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Shaping Community Behavior with Positive Language

Written by Lindsay Starke | on June 7, 2016 at 8:30 AM


The goal of every community manager is to inspire others to share their stories, challenges, and triumphs. To welcome them into a deeply satisfying and inviting space. So why, when we’re onboarding, do we present new members with a long list of don’ts? All too frequently, conduct guidelines, administrative messages, and onboarding materials end up full of negative language that doesn’t exactly inspire one to engage. “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Leaving users wondering, “well, what the hell can I do?”

Language is everything. You want the people coming to your community for the first time to be hearing yes, rather than no.

Shared Value of Community

The first step to achieving this is figuring out the shared value of your community. Starting with a clear intention will help to shape your culture and give your users a reason to participate. This is not the place for nebulous, fuzzy wording—get specific. Is your community for product development? Professional education? Solving a problem? Inspiring massive changes in an industry and the rest of the world? Really dig down into what your community’s “yes” is, and start all communications with that end in mind.

A great place to start your positive language makeover is your code of conduct/community rules. Here, more than anywhere else, is where we get bogged down in trying to prevent every possible negative situation that we forget about reinforcing positive behavior. This is doubly important if you ask your users to agree to a list of terms after they log in to the site; otherwise, your core community message is “Welcome to the community. DON’T STEP ON THE GRASS!”

The State of Community Management 2016 Report included some great findings on communities with policies and/or guidelines in place. Best-in-class communities highlight and reinforce encouraged behavior, with 78% creating community/social media policies and guidelines that define good AND bad behavior.

Real-Life Code of Conduct: Antagonistic or Approachable?

Sometimes it’s as simple as adjusting your tone or sentence structure - good grammar helps. Below are some examples of negative language from real-life codes of conduct, as well as positive rewrites of the same concepts.

Negative: Don't challenge or attack others. Don’t post defamatory, abusive, offensive, hateful, or attacking content. Do not post anything that you would not want the world to see or that you would not want anyone to know came from you.

Positive: Respect others. Focus on the content of posts and not on the people making them. Please extend the benefit of the doubt to newer guests and members; there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Negative: Don’t post copyrighted content. Don’t make postings advocating anticompetitive, collusive, or otherwise unlawful practices that may violate federal and state antitrust laws. Don’t post false, misleading, or fraudulent content.

Positive: Respect intellectual property. Post content that you have personally created or have permission to use and have properly attributed to the content creator. Please comply with all libel, slander, copyright, and antitrust laws.

Negative: Don’t sell or self-promote. Don't post commercial messages. Don’t post messages soliciting money, charitable donations, or political support unless you have received the approval of the community manager.

Positive: Respect the purpose of the community. Use the community to share successes, challenges, constructive feedback, questions, and goals instead of products or services that you provide. If you’ve found a product or service helpful, please share your experience with the group in a respectful way.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to run around in grammatical circles to avoid using any “don’t”s--there’s really no (realistic) positive way to tell others not to post racist, sexist, or pornographic content. Setting and enforcing boundaries is crucial to a successful community.

But moderation is much more than policing bad behavior--it’s fostering an environment where pro-social, useful behavior will thrive. To do that, define what you want your members to be doing, not just what you don’t want.

Topics: Community Platforms & Updates, Online Community Management, Engagement, Online Community

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