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Community Guidelines: How to Write and Enforce Them

Alex Angel and Alexandra Bowen share handy tips on how to write community guidelines your members will want to follow.

By Alex Angel, Alexandra Bowen, and Pam Magwaza

Community guidelines, rules, and regulations, community code of conduct… whatever you call them, being explicit about what kind of behavior is acceptable in your community — and what isn’t — is critical for the health and safety of your members.

That said, drafting a code of conduct is more of an art than a science, and it’s a tricky thing to get right the first go-round. Here are some tips and tricks for writing and enforcing online community guidelines your community will actually want to follow.

What are community guidelines?

Community guidelines are the road map for your member behavior. They reflect your community or organization's values to the members, guide how they engage with others, and offer a window into the culture you have built.

However, it is important to remember that guidelines themselves are passive — simply having them isn’t enough. If you don’t communicate and enforce them, you might have more violations on your hands than you can manage.

Why do you need community guidelines?

A well-written and well-enforced set of community guidelines is one of the best ways to make sure your community is a safe place where members actually want to gather and connect.

Plus, being clear about what kind of behavior is expected of your members — and what consequences rule breakers can expect — creates a culture of transparency and fairness that members will value.

How to write community guidelines

1. Start with the end in mind

When it comes to brainstorming community guidelines, your idea of your community utopia is a great place to gain inspiration for your ideal member behavior. Think of the culture you had in mind when you conceptualized your community space, and use that to write out behaviors you’d like to see your members model, and go from there.

2. Figure out your goals

You'll see a common theme in much community-building content: to do these things well, you must understand your goals.

All communities, whether they're built around a business, product, or interest, should have goals. They can be simple or lofty, but if you don't understand why you're creating this community, you're probably going to have a bad time. This is especially true when writing your guidelines.

3. Write with your members in mind

This one probably goes without saying, but guidelines should be crafted with members in mind — not just the ones whose behavior you’d like to change, either.

Yes, having an idea about the kind of behavior you want to prevent is a great jumping-off point for crafting guidelines. But it can be helpful to consider your best community members during this process, not just the worst ones.

For example, if you want your best community members to share their blog posts and content they're writing while also participating in conversation organically, you could create the rule “Light self-promotion is permitted”. Short, sweet, to the point.

👉 Actionable tip

You may even want to get super users involved in creating or reworking your guidelines. Allowing your community to contribute to, help expand on, and shape your policies is a good way to engage them. Result? Your guidelines will be more likely to succeed because your members are following their own rules, versus a top-down mandate.

4. Be clear and direct

Try not to use jargon and unnecessarily long and complicated words. The language you use should be easy to understand and accessible.

Using directive language can be helpful, too. Using language that creates requirements and can garner a response or action (like: must, and will) versus non-commitment suggestions such as “wriggle words” (like: should, might, and can).

👉 Actionable tip

Add examples to support the intent of these rules. For example with the rule "Light self-promotion is permitted”, you may find certain kinds of self-promotion to be acceptable, but most unacceptable. Define what is permissible and what is not with examples you can point to.

For example:

  • Things you can do: Post links to your own website once per week.
  • Things you can't do: Only post self-promotional posts/comments; send unsolicited private messages to members about your self-promotional content; use redirects to obfuscate your self-promotional content; etc.

5. Include rules against hate speech and discrimination

Making your community a safe space for all members means being explicit about protecting any minority groups you may have there.

Contributor Covenant and the Code of Conduct from Write/Speak/Code, which have been adapted by many communities, are great resources in this regard.

6. Don't go overboard

Less is more. Don’t overload your community members with guidelines that span several pages.

If you have a lot to say, use a layered approach that’s easy to navigate, with a top-level summary, expandable links, and sub-sections. If you have the tools, you could also use icons or symbols that folks can hover over or click on for more detail, context, or definitions of your guidelines.

7. Get the necessary approvals

Get approval from decision-makers and stakeholders, before it comes to enforcing any rules. A RACI matrix is a useful tool in your guideline planning:

R:  Who is responsible?

Community Managers or Moderators

Community (can be responsible or consulted)

A:  Who is accountable?

Community Managers or Moderators

C: Who needs to be consulted?

Company or organization leaders

Community (can be responsible or consulted)

I: Who needs to be informed?

Community members, sponsors, and supporters (business or company, leadership), other stakeholders

👉 Actionable tip

Keep your receipts! It’s a great idea to hold on to a record of discussions as a tool for communication and to ensure you can refer back to what was decided.

How to enforce community guidelines

Now comes the hard part — consistently enforcing the rules you’ve created. If you don't have a way to deal with the bad actors in your community, what was the point of spending all of that time creating rules?

1. Make your guidelines easy to find and hard to ignore

It's important for you to get these rules in front of your members as soon as they've joined your community.

If you can include them as part of their initial onboarding, that's ideal. Make sure that whenever it happens, it's before they have their first opportunity to engage with the other members of your community.

Another great way to drive these rules home is to lead by example. If you show people how they should be acting, they'll internalize that acceptable faster and better than they would by just reading a page on your site.

You need to live by your rules, too so using our if you have the rule "Light self-promotion is permitted" you need to stick to that — which can sometimes be difficult as a Community Manager when you need to promote various initiatives that you and your company are leading.

👉 Actionable tip

If your platform allows, a ‘just-in-time notice’ — a notification that appears with a link to the policy when a member is about to post using a banned word or similar — can be a powerful tool.

2. Be clear and transparent about consequences

In your community guidelines, clearly state what actions warrant warnings, strikes, and banning. For example, spamming other members may constitute a warning while posting content of a graphic nature may warrant a ban.

Make sure your education around any enforcement is transparent and always be open about why you took certain moderation actions.

3. Create an escalation and enforcement plan ahead of time

Having a public enforcement plan so people know what to expect when they break the rules might not work for every community. However, having an escalation plan in plain sight helps your community to be fair as the offender cannot claim ignorance of the consequences of violations.

Rule-breakers are going to ‘rule-lawyer’ you no matter what you do. No matter how clear your rule is, no matter how many examples of good and bad behavior you provide upfront, some folks will always try and argue that they didn't break the rules.

Have the rules and enforcement plan ready to go so you don't find yourself fumbling for a justification in the face of a very grumpy individual.

👉 Actionable tip

Automatic banning (or similar) is a bad idea! It will require you to ban a member you may not want to, it's an unnecessary escalation. People make mistakes and should be given the opportunity to improve.

4. Make sure the rules should apply to everyone

Some day, one of your most beloved community members is going to slip up and break a rule. If you don't enforce the rule for their behavior, people will remember that and use it as a way to get out of any rule-breaking behavior of their own. It will be painful, but it has to be done.

Don’t make exceptions for rule-breakers. You must stand by your guidelines and be fair. Hopefully, you'll be able to quickly resolve the issue and reconcile, and turn it into a positive experience for everyone!

5. Review and refresh your guidelines

Be open to updating your rules and consequences for them. You'll never catch everything in your first round of rules (or your second… or third…), and as your community evolves it will make sense to keep things up to date. This is not a failing or weakness, simply part of the process.

👉 Actionable tip

You should review your guidelines at least annually, but it’s also a good idea to relook at them:

  • After a community incident
  • After a major cultural event
  • When business circumstances change

Community guidelines template

Every community is as unique as its members, so it’s never a great idea to copy-paste another community’s rules and use them as your own. However, there are some basic considerations to include in a good set of community guidelines. Scroll up to download our free community guidelines template.

Learn more
Mar 31, 2022

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