The rise of alternative credentials...
Over the past decade, the labor market and post-secondary education landscape have fundamentally changed as digital technologies and the demand for alternative pathways to employment have disrupted every industry and job. Alongside this shift, there’s been an explosion of alternative credentials to improve the classroom-to-workforce pipeline and meet the rising demand for upskilling and reskilling.
In higher education
Responding to falling enrollment and competitive pressure from other institutions, most educational institutions have hyper-focused on student employability and expanded certificates and special non-degree credentials to broaden their reach and diversify revenue streams.
According to HolonIQ and the American Council on Education, there has been a 211% increase in issued badges over the past four years—reaching over 75 million globally. And with 86% of students stating they believe an industry certificate will help them to stand out to employers once they graduate, it’s become clear that alternative credentials are the future.
Unsurprisingly, university leaders now consider alternative and microcredentialing an essential part of their strategy, with 95% expecting microcredentials to be integrated into most degree programs soon. However, even with the increase in student demand for alternative pathways, the onus has shifted to higher education leaders to ensure that learners recognize that their skills are transferable as students weigh costs vs. immediate access to jobs.
Associations, businesses, and other institutions are also seeing the benefits of adopting alternative career and technical credentials. Professional associations are moving beyond membership to offer certification programs and other learning opportunities to engage and add value to members while creating new revenue streams and establishing themselves as industry leaders.
In the information technology space, a new wave of companies is following the success of leaders like HubSpot, Salesforce, and Google in investing in training and certification academies to educate users, increase product stickiness, and generate new revenue streams. What often starts as product training for users expands to industry certifications, with potential partnerships with higher education institutions to improve the classroom-to-workforce pipeline and increase product and brand awareness with learners early in their careers.
Many employers are trying alternate educational pathways to employment and expanding hiring based on skills and learning to fill the skills gap and create a more diverse, well-rounded set of employees. The 2023 LinkedIn Skills-First Report found that nearly one in five U.S. job postings (19%) no longer require degrees—up from 15% in 2021. Moreover, 45% of employers reported using skills data to fill their roles, a 12% year-over-year increase.
This new skills-based approach shows promising signs of how effective it and alternative credentials can be in their workplace. Employers are not only seeing 20x more eligible workers in talent pools, but over 73% reported that hires with non-degree or alternative credentials helped their organization fill an existing skill gap and improved the quality of their workforce. So it’s no surprise to see more employers adopting this approach—with 71% confirming their organization is becoming more accepting of non-degree or alternative credentials instead of traditional four-year degrees.
In the middle of these shifts are learners keen to embrace skill acquisition for career progression—with 380 million skills added to LinkedIn profiles last year alone. According to SHRM, nearly half of U.S. workers (45%) possess some form of an alternative credential. Among those who don’t, about half (49%) have considered earning one.
However, even with their interest in acquiring new skills and competencies, learners need help to make sense of their seemingly endless options. A recent ECMC Group report found a concerning barrier to alternative pathways in that 64% of learners interested in a non-degree pathway found a lack of information about their options. With so much variance in cost, requirements, quality, and portability between employers and industries, how do learners select the credentials most likely to prove their competencies and skills and boost their career success?
With the rise of alternative credentials, there comes a clear message: organizations that fail to embrace alternative pathways to employment or do a poor job of communicating the value of their offerings are the ones that will fall behind.
The Credential Chasm
As we’ve shifted to this new skills-based learning and hiring labor market, the new currency has become digital, transferable, and verifiable proof of skills and competencies—digital credentials. Yet we see a widening gap between credential issuers meeting the current market and learner demands for digital credentials and delivering value throughout the entire learner journey—and, in turn, growing their programs—and those that aren’t and, by default, are losing relevance, market share, and revenue.
Enter the Credential Chasm.
The Traditional Credential Model
While many organizations have embraced learner demands for digital credentials, nearly 44% of organizations still issue paper credentials or PDFs. Paper certificates will always have their place, particularly for high-stakes credentials like degrees. However, restricting issuance to paper or PDF credentials widens the chasm and is costly for all parties: issuers, learners, and employers.
The traditional credentialing process when issuing paper or PDF certificates follows a funnel model:
- Learner enrolls
- Learner completes program
- Learner receives their credential
The learner enters the learning funnel and leaves the funnel as a credential recipient. But then what? As a credential issuer, the learner connection ends at issuance, and there’s limited to no sharing—and associated program referrals—because of the friction to share paper or PDFs online. There’s potential for fraud, which impacts brand reputation, and worst of all, you have zero visibility into who opened or shared their credential, where they shared it, whether it led to program referrals, who are the most engaged learners, etc.
