How to Market Credentialing Programs in an Uncertain Economy

Back in June, a tweet caught my eye:

“It’s mind-boggling to me that, due to the failures and incompetence of our leaders, we’re all effectively going to lose a year of our lives. At least.”

My silent reply was, “You don’t have to lose a year. How can you make the best of this crappy situation?” Yes, ever the optimist.

What would your members make of this tweeter’s lament? Would they write the year off as a loss too? Perhaps they’re too busy to even consider that. Or they’re dealing with their own troubles. Maybe they’re too stressed to think about it.

What message would you give your members and the mind-boggled tweeter? How about something like this:

Don’t let these circumstances dictate your destiny. Take charge of your future by earning a credential that will propel your career forward.

The time is right to promote the value of credentials

The pandemic economy is hitting each association audience in different ways. Only you know how your audience is doing right now. But one thing holds true for everyone: we’re living in anxious times, unsure what the coming months and years will hold.

Job security is a concern in some industries. People have been furloughed or laid off. Others have lost clients or businesses.

Amidst this unsteadiness, goals provide a framework. Anxiety is lessened when you know where you want to go and understand how to get there.

You’ll do your members and market a great service if you show them a career or learning pathway for achieving their goals. Illustrate how your credentialing programs—certificate, microcredential (digital badge), or certification—can help them increase their expertise and advance their career.

Talent differentiator. Credentials are a resume booster—especially valuable in a competitive talent marketplace. If someone is worried about job security, credentials show their determination to continually learn and improve their skills.

Affordable. Pursuing a credentialing pathway is cheaper than getting a degree.

Flexible and convenient. People are more receptive to online discussions and education thanks to Zoom meetings and virtual conferences.

Social. Many online courses use discussion forums—either an online community or breakout rooms—so learners can interact with peers.

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Growing interest in credentials, especially microcredentials

An August 2020 report from the Strada Education Network’s Center for Consumer Insights revealed a growing interest in skills-based, online credentials, particularly among adult learners from diverse and lower-income backgrounds.

•    20% of Americans said they plan to enroll in an education program in the next six months.
•    40% percent of those whose livelihoods have suffered during the pandemic plan to enroll in a program in the next six months.

People aren’t as likely to commit to a long-term investment, like a college degree program, when their employment status may change in the coming months. Short-term microcredentialing programs present a much safer value.

A microcredential is a recognition awarded to someone who has demonstrated mastery of a narrow scope of knowledge, skills, or abilities. This mastery could be of a single skill or competency or a group of related skills or competencies.

Younger generations—millennials and Gen Z—are used to learning in chunks. Since they grew up with Khan Academy and YouTube videos, they’re a prime audience for microcredentials and digital badges—the visual representation of microcredentials.

According to the Institute for Credentialing Excellence's Microcredentialing Pulse Survey conducted in early 2020, 28% of the participating organizations currently offer or are building microcredentials, Of the remainder, 64% said they were interested in developing one or more microcredentials.

Microcredentials are an appealing option for people who don’t meet eligibility requirements for full certification or who need to earn CE credits. With their limited timeframe, they seem more doable—the end is in sight. Employers are more likely to invest in an affordable and time-efficient microcredentialing program that helps their staff acquire or improve critical skills.

The credentialing battle for attention

Colleges are facing accusations about not preparing students for the real world and debates about the value of a degree. In response, they’re offering credentialing programs that expand their market and establish lifelong relationships with alumni.

Jim Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, told Tagoras that 70% of their members are currently providing some form of alternative credentialing and another 26% plan on doing it.

For-profits are responding to the growing market need too. Microsoft plans “to help 25 million people globally acquire the skills needed for the COVID-19 economy.” Its LinkedIn Learning platform offers 138 learning paths for jobs such as financial analyst and project manager.

Google Career Certificates for professions such as data analyst, project manager and UX designer take about six months to complete. The programs “equip participants with the essential skills they need to get a job,” with “no degree or prior experience required to take the courses.” Google is also offering 100,000 need-based scholarships for these certificate programs.

IBM, Facebook, and Salesforce are getting into the credentialing business too. Hopefully, your association isn’t too late to the credentialing party in your industry.

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Marketing credentialing programs in anxious times

It’s a great time to market credentialing programs as long as you do it carefully and caringly. You may have done your market research in the past year or so, but conditions have changed. Make sure you understand any new challenges, aspirations, desires, and needs.

Remind members about the market value of having a credential beside their name, especially in this economy. Be extremely clear about the ROI they can expect with each credentialing program. How will their learning experience translate into economic and professional opportunity?

Shift the focus away from your annual event. In a recent Leading Learning post, Jeff Cobb said associations are currently too focused on learning as an event rather than a process. Too often the annual conference is the main educational (and marketing) focus.

Consequently, when members (and their employers) think about professional development, they think about your big conferences, not your online learning and credentialing programs. In reality, these annual events aren’t usually great learning experiences. Members end up forgetting most of what they learn.

Market to employers. Employers are familiar with your conference. But what do they know about your credentialing programs? They might be pleased to learn about microcredentialing or certificate programs that aren’t as costly as sending someone to a conference. Plus, in a credentialing program, they know exactly what skills the employee is learning. Just make sure these programs teach the skills that employers really need.

Follow up with existing leads. Associations are benefiting from the increased attendance at virtual conferences and other online learning events. Analyze attendee, customer, and member data so you can segment leads by career stage, specialty, and interests. Send targeted email promotions about specific credentialing programs to leads who would find them valuable.

Make sure you include other leads in these marketing campaigns, for example, people who have visited pages about credentialing on your website, taken in-person or online courses, and attended webinars.

Explore new marketing channels. Members and other prospective learners are spending more time online so stay in front of them. During the pandemic, the prices for digital advertising and retargeting have decreased.

Highlight learning pathways on your website. Let prospective learners see the path to mastery. Illustrate learning pathways that lead to different certificates and microcredentials (digital badges). Make it easy for someone to visualize their path forward.

Provide social proof. In study after study, it’s been proven that people are more likely to purchase something that’s been recommended by someone like them. Testimonials are a powerful marketing tool that leverages social proof.

Ask industry leaders and influencers to talk about their own learning journey, for example, how they make time for it and the value it’s provided to their career and life. Share these videos on your website and in your marketing campaigns.

Understand and speak their language. Spend time every day reading your association’s online community discussions, social media groups (yours and others), and listening in on industry conversations wherever they occur. Get a true sense of people’s worries, fears, and frustrations as well as their wishes, needs, and aspirations.

Capture the words your audience uses to describe their feelings and use these same words in your marketing messages. Your marketing campaigns must position your credentialing programs as the solution to their problems and the means to achieve their goals. Create marketing campaigns that help your audience see your credentialing programs as a pathway to a successful future.

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