Launching a Certification in the Midst of a Crisis: A Brilliant or Berserk Idea?

Imagine your association was just about to launch a new certification when the whole world went into lockdown during the early days of the pandemic. This nightmare scenario was the reality for two association executives who shared their story in a webinar hosted by Knapp & Associates International, Launching a Certification Program in an Unpredictable Environment.

Since we’re still in an unpredictable environment and will likely be in one for some time, it’s worth paying attention to the insights shared by the three webinar presenters:

•    Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO and chairman of the board, Medical Science Liaison Society (MSLS)
•    Elisa Kahn, PMP, credentialing director, American Management Association (AMA)
•    Lenora G. Knapp, PhD, president, Knapp & Associates International

A crisis presents opportunities, not just threats

Throughout the webinar, one message kept coming up: a crisis presents opportunities, not just threats.

You can’t let a crisis slow you down. 69% of leaders have experienced at least one corporate crisis in the last five years, according to survey data shared by Lenora, and, on average, they experienced three crises in those five years.

Crises are inevitable, so don’t use them as an excuse for inaction unless reliable data is telling you otherwise. However, a crisis does introduce new factors you must consider when planning a certification launch.

launching a certification

Crisis factors to considering when launching a certification

Economy. During the pandemic, economic factors have influenced many association decisions. However, the impact of industry unemployment and/or business revenue loss can turn out to have both positive and negative effects on credentialing programs.

Job and career uncertainty can heighten interest in certification. People who lost their job (or who anticipate an uncertain future) want to gain a competitive edge and enhance their LinkedIn profile and resume with a credential.

On the other hand, in an industry hit hard by the economy, organizational and personal budgets may not be sufficient for a certification or the required education. Certification prospects may leave the industry for a brighter future elsewhere. You may have a tough time promoting your new certification if you no longer have emails for people in your target audience who have lost their jobs.

Time. If your industry is in crisis mode, as the healthcare and other essential industries have been, your target audience is too busy for anything but work. In some industries, people are working long hours because they’re doing their jobs plus the jobs of former colleagues who have been laid off. Both sets of professionals don’t have any time to spare to earn CE credits or study for a certification exam.

Test centers. Both MSLS and AMA ran into trouble because many test centers in the U.S. and around the world were closed due to COVID lockdown orders. Because many countries don’t have testing centers, some of their prospects were planning to travel elsewhere to take the certification exam, but couldn’t travel because of restrictions.

Even when test centers open, many test takers will be hesitant to spend time there. You need to have a Plan B to protect your exam revenue. In this case, remote proctoring was the Plan B for these two associations.

When MSLS and AMA faced these challenges, they went ahead with the decision to launch. Their advice: pivot, don’t panic.

Build flexibility—and a Plan B—into your plan for launching a certification

Think through the three elements of a certification program so you can anticipate where you might run into challenges that require a Plan B.

•    Eligibility requirements and certification application
•    Examination
•    Maintenance of certification

With so many unknowns looming in front of us, your plan and program require flexibility.

Lenora describe how some medical boards—usually known for their conservative approach to credentialing—changed their policies during the pandemic. They made concessions on eligibility and recertification requirements, such as extending deadlines, because they knew people couldn’t get all the hours they needed.

launching a certification

Lessons from certification launches

Integration. Make sure all processes involving data are ready to go. For example, ensure data will flow smoothy between the LMS, AMS and any remote proctoring tools.

Communication. Communicate quickly and frequently with applicants, test takers, and certificants about any issues they might wonder about. Don’t create an information vacuum that could lead to anxiety, confusion or speculation.

Partners. Hold your credentialing ecosystem close—your chapters and partners like academic institutions, related organizations and test prep providers. Regular communication will strengthen these mutually beneficial relationships.

Elisa said no certification program is an island. Your technical partners—LMS provider, application process designer and remote testing provider—are essential to a successful launch. Trust and rely on these partners. They have the expertise and experience to guide you to success.

Marketing your new certification

Marketers have always known that emotions rule when it comes to making purchasing decisions. In the past, marketing messages about the need for professional development might have been written to trigger a sense of fear, but people have enough fear in their lives these days—don’t pile it on.

Demonstrate empathy in your marketing. Show that you know what people are experiencing at work and at home. Let down your institutional guard. Speak (write) like a real person. One good thing about the pandemic is the shift to a less formal and strait-laced style. This type of realness will strengthen your relationships with members and customers.

MSLS marketed their credential in a profession that’s never had a certification. Their marketing educated their audience on the value of a certification and how a certification differs from a certificate program.

Both MSLS and AMA emphasized why it’s more important than ever to earn a credential. AMA urged their audience to prepare for the future and take control of their career:

“During this time of uncertainty and disruption, it’s even more critical to prepare yourself for tomorrow with tools that will help you get stronger professionally today, and can advance your career in the future. Why stay in a holding pattern?”

Another advertisement said: “With more time at home and greater uncertainty of what the future holds, now is a good time to consider how you’re preparing yourself to lead the inevitable change ahead.”

Although these marketing messages allude to the current situation, they are at heart both practical and aspirational. Whether you’re launching a new credential or taking a new look at your existing marketing strategies, appeal to your audience’s good sense and aspirational goals.

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