This is a guest post from Richard Millington of FeverBee. For community managers, Richard’s blog is a great source of ideas, suggestions and observations that will make you think. He recently released his first book, “Buzzing Communities.” He has given me 2 copies to giveaway and I have decided to do a random drawing of those who comment on this post. So, if you’d like to win a copy, please comment below by December 12 at 8 PM ET!

Community guidelines don’t change the behavior of your members for one simple reason: your members don’t read them.

You can test this for yourself. Use Google Analytics and measure how many members visit your guidelines page. I bet it’s less than 1%. And the 1% that take the time to read the guidelines probably aren’t the people that are likely to break them.

This presents a challenge. If you want to shape the behavior of members in the community, how do you do it? How do influence members to do positive things in your community? How can you prevent them from doing bad things?

Fortunately, there are a few proven principles from social sciences that can help.

Create a Welcome Guide

The reason why guidelines aren’t read is because they’re boring. They’re typically written in a formal language and tell members what they can’t do. Wouldn’t it be more effective to tell members what they can do and motivate members to take their first steps into the community instead?

When members join a community, send them a short welcome guide outlining what they can do in the community. This should highlight the immediate activities they can get involved in (topical discussions, events to sign up for, etc.), explain a little about the culture of the community and it’s history. Highlight a few of the top members to follow and where they can post their newbie questions.

If you want to simplify it, put this in the welcome e-mail to members or the next page members see after they register for the community. The goal is take a newly registered member and have them making their first contribution to the community as quickly as possible.

Highlight the Unique Rules of Your Community

As a basic cognitive shortcut, we broadly ignore what we expect to see. We ignore guidelines because we know what to expect: don’t spam the forums, be racist or sexist, advertise, misuse tools, etc. Everyone knows this is true for every platform. It’s not really worth highlighting these rules. Any popular community is going to suffer from spam, racism, and a few personal attacks. Guidelines won’t stop or change that. Instead highlight the rules that are special or unique to your community.

If members can’t mention a certain topic, mention their own business or post pictures on a Sunday – it’s worth highlighting this. It’s these exceptions to the normal that we notice.

If members continually break a rule, they’re either the type of people that break rules (remove these people), aren’t aware of the rules (promote the exception to the rule), or the rule itself prohibits behavior that members want to engage in (change or remove the rule).

Collaborate on a Constitution

Members obey rules they have had a hand in creating. Your community can co-create a constitution. This constitution can cover the community’s purpose, personality, beliefs and governance. Members can explain what behavior is and isn’t OK. They can also highlight the processes for removing members. You can revise this on a regular basis.

People tend to care less about the outcome and more about the process. Yes, they might be upset if you’re forced to remove a popular member, however they will be furious if they think you unfairly removed a popular member.

Highlight Positive Behavior

Identify positive behavior you see in your community and shine a spotlight on it. For example, if you want members to talk about a particular topic – turn discussions on that topic into sticky threads. Write content or blog posts that mention that topic and the person that created that topic.

There are a variety of tactics to subtly influence the nature of discussions in the community. You can bump up the threads you like, tweak the posting dates (don’t do this too often), interview the people participating positively in the community, give the positive participants greater levels of power and influence.

Build a Group of Insiders

The challenge with highlighting behavior you want to encourage is that you need members engaging in that behavior first. This presents a chicken and the egg problem. How do you stimulate that initial behavior?

For example, if you want members to frequently correct or warn other members, welcome newcomers to the community, talk about particular topics, remind members of the rules, how do you get members doing that initially?

The secret is to build an insider group of members. Proactively build relationships with your key members and invite them to an insider group. When you have some behavior you want members in the community to undertake, bring it up with the insider group, solicit their ideas and then begin engaging in that behavior.

Posts Since Last Reported Abuse

We borrowed this idea from Robert Kraut’s and Paul Resnick’s terrific book. Incorporate a “days since last reported abuse” feature in the community. This helps foster a sense of community pride and discourages abuse. This is based upon the nudge premise, i.e. when hotel guests are told 93% of guests reuse their towels, far more reuse their towels.

Whatever your guidelines are, your efforts to ensure they are respected are aided by creative and engaging attempts at shaping behavior.

Richard Millington is the author of Buzzing Communities: How To Build Bigger, Better, And More Active Online Communities. You can download 50% of Buzzing Communities at