A good product provides the bedrock for a strong community, but ultimately it’s the people that will make or break it.

Surely every Community Manager can attest that not everyone on the internets is peachy. But what separates good CMs from the best is the skill and finesse exercised when dealing with the bad apples. Done poorly, and the entire community suffers. Done right, the community rises more formidable and enthusiastic.

The first step is getting ahead of the problem. The most common pitfall for many community professionals is only addressing these type of issues with members reactively; only when someone steps out of line do they take action.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from helping develop the Yelp community early on and building the Airbnb community from the ground up, it’s that the best strategy is a proactive, transparent one.

In the post below, I’ll share a few hard-earned lessons from my own experience as well as clever product features and effective on-boarding tips from companies such as Secret and Clarity. Let’s have at it!

Here are five ways you can set the stage for good behavior in your community:

1. Prevention is the best medicine.

Telling people how to best participate is the most surefire way to get them to act appropriately.

Keep in mind, what’s regarded as “normal” varies from site to site; posting illustrated yuri and weaponry are explicitly encouraged in the rules of 4chan.org, but wouldn’t likely be welcome on Rick Santorum’s Facebook page. Sometimes even common sense things need to be spelled out.

No doubt your community already has a code of conduct. When was the last time you read it? As Gavin O’Hara, Global Publisher for Lenovo explained on Twitter, “Guidelines orient people, set the table for discussion, and serve as a giant hammer if things go south.” Take the time to review yours, making sure that it covers the procedures for both misbehavior and disputes.

Need inspiration? Laying Down the Law is chock full of examples and tips on how to write guidelines from companies like Etsy, Airbnb, Ubuntu, and more.

2. Guidelines work, but they must evolve. Be transparent about changes.

It is almost a Law of the Internet that people will use your product in ways that you never could have anticipated, ranging from detrimental to hilarious. If the Airbnb community had their way, at one point you’d have been able to rent pets, shoes, and even restrooms. This sparked crucial conversations amongst our team about what constituted renting out “space” and how our company’s mission could be hindered or helped by this definition. In 2011, we updated our About, TOS, and FAQs pages to reflect our ideal practices.

Remember, guidelines evolve. They are not like toaster ovens. You can’t set it and forget it. If a problem behavior is rampant, do not hesitate to add another bullet point to the rules, post to the blog, and email your community. It is also crucial that you explain why a certain behavior is not okay, the detriment it causes, and to whom. Accountability is crucial to a well-functioning system.

3. Ensure your community really understands the terms.

If your guidelines and terms aren’t getting the job done, it’s probably because no one reads ’em.

It’s standard practice to have registering users check a box agreeing to the terms of service and privacy policy of a website. Though we all tick the box, probably only .0001% of us actually know what we’re agreeing to.

Cliff notes version: Terms of Service describe the legal relationship between the user and the company with regards to software licensing and content ownership; Terms & Conditions refer to the contractual obligation between two parties (the breach of which can result in litigation); Privacy Policies outline what can be done with customer data.

Make it your job to ensure that everyone understands the differences and implications. And because Legalese turns people’s brains off, summarize these changes in plain English so people know what they’re signing off on. Transparency breeds trust. Look to this example of Airbnb’s recent TOS, T&C, and Privacy Policy update.

 

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4. Nip bad behavior in the bud, ideally right when it’s about to happen.

Some products have started to incorporate their user guidelines into the registration flow. This isn’t optimally effective as people often breeze through to get to the meat of the experience.

Instead, for interest-based communities, include a few form questions post-registration, asking what they hope to achieve or what they can offer to the community. This gears them up to participate from the start.

In my experience, the most effective way to guide behavior is at the moment of decision.

Over time you’ll be able to identify points in the user experience where they are most likely to misbehave. iPhone app Secret lets users post anonymous messages to their friend group. In an attempt to keep the tone positive and discourage personal attacks, a pop-up appears right before a user posts their first secret reminding people to keep it clean.

At what points in your user journey could a little reminder keep things on track?

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5. Set an example and expectations from the get-go. Course correct as need be.

If you’re unable to productize these reminders, do your best to make contact with each new member and course correct manually.

This may only be possible in the early days, but in building these relationships users will feel more affinity for you and the company and look to you as an example from which to model their behavior. They, in turn, set an example for future members.

Start by taking a look at a user’s profile for clues about their interests and expertise. Reach out via direct message or email, relating things that resonated with you and ask what they’d like to learn more about or share with other members.

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Clarity.fm does an exceptional job with this. They are a service that connects people seeking business or career advice with experts over the phone. When I first joined, a member of their team reached out to introduce themselves through their personal email address. (Gone are the days the auto-email days of “[email protected]” from the XYZ Team; even if it’s a template email, sign off with a real name.)

When I took him up on the offer to speak on the phone, we discussed what community building tips I might share based on the profile and needs of the Clarity community. A few months later, my activity dropped off resulting in a profile freeze, and I wrote in asking to be restored as my LinkedIn profile and blog directed to their service. I was given a few kind pointers and have – I hope – been a model user since.

Lesson learned: give newbies a chance to ask you any open questions about how to participate in the community. This gives you an opportunity to encourage and guide. When users might veer off course, you’ve already established rapport and respect, and a friendly reminder is often all that’s needed to get them on the right track. As a bonus, should questions in their domain surface later, you’ll also know who you can call on to contribute!

Are you struggling with bad behavior in your community? Comment here and share what has worked for you (or what hasn’t worked). Next up, how to design a community experience that promotes healthy interaction and growth…

Photo Credit: shenamt 

Ligaya Tichy

Gut follower. Aussie pup lover. Certified doula. Community builder. Yelp, Airbnb alum.