There are many different levels of phishing (phishing, spearphishing, whaling, etc.) and effective attackers will tune and adjust their payloads for maximum impact against your users. If you try to make up silly phishing payload themes (bedbugs in the office!), you might be able to highlight that users will fall for anything, but you won't be teaching them what real attackers do. The caveat to this is that the payloads you use should not, under any circumstances, contain actual malicious links or code. Real world payloads should be thoroughly de-weaponized before use in simulations.
  • Attackers will use anything and everything at their disposal. Credit card brands, banks, social media, legal institutions, and companies like Microsoft are very common. Figure out what attackers are using against your users and consider whether or not to leverage it in your phish sim payloads.
  • Thematic payloads are powerful teaching tools. Attackers are opportunistic and will leverage real world events such as COVID-19 in their campaigns. Pay attention to world events and business-impacting themes and leverage them in your payloads.
  • Try not to use the same payloads for every user. This recommendation is tricky, especially if you are using static click-through rates to measure your click susceptibility. You want to be able to compare the click-through rates of user A vs. user B and that usually requires a common payload lure. However, using the same payload for all users can lead to something called the Gopher Effect, where your users will start popping up their heads and letting the people around them know that there is a company-wide phishing exercise going on. Varying payload delivery and content helps tamp this down.
  • Don't be precious about payloads selection. It is something that every user in your org will see, and so you want to make sure it doesn't have any obvious errors or offensive content. Over-investing time and energy into something that attackers spend mere moments on can dramatically increase the cost of your simulation program. Instead, we recommend you curate a large library of payloads that you want to use, and leverage automation to select randomly from your library.



Every phish simulation includes several components that are educational in nature. These include the payload, the cred harvesting page and URL, the landing page at the end of the click-through, and then any follow-on interactive training that might get assigned. The training experiences you select for your users will be crucial in turning a potentially negative event (I've been tricked!) into a positive learning experience. As such, we recommend the following guidelines:


  • The landing page at the end of the click-through is your best opportunity to teach about the actual payload indicators. M365 Attack Simulation Training includes a landing page per simulation that renders the email message the user just received annotated with 'coach marks' describing all the things in the payload that the user could or should have noticed to indicate it was phishing. These pages are usually customizable, and you should make efforts to tailor the language to be non-threatening and engaging for the user.
  • Every user should complete a formal training course that describes general phishing techniques and appropriate responses at least annually. The M365 Attack Simulation Training tool provides a robust library of content from Terranova Security that covers these topics in a variety of durations from 20 minutes to as little as 15 seconds. Once they have completed one course, we recommend you target different courses based on their actions taken during subsequent simulations. Don't make the user take the same course more than once per year, regardless of their actions.
  • The training course assignment should be interactive, engaging, inclusive, and accessible on multiple platforms, including mobile.
  • Many organizations opt to not assign training at the end of any given simulation because the phish guidance is included in other required employee training. Every organization will have a different calculus for training impacts on productivity and so we leave it to you to determine whether this makes sense for you or not. If you find that repeated simulations aren't changing your user behaviors with phishing, consider incorporating more training.



For any given phish simulation, you'll find that you will have a fairly complex process to navigate to successfully operate your program. Those steps fall into approximately five major phases:


  • Analyze. What are my regulatory requirements? How much do my users understand about phishing? What kind of training will help them? Which parts of the organization are high risk or high impact for phishing? How susceptible am I to phishing?
  • Plan. Who needs to review and sign off on my simulation? Who am I going to target with which payloads, how often, and with what training experiences? What do I expect my click-through and report rates will be? What do I want them to be? Which payloads should I use?
  • Execute. Who will actually send the simulations? Have I notified the security ops team and leadership? What is the plan if something goes wrong?
  • Measure. What specific measures am I tracking? How will I aggregate and analyze the data to draw the best insights and learnings from the data? Which training experiences are affecting overall susceptibility?
  • Optimize. What is working and what should change? Which users need more help? What impacts are the simulations and training having on overall productivity? How will I communicate the status of the program to stakeholders?


With the right tool, huge portions of this process can be automated, and we strongly suggest that you leverage those capabilities to lower your program costs and maximize your impact. Two pieces of automation are available in the M365 Attack Simulation Training tool today:

  • Payload Harvesting automation. This will allow you to harvest payloads from your organization's threat protection feed, de-weaponize it, and publish it to your organization's payload library. This is the best, most authentic source of payloads for use in simulations. It is literally what real world attackers are sending to your users. Let the bad guys help inoculate your users against their tactics.
  • Simulation automation. This capability will allow you to create workflows that will execute a simulation over some specified period of time and randomize the delivery, payloads, and targeted user audience in a way that offsets the groundhog effect and lowers the risk of a single, huge simulation going awry.


Measuring Success

As mentioned in the goals section above, your program is essentially measuring how susceptible your organization is to phishing attacks, and the extent to which your training program is impacting that susceptibility. The key here is which specific metric do you use to express that susceptibility? Static click-through rates are problematic because they are driven by payload complexity and conceit. It is a reasonable place to start your program health measurements, alongside report rates, but it quickly becomes problematic when you need to compare two different simulations against each other and track progress over time.


Our suggestion is to leverage metadata like Microsoft 365 Attack Simulation Training's Predicted Compromise Rate to normalize cross-simulation comparisons. Instead of measuring absolutely click-through rates, you measure the difference between the predicted compromise rate and your actual compromise rate, grounded along two dimensions: Percentage Delta and Total Users Impacted. We believe this metric is a much better, authentic representation of how training is changing end user behavior and gives you a clearer path to changing your approach.


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