Certification can be a valuable addition to your course offerings, but it’s not the right fit for everyone.

You’ve developed an online program. What do learners get when they finish? Some course creators don’t offer anything more than a “good job” and an automated email encouraging them to sign up for the next course (maybe with a discount code!). Others send a badge that learners can add to their profile. And still others offer a full-fledged certificate of completion to verify that a learner has completed training.

This last option has the most gravitas, and can be highly sought in professional circles. Certification is a valuable way for learners to showcase their achievements and boost their professional credentials. But it’s not the right move for everyone, and making the right choice for your course may not be obvious.

So, is offering certification a valuable marketing tool or unnecessary red tape? Here’s how to tell.

1. Is there already a certification standard in your field?

Before you start a certification course—or add certification to an existing course—you should start with some market research. Is there already a well-established source for certification in your industry? What reputation does it have? Are there others in your industry offering competing certification, or is this source the gold standard?

Competition is a good thing, but there are definitely some instances where the market simply doesn’t have space for another certification course. This is usually because there’s already a single well-regarded source for certification. Ironically, the more competing certification programs there are, the more likely you can set yourself up as a valid alternative.

2. Are you accredited, or can you become accredited?

Let’s be clear: you don’t need to be accredited to offer an online certificate. Accreditation is a way for an outside body to certify your certification course, and as such, it provides a great deal of value for course creators and learners alike. However, you don’t need it, and in some cases, there may not even be a way for you to become accredited, if there’s no outside body qualified to do so.

If you are unaccredited, then the value of your certification will rest on your own brand. If your brand is strong and well-regarded in the industry, than a certificate becomes your official sign-off that a learner has completed your training. If your training course is good, then people may come to recognize that sign-off as enough.

However, if you’re relatively unknown, than accreditation can be a way for another institution to vouch for the quality of your course. There are professional bodies that do this, as well as universities. The downside to this is that gaining accreditation means you have to meet their standards—and that may mean altering your course in ways you don’t like. If doing so is worthwhile to you, then accreditation is a sensible step for increasing your course value.

3. Will certification from your program be valuable to your learners?

No two industries are alike, especially when it comes to certification. Some fields are tightly regulated, with extremely high professional standards, and an expectation that professionals will take continuing education courses to maintain their standing. Other fields are more like the wild west: the only proof anyone cares about is what a learner can do.

In general, certification is more valuable in fields where competency is harder to assess, or where the risks of failure are high. Auto mechanics seek certification, for instance, to prove that they know how to keep a vehicle roadworthy. An illustrator, on the other hand, relies on their portfolio of work to prove their skill rather than certification.

If you’re in an industry where ongoing education is mandatory (finance, medicine, etc.), then becoming accredited and offering certification has particular value for your learners. If certification isn’t the standard in your industry, and if it doesn’t help your learners market their skills any better, then it’s probably not worth it.

4. Will certification boost your credibility or offer a competitive advantage?

Finally, certification can boost the credibility of your learners, but it can boost your own credibility, too. Offering certification as part of your online course—even if you’re not accredited—can establish your authority over your competitors.

That said, this strategy only works if you’ve actually put the work into generating a high quality certification course. Just slapping a certificate onto your program won’t be impressive unless you’ve done the work to back it up. In many cases, certification can boost perceived credibility because it also boosts actual credibility. People see you as a more authoritative source because you put in the work to be so.

You don’t need certification to offer a valuable online course, but it can be the cherry on top.

Some courses aren’t about proving your credentials to others—they’re about personal fulfillment and self-satisfaction. While certification may be attractive and valuable to some, for others it would seem misplaced or even silly. After all, if I’ve just finished your online baking course in cupcake design, I don’t need something showing that I’m not a certified cupcake designer.

In short, certification is so you learners can prove their credentials to others. But a badge or other mark of achievement is about personal accomplishment. You should offer your learners some token of completion when they reach a significant milestone—whether that’s a badge, some personal feedback, or a certificate is entirely up to you.

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