Make IT known: Market your certification program to the world

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This feature first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

A great certification program can only thrive if people know about it. Here's how to market the pants off your program.This article is a follow-up to my previous two-part article about how to create and build your own IT certification program. Once you’ve done the heavy lifting and gotten an IT certification program off the ground, what’s next? Let’s take look at what can be done to make your certification program attractive to students and IT professionals.

For starters, we need to make a few assumptions. Let’s take for granted that you’ve already been successful at each of the following:

● Your exams are of high quality and are effectively measuring the skills and knowledge of your exam candidates.
● The goals of the program have been approved by the leadership of your company or organization.
● You have the support of your stakeholders.
● You are either the training manager responsible for the program, or the certification manager running the program.

Okay, now that we’ve outlined the foundation on which we can effectively build a marketing message attractive to outsiders, let’s get to it. What are the key ways to make your program stand out? I’ve assembled a laundry list of points to ponder as you move forward:

Understanding: A key element is always understanding what your audience is looking for. This understanding must be both internal and external. What is motivating the individual? Do they want to find a new job? Comply with a company directive? Get a better salary?

Whatever the case, your program needs to be easy to find, easy to understand, easy to sell, and, most importantly, easy to consume. One of the most important items on your action list is to promote the value of the certifications along with the value of the training. Tell consumers how your certification answers the questions in the preceding paragraph. If possible, bundle in your exams with training offers.

Visibility: If your training and certification information is buried on your website, one of the first missions you must undertake is to elevate it. Show the management team how often those pages have been visited already. Then ask them to imagine how much those numbers could increase with a little promotional wizardry.

In my experience, training and certification pages are usually one of the highest visited areas of any IT company’s web site. If you make your certification information high-profile and easy to find, then you are doubling down on that advantage.

Visibility, Part II: Participate in salary surveys. Get your program into the annual Certification Magazine Salary Survey. (That’s a rule I drew up long before writing any articles for this magazine.) If the program makes the cut, the results can be used as a promotional tool in social media and company events, as a recruitment tool for your HR team, and as a sales tool to engage with universities that are considering offering your curriculum.

Exam Levels: Are your entry-level exams, truly suited to entry-level candidates? If there is no easy starting point, then think about creating an associate level exam or tier with a lower price point.

You should also consider providing the training content for that level either free or at a nominal cost — especially if you want to use a lower-level exam to build a pipeline to your more advanced credentials. This type of free training could be short YouTube videos, a webinar series, or free e-books. If someone is going to make time to learn, make it as painless as possible for them to get started before you go deep.

Pricing: Take a long look at your exam pricing. If your exams are priced too low, then they may not be taken as seriously as they should be. This is not a matter of profit, as most companies primarily strive to break even with certification and training. Your certification represents your organization and its products. Exam pricing is a matter of market perception.

Pricing Part II: India and its thriving population of tech-savvy up-and-comers is, or should be, on every IT certification program’s radar, especially if growing your ecosystem is important. This is where having a training partner who can meet the demand and keep the pricing low makes more sense. If not, seriously consider slashing the training costs by 90 percent for the India audience.

The price of your exam should stay the same — remember the importance of perception. An IT worker in India who knows he or she will become employable (or get a better-paying job) as a result, will find a way to pay for the exam.

Marketing: This is a very important aspect of helping your program stand apart. There are both “push” and “pull” strategies to consider. What should you push to your audience? What do you have to offer that will pull them in?

If you don’t think about marketing, nobody else will — it’s as simple as that. No matter the size of your organization, a weekly marketing meeting will get everyone to focus. Some key categories helpful to track and report on are:

Collateral — Brochures or data sheets need to be developed, even if only created as a PDF, as they can serve as great leave-behinds for your sales team.

