The ultimate guide for online community guidelines with examples and a free template

Creating clear and effective community guidelines are essential for fostering a positive and respectful online environment. This ultimate guide provides comprehensive insights, practical examples, and a free template to help you craft guidelines that promote safety, engagement, and a strong community culture.

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What are community guidelines?

Community guidelines explain what behavior is acceptable in your community. They could include references to acceptable language, intolerance, bullying, external links, posting personal information, advertising, and more. Guidelines can be general, like “be respectful,” and specific, like “avoid writing in capitals as this could be interpreted as aggressive.” 

Community guidelines may be included in your end user license agreement (EULA) or terms and conditions statements, legal documents that your users agree to when they use your service, but you should publish them separately from these documents as well. For example, including your community guidelines as part of your onboarding flow ensures that your members engage with them early in their journey. You want your community guidelines to be easy to find, easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to follow. 

Benefits of having community guidelines

Community guidelines help establish your community culture. When guidelines reflect the organization’s fundamental values, they allow members to understand that the community is guided by a larger mission, direction and/or purpose. Guidelines help safeguard your members while encouraging the culture you want to create within your community. Three essential benefits:

Best practices for writing community guidelines

Whether you’re writing guidelines for a new community or expanding guidelines for an existing community, these best practices will help you draft guidelines that will foster engagement that strengthen your community.

Involve the community in the process

It is essential that you get member feedback before publishing or making major changes to your community guidelines. Asking a select group of members for feedback will help you flesh out parts that you haven’t explained well. They’ll also have ideas about additional areas to address. While your community champions should definitely be invited to share their input, it’s important that you seek feedback from a broad spectrum of users, not just the most engaged. You want to get input from a diverse group of members across demographics (including age, ethnicity, economic background, and gender and sexual identity), tenure (including new and veteran members), and engagement (including average and lesser engaged members).

Start with a community mission statement

Before starting on the specific do’s and don’ts of your community, make sure you explain why your community exists and the goals you want to achieve. In other words, create a community mission statement. A great mission statement explains the values and culture of your community and encourages members to join. If members clearly understand what you want to achieve, they will have an easier time respecting the rules you have put in place to achieve this goal.

Address essential community safety and security topics

Your community guidelines will be unique to your organization, but there are some areas nearly all communities should address in their guidelines. These include: 

  • Hate speech, harassment, bullying, discrimination or other targeted attacks 
  • Spam or self-promotion 
  • Privacy and sharing of personal information (sometimes referred to as doxing)
  • Illegal activity 
  • Intellectual property protection 
  • Unauthorized use of content 

Be clear about rules and consequences

Use plain and unambiguous wording when writing your guidelines and add examples of “good” and “bad” behavior where possible to bring your guidelines to life. For example, don’t just write, “There should be no unauthorized use of content.” Instead, you might say, “Sharing or posting screenshots or text of community posts outside of the community is strictly prohibited.” Being clear about the consequences of breaching community guidelines is just as important as explaining the rules. Add a section to your guidelines that details the actions taken in the event of a rule break. Keep it fair and straightforward. Some information you should include is:

  • What is the penalty for first time, second time, third time offenders?
  • How many violations can occur before suspension/ban?
  • Does your community have a zero-tolerance policy for certain behaviors?
  • For example: For member posts that go against community guidelines, will the post be immediately deleted by a moderator (and replaced with a note explaining why)? Will the member have the option of rewriting it? Will you suspend or permanently remove members who repeatedly fail to respect the content rules or commit a serious breach of the rules?

Make your guidelines easy to find

When you’re ready to go live with your community guidelines, make them easily accessible from your community’s home page so that members can easily find them. Then, spread the word that they are there! If you’re introducing community guidelines for the first time, plan to post a few times to encourage members to give them a read. You should also add a link to your guidelines to your welcome emails, sign-up page, and newsletters. This way, new members and first-time visitors can easily access and read them, and seasoned community members will always know where to find them.

Keep your community guidelines fresh

A healthy online community grows and evolves with its members and the environment, and your community guidelines will need to evolve, too. Think of your guidelines as a living document that you can and should update as often as you need to as your community grows and changes, and especially as you get feedback and run into fresh ideas. Allow yourself to be agile to create, communicate, and enforce new rules. We recommend adding a reminder on your calendar to revisit your guidelines at least once per year.

Continually solicit feedback

Consider having a regular space in your community where members can voice their feedback about their experience. Having a space to share their insights and frustrations gives members a chance to feel like they have agency and that you’re listening. Additionally, a designated feedback channel keeps negative comments out of the main community feed.

How to deal with negative posts using community guidelines

You can’t please (or police) everyone all the time, and sooner or later, you will come across a negative post in your community. Negative posts may be deserved and constructive or unfounded and trouble-seeking. Either way, responding to these posts correctly is essential for encouraging and maintaining the culture you want to create in your community, and your community guidelines can help.

Implement a content screening process

Whenever a member submits content, it should go through a screening or moderation process to ensure that it meets your community guidelines. Moderation is critical to ensure a pleasant and productive experience for everyone. A good moderator can enhance the quality of the exchanges in the community while ensuring that the members stay polite and respectful. For small communities, the community manager or organization lead may be the only moderator at first, training engaged community members to be moderators is always a good idea. The more people who engage with and buy into the community guidelines, the healthier your community will be.

Encourage your team to practice good posting

One of the simplest and most effective ways to manage negativity in your community is to demonstrate the community behavior you want to see.

When you, your team, and your moderators consistently post comments that are courteous and friendly, you set the tone for your community. Your team should be visible and post regularly to demonstrate that the community is well-run and has people on hand in case issues arrive.

