How community managers build the foundation of an online community

In a TEDx talk, Mark Wills says, “online communities challenge our thought process of what we understand community should be.”  And it’s true.  When I was researching this post, I looked for definitions of community.  Almost all of the examples I found referred to physical communities.  But people in online communities are not connected by location.  They are created by people with common interests, goals, or values and they share those qualities via online connections.

As Mark observed, real time interactions are simple because people are face to face. Online interactions occur between anonymous and faceless people who are identified only by screen names.  In other words, online communities are made up of people typing on keyboards and connecting through the pixels on their computer screen.

This presents community managers (CMs) with some unique challenges.  In real life, rapport is generally fostered by “mirroring” another person’s body movements, speech rate, language and tone.  In online life, the CM is responsible for finding a way to, as Mark puts it, “create an environment where it is safe for people to be and to open up their vulnerabilities.”

The first tool a CM uses is with a Terms of Service (ToS) document.  In addition to the required legalese, the ToS is the first place that expresses what the community’s values are to new members.

The second tool is the set of “rules” for interacting in the community.  Ideally, CMs don’t want many rules.  The goal is to have the members behave kindly because that’s how everyone behaves; a benevolent form of peer pressure.

According to community management consultant Richard Millington, online “communities should be a place where we can talk about things that we can’t talk about anywhere else.”

Here are the guidelines we have in place at  I highly recommend going to the actual page and reading the sub-headings for these.  Each guideline is stated positively and with explanations.

  • Remember: Everyone was new once.
  • Post quality. In order to try to maintain a certain level of quality in discussions here, we ask that you strive to ensure that each post you make is:
  • Meaningful – says something of substance
  • Relevant – on topic and helpful, not generic advice
  • New – something that hasn’t already been said in the thread
  • What can I do to make you like me?
  • Be kind.
  • Be patient.
  • Be polite.
  • If you see a problem, tell us.
  • The internet is forever. Before you post, please think carefully about what you post.
  • Spam? There’s no way I’d do that! – I’m sure it’s unintentional, but sometimes spam is in the eye of the beholder.

Please note how short the list is, yet it encompasses everything the community members need. These guidelines create a safe space where people can share their experiences and vulnerabilities.

The next thing that a CM does is encourage new members to dive into the community and start posting.  A generic, and not terribly effective method, is to have an introductory thread.  The reason these aren’t effective is that they put pressure on the new member to post about themselves without offering anything in return.

A more effective variant is to have a thread that asks a question for members to answer.  A forum for medical students has a thread with over 20,000 responses entitled, “If you knew what you know now and you could do it again, would you?”

At, we have a thread called, “Information that will change our lives.”  It’s an introduction thread, but it gives questions for the new people to answer.  The questions remove the pressure of creating something to say.  The title of the thread is important, too.  It’s not basic.  It conveys the message that we are interested in our new members.  Another important element is that our active members actually read, welcome, and respond to new members.  Those posts are where the first connections are made.

At, a forum for community managers, we have a thread entitled, “First time here?  Welcome!”  This thread functions both as an introductory tool but also as a resource with popular links for new members.  It also immediately reassures new members that no one expects them to be experts.  We welcome everyone interested in community management.

The Terms of Service, guidelines, and introductory threads are the foundations that build the sense of a safe and inviting community. Mark Wills says that the CM is responsible for instilling the community values and encouraging members to commit to them.  “With these things, you have a community.  Without them, you have a social site.”


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