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June 27, 2024

Micro-credentials, Certificates, and Certification

Addressing Missed Opportunities in Association Credentialing Programs

On a recent episode of The Member Engagement Show, Heather McNair, CEO of Cloud Generation shared topical tips for creating, managing, and optimizing credentialing programs. She also discusses some of the powerful impacts of our newest offering, Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing (for example, one association their one-year anniversary of using credentialing software and has more than doubled the number of new certificates in that year while also reducing demands on staff).

How Do Credential Programs Benefit Members and Associations?

Credentialing programs – including certification, certificates, and micro-credentials – provide significant value to members by enhancing their professional credibility, career opportunities, and ongoing development. They simultaneously benefit associations through increased membership, revenue, and industry influence.

  • Enhancing Professional Credibility and Recognition: Credentialing programs validate the knowledge required to do certain jobs and certify that members possess specific skills, enhancing their professional credibility. Certified members are often more respected in their field, as credentials signify a commitment to maintaining high standards and ongoing professional development.
  • Career Advancement and Job Security: Credentials can give members a competitive edge in the job market, making them more attractive to employers. They can also outline clear career pathways, helping members to plan and achieve their professional goals. Additionally, having a credential can enhance job security by demonstrating a commitment to professional excellence and ongoing development.
  • Networking and Community Building: Credentialed members often become part of a specialized community within the association, fostering networking and peer support. Within some associations, credentialed professionals may have access to exclusive events, workshops, and conferences, enhancing their professional network.
  • Ongoing Education and Professional Development: Many credentialing programs require ongoing education to maintain certification, encouraging members to stay current with industry trends and advancements. Associations then often have the opportunity to provide the education their credentialed members need.
  • Revenue Generation for Associations: Though it’s not the primary goal for most associations, offering a credential program can also create new revenue opportunities and awareness of your association. Credentialing programs can attract new members and retain existing ones, boosting membership numbers and revenue. Associations can generate income through certification fees, exam fees, and renewal fees.
  • Standardization and Quality Assurance in Your Industry: Credentialing programs help standardize the knowledge and skills required in a profession, promoting quality and consistency within the industry. Associations can ensure that their members adhere to high professional standards, enhancing the overall reputation of the association and their industry.
  • Member Loyalty: Offering credentialing programs can increase member loyalty, as members perceive added value and benefit from their association membership. Associations with respected credentialing programs enhance their prestige and credibility in the industry, attracting more members and partners. 

Understanding the Credentialing Landscape

In today’s rapidly evolving job market, and with technology creating new opportunities and formats for online learning and professional development, there are several different types of credentialing programs that resonate with professionals at different stages of their careers and to meet different goals.

Any or all of these can benefit associations looking to support their members:


association member studying for certification


Certification is typically a more formal credential, recognized as a mark of competency and expertise in a specific field. They’re based on an established “body of knowledge” and verify that an individual has met predetermined standards in a profession or occupation. This often involves passing an exam and meeting specific education or experience requirements. Maintaining a certification often requires ongoing education and periodic re-certification. Some certifications have a Board or Committee overseeing the program, and some leverage testing experts to ensure exam questions are fair and free of bias.

  • Examples: Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).
  • Scope, Depth, and Commitment Level: Broad and deep, covering extensive knowledge and skills in a profession. Long-term commitment, often requiring significant study, experience, and ongoing maintenance.
  • Purpose: To validate professional competency and adherence to industry standards.




Certificates are educational credentials issued upon completion of a course or series of courses. They indicate that the recipient has acquired specific knowledge or skills. They usually involve completing a set curriculum or training program, and may or may not require an exam or quiz.

  • Examples: Certificate in Data Science, Certificate in Graphic Design, Certificate in Human Resource Management.
  • Scope, Depth, and Commitment Level: Variable in scope; can be broad or focused. Moderate to long-term commitment, involving coursework that can range from a few months to a year or more.
  • Purpose: To demonstrate completion of a set series of educational content.
association member taking a certificate course
association member completing a micro-credential


Micro-credentials (a newer format gaining popularity in recent years) are short, focused qualifications that verify an individual’s competency in a specific skill or area of knowledge. They are often awarded digitally and are designed to be easily shared and displayed. They usually involve completing a short course, project, or assessment and are often digital. They’re typically accompanied by badges that can be displayed on social media or professional profiles.

  • Examples: Digital Marketing Badge, Coding Bootcamp Completion Badge, Leadership Micro-credential.
  • Scope, Depth, and Commitment Level: Narrow and specific, focusing on specific skills or competencies rather than broad knowledge areas. Short-term commitment, often achievable in a few weeks (though some are even done in just a day).
  • Purpose: To showcase specific skills and knowledge in a flexible, often digital format.

Certifications are usually highly recognized and valued in professional fields and even required for certain jobs, while certificates can be recognized and valued as proof of education and training. Micro-credentials are increasingly being recognized, particularly in industries where best practices change frequently or where specific skills and continuous learning are highly valued – and they’re very popular with users because they’re a smaller time commitment while still offering proof of learning.