As a learner, paper or PDF credentials aren’t easily shareable or verifiable as proof of acquired skills and competencies. They don’t provide employers with a high-resolution snapshot representing a credential's context, criteria, and achievements. They also don’t offer insight into relevant or related credentials useful for driving learner motivation toward continuous education.
As an employer, there’s potential for fraud with paper or PDF credentials, they’re costly to verify, and it’s difficult to decipher the amount of effort the learner invested into earning their credential. In a ResumeLab survey, 7 in 10 workers confessed to lying on their job application, which creates several issues for employers—from damage to the organization’s reputation to the risk of financial implications and even the potential for liability should the employee cause harm.
Ultimately, the way we’ve been taught to issue credentials is perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists. Issuing a credential without it being digital, shareable, verifiable, and leading to career outcomes and expecting program relevance and growth is like planting a seed without sun or water.
A New Model for Today’s Learners
So, what can issuers do to close the credential chasm and achieve program growth? Let’s look at the new and reinvented education and training leaders that have emerged. These organizations are not only rewarding and recognizing their learners but issuing digital credentials that learners want to and can easily share—leading to program referrals and returning learners.
Organizations such as:
- The Corporate Finance Institute (CFI), which has seen over 52% of its digital credentials shared on social media
- Frogames, which tripled course completions and increased credential sharing by 67% since launching digital credentials and guided learning pathways
- Workato, which increased its credential recipient share rate by 9% and experienced 80% growth in program learners
- Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, which increased its credential recipient share rate by 384% and increased credential referral traffic to its program by 112%
Each organization has crossed the Credential Chasm, moving beyond traditional credentials and activating a Credential Flywheel of Growth.
What if you can do the same? Let us show you how.
What is the Credential Flywheel Model?
The flywheel model describes continuous inputs made by an organization that, when consistently executed, contribute to building momentum and driving sustained program and business growth. As your teams put energy into strategies to attract and engage learners (adding force) alongside ensuring and maintaining efficient operations (removing friction), your flywheel accelerates to create a self-sustaining system to achieve long-term program success.
There are three stages to the Credential Flywheel:
- Award - the process of awarding learners with verifiable digital credentials and recognizing them via an online directory of credential holders to connect them with employers
- Amplify - the process of increasing engagement and enabling learners to share their credentials—turning credentials into referral machines for your program
- Attract - the process of increasing visibility into related programs or recommended next steps and enrolling new and returning learners
How does the Credential Flywheel Model work?
The flywheel model stores and releases energy gained by adding positive forces and removing friction. The more energy your flywheel has, the faster it spins, and the greater momentum you maintain from your learners. In the Credential Flywheel Model, the positive forces come from your strategies to enhance your learning experiences and engage your learners. For example, instant credential delivery, recommended next steps, and increased program visibility are positive driving forces while eliminating barriers to sharing and seamless verification removes friction.
The Credential Flywheel Model works by putting processes in place to harness the excited energy of a learner after they receive their credential and eliminating friction from their credential experience:
- Learner enrolls, completes the program, and receives their credential
- Learner shares their credential on social networks, exposing peers to their credential and completed programs
- Interested peers wanting to earn credentials explore the program via the shared credential, generating program referrals
- The learner can see recommended next steps on their credential and re-enrolls in the program
The credential has gone from being the end of the learner interaction in the traditional credentialing model to the central driving force behind your flywheel—and, ultimately, a new acquisition and growth lever for your program.
Wanting to dive into how you can implement digital credentials to develop your program growth flywheel? Here are a few great resources to help you assess your digital credentialing requirements and platform options:
Activating the Credential Flywheel
Now that you understand the credential flywheel and how it works, let’s explore how you can activate each stage to increase learner engagement, credential sharing, and enrollment.
In the Award stage, you award learners with digital credentials that provide high-resolution snapshots of their capabilities and competencies. You can positively influence the award stage by putting effort into the marketability of your credentials, ensuring awards are received instantly, and showcasing your recipients.
Create marketable credentials
The traditional certificate award doesn’t tell third parties much about what the learner had to do to achieve the certificate. In comparison, digital credentials hosted on a dedicated credential page have plenty of space to add detailed contextual information such as program details, gained skills, criteria for earning the credential, and relevant learner evidence. A third party looking at the digital credential should immediately be able to discern the level of knowledge the learner holds and the demonstrable skills they have gained through completing the program.
Branding is another important aspect of creating marketable credentials. When a learner views their credential, you want them to know your brand issued it for your program. Branding the entire credential journey—from email to the credential and credential page—is necessary for establishing trust and communicating value.
