Writing Community Guidelines You Can Stick To

Carlos Figueiredo
October 9, 2018
May 3, 2024

Strong community guidelines reflect the very purpose of your platform and community. Critically, they are the articulation of what your online space stands for. But finding the right balance between being thorough and being exhaustive in your guidelines can be a challenge. You don’t want to omit anything crucial, but neither do you want to overwhelm users with a long, overly complicated list of rules.

This article will guide you through key fundamental steps to crafting solid community guidelines as well as examine some often-overlooked factors that will take your guidelines to a whole new level.

Clearly articulate your community’s tone

As a community manager, you know very well what your community stands for, its purpose and main goals. But are you 100% sure you know what kinds of behavior will disrupt that vision?

It’s wise to understand what “good” behavior looks like and focus on the exemplary behavior of your community members. But it’s also important to know what bad behavior looks like, so you can clearly communicate it to the community, identify it when it happens, and take action as needed.

All it takes to write some stellar community guidelines is a bit of careful thought and intentional goal setting.

I hosted a webinar recently with the incredibly experienced community team from the social app PopJam, including Rebecca Newton, an industry veteran who got her start in AOL chat rooms, the original online communities. The PopJam team knows exactly what they want the PopJam community to look like, and they’re great at articulating their guidelines:

“Our community guidelines leave room for creativity, communication, roleplay, artistic endeavors, silliness and fun but also include zero tolerance for players who are solely on PopJam to continually disrupt, bully, create unusually negative content or otherwise cause unhappiness for themselves and others.”

Can you sum up your guidelines as succinctly as this?

Collaborate with community members and industry friends

To craft solid community guidelines, it’s helpful to hear from the people who live and breathe your community values. If you already have an open communication channel with your users, it is a good idea to select a group that can give you some feedback regarding your guidelines. Beware of bias as you select this group. Instead of choosing highly engaged users, select users from a wide spectrum that encompasses a diversity of genders, social classes, and cultures. A well-crafted survey or an actual live chat session can go a long way. Just don’t forget to offer them a tangible incentive for providing feedback, like an exclusive feature/reward or a mention in your next blog post.

Cross-company industry collaboration is another valuable tool in your arsenal. I recently worked with several industry friends to revamp the After School App guidelines. This exercise taught me that industry cooperation is key to writing robust, well-rounded guidelines and fostering a healthy community. You can read the updated guidelines here.

As a community manager, you have the power to make the right decision about what platform is best for your community.

There are also industry groups that are dedicated to having these open conversations. I’m a co-founder of the Fair Play Alliance, a coalition of gaming professionals and companies committed to developing quality games. We provide an open forum for the games industry to collaborate on research and best practices that encourage fair play and healthy communities in online gaming.

Display guidelines where users can see them

Community guidelines that are hidden or in fine print send a message that they’re not important. If guidelines are meaningful to the community, shouldn’t they be displayed where all members can read and review them?

Give guidelines prominence, and tie them to the user experience and product flow. For example, Twitch conducted an A/B test in which group A had to review and agree to community guidelines prior to joining and taking part in a channel, while group B weren’t shown the guidelines. The results were telling — group A saw a significant reduction in moderation actions (bans and time outs). This confirmed Twitch’s thesis that a lot of the need for those actions was born of a simple misunderstanding of the chat rules.

Check out their talk at Game UX Summit last year to learn more.

Use tools to reinforce guidelines

Using smart filtering and triaging tools to deal with text, images, and videos is particularly important, especially if you are hoping to grow and scale your community. In my experience working with many different kinds of online communities (from apps and forums to online games and other social products), most user-generated content is innocuous. However, there’s a small percentage that’s very negative and can disrupt the user experience, detracting from the very purpose of your product, which can in turn lead to increased user churn.

Figure out which tools you could use to reinforce the guidelines you’ve laid out for your community.

By leveraging some level of automated moderation, you’ll not only naturally reduce workload by honing in on what requires human review, but you and your team will also be spared from reviewing disturbing content — think hate speech and pornography or gore in images/videos.

You can also set up progressive user sanctions and prioritize user reports based on riskiness to the community. (On that note, remember to sync up your community guidelines with the reasons users can report content to provide consistency.) With proactive moderation tools (like Two Hat’s Community Sift) in place, you’ll avoid exposing your users to damaging content and provide an overall better experience in your product.

Sync community design with product/UX design

“Community design is product design.” I took the liberty to make a slight change to one of the great lessons I learned at the Games Developer Conference last March. The sooner we acknowledge that the way a product is designed plays a role in user behavior, the better. We can create community guidelines, and even put the right tools in place to enforce them, but if the platform/product itself isn’t designed for healthy interactions, we’ll always face an uphill battle.

As community professionals, we have an important voice. Let’s face it: it’s not always easy to have our voices acknowledged and heard both inside our companies and in the industry. Instead of dwelling on this, I propose that we focus on understanding the following:

  • The impact product design has on user behavior and, ultimately, on user retention
  • How our community work leads to better user engagement
  • How a healthy and productive online community translates into more growth and increased retention

How can we accomplish this?

First, we need to think in a multidimensional/multi-disciplinary way, learn what’s important to other departments and disciplines, and understand how our work intersects with theirs. Ultimately, we should all be moving in the same direction — and shouldn’t that direction be towards the fulfillment of our product’s chief purpose (whatever it may be)? For most of us, the important goal is creating and maintaining a thriving platform, community, and product that continues to evolve and grow.

Make sure your UX and Community teams are aligned and working toward common goals.

Secondly, we must ask good questions and measure the right things. Asking the right questions forces us to experience the product through our users’ eyes, and to be objective in an attempt to expose and avoid our biases. Here are some examples of questions you could ask:

  • Is this feature aligned with our goal of encouraging productive interactions in our community?
  • Is this community/product direction going to inadvertently exclude a group of users from enjoying this experience in our community?

If our products are designed to reduce user friction and anti-social behaviour, then community guidelines can be better observed and reinforced!

Writing community guidelines that you can stick to isn’t easy, but if you break the process down into distinct steps you’ll be well on your way to success. Start by fully understanding what you hope to achieve in your community, then engage with community members and industry friends to create guidelines that reflect your community’s purpose. Share your guidelines far and wide, and leverage powerful moderation tools to enforce them in the community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, collaborate with your product and design team to guide community interactions through design.

I wish you the very best as you start this process or revamp your existing guide!

Carlos Figueiredo
October 9, 2018
May 3, 2024

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