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How to Use Badges in an Online Course (Updated Best Practices for 2024)

First, What the @#%^ are Badges?

In its most basic sense, a "badge" is simply a way to visually represent achievements, skills and milestones.

They may originate from the world of the military where everyone has a visual indication of their rank (along with any special medals they've earned during their service.)

You may also recognize them from the world of martial arts where belt colors are the obvious markers of how "dangerous" you might be. ๐Ÿ˜€

Badges, as used by the most serious people on the planet...
Badges, as used by some of the most serious people on the planet...

Whatever their origins, the most important thing to understand about why they work so well is that they bring the badge earner pride, "bragging rights" and they make others aspire to want digital credentials too.

They also create an exclusive "inner circle" that others want to be part of and represent progress, accomplishment, and exclusivity in a way that's motivating and inspiring.

With this in mind, it's obvious why video games instantly jumped onto the badge bandwagon: the more a player plays, the more badges they earn. And players with more badges and visual bling always inspire and motivate the "newbies" to work hard to up-level.

Here's a selection of concept badges designed by Dan Philipps for one of the most popular video games of all time โ€” Fortnite.

Rating ranks designed for by Dan Philipps

But Wait, My Course Isn't a Video Game!

I get it โ€” your course isn't a video game. (And it's not the army either.)

But here's the deal: badges aren't just for games, martial arts and the military services.

They can actually be a powerful addition to your online course, if used right, because they leverage 3 very specific psychological triggers that have a powerful effect on our brains and increase learner engagement.

And not unsurprisingly, they're normally not used right, and as a result, simply don't work!

Keep reading to discover the 3 specific psychological triggers to use to make digital badges work well inside any online course or digital training experience: Ownership, Social Influence & Social Proof, and Fear of Loss & Avoidance.

And we're going to take you through how to use each one, so you can:

  • create a fun and motivating experience for your "players" (whether they're your students, staff, clients or customers)
  • motivate students to take more & more action, become more accomplished, achieve their goals & dreams, and become part of the "inner circle"
  • plus we'll talk about how course badges can contribute to your business goals as well โ€” because while powerful, there also needs to be a bottom line benefit to you to make them worth doing

Psychological Trigger 1: "Ownership"

As we've mentioned in other articles, just like in a video game, you can (and should) allow learners to earn points from their very first moment of enrollment in your course.

This kickstarts a powerful desire to "collect them all" (just like in Pokemon), which naturally leads to feelings of "ownership" where the more points they earn, the more they value the work they've done, and the harder it is for them to quit.

So if you're already offering points in your course, the good news is that you're already way ahead of the game, and here's how to take your student's feelings of "ownership" to the next level

Just like military rank & insignia, you can award badges to students when they reach certain key points in your course, when they take certain actions, or achieve specific milestones.

Like points, badges stimulate an "ownership" mindset, motivating students (once again) to want to "collect them all".

Examples for the kinds of places (and ways) to give badges to do this:

  • "Epic" or "Legend" badges: award once some very high number of points is earned. (Don't let them know it's coming so it's a surprise!)
  • "Special Achievement" badges: award when students use their unique creativity, specific skill set, or tenacity to do something hard, or something that others can't or won't do. (They'll be proud of it, feel excited about it, and might even brag about it!)
  • "Hall of Fame" badges: award to a select few only!
  • "Completion" badges: award the successful completion of the entire course. This helps to inspire students to do all your courses to get all the badges

What Not to Do:

  • Don't attach badges to repetitive stuff โ€” don't make your player do the same thing a thousand times to earn their digital badge. Unless your achievement badge is "persistence", it doesn't really make much sense to do this, and won't be that inspiring to anybody
  • Don't attach badges to boring stuff, either. Badges must be worth the effort to earn them

The stronger the feeling of ownership you can build through your smart use of badges, the harder it will be for students to quit your course, and the more likely they'll want to take ALL of your courses and collect ALL the badges.

And when this happens? โ€” your business profitability will go through the roof.

But we're not done yet โ€” here's the next psychological trigger that badges tap into to help make students more committed and more successful, and your business more profitable.

Psychological Trigger 2: "Social Influence & Proof"

As mentioned in the previous section, badges are a great way to reward students who reach certain key points in your course and can build a feeling of "ownership" in students.

But there's another level to it. (Because of course there is...)

In most online environments, when earned, badges will attach to a student's name and get displayed whenever the student participates socially, building powerful "social proof" and influence for students.

It does that in three different ways...

Perceived Skill: When a student has a rare or hard-to-earn badge it creates a mystique around how they managed to earn it. (Do they have a special skill? Or are they more talented?)

"Perceived Skill" Badge
"Perceived Skill" Badge

"Inner Circle": Students with the most badges are often perceived as the most knowledgeable, most trusted, or most "inner circle" community members, which in turn creates a desire to see what's "behind the curtain" since, as humans, we always want what we can't have.

"Inner Circle" Badge
"Inner Circle" Badge

Seniority: More "senior" students have more badges and achievements next to their names. It's an inspiring sight, especially for the newbies, who want to rise in the ranks to join the more knowledgeable and privileged class of students. (Pro tip โ€” allow your students to bring any badges they've earned in their first course, across to the second course, the third, and so forth. In other words, make them "universe wide".)

"Seniority" Badges
"Seniority" Badges

Plus you can take it to an even higher level by moving badges into the real world.

