CREATING A SUCCESSFUL AND SUPPORTIVE ONLINE COMMUNITY – PART 1: Rules, Philosophies, and Platforms

Several years back, I fell into community management when I decided to create a resource hub for an unmoderated writing community. From there, it snowballed into managing several different community organizations that ranged from educational forums to creative spaces. After nearly seven years of community management, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned and hopefully help you avoid some of the issues I ran into along the way.

Communities can be a great way to grow your audience as a writer, artist or other kind of creative person. Maintaining them can also be a considerable amount of work. My goal with this series is to help you avoid the mistakes I’ve made over the years and make community creation and management less stressful for you.

Getting Started – Community Creation

Platforms – Free Vs. Owned

If you’ve thought about creating a community, you may already have a platform in mind. There are lots of options out there and, all of them have pros and cons. I’ve done both, it comes down to how much control you want to have and how hard you want to work to build an audience/community. I’ll explain the differences between free and owned platforms below.

Free platforms may have audiences built-in and readily accessible, places like Twitter, Facebook Groups, etc. There are already people using those platforms, so all you have to do is promote yourself and help your audience find your community. That is a huge plus when you are just getting started, but it also comes with a few hurdles. Social media platforms can change their rules and your ability to promote yourself/your community can shift on a dime. They can also remove you from their platform at their discretion.

If you use one of these platforms, you may want to consider using the tools they have to build an email/newsletter list. If you’re using something like Facebook groups, consider adding a question where new members can share their email with you and join your list. You’ll want to add the email to your list before you accept, but that’s an easy way to stay in contact with your community members if anything ever happens to your platform.

Right now, Discord is one of my favorite free platforms for community building. There’s a ton of customization options, and you can use bots for things like auto-moderation, roles (titles you create for members), games, and more! You may still want to have a website or social media platform that leads your community members to your Discord.

Owned platforms come with different challenges. An owned platform is usually a website or online forum that you own outright. You may have to purchase software and maintain it to keep your community afloat. If you aren’t technically inclined, this can be a huge learning curve. BUT, it also means that you own your space and you have the freedom to customize your platform to suit your needs. You are not subject to the whims of social media algorithms or platform rules.

Building a community on an owned platform can be a bit more difficult because you have to help people find your website/community. For me, this means finding spaces where I could advertise the community. It can also just take time for your site/community to show up in Google searches. You will want to make sure your site is SEO optimized and use keywords that search engines will pick up and rank.

It can feel like a slog but once you build your base community, it will usually lead to more growth. If people find your space and see it’s active and inviting, they’ll tell their friends and invite others.

Rules, Philosophies, and Foundations

Building good rules and community philosophies can make all the difference between a chaotic community and an inviting, collaborative community. When I create rules for a new community, these are the sorts of things I consider:

  • What kind of behaviors do I want to encourage?
  • What kind of behaviors do I want to discourage?
  • What do I want my community to look like in a year?
  • What kinds of members do I want in my community?

If I want to encourage collaboration, I might write a rule that says something like: “1. Community comes first. Please remember this is a positive space for members to collaborate and create together. Keep that in mind when interacting with the community.” If I want to discourage behaviors like venting, I would write a rule that says, “We do not allow venting. Please check Disboard for communities that offer emotional support.”

Your rules will change as conflicts and issues arise, that is the nature of community guidelines. Do your best to be prompt when making these changes and inform your community of them as best you can.  Ensure that changes are either for benefit of staff or the community as a whole. I also dive deeper into rules and moderation in part 2 of this series, so don’t miss it!

Take suggestions to change your community or community rules with a grain of salt. I’ve run into many who wanted me to change rules or programs to suit their personal needs. Suggestions can be a great tool to revise your community vision and enhance interaction. Still, you always want to make sure they also add value for most members of your community and don’t add a ton of labor for staff, especially if it’s a free community.

It’s crucial to build staff philosophies early on. These philosophies will help dictate how community admins, moderators, and other prominent members interact with the community. Also, if volunteers staff your community, be KIND to them. Listen and respond to them if they contact you. They are your most valuable resource, and their time and efforts should be recognized and complimented. If you’re able, you should also give them perks and some additional ownership of the community that others may not have. For my last community, staff members created graphics and programs for the community, a perk that was not available to everyday community members.

Here are some philosophies I’ve used in the past that were VERY helpful as my community continued to grow:

  • Staff is a team. If a team member is unable to do their duties, they can step down and return at a later time if they wish to. Avoid saying staff is “family” because I’ve seen so many communities with this philosophy end up with over-bloated staffs where a few people work their butts off while others in the “family” do not contribute or put much effort in.
  • Staff members should be respectful ambassadors of the community. They have to maintain that respect, even with problematic members.
  • Staff members should not take abuse from community members. If someone is trolling or acting as if staff is customer service they can yell at or berate, the staff member should report it and you should consider removing the member.
  • Share issues/conflicts with other staff members. If everyone is aware of a problem, they can work together to solve it.

Join me for Part 2 and 3 of Community Creation!

I’ve mapped three parts for this walkthrough, the next two parts will take a more in-depth look at some of the things I’ve mentioned here: Moderation/Community Management and Community Growth/Branding. I learned so much about moderation and managing my own writing community over the last three years, I can’t wait to share with you what worked and what didn’t!

Quicklinks will be here once they are posted:

Part 1 – Rules, Philosophies, and Platforms

Part 2 – Moderation and Community Management (Coming Soon)

Part 3 – Community Growth and Branding (Coming Soon)

We will publish these blogs in the next couple of weeks, so be sure to subscribe for updates!

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Aubrey Lyn Jeppson is a Freelance Writer. Who really wants to live in reality all the time? Writing affords her a much needed escape from the mundane into the fantastical. She's always looking for other writers and artists to collaborate with. Email her at aubrey.l.jeppson@gmail.com.

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