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How To Write Guidelines for Your Online Community Forum

She told me about when her community, 50,000 members strong at the time, had no community guidelines and all moderation was done reactively.

She told me about when her community, 50,000 members strong at the time, had no community guidelines and all moderation was done reactively. She managed a team of five moderators, and they convened every single time a post in the community seemed “off”. It was time-consuming and inconsistent, and she almost had a breakdown trying to keep the community safe. There was a daily onslaught of posts that she didn’t know how to moderate, but no guidelines to speak of. At the time, she didn’t even know what community guidelines were.

Knowing that there had to be something out there to help with this mess, she began to look at communities she admired. Quickly, she realized that community guidelines, the guiding principles that ground almost any online community, were the key thing missing from her own community.

So she took matters into her own hands, wrote guidelines, and rolled them out to her team. Immediately, her job became easier and more fun again. Yes, people still broke the rules and created debatable posts. However, once in place, guidelines helped her make decisions faster (along with a consistent set of rules), made it easier to get new moderators up to speed, and made enforcement consistent between moderators.

This community builder learned the hard way how important community guidelines are. Hopefully, you won’t have to.

But if you’ve never written them before, where do you begin? Writing community guidelines from scratch can be a difficult task. Instead of staring at a blinking cursor, here’s a template and guide to get you on the right track.

Start with Mission

First, go back to your community mission and guiding principles. Don’t have those yet? Try this guide. Your guidelines should remind your members of why they would care about rules and regulations in the first place — they keep the community safe and its purpose clear.

Include one paragraph about the mission of the space and the values of your community. You could drop your own mission into a template, something like the below:

Welcome to [COMMUNITY NAME]! We are thrilled to give you a warm welcome to this space. 

Our mission is to [STATEMENT OF MISSION]. To that end, we will be working hard to ensure that we align our actions with that purpose. These Community Guidelines should not only help you understand how to act within the community but also help you understand what to expect from others in this space.  

Include the Essentials 

There are two ways to write guidelines: rule-based or values-based.

Rules-based guidelines are typically a list of rules that users must follow. While they are faster to write and often easier to start with, users often skim over these and perceive them as heavy-handed. For that reason, values-based guidelines are usually a better choice.

Values-based guidelines are guidelines that begin with the values (e.g. we value critical dialogue) and then create guidelines that help members understand how to reinforce that value (e.g. disagree, but do so with credible references to sources that back up your argument). These guidelines are often written in the affirmative rather than the negative. Airbnb provides one example of values-based guidelines for their entire platform: Airbnb Community Guidelines, Retrieved November 2018. 

Airbnb Community Guidelines, Retrieved November 2018. 

Values-based guidelines are ideal but if your community does have rules-based guidelines today don’t worry, you can switch to values-based over time. Many community guidelines actually include some combination of both of these styles, such as Amazon’s Community Guidelines below:

Amazon Community Guidelines, Retrieved November 2018. 

Amazon Community Guidelines, Retrieved November 2018. 

Almost all community guidelines should include rules around:

  • Copyright or intellectual property violations (most common of all)
  • Illegal activity
  • Any harassment or hateful conduct, including discrimination, hate speech, bullying, or targeted attacks
  • Impersonating other users (less of an overt problem on pseudonymous platforms)
  • Spam and scams
  • Sexual content or nudity
  • Any violent conduct: extreme violence, graphic violence, threats, gore, obscenities
  • Harming others or acting maliciously
  • Sharing of private information (a.k.a doxing)
  • Linking policies: the ability (or lack thereof) of promoting products/services without disclosing the relationship with the brand

There is no one size fits all community guidelines. Your community will have its own specific needs and challenges so don’t just copy this list and call it a day. Figure out what rules are most important for your specific mission and culture.

Just start somewhere. 

While writing your first community guidelines might feel daunting, it’s important to start somewhere and refine as you go. You will need to revisit and rewrite your guidelines as your community changes. How do you know when to revisit? You may seem an uptick in members’ reporting other member posts, a higher volume than normal of new violations, membership changes significantly, or if you bring on a group of new moderations.

The good news is that many experienced people work on guidelines every day. You can find guidelines of brands you admire and use them to inform what’s appropriate for you.

Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.