By Caitlin Brennan

June 28th, 2016

It’s fine to feel squeamish when discussing ‘rules’ and ‘social media.’ From its earliest days, the Internet has had a reputation – undeserved in many ways – that absolutely anything goes. Fear not, community guidelines aren’t a strict chaperone, or even a form of censorship.

Belief in free expression does not mean belief in an unlimited right to derail conversation and abuse individuals on someone else’s forum. Clearly laying out a community’s rules can inoculate against bad behavior before things get too out of hand. Here’s how to make your community a positive place without making your members feel stifled.

#1 – State Your Purpose
Outline what your community is about. A good description of the community is a seed for discussion. Do you want a community where people can show off what they’ve done with specialty craft scissors? Does your company want to provide a place where lawnmower owners can share landscaping tips and tricks? Or do you want an orderly, direct Q&A session with your customers? If things ever get off topic, just refer to the purpose of the board as a viewpoint-neutral way to say “enough.”

#2 – “Play Nice”
Taking a page from McDonald’s playbook, you want to avoid members having any 100% beefs between each other.

McDonalds Screenshot

Your community should be a productive place to interact with your content and express discontent. It’s understandable customers may be upset, which provides you the opportunity to offer great social customer service, but there has to be a limit somewhere. Nothing can be gained by slurs, ad hominem attacks, and other unproductive nastiness. Appeal to the benefits of being friendly and mirror the good behavior you see from your best users.

Pay special attention to pile-ons and bullying. Just because the anger isn’t directed at you doesn’t make it OK. If you wouldn’t allow it in your living room, don’t allow it in your community.

#3 – Keep posts relevant
Steer the discussion away from personal conversations, spam or just plain irrelevance. UC Davis succinctly sums it up, “It can be difficult and frustrating for users to find information and/or to meaningfully contribute to the discussion when there is too much additional commentary unrelated to the topic of the posting.” Divisive politics lurk on the horizon, no matter the nature of your business. Some people just love sparking the kinds of socio-cultural banter that starts fights at Thanksgiving dinner. If you sense a mutiny the works, quickly navigate the conversation to safer waters.

Thank wayward users for participating and re-state the goals of the community. If the thread started out on a productive topic, chime in on that. However, if the thread contains personal abuse or offensive language, just delete it. Whatever you do, avoid getting into hair-splitting arguments about the meaning of the rules.

Your community has a purpose as you outlined, it’s your job uphold that mission. Some moderators make the mistake of waiting for a derailed thread to get back on point. The earlier the intervention, the more gentle you can be.

#4 – Your post is our post
It’s crucial to inform community members that, in many cases, you have a right to their posts. Rarely does this deter members from posting, but you must ensure everyone understands the rules of User Generated Content. It’s also crucial to recognize the contributions of community members. UGC provides brands great opportunities to gain insights, showcase fan love, gain followers, and save production costs.

For example, here’s how Benefit Cosmetics explains UGC:Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 8.54.55 PMWhen in doubt, contact your legal department. They love writing this stuff!

#5 – Don’t be a stickler
Rules are important, but they should only exist insofar as they are useful at allowing people to express themselves in a positive and productive way. If someone in your lawnmower community wants to compliment another user on the cute puppy in their lawn photo, let them! A good social media manager can “take the temperature” of a thread and see whether flames lay on the horizon. Use your judgment and be as human as possible. That being said, avoid playing favorites.

#6 – You’re outta here!
This is the last item because it is the last resort. Sometimes, a community member loses their cool and will come back the next day with a sincere apology. Other times, you just need to ban a user.

If you need to remove someone from the community, point out the specific terms the member violated. If anyone asks, explain why and elaborate as little as possible. When user bans become the topic of conversation, the moderator is put on defensive and conversations turn into meta-discussions about the state of the community. You know what would really improve the state of the community? Moving on.

Putting it all together
Maybe you’ve created your community personally. Maybe you took over for the person (or people) who did. In either case, owning that virtual space comes with some responsibilities. Create guidelines that mirror the community you want to build and pay attention to little problems before they become major controversies.

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