Create templates, but personalize each response

Consider compiling templated responses to common rule-breaking posts you see in your community. Writing these is good practice and helps you keep a cool head when you encounter a negative post. However, it is really important that you personalize the template every time you use it. Your members will notice if you’re cutting and pasting the same response, and it may make them feel you don’t truly care about them. Try to switch up your wording and make each reply personalized and genuine.

Make sure you have the facts before responding or acting

Before responding to a comment, make sure you are completely clued into the situation. Is this an unfounded comment? Is it straight-up trolling? Or is this constructive feedback that could help you identify an opportunity to improve your community or organization? If necessary, ask the author for more information to clarify the situation with a direct message.

Always respond publicly with empathy

Be honest and empathetic when replying to a negative post. You may not give the author the answer they want to hear, but you can show that you are listening and care about what they have to say. You can turn negative posts into a positive experience for the member, which can increase their satisfaction with your community. By acknowledging and seeking to resolve issues in public, you reinforce that your community is a safe space for all members. Members will see the negative post, and when they see your response, it will make them feel confident and safe in the community. Public responses from you show all members that you listen to them and are there for them and want to offer them the best experience.

Take further discussions to private message

Once you have replied publicly to the negative post, redirect the conversation onto a private channel. In some communities, a rigorous debate or back and forth in the comments may be reasonable. But for most communities, that kind of discussion isn’t appropriate beyond the initial response from you. On private channels, you can have an open and honest discussion away from an audience. Ask the person to DM you or email you to continue the discussion.

Examples of real community guidelines

Hivebrite customers include communities and organizations across industries, including non-profits, associations, commercial organizations, and educational institutions.

Hivebrite Community Code of Conduct

Community type: Private community for commercial customers The Hivebrite Community is a private community for Hivebrite customers to connect and share knowledge about community building. The Code of Conduct is linked from the public homepage so that potential members have access to the guidelines, too.  The Code of Conduct is divided into six sections including “Respectful and Courteous Behavior,” “Protecting My Privacy in the Community,” and “Best Practices for Sharing Content.”

Brief excerpt from The Hivebrite Community’s community guidelines: Private messaging can be a powerful tool for community builders to connect and collaborate with one another. When using this feature, we ask that members follow these guidelines:

  • Messages must be related to community-building topics
  • Personalize your messages: Boilerplate messages can come across as impersonal and may lack the necessary details to connect with others. Be sure to include the recipient’s name, a brief explanation of why you are reaching out, and any pertinent information about their community that interests you
  • Have a specific reason, partnership, or opportunity in mind when contacting another member. Avoid sending general messages asking if someone is interested in collaborating

By using private messaging responsibly and with a focus on community building, we can foster connections and partnerships that help us all grow and learn.

Bosch Alumni Network Community Guidelines

Community type: Private community for association alumni

Bosch Alumni Network is a digital community for iac Berlin, a “do and think tank” focused on collaborating to address complex challenges. The Bosch Alumni Network connects over 8,000 members from 140 countries. Members are given a lot of autonomy to create their own initiatives, and all groups are member led. The Bosch Alumni Network’s community guidelines are a great example of guidelines that are more ethos-based and less rules-based. In fact, there are very few rules shared! Instead, the guidelines remind members that the community is based on the free and open exchange of ideas, and that they, the members, should feel a responsibility to those ideals when posting. A sample sentence: “We wholeheartedly encourage you to re-read your contributions before hitting ‘send’. Could the comment be misunderstood as an insult by others? Is it formulated in an understandable way? Does it say what you want to say? We look forward to a lively exchange!”

Brief excerpt from the Bosch Alumni Network’s Community Guidelines: “We wholeheartedly encourage you to re-read your contributions before hitting ‘send’. Could the comment be misunderstood as an insult by others? Is it formulated in an understandable way? Does it say what you want to say? We look forward to a lively exchange!”

Boost Community Guidelines

Community type: Private community for professionals

The Boost Community is a project of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which advocates for vaccine access across the globe. Boost brings together immunization professionals for information sharing, training courses, and peer support to help advance their careers. Boost’s community guidelines are simple and visual, showcasing the community’s mission and values and three simple rules to follow: “How to engage”, “personal conduct,” and “report inappropriate content.” Simple icons break up the page and also make it easy to find what you’re looking for.

Water Environment Federation Community Guidelines

Community type: Private community for professional membership association

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) is a not-for-profit organization bringing together water quality professionals from around the world. The organization has more than 30,000 members and 75 affiliated Member Associations (MAs), and its online community connects members for education and networking opportunities. WEF’s community guidelines are an example of guidelines that are integrated into the community’s terms of service page. One page shares the organization’s responsibilities with regard to member information and member responsibilities in regard to their conduct and posts.

Pavilion

Community type: Private community for professional membership association

Pavilion is a global professional membership organization. Its 10,000 members join the organization for professional development, networking, and training and certification opportunities. Pavilion’s code of conduct for its digital community is well-formatted to quickly find the sections you are looking for. Their sections on who to contact are clear and explicit, making it easy to take next steps if you need to.

We hope that this guide helps you create your own community guidelines unique to your organization. If you follow these best practices, especially inviting your members and community to share their input, you’re on your way to establishing a community culture that is safe, respectful, and inclusive. 

If you need additional guidance, or know you’d benefit from a draft you could build off of, we invite you to download our exclusive community guidelines template. 

Putting in the work to create these guidelines now sets you and your community up for success.

Download Hivebrite’s free community metrics spreadsheet

We have created a free community engagement checklist designed to help keep fresh engagement ideas top of mind. As a bonus, we’ve designed a Community engagement tests & learning tracker that aids in tracking your experiments (and results!) in community engagement. These templates are meant to be a starting point that you customize for your own unique community. Have engagement ideas you think we should include? Drop us a line! You can find us on LinkedIn or email us at [email protected].