How to Write Online Community Guidelines

Mar 23, 2015

Once you have sorted out the legalese (Terms and Conditions), it’s time to publish your Online Community Guidelines. As discussed in our last post, Community Guidelines and Who Needs Them, guidelines are policies or best practices for your community. Community guidelines not only encompass your vision for the quality of interaction and culture to be encouraged, they can set the tone for a new community or even revitalize a community that has developed some bad habits.

Start by considering your own industry’s best practices. Next, look over the list of topics below, choose what’s relevant to your membership and then add or invent anything important not covered here. You will soon be on your way to publishing your first draft. Don’t forget to allow a comment period in which members can sound off. Allowing the membership to participate in drafting its own rules can strengthen the community and ensure greater compliance.

It’s your community and this is the place where you and your members get to tell people how they are expected to treat one another. While there is no right or wrong way to structure your community policies, below I have collected some guidelines for the guidelines!

Rules for engagement Because online communication excludes the physical and facial cues of in-person conversation, it’s important to state expectations right up front. I have seen community managers publish rules about what not to do – swear, gossip, speak negatively about others, play psychologist – and also use the guidelines to extoll the virtues they would like to see in the community, such as kindness and generosity.

Ethics and legal issues

This is a big topic and important enough for some communities to engage their legal departments to develop separate Terms and Conditions. The scope of your ethical/legal section will depend on whether your group publishes articles, shares and discusses art or music, or works with sensitive documents, for example. For many groups, it is enough to remind members not to plagiarize, to give credit where it’s due, and to honor copyright and trademark law.

Rules for safety and privacy

By definition, online communities have the same vulnerabilities of any web-based activity. Depending on your industry, topic, or membership, be sure to spell out the rules that will keep confidential information confidential and implement policies to maintain the privacy and anonymity of community members if necessary.

Policies on spam, selling and advertising

Before you start, decide what is acceptable in your online forum. Do you allow members to offer their products and services on the community’s forums? Do you expressly forbid such activity? Or do you have a thread specifically devoted to a community marketplace? Either way, clearly spell out when and where it is acceptable for members to tout their services.

Describe types of posts and threads

For online forums with multiple channels, it is crucial that members and guests know where to post what. For example, if you maintain a thread devoted to tech support or questions about a particular product, it is helpful to state that in your guidelines. The more information your membership has about the different forums in your community, the less energy you will have to exert to keep traffic flowing.  

Questions or suggestions

In every online community, questions are bound to arise. A good set of guidelines will clearly spell out a procedure for posting inquiries about the way the community is organized and run, as well as for making suggestions to the community manager about the day-to-day stuff.

Violations, notification and grievances

No matter how airtight your guidelines, there will eventually be violations. Whether willful or accidental, you will want to have a plan in place to deal with transgressions and grievances swiftly and fairly. One of the most important sections of a community’s guidelines, this area tells your membership what to expect if they transgress, and how to address grievances they may have with the community manager or other members. You should be specific about numbers of violations allowed, whether posts will be deleted, and when and under what circumstances members will be removed from the community.

What unusual or unique guidelines have you included in your community? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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