Setting Up Rules for a Community: Create a Community Culture for Growth

Community Management
Sophie Sykes
November 8, 2022

Of the 528 companies surveyed by CMX in 2021, a whopping 86% stated that their communities are critical to their company’s mission. Yet, despite realizing the importance of their community, only half had some of the most basic rules (DEI) in place to help shape it into something that could help grow their user base.

In other words, if you get your rules for a community right, you’ll be ahead of the game even for companies that recognize the value of their community.

It isn’t easy to get these rules right. You need to think about what you say, how you say it, how it will influence your community as it grows, and even what kind of users these rules will bring in. These are the community users who could eventually become product users and even promoters - you can’t leave this up to chance.

That’s why we’re here to help.

In this post we’ll teach you:

  • Where to start with your mission/purpose
  • The essential content rules for a community
  • How to structure the rules for your community
  • How to deal with disruptive community members
  • How Orbit makes it easier to safe and well-maintained communities

It’s time to start getting your community to work with you to grow your user base and expand your company.

Give your community a mission or purpose

Before writing any of your rules for a community you need to have a universal idea of what you want your community to do, achieve, or be there for. This will let you shape the mission or purpose your community has, which will then influence everything from the content of your rules to the tone used to convey them.

Your mission statement should represent everything that you want the community to be or become condensed into a couple of sentences. It’s where you can guide new users on how formal they should be, what they should focus on when posting, and how they should interact with their fellow community members.

Do you want your users to become promoters and help to grow the community? The mission statement is where you need to start.

Once you’ve got this set you can then start to carve out the rules for your community.

Promote safety and kindness as you set your culture

Rules for a community: Orbit's community values in 4 categories. Learning, rigor, kindness, and candor.

The above is the first thing you'll see when you look at Orbit's Community Guidelines.

We've all been online long enough to know that people can lose their cool pretty easily or behave in weird ways. When you're drawing up your rules, you want to find ways to not just prevent bad behavior but to encourage good behavior.

These kinds of guidelines seek to reinforce people's good decisions and you can put them into practice in lots of different ways. On Reddit, there are many subreddits which use the auto-moderator to post comments into every new submission to remind people to be nice to each other. How you want to leverage your guidelines is up to you - but promoting positive behavior is a community builder's preventative medicine.

Here are Orbit's 6 guidelines to encourage positive interaction:

1. Stimulate conversation, and be respectful of others’ views.
2. We're a global community. While the language for online discussions may be English (unless otherwise specified), remember that not everybody is a native English speaker/writer.
3. Don't take yourself too seriously. We're here to have fun, learn, create, and explore the world of community building together.
4. Assume people hold good intentions.
5. Seek to understand.
6. Treat others the way we wish to be treated.

The 8 essential content rules for a community

No two communities will have the exact same rules, but most have rules in common. These are rules which are considered essential to have in order to prevent the content and quality of the community falling apart.

Think of these essential content rules as the foundation for defining the boundaries to your community. You have all of the time you need to get into more specific guidelines, but first you need to cover your attitude towards:

  • Copyright infringement
  • Spam
  • Linking
  • Private information
  • Illegal activity
  • Hateful content
  • Sexual content
  • Violent content

Community Rules #1: Copyright infringement

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, you as the community host are not legally liable for any copyrighted material or intellectual property that is posted to your site without permission from the rights holder.

However, you are liable if the rights holder sends you a DMCA takedown notice concerning the infringing material and you do not respond by taking it down. As such, it’s much more beneficial to you to make it clear in your community rules that you will not tolerate copyright infringement.

Users will still breach copyright at some point with the material they post, however including a rule dedicated to this in your guidelines means that you will be able to enforce the breach with appropriate action and with less bad press. After all, you did warn your users that copyright breaches would be removed.