Sometimes you’ll also see “stacked credentialing,” where a series of different credentials are tied together in a specific path. Microsoft, for example, uses a lot of micro-credentialing or stacked credentialing. The idea here is rather than having one big heavy certification program based on a huge body of knowledge (which many people may not have time for), courses and exams can be broken down into individual subsets of knowledge.

From a member’s perspective, it’s beneficial when an association offers a variety of options when it comes to credentials. Your members can then choose what they have time for, what they feel prepared for, and what they need at that point in their careers.

Optimize and automate your complete certification program - from applications to recertification - with Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing, powered by Cloud Generation.

What Makes Credentialing Programs Challenging to Manage?

Even though all these types of credentialing programs can create member value, they can be challenging for associations to manage. During the episode, Heather shared how the founders of Cloud Generation discovered a large gap when it came to credential management solutions. Most of the ones they saw weren’t easy to use, were hard to implement, and/or cost a fortune because they’re highly customized. Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing – powered by Cloud Generation – is built to fill that gap.

A primary challenge for associations running credentialing programs is the amount of tracking involved. Consider an association that offers multiple certifications (each with its own exam qualifications and administration), or maybe an association offering all three types of credentialing programs we talked about above (certification, certificates, and micro-credentials). Even though that variety is awesome for members, it’s a lot of moving parts for the association to track.

Many associations still use a series of spreadsheets to manage their credentialing programs, which presents both an administrative nightmare and an open threat to accurate documentation. Having a credentialing platform not only cleans up that process, making managing credentials easier, but it also addresses missed opportunities for member engagement.

Missed Opportunities in Credentialing Programs

Nurturing Members Who Aren’t Yet Qualified

For some certifications, people must have a certain number of years of career experience, maybe even a certain number of continuing education credits before they can even apply to be part of a certification program. However, associations should still facilitate a path for newcomers in the credentialing program.

If the newcomers can get access to tools, practice courses, checklists, etc. they can be put on an aspirational track to certification and watch their progress. It’s helpful when you can track members’ interest and readiness for your credentialing program(s), and then support them in working toward qualifying to take the exam.

Meanwhile, Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing improves things on the logistical side by simplifying applications with customizable forms and automated, criteria-based approval processes.


Associations shouldn’t assume members who have earned a certification know what they need to do and when to keep their credentials up to date. Members – like all of us – are busy and sometimes forgetful. Reminding them to recertify falls to the association.

It’s a steep data management task if you have to manually keep track of everyone’s renewal dates and create and deploy messaging reminding them in a timely manner what they need to do to renew. But here, again, Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing can help: Increase program completion and compliance with automated reminders and notifications via email, the certification portal and the Community, reaching members wherever they are. The platform also empowers learners with tools to track their progress and report CEU credits and centralizes all your credential materials in one place so they’re easy to find.

Helping Members Who Fail

Sometimes when people don’t pass an exam, they fall off a cliff, assuming they only had one shot at it, and they failed. Part of a mature association nurturing process is to talk to people AFTER they fail.

Tell them what they need to do next. Give them more resources. Give them more encouragement and support. Let them know why it’s worth not giving up (because industries understand the value of certification and understand what was required to earn it).

Combining the power of Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing with your community and marketing, you could launch a targeted nurturing campaign just for those members who didn’t pass so you don’t lose them.

Making Certification Visible with Badges

If you haven’t created a badge to call out members who have been credentialed, that’s a big miss. Members who pass a certification exam or complete a certificate or micro-credential worked hard to earn that credential and they’re likely to want to show it off. And members sharing their credential from YOUR association raises awareness – so it’s a win-win.

It should be effortless for members to display their credentials (whether in your online community or social media). But for many association professionals, creating some form of digital badge is just one more task on a huge to-do list.

Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing covers this too! Recognize your members’ accomplishments with unlimited digital, auto-issued, and verifiable badges and certificates. You can also showcase your learners in a branded, easy-to-search directory with built-in credential and licensure attestation. This frees up valuable staff time by providing employers and recruiters with 24/7 self-service verification.

From Spreadsheet Chaos to Accurate Automation

Credentials are a huge value-add for members, and having a credential management system like Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing makes it easier to run these programs and make the member experience really comfortable and seamless. Plus, when you free up staff time with technology designed specifically to help, your staff have more time to be strategic and think of ways to grow your credentialing programs.

One of Heather’s clients just passed their one-year anniversary of using credentialing software and has more than doubled the number of new certificates in that year while also reducing demands on staff. Let software lighten the load by automating what it can do well, and you free up people to focus on what only people can do!

Ready to see how Higher Logic Thrive Credentialing can help your association manage certification, certificates, micro-credentials, and more? Let's chat!

Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan is the Content Marketing Manager for Higher Logic. In this role, she develops content to support association professionals and advise them on member engagement and communication strategy. She also hosts Higher Logic’s podcast, The Member Engagement Show. She has ~10 years of experience working in marketing for associations and nonprofits.