Deliver instant awards
Instantly awarding a learner their earned credential enables you to capitalize on the learner’s excitement and engage them when they’re most likely to celebrate their accomplishment. Integrating your digital credentialing tool into your LMS and publishing tools and setting up criteria for auto-issuance on completion allows you to immediately send digital credentials via email once a learner has successfully met the requirements. We’ll explore more ways to improve your credential emails and engagement in the flywheel’s Amplify stage coming up next.
Showcasing credential recipients
Another key activation of the Award stage is highlighting credential holders via an online directory. By providing a digital hub for people to find and verify professionals who hold your certifications, you’re reinforcing the value of their credentials and giving them a competitive edge and more visibility to future work. As more recipients get added to your directory, you become recognized as a resource for talent in your industry, generating interest from other learners and establishing your organization as an authority on what it means to be an expert in the space.
In the next flywheel stage, your goal is to help learners amplify their credentials online by empowering them to share and eliminating barriers to engagement. You can activate this stage by providing recipients with guidance on using their new digital credentials, encouraging them to share with their social networks, reminding recipients who have yet to engage with their credentials, and then engaging with their shared credentials.
Guidance on credential use
We discussed motivating learners to open the credentials they received in the Award stage. In the Amplify stage, we need to ensure that recipients understand what they can do with their credentials once they’ve opened them. Otherwise, it becomes a dead-end. In credential delivery emails, include a section that provides the next steps or links to a detailed walkthrough on what learners can do with their credentials. This includes mentioning the ability to:
- Share their credentials on social media
- Embed credentials in their email signatures or on personal web pages
- Add links to their digital credentials to their LinkedIn profile or digital resumes
- Upload their credentials to digital wallet cards for use on-the-go
Credential email best practices
Email inboxes are busy, making it easy to miss important emails like your issued credentials. Create tailored email campaigns that trigger automatic follow-up emails depending on learner action (or inaction) to increase engagement and credential sharing. For example, you could create an email trigger that sends a follow-up to recipients who haven’t opened their credential email a week after initial delivery. Or use learner engagement data to create triggers for reminder emails to recipients who have opened their credential emails but haven’t shared them with their LinkedIn profile. You can use similar automated email triggers for sending program re-enrollment incentives or renewal notices.
A clear call to action (CTA) within your credential emails is critical to encourage recipients to share their credentials. While the most common prompt in a credential delivery email is for learners to ‘View Credential,’ you can also include a secondary CTA that encourages recipients to ‘Share Credential’ or ‘Add Credential to LinkedIn.’ Alternatively, you can change the target social media platform depending on your internal social media strategies.
Optimized email campaigns help drive credentials shares, brand awareness, and program referrals. Tracking and analyzing your email campaigns allows you to determine where optimizations are required, such as adding personalization, amending subject lines, or adding triggers for additional follow-up emails.
Engage with recipient credentials
Once you’ve successfully encouraged the recipient to share their credentials, you should engage online with these credential recipients. Finding their shared credential LinkedIn post (for example) and commenting ‘Congratulations on your award!’ can go a long way to building relationships with your learners and increasing the likelihood of them returning to take more of your programs. By engaging with credential recipients, you also show others in your target audience that you care about their success.
In addition, if you track credential sharing and referral traffic from those shares back to your program, you can identify your ‘credential influencers’ who typically have high social engagement from their credential shares. Building relationships with these influencers, spotlighting them, and rewarding them with coupons or freebies in exchange for continued shares or testimonials will significantly increase your program awareness and referrals.
In the Attract stage, you want to convert new learners (via credential sharing and other channels) and returning learners to sign up or re-enroll in your programs. You can activate this stage by making it easy for interested users to learn about and register for your program and by increasing visibility into related programs or recommended next steps.
Use landing pages
We touched on dedicated credential pages in the Award stage, but the detail you include on the page is also a vital part of the Attract stage. As the credential page offers a lot more space than a traditional certificate, there is space to include information about your program and links to helpful resources such as your website, program enrollment page, and other available credentials. You should also consider including information or a visual to let learners know if the credential is part of a larger learning pathway and if any recommended, related credentials would help boost the learner’s professional portfolio.
Motivate continuous learning
Providing visibility to recommended or related credentials and information showing that a credential is part of a learning pathway are effective ways to encourage recipients to pursue continuous learning. For learners enrolled in a learning pathway, it’s critical to provide them with the pathway steps, their current progress, and what they need to do to progress to keep them engaged and motivated on their education journey.