Community Rules #2: Spam

Spam is an ever-present problem (as your spam email inbox can attest to), so it’s important to take action against it wherever possible. Your community should be achieving what you want it to do, not serving as a spam dump for other peoples’ businesses and links - that’s a great way to lose the interest of any legitimate users.

Spam won’t turn users into promoters and grow your user base naturally. All it will do is alienate your current users.

Community Rules #3: Linking

Linking is more complex than outright spam, as it can often require a case-by-case review to determine whether it adds sufficient value to not be considered spam.

It can be self-promotion, but if it adds naturally to the kinds of conversations that are held in your community, it’s respectful, and provides value to the reader then it feels fine.

It’s up to you whether you want to take a hardline approach to linking and ban it all to make managing conversations easier, but by doing so you can miss out on a lot of useful posts and users in the mix.

If you’re unsure, keep it simple. You can start out with a policy along the lines of “Links are permitted, but must add value to the conversation beyond the link and any bias must be made clear”. That way you can still remove posts that your team thinks are just taking advantage of your platform and users, but retain others that are beneficial for everyone.

Community Rules #4: Private information

Much like copyright infringement, it can be a good idea to put a blanket ban on sharing private information, whether it’s the user’s own or someone else’s. This will help to protect your users’ identities, reduce any conflicts due to discrimination (more on that later) and keep things on topic.

However, depending on the circumstances of your community, you might want people to be upfront about who they are. This is one of the distinctions between communities of play and of practice. For communities of play, like a subreddit for a hobby or sports team - it works great (maybe better) with a layer of anonymity and rules which protect that; harder anti-doxxing rules.

But if you have a community of practice that ties in really closely with people's professional world and self, then you might take a different approach. People would want to leverage or grow their personal brand. They'd want to join in on podcasts, live chats, webinars, or webseries. They'd want someone to connect with them on Linkedin or follow them on Twitter. This presents a different culture to the community of play described above and that might impact how you choose to write rules around private information - including stronger areas like doxxing.

Community Rules #5: Illegal activity

Putting a blanket ban on any illegal activity won’t surprise anyone, but it will at least give your team some backup to refer to and act immediately if they find anything that needs taking down.

Remember that the rules for a community can help their moderators just as much as influence users. By clearly stating that illegal content (eg, discussion or promotion of illegal substances) will not be tolerated you set expectations clearly and let any new employees quickly know what they should be on the lookout for.

Community Rules #6: Hateful content

Banning “hateful” content is perhaps the most difficult thing to enforce, as some users won’t even realize the effect their words are having on fellow community members. Nonetheless, if you want to foster a welcoming community culture that reduces the barrier to entry as much as possible, you need to actively work against letting hateful content slide.

Many companies’ community guidelines include bans on anything which discriminates against someone based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, disability, immigration status, wealth, and so on. TikTok, for example, goes one further by explicitly stating the types of discrimination (use of slurs, justifying violence, misgendering, etc).

‘​​TikTok is a diverse and inclusive community that has no tolerance for discrimination. We do not permit content that contains hate speech or involves hateful behavior, and we remove it from our platform. We ban accounts and/or users that engage in severe or multiple hate speech violations or that are associated with hate speech off the TikTok platform.’ - TikTok Community Guidelines

Even ignoring the moral obligation to ensure that your users feel safe, it’s good for business to open your doors to as many people from different walks of life as possible. Being inclusive just makes good business sense!

Community Rules #7: Sexual content

In most communities, it’s inappropriate for users to share sexual content (legal or otherwise). If you're a B2B SaaS community then it’s not good for your company’s reputation as a useful, work-oriented service or product if the vast majority of your community is centered around sex.

But it's about finding the balance. Some communities of play might allow 'this much' or 'that much', depending on the culture of the community. Communities of practice are probably going to try to keep it out entirely.