Events — What events should be attended or created? Many times, people have no idea there are others out there just like them, and want to be part of a community, as this will help them in their jobs and careers. Be the unifier; help build your real-world communities and you can plant the seeds for greater online participation. Some ideas:

● An after-work meet-up in a more casual setting to encourage networking (providing refreshments will boost attendance) is a great way to help grow the communities out there.
● Be sure that your certification program has a booth at company events, such as conferences.
● Offer a test center at company events, if possible. Make this the only time exam candidates can get a free retake.

Advertising — Place an ad where the IT professionals are looking. Certification Magazine and other similar industry publications are a great place to advertise. It shows you are a player. The graphics can also be used in your social media campaigns.

Social Media — If you have a Twitter account for your academy or learning group, tie this into your corporate efforts. Get some training on how to be effective with it, and use appropriate tools to schedule posts and promote your content on regular basis. Always include a call to action, preferably to sign up for something like a class or exam.

A great certification program can only thrive if people know about it. Here's how to market the pants off your program.Communications — If you decide on an e-mail campaign, first be sure you are complying with spam laws. After that, make sure that any links you include allow people to register and sign up for training courses, which is essentially where the revenue is with any program.

Promotions — Offer an exam discount for people who agree to answer a short survey. This works! You can get valuable data from a short 3-to5-question survey (data that can be shown to leadership), and you also get a bump in test taking. Don’t make the discount open-ended. “Limited time” are the magic words here.

Ad Hoc Projects — Is your certification program listed in Wikipedia somehow? Can you present your program at the new hire/onboarding training held by employers that use your products? Should you have awards? Constantly seek input for ideas.

Testimonials — Get these whenever you can, especially if someone inquires about a “freebie.” It is always worth the trade.

Registry: A registry of certified individuals is a great tool to use to promote the professionals already in your ecosystem. It can be set up for all people to see. You can encourage certified individuals featured in the registry to pass along links and spread the word. Partner programs might not like to see an open registry, as it could potentially lead to poaching of talent, but I’ve yet to see that fear come to fruition.

Test Preps: Offer them with a subscription, or as part of on-site training. Spending a half-day to full-day with a live instructor boosts the confidence of a test taker. Why let the test cheat sites take advantage of a hole in your program?

Badging: This is a very interesting topic these days. Sales professionals and other non-technical professionals could use a lower technical type of learning/testing vehicle. The great news is that it gains mind share: One does not sell what one does not know. Everyone in your company should know the value-add of its products. This is a low-pressure way to achieve that, and it’s something easy to track and report on.

Badges could also be earned as a specialization, built on top of core certification exams. In that way, it can keep your participant pool more actively engaged. It is also a great tool for recertification.

Exam Delivery: Remotely proctored online testing has been in place for a few years now, and it could very well be worth investigating. It gives test takers more convenience than having to drive into a physical test center. There are pros and cons to this approach (a topic for another day), so proceed with caution.

Performance-Based Exams: Very hard to scale, but this is a differentiator. The drawbacks are the labor and resources needed to put this in place. There is a higher confidence, however, in those earning the certification, and that itself could provide commensurate ROI.

A great certification program can only thrive if people know about it. Here's how to market the pants off your program.Understanding, Part II: Put yourself in the shoes of the decision makers in your company. Does your program break even? Does it have a great reputation, and therefore enhances the company brand? Is it used for partner programs? Is it used internally? Do you have a sales program besides the technical certification program? Are the exams relevant and up to date? Most importantly: Is it easy to understand?

Ready, set, dive in

You probably couldn’t bring all of these tools to bear on a single certification program all at once. Pick and choose what feels right for your situation, and start there. Your training and your exams may be top-notch, but until you capture the attentions of students, educators, and tech professionals, the battle is only half won.

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Peter Manijak

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Manijak is a training and certification consultant and also serves as Certification Chair for CEdMA (Computer Education Management Association). An innovator and pioneer of IT certification, Peter specializes in building and managing global, world-class certification programs and training organizations. Certification regimes he has led include those affiliated with EMC, Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), Hitachi Data Systems, Acquia, and Magento. Peter can be contacted at petermanijak@gmail.com.

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