How to develop online community guidelines

Online community guidelines provide the foundation for your community. They are both your shield and your weapon when you go into battle to protect your community! Ensure you get them right, as it can be very difficult to retroactively change the culture of a community.

Far too many organisations fail to write useful guidelines. They shouldn’t be seen as an extension of your Terms & Conditions, they are an opportunity to showcase your expectations and the type of “vibe” and space you are creating. Use them to help people familiarise themselves with your community and culture.

The best community guidelines start with the things to “Do” before moving onto the “Do Not’s”. Good examples of these include Yahoo Answers, Flickr and Facebook Pages for McDonald’s and BankWest.

The guidelines might provide tips for topics to avoid (which might lead to angry responses, or no responses at all), popular subjects which the community enjoys. Also link to FAQs that newcomers have. The idea is to help newcomers overcome their fear of participating in the community.

Guidelines set tone and expectations

A lack of guidelines, or poorly crafted guidelines, can create an unpleasant experience for members, expose you to legal liabilities and potentially threaten your brand reputation. It can be very hard to retroactively change users’ behaviour so it’s crucial that you spend time establishing a healthy tone and culture as the foundation on which your community can thrive.

The tone and atmosphere of a community are set in its very early days, and there aren’t necessarily right or wrongs when it comes to the atmosphere you want to create.

Should they be called guidelines or rules?

It is much more common for them to be called guidelines. If they are general or open to interpretation it may be more appropriate for them to be titled guidelines. If they are quite specific (no trading, copyright infringement, etc.) you could call them rules – although these are almost always covered by a site’s Terms & Conditions. Regardless of what you name them you are guaranteed to have troublesome members combing them for loopholes!

Lonely Planet quite cleverly includes the following sub-heading with its guidelines: “The rules we’ll shake hands on”. This does a great job at reinforcing that as a member you’ve agreed to these conditions.

Three prominent points to consider when writing guidelines are:

1) Keep them conversational so they are easy to digest

2) Keep them brief (easier said than done)

3) Refine them in consultation with members

The devils in the detail

Bear in mind, the more general your rules, the easier they are to enforce. That’s not to say members won’t ask you for the specifics but it is easier for you to wield discretionary power. Inevitably it is impossible to predict the breadth of issues user-generated content gives rise to. As soon as you’ve nailed down one very specific infringement, another will raise its head.


Rules are made to be broken, as the saying goes. Ensure you have an effective reporting mechanism (i.e. flag content button or report post). I would go as far as saying, don’t launch without a reporting feature.

It’s important for users to feel safe, and that they can object to certain content types. Encourage members to own their community and report guideline breaches. A level of self-governance is vital for a healthy community, especially as it scales. And lastly, don’t forget to evolve the guidelines as your community grows.



Alison Michalk
BY Alison Michalk ON 19 November 2013
Alison Michalk is CEO of Quiip.