Even then there are prominent exceptions and that’s the exact issue OnlyFans ran into back in 2021 when they tried to ban sexual content. A significant proportion of their user base was made up of sex workers earning their living through the platform, and while the company felt that they had to stop that due to some banks refusing to process their transactions, they quickly were forced to u-turn on that decision. A community of practice for the creators, yet a ban makes no sense.

Your policy on sexual content will be whatever is right for your community. However, in the interest of keeping your community as accessible and friendly as possible, it’s best to write out your policy on it in order to lead with intentionality and to take preventative action if it is going to be inappropriate.

Community Rules #8: Violent content

Finally, most companies include blanket bans on violent content. This includes content that contains violence and content that can be considered violence, such as calls to commit violence and threats to users, people, or groups.

This once again plays into keeping your community as a safe place that is open to as many people from your target audience as possible. If threats are getting thrown around or someone starts up a thread of violent images, it will create a culture where that will be normalized if you don’t stop it in its tracks.

How to structure the rules for a community

At a high level there are two ways of structuring the rules for your community. You can focus on presenting them as rules, or as values.

Rules-based guidelines are more strict in their language as they are designed to set boundaries that cannot be crossed. In this way they can be seen as being more negative or confrontational, which is useful when stating the things that your community members are not allowed to do.

However, this strict tone can backfire by not encouraging your users to engage in the community as freely, and by creating an unwelcoming atmosphere.

Values-based guidelines are the opposite, where you stress the values that your community is based around and try to encourage positive behavior as much as (or more than) negative ones. Let’s dive into an example to demonstrate.

Rules-based guidelines are exactly what you’d expect:

  • Do not post hateful content
  • Do not post violent content
  • No self-promotion

Values-based guidelines would put the same points in the following manner:

  • Be inclusive to all, regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, etc
  • Work together to build a better community
  • Make sure you contribute to the conversation when posting

It’s not as clear-cut what will and will not be tolerated with these kinds of guidelines, but they do a great job of emphasizing the positive outlook you might want your community to have. Remember that your community rules and guidelines are going to set the tone for your community’s culture!

If you want to see a great example of values-based ideals in action, check out Buffer’s community guidelines. They clearly understand the positive impact their values can have in creating a culture of positivity and inclusiveness to reach as many people as possible.

We want to ensure that this community remains a space that is positive, forward-thinking, and supportive, and where everyone feels like they are able to learn and connect with others while feeling safe.” - Buffer Community Guidelines & Code of Conduct

At Orbit, our community guidelines lead with summarized core values, then positive guidelines, and then follow with more prescriptive rules.

Dealing with disruptive community members

The most important thing to remember when dealing with disruptive community members is that it all leads back to your guidelines. If you’ve already laid out the behaviors you do and do not want to see there, you can simply point back to them and take appropriate action.

Your biggest ally is being prepared for common situations (again, via your guidelines) and knowing what you’re going to do about it in advance. Whether you implement a strike system or immediately ban or timeout a user, your team needs to be able to take action quickly in order to show the community that you won’t tolerate this behavior.

Higher Logic, a self-described industry leader in community and engagement solutions, recommends avoiding the ban hammer in instances that aren’t proven to be intentional though. They state that it’s better to take the time to reach out to a community member if they persist in being disruptive to make sure they understand what they’re doing and the effect it’s having. After all, some people will legitimately not understand how what they say can be offensive to other users.

By doing this you set a precedent of not tolerating disruptive behavior, but also not being so harsh that discussion and disagreements are forbidden. Your members won’t be too afraid of getting banned to voice their opinions, leading to better natural development in your community while staying under control.

Think of it as guiding your community towards the attitudes and discussions that you want them to have rather than enforcing the law with an iron fist.

Community rules examples: 2 case studies

There are almost an infinite number of ways to customize your community rules and guidelines to suit your own company. That’s why it’s handy to have a few examples of them done well to get you started!

So, let’s quickly break down some examples:

  • Superpath’s Slack community
  • SocialMediaPulse’s community

Superpath’s Slack community

Brevity is the biggest advantage of Superpath’s community rules.