Imagine hosting students at a seminar or conference and giving them custom-made ribbons on their name tag which correspond to the digital badges they've earned in your virtual online learning environment.

Here's one of our students who's now been through every single course we have. He's now on staff with us, speaks at our events, and has become a coach to our students as well.

This really does show the positive financial impact to your business of using the "Social Influence & Proof" aspect of badges!

Matthew, beloved student turned coach!
Matthew, beloved student, turned coach!

And finally we come to our 3rd trigger...

Psychological Trigger 3: "Fear of Loss & Avoidance"

The Ownership psychological trigger mentioned at the start has a flipside that says the more "ownership" a student feels over what they've earned, the more they'll do to avoid losing it.

Think about how much less likely you are to walk away from any kind of community (continuing education, gaming, app, etc.) where you've put in a significant amount of work to build/customize your profile, skill up, and generate social status and influence?

As gamification pioneer (and Xperiencify advisor) Yu-kai Chou says:

"Nobody likes to walk away from things theyโ€™ve earned or accumulated through hard work."

He coined the term "black hat" to describe this trigger because you're relying on an external psychological driver to keep your students going, so it's important to balance it with the more "white hat" trigger of Ownership, where students are driven by intrinsic motivation โ€” they like and feel proud of what they've built.

He explains that too much "black hat", and they'll feel bad over time and eventually leave. But too much "white hat" won't give them enough motivation to stay.

Some Badge Ideas to Inspire You!

Progress and status badges:

  • I'm New! ๐Ÿ‘‹
  • Founder ๐Ÿ˜Ž
  • Valued Contributor ๐Ÿ’ช
  • Rising Star โญ
  • Convo Starter ๐Ÿ’ฌ
  • Expert
  • Guru ๐ŸŽ
  • MVP
  • Most Helpful โค๏ธ
  • Inner Circle
  • Bronze ๐ŸŒŸ
  • Silver ๐ŸŒŸ
  • Gold ๐ŸŒŸ

Just plain fun

  • Good-Looking
  • Jedi
  • Rockstar ๐ŸŽธ
  • Hero ๐Ÿฆธ
  • Alien ๐Ÿ‘ฝ
  • Troublemaker
  • King of {insert subject or topic} ๐Ÿ‘‘
  • Queen of {insert subject or topic} ๐Ÿ‘‘
  • {insert subject or topic} Ninja ๐Ÿฅท๐Ÿฝ
  • Genius
  • Hall of Fame

How Xperiencify Makes it Easy to Badge Up Your Course

Here at Xperiencify we make it super easy to work with online badges and even automate when, where and how your student receives them.

Here are some great examples for how to use the Experience Engine to automate awarding badges to your students.

As soon as a student enrolls to your course

The moment a new student joins your course is the perfect time to give them their first badge!

Inside this "Course Welcome" automation, we already have their welcome email, so all we need to do is add an "Add Badge" action and select the badge we want to add. In this case, we created a badge called "Challenger" because that's how we refer to all students inside our 10-day Challenge!

When a student earns X points

When a student earns a specific amount of points, you may want to give them a badge. In this example, once our student earns specifically 24 points, we use our automation to automatically give them a "Rising Star" badge.


Other fully automatic ways we offer to award badges to students include:

  • On initial course enrollment
  • When any specific training (or module) is released
  • When any specific training (or module) is completed
  • When any specific action is taken in the course
  • When any specific task is completed in the course
  • When they earn a specific amount of points (eg: perhaps award a "Hall of Fame" badge after 1,000 points)
  • When a tag is applied
  • When a specific amount of comment posts are created. Eg: after their 1st, you could award a "I'm New Here!" badge. And after their 100th, you could award a "Valued Contributor" badge.)
  • When a specific amount of comment responses are made, or after they've had a specific amount of likes on their comments or responses (eg: Award a "Community MVP" badge)
  • When a course countdown reaches a specific amount of time left (eg: when there's a week left in your course, award a "Last Week!" badge)
  • When they complete your course (eg: give then an alumni badge showing course completion)
  • When they log back in after an extended absence from your course
  • Plus, you can obviously add badges manually if you wish.

Finally, Here are 4 Badge "Best Practices" to Keep in Mind

First, don't make an achievement more special than it is supposed to be. In other words, don't give too many badges, or you'll risk devaluating everything you're doing.

Second, don't incentivize boring or repetitive activities โ€” they're not inspiring in real life, and they're even less motivating online, especially when folks have so many more exciting activities available to them at the touch of a button.

Third, take great care to make the badges you give meaningful. If you give it to someone, how likely are they to share it and brag about it to other people?

Last, don't forget to attach your badges to your business goals. In other words, you want to think about how to motivate the action that will grow your bottom line as well as your students' own feeling of achievement and happiness.

Now, what's your plan for putting badges to work in your course to help motivate your students, customers or clients?

Murray loves building software platforms that make life easier for marketers and entrepreneurs. It's all he does. He's built many tools over the years and helped thousands of people start and grow their business, which is his driving motivation.

His latest project is Xperiencify -- a new LMS / online course platform that fixes the "dirty secret" of the online course industry (which is that 3% of people get results from the course they buy.) They do it with a powerful combination of psychology ๐Ÿง , gamification ๐Ÿ•น๏ธ and Silicon Valley "black magic". ๐Ÿฅท