A key to driving learner motivation for continuous learning is to ensure each step is visible and actionable. If you link to relevant credentials, ensure they can sign up on the target page. If your credential is part of a larger learning pathway, outline the enrollment eligibility criteria and direct learners to the right place to sign up.
Act on insights
Throughout the credential flywheel model, it’s critical to effectively measure key performance indicators (KPIs) at each stage to optimize your program's performance. Whether you’re tracking them manually or using a digital credential platform, leading programs track and report KPIs including:
- The number of issued credentials
- Credential shares and target platforms
- Credential views and referrals generated
- Learning pathway completions and dropoffs
Collecting and analyzing this data is essential as it allows you to adjust strategies as needed. For example, if you issue 100 credentials but only ten have been opened, you know to optimize your credential delivery email with a more personalized approach or test different subject lines. Similarly, if you have lots of credentials opened but only a handful of shares, you may need to provide additional guidance on credential use within the credential delivery email or be more specific with your CTA.
Learn how enterprise automation leader Workato successfully launched its credential flywheel—increasing credential sharing by 9%, leading to 80% growth in program learners.
Develop your credential flywheel of growth
Activating a credential flywheel is about providing value throughout the learner journey and guiding learners down a path toward competency and career outcomes—which ultimately leads to program awareness and growth. It’s a win-win, reducing your marketing expenses while opening up new acquisition channels and opportunities for learners. Issuers that choose to use the credential flywheel model over the traditional model have a huge advantage because they aren’t the only ones helping their program grow—their learners are helping them grow as well.
Don’t forget to save a copy of our Creating a Credential Flywheel Checklist, available below. The printable checklist summarizes how you can activate and remove friction from each flywheel stage.
You can also watch our 60-minute webinar to learn exactly how education and training leaders like Workato and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management have moved beyond simply issuing traditional credentials to delivering value throughout the entire learner journey — attracting new learners and increasing program enrollment.
At Accredible, we’ve helped more than 2,000 education, training, and association leaders develop their credential flywheels to drive program growth (including the organizations mentioned throughout the guide). In 2023 alone, we helped issuers deliver 25 million career-advancing digital credentials to over 6 million recipients and launch over 80,000 courses for their learners. We also saw a 19.1% increase in engaged credentials and an 84.9% increase in credential referral traffic to our customers’ programs in 2023. With Accredible, our customers can track all of these users (potential learners) who saw issued credentials shared by their peers and clicked through to learn more about their programs.
If you’re ready to take your program to the next level, we’d love to help. Take the first step in kick-starting your credential flywheel of growth with an Accredible platform demo.
Creating a Credential Flywheel Checklist
Activating the Award stage
Add positive force by:
- Creating marketable credentials that contain helpful contextual information that communicates the credential's value
- Using branding and white label functionality so that recipients see the credential is coming from your brand
- Integrating a digital credential platform into your existing tools to enable immediate auto-issuance once a learner satisfies the completion criteria
- Building automatic email campaigns to ensure recipients don’t miss out on the opportunity to view and engage with their newly earned credentials
- Featuring your credential holder profiles in a browsable directory where they can be found and engaged with by interested third parties and recruiters
Remove friction by:
- Ensuring your credential delivery emails have a clear subject line so recipients understand what they have just received
- Removing the need to create user accounts so recipients can access their credentials without additional requirements
Activating the Amplify stage
Add positive force by:
- Encouraging recipients to share their credentials by including clear CTA (call-to-action) buttons within the credential email, such as ‘Share Credential’ or ‘Add Credential to LinkedIn’
- Providing clear guidance on how recipients can use their credentials within the credential email as a short paragraph or bullet point list
- Linking to more detailed instructions with step-by-step guidance and screenshots of what recipients can do with their credentials
- Identifying and engaging with your top credential influencers to boost visibility and create further engagement with your target audiences
Remove friction by:
- Eliminating barriers for recipients needing to take an action before sharing (e.g., requiring them to follow a specific account to share)
- Streamlining credential verification to help your learners with third parties (e.g., recruiters) looking to validate their skills and competencies
Activating the Attract stage
Add positive force by:
- Using dedicated credential pages to inform learners and interested parties about the credential's value and how they can sign up
- Including links to your website or issuer profile, the sign-up page for the target credential, and other available programs
- Motivating continuous education by linking to relevant, recommended credentials or the next step within a learning pathway on the credential page
- Tracking and measuring the impact of your credential flywheel to optimize your program’s performance
Remove friction by:
- Ensuring individuals can quickly sign up for programs without clicking through several different pages