As soon as you load them up you’re presented with a Venn diagram of what they want their community to include; world-class content marketers fostering high-level discourse in a kind and supportive environment. With that, you’ve already got a solid grasp of what their community will look like and whether it’s something that you want to be a part of.

They also state that they manually review applications to join the community a few times per week - this is an exclusive community which is vetted to only allow their ideal members from the start, reducing potential spam and bad actors immediately.

Superpath then lays out their nine rules. These are their zero tolerance discrimination policy, guidelines on how to contact individuals and @mentioning the whole channel, self-promotion and linking, spam, and then a few extras on ideal decorum. That is, how members should act when asking questions (include as much detail as possible), using the appropriate channels, and keeping things compact via Slack’s threads.

Top it off with their FAQ at the bottom of the page and you’ve got a perfect idea of who will be in the community, that it will be free of spam and self-promotion, and whether it will genuinely be of use to you. In turn, this will ensure that only Superpath’s target audience will become community members, meaning that their efforts in engaging and monitoring the community won’t go to waste on people with no potential ties to their product.

With 10,000 members, they need strong guidelines to keep it running smoothly!

SocialMediaPulse’s community

SocialMediaPulse (Agorapulse’s social media community) takes a similar approach, but scales back on the design of their page while adding some more detail to each of their guidelines.

Much like with Superpath, SocialMediaPules starts out by stating who their community is for and setting the tone that they want to encourage. Their language (“be cool”) and emoji usage helps build a picture of a more casual community which is built for the members, not the company.

Every point (even the ones with a negative spin telling you what not to do) is designed to speak directly to the reader as an individual, giving them a sense that they will be seen and treated as such in the community. This is reinforced by their anti-discrimination policies, as the language retains its friendly, approachable tone (“Nothing sabotages a healthy conversation like rudeness”) while taking a hard line against negative practices such as harassment, spam, and offensive content.

In other words, everyone reading these guidelines know that they’re safe, and is less likely to be intimidated due to the casual tone. It’s something they’ll feel like they can jump straight into and have a nice chat about social media practices, without the fear that they’ll just get spammed with invites to follow other members’ accounts.

How Orbit helps you enforce the rules for a community

rules for a community: Orbit is a community growth platform that makes community the engine for growth in your business through being able to monitor, measure, and understand your community activity and members.

Orbit is a community growth platform that acts kind of like a CRM for all your community members across the different places they live. It's a single pane of glass through which you can see everything happening in and across your community.

It's not a member-banning machine, but it is a tool to help you maintain a really strong community that's positive and adds value into the lives of its members. As such, Orbit can play a role in making sure you have a well moderated environment with enforced rules for the community.

Three key ways Orbit can help maintain your community

  1. Orbit is cross platform: Orbit can help you identify people's behaviors and presence in the different locations where your community might live. This is particularly useful if you're dealing with issues surrounding harassment or spam.
  2. Add context with notes: When you're looking at your members' view, or in the conversation screen, you can leave notes attached to users to record things that happened, were said, or specific incidents. This helps to make your moderation, community management, and all community roles in your team more asynchronous, as the notes can be shared and visible to all in the Orbit workspace.
  3. Make users searchable with tags: Like notes, you can apply tags to specific members. While tags will be more succinct than notes, what really makes them stand out is the extra searching and filtering capabilities they give you. For example, you may have some members who have posted in a way that has felt spammy and self promotional. You've tagged each of those members at the time. You've now decided you want to implement a zero-tolerance policy on spam and self-promo. You can search for all members that have that tag and then bulk send a message to their Twitter DMs to let them know you've changed the rules. You word it carefully and in a friendly way, and they appreciate what feels like a much more considered and personal touch than another corporate email half of them won't open in their inboxes.

That's not all you can do with Orbit! If you want to try it out for yourself and see what you can do, start your free trial now.

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