ActiveCampaign Expert

How to Keep Your Audience on Track Using Ground Rules


Last year, my friend was launching her first online course. Being that this is in my realm of expertise, I was super excited for her… and nervous at the same time.

Launching a course is a big commitment! There are so many things that can happen once you press go. How do you manage it?

In this blog, I’m going help you with setting up your audience’s expectations for success, so that you feel calm and an in control, when you press the go button.

Pressing GO!

My friend launched her course and participants were ramping up and getting involved. It seemed like a good thing!

However, slowly as the course progressed, things started to slowly spin out of control.

First, the participants started sending her constant emails with questions and needing help. They ignored the online forum and went straight to the source for her expertise. (This would have been ok, except it was supposed to be a group program, not 1-1 coaching).

Next, she had some participants that started promoting their own services and skills to the group. It became more of a source for networking rather than a place for learning. Other participants became annoyed with the off-topic content and lost trust in the community that was being built. They thought it was a scam and engagement dropped.

Lastly, the feedback that was being provided in a discussion was not positive. Participants were negative and downright nasty to each other rather than supportive and uplifting.  With all of this going on, people started to check out.

It was a disaster!

All my friend was trying to do was help other people and spread her message. And instead, people were angry, upset and not happy.

My friend felt like a failure. Here, she had created an amazing course, with awesome content, but the actual implementation of the course was failing miserably.

She was overwhelmed. Frustrated… and second, guessing what she even created in the first place.

How had something that she was so passionate about… end up being a huge pain and make her question her entire purpose?

Help Set the Stage

My friend came to me for help. As a learning consultant for the past 12 years, she knew that I would have some ideas.

And what did I realized? Even though her course was amazing, she was missing a very important piece of the product launch strategy: setting ground rules for the participants.

Ground rules… or house rules are the rules of the program. They help set the stage for participants on what will be and will not be allowed. 

Ground rules… or house rules are the rules of the program. They help set the stage for participants on what will be and will not be allowed. 

You have seen these before; in school your classroom had rules. Don’t hit, raise your hand, help others.

Well, it’s the same thing for your program. And in fact, with a digital program where people are online and not face-to-face, communications can get very misconstrued so setting the ground rules, is more important than ever!

According to Colorado State, unregulated, an online discussion can quickly disintegrate into a tangled web of extraneous verbiage, rude language, and inconsiderate behavior guaranteed to derail the conversation.

Without some basic rules for your program, participants may end up in a free for all… and slowly break through your original construct of the program. Taking liberty in their communications and completely change the direction of where you were taking them.

So how do you do it? How can you set up ground rules that create structure, focus, and productivity in your program, but also allow for some open conversations, freedom, and fun?

Keep Learners On Track

We know that in a classroom, ground rules are exceptionally important.

Setting classroom expectations and developing learning goals collaboratively puts students at the center of the learning process. When teachers make classroom expectations clear, it allows students to take personal responsibility for their learning and behavior and adjust their progress toward classroom goals throughout the year. (Edudemic).

Why would we think it’s any different in an online learning program such as a course or group coaching? Maybe it’s not the same as a traditional classroom, but it is an environment for learning.

Here are some ways that you can help keep your learns on track!

Provide participation prompts, but also casual conversation.

The way you communicate as a leader will be the model for participants. If you want to have a ground rule requiring that group conversation, stick to the topic that’s great! But help your audience stick to the topic and not go too far off-base by:

  • Offering daily discussion prompts based on the current work in the program.
  • Occasionally, start threads for casual conversation, such as weekend plans or what’s for dinner.

eLearning Industry has a great resource for how to communicate clearly in online discussions. (Hint: you may want to share this with your participants!)

Make support opportunities clear and available.

If participants need help, and they don’t know where to go, they will contact you. If you want to have a ground rule that does not allow for 1-1 support (especially if this is one of your boundaries), then you have to provide other options such as:

  • A support thread in your online forum.
  • A help page, with common questions and answers.
  • A buddy system, someone to reach out to when they need more than the group or want a person to directly talk to.

Provide leadership to help grow and develop a tribe that supports each other.

One of the benefits of creating and delivering an online program is the community that you can cultivate, as a result of it. While self-promotion can be annoying in a group, you can still help your audience support each other. You can still keep the community-focused; there are no reasons why you can’t help them support each other by:

  • Allowing others to post their content for review and feedback.
  • Creating a directory of participants and their information, for networking and business opportunities.

Tolerate respect and respect only.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon in a world where people are protected by screens to type out comments they wouldn’t normally say to someone’s face… there is less inhibition. However, it’s just as easy for someone to read something and hear the message the wrong way. Emphasize respect and kindness for all… and maybe even reading your own responses twice before pressing send.

What happens when the rules aren’t followed?

Just like in school this can lead to expulsion from your program (and no returns or refunds along with it).

Looking for more ideas on creating your own ground rules? Check out this article on ValuED.

Offer Real Value

If you are looking to create a course or an online program that offers real value and creates inspired action from your audience well beyond the end of the course; ground rules are a great starting point to get you there.

Keep your course focused and on track; rather than off in the weeds will enable learners to embrace and embody what you are teaching them.

There won’t be any distractions or messy communications.

In fact, your audience is more likely to engage and support each other! Therefore, raising the standards of the group as a whole.

And when this happens, everyone has much more FUN!

What other ideas do you have to make your online course or program more successful? Share in the comments below!

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