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A Guide to Creating Online Community Guidelines and Enforcement

Creating online community guidelines is important. Enforcement of those guidelines is just as important.

You must create and implement guidelines for an online community that promotes healthy engagement and growth. This will prevent your community from becoming toxic and a bad place to visit.

If your community becomes toxic, it scares your members away and can harm your online reputation in the niche as a failed leader who couldn’t control their community.

The last thing you want is a bad reputation in your industry.

Lucky for you, creating online community guidelines and enforcing them isn’t that difficult. I’ve created this excellent resource to help you along the way.

The Whys of Creating Online Community Guidelines

Preventing chaos.

The reasoning behind creating online community guidelines is to prevent chaos in your online space.

We humans are very capable of being chaotic and reckless when there are no rules. Or just the same if there are rules that are not properly enforced.

Look at YouTube comments, Facebook drama, and especially Twitter. No rules or rules are stated, but no enforcement is typically what we see on these big social media networks.

If you want your community to be active with success around every corner, you must implement guidelines and an enforcement strategy. Otherwise, success will not be around every corner. It will not be anywhere.

Toxicity in an online community not only annihilates engagement, but if it’s bad enough, it can destroy your reputation because you’re the failed leader of the community.

A destroyed reputation means no business and sales success, maybe bankruptcy, and even worse. If the community gets too out of hand, you might even have legal problems, especially if rights are violated. And before you think you’re not liable for things, remember that you created the community and opened it for access. You are liable, very liable.

If you’re not a big rules person, maybe an online community isn’t for you.

Creating Online Community Guidelines

Online Community Guidelines Creation Best Practices

You should follow a few best practices when creating community guidelines and enforcing those guidelines.

Try to keep your members in mind when creating your community guidelines. If your community is new and has no members yet, keep your ideal member avatar in mind. An ideal member avatar is what type of member you see your community best serving.

If you have an established community with active members, consider asking your most active members or super-members to help you craft your guidelines. Include them in the process because they’re the ones who keep your community as active as it is.

Before launching your online community, you should create a mission statement and values for your community’s existence. Why did you make your community? What values support the mission of your community? These things should be defined during the process of creating online community guidelines.

Try to be clear and direct with your community guidelines. Make sure they’re easy to understand and follow. Sometimes it’s best to create examples of what to do and what not to do in your community. On that note, be sure to explain what is and is not allowed.

Over the years, one of the core problems with guidelines and policies has always been length and confusing language. Sometimes, less is better. Keep this in mind when creating online community guidelines. Create easy-to-understand guidelines that are short and to the point. You don’t need to include a bunch of legal speak that only legal representation will understand.

When creating your guidelines, use your community voice. Write the guidelines in a way as if you’re writing a blog post. It should speak directly to the community member. Talk to them one-on-one through your community guidelines. Don’t make your guidelines a chore to read.

Make sure your guidelines are easy to find and difficult to ignore. They should be on the registration page and require acceptance to be a member. They should be obviously linked on every page towards the top of the page. Place them in your signature if you have that feature. Put them on pages where members are creating content.

Creating educational resources about your guidelines is a great way to encourage members to know and follow them. This can be text-based information or even visual such as images and videos. Workplaces always do this with OSHA rules, and it works for them. Why can’t communities try it?

What rules should you include in your online community guidelines? Here are a few major rules that most online communities are utilizing in your guidelines:

  • Spam – Define what this means, such as whether self-promotion is allowed or not
  • Personal attacks – Harassment and bullying
  • Doxing – Sharing private information of members as a form of abuse
  • Illegal activities of any kind
  • NSFW material – content and media that is considered Not Safe For Work or adult-rated in nature
  • Racism and sexism – Content that discriminates against race and sexual preference
  • Trolling – causing problems and trying to disrupt the community
  • Misinformation – spreading conspiracies or information that is incorrect
  • Complaints – public complaints about topics, members, and opinions of others
  • Physical appearance comments – comments about or asking about the physical appearance of members
  • Multiple accounts – creating more than one account and using fake email addresses or throwaway email addresses
  • Cross-posting – Posting the same thing more than once or posting different topics on other topics that don’t relate to the new topic
  • Grammar – using bad spelling and incorrect grammar or speaking in a non-native language of the community
  • Public moderation disputes – complaints about moderation or guideline enforcement in the public forum
  • Voting – regards to voting on polls, upvoting, and downvoting content on the community
  • Flagging – best practices for reporting violations of the guidelines, flagging bad content, and abusing the report system
  • Moderator behavior – the expected behavior of moderating staff members
  • Constant negativity – a member who is constantly negative, causing toxicity, and being a jerk
  • Impersonation – acting like someone else whom you are not or falsely representing a business or entity
  • Copyright and trademark violations – breaking copyright and trademark rules and laws
  • Controversial interaction – this can include debate about politics and religion, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and related controversial topics

It’s important to reflect on the guidelines above and determine if they’re right for your community. This is not an exhaustive list, either. There could be other guidelines you might consider adding, such as prohibiting the use of swear words and other rules. This is why it’s important to always try to involve your community when creating online community guidelines.


How to Enforce Your Online Community Guidelines

Enforcing your online community guidelines is just as easy as creating them.

You should always ask your members to report violations and flag content that they think is abusing the community guidelines. This will help you identify violations and act when required. It also helps to train members how to spot and report violating activities.

You should have a review and incident investigation system in place. Multiple staff members should be involved in the disciplinary action aspects of your online community rule violations. Investigate the violations as if a police officer would investigate a crime.

  1. Define the violation that has been committed.
  2. Document the evidence that is present.
  3. Conduct private follow-up interviews with other members involved.
  4. Analyze the evidence along with the interview information.
  5. Identify a suspect member and take action against them.
  6. You may need to interview the suspect member further to get more information.
  7. Review the case with your community moderators and decide on what to do.
  8. Create an appeal process for violating members to request further chances for some violations.

Always be hard on behavior that is deemed unacceptable. If you give one member a chance and not the other, your community becomes toxic, and you’ll likely be accused of favoritism. Don’t let a paid member or staff member bend the rules if no one else can.

Be clear about the disciplinary, review, and consequence policies for violating your community guidelines. Make sure members understand what happens if they knowingly break the rules.

Be careful about using automated tools and controls for disciplinary actions. Aside from the automated banning of spam bots, you must be careful with non-bot rule violators. People make mistakes. In online communities, people tend to make more mistakes than knowingly violating the community guidelines. Take this into consideration when using automated systems for guidelines enforcement.

Don’t enforce the rules unless you plan to enforce the same rules for everyone.

Ask your members to report violations. Make it easy for members to make reports. Let them feel helpful in the process.

Have a clear disciplinary process.

  • Coaching is a non-recorded action where you define the guidelines to a member and remind them how to act in the community.
  • A warning is typically a recorded disciplinary action where a member is told about their violation and warned against doing it again.
  • Suspensions are the loss of access or specific features as punishment for community guidelines violations.
  • Banning is a temporary to permanent block of using the community for disciplinary actions.
  • Content moderation is when a member’s content must be reviewed and approved by a moderator due to disciplinary action.
  • Content modification is when a moderator edits/modifies a member’s content because it has violated the guidelines.
  • An appeal is when a disciplined member asks to remove their disciplinary actions from their account or record.

Remember, enforcing your rules is just as important as creating online community guidelines.


And that’s all there is to it. The advice and resources above are all your need to start creating online community guidelines for your community today. Remember to periodically review and update your guidelines from time to time to keep them modern. If you’ve found this article helpful, please share it with others, especially on social media. Follow me on Twitter for even more online community tips and resources.

Shawn Gossman

About the Author

Shawn Gossman has created content, blogged, ran online communities, and shared a passion for digital marketing for over twenty years. Shawn believes the best way to help content creators, businesses, brands, and marketers is to give away more than you sell. The same advice is recommended for the readers who follow this blog. Shawn also offers various services for extra help in content creation and blogging.

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