The Whys and Hows of Community Guidelines

Posted by Sarah Robinson-Yu on Jun 3, 2020 9:00:00 AM
Find me on:

4 minute read

The Whys and Hows of Community Guidelines

The first thing that most members are encouraged to do when they join a new community is to check out their community guidelines. Most community managers and/ or moderators will point new members in this direction so that they get a feel for the community before they dive in.

This is because community guidelines are essentially the template for how your community acts and behaves—these will (or, rather, should) tell your members what type of conduct is acceptable and what isn't. Ensuring that your community guidelines are clear well-written should be a high priority for any community manager.

Your community rules, and how they’re laid out, will tell your members most of what they need to know about the community itself. For instance, it can tell what the community manager thinks about the members, how much effort they put in to the basics of setup, and what members can expect to see when they start posting. But not everything that is learned from your guidelines are explicitly written; some members may also look to what's not written there to see how much they can get away with—so be warned!

The community guidelines of your forum aren’t (and should never be) just a boilerplate; simple terms and conditions that you have to have simply for your own legal protection. If this is how you introduce new members to your community, you can almost bet on having ill-behaved individuals.

You need to think of community guidelines as a constitution of your forum. I mean, your community is, after all, a community; all communities need to be guided by a set of rules, otherwise you'll have a bunch of people who'll just ruin it for everyone. That's no way to run your community!

More Effort Upfront Leads to Long-Term Success

Rather than viewing your community guidelines as a quick piece of writing that you need to get done, see it as an opportunity to let new users what kind of community they can expect. The more effort you put into shaping your guidelines from day 1, the more success you'll see down the road. 

That being said, you want to ensure that you take a look at your organization's mission, purpose and most importantly, your values. These should always be incorporated into your community guidelines. 

Your guidelines themselves could be serious, quick and to the point, or even funny with a splash of humor. Again, this will connect back to your organization; what is your brand personality, and how can your guidelines reflect that?

Cover as much as you can upfront, but don't stress it if you can't think of every little detail. 

As time goes by, you'll be able to iterate your guidelines after seeing how effective they are on your community. Are your guidelines having the impact that you were looking for? If not, what can be improved?

The best tip here is to simply figure out the effect you want from a rule, and then draft it to cover that effect. Concentrate on the spirit of your rules, rather than detailing every possible scenario.

Which Rules Does Your Community Need?

Different communities require different community guidelines, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. There are a few rules, however, that I think most communities could benefit from. That being said, here's a list of common rules that all communities should look to incorporate in one way or another.

  • Rules regarding images: Rules restricting the type of images that a user can post is a great policy to have. I'd also recommend restricting the size of images that users can post since the size of an image may cause mobile users to avoid your community for the sake of their data plans.

  • Member behavior: Be specific about what kind of tone users should have with each other. Irreverent? Serious? Respectful? Simply saying “no flamewars!” leaves users with a lot of wiggle room to be passive-aggressive to each other. A good place to start is what you learn in kindergarten: treat people how you want to be treated. Sometimes adults need a gentle reminder.

  • Complaint process: Make it clear to your users what they should do if they have a complaint about a moderator. Leaving them a clear pressure valve prevents that drama from spilling out into the forums. No user should be confused about what to do if they have a problem.

  • What constitutes “being a jerk”: Make sure you create a list of what "being a jerk means" since every person will have a different view on what constitutes unacceptable conduct. Users should be reminded that above all, they should be treating each other with respect and courtesy

  • Zero tolerance for discrimination and harassment: Don’t allow gender, racial or sexuality based discrimination in your community. The internet is an open platform, and it’s for everyone. No one should ever feel unwelcome, and if they do, chances are that it'll reflect poorly on your brand.

  • Moderator conduct: Make it clear from the beginning what moderators can and can't do. This is the best way to ensure that those with power in your community are held accountable for their actions. 

  • Disciplinary actions: Members need to know the consequences of their actions, if "zero tolerance" wasn't clear enough. But of course, some unacceptable behaviours will be worse than others, so you want to make it clear that there will be consequences to their actions, and what they could be, depending on the severity of the offence.

Ultimately, the rules and guidelines you set for your community will make it clear from the get-go what your expectations are for your members, and what actions you may choose to take if the rules aren't followed.

eBook-The Community Managers Survival Guide


Topics: Community, Marketing

Related posts

Subscribe to the Community Corner Newsletter and get expert insight and analysis on how to get the most out of your online community every Friday.

Search this blog

Recent Posts

community playbook

Have an Article for Vanilla's Blog?

Send us an email to with your topic idea and we'll circle back with our publishing guidelines.

Customer Experience Update