7 steps to get your forum members to follow your rules/TOS

By Lightning · Jun 27, 2005 ·
  1. Lightning
    7 steps to get your forum members to follow your rules/TOS


    An eternal problem of administrating forum is getting your membership to follow your established rules. Especially among younger audiences, compliance to your rules can be the biggest challenge ever facing your forum. If people do or do not follow your rules will make or break your forum.

    Before I took steps to increase compliance to my rules, I had seen it all - from trolls to spammers to spelling and grammar disasters to flat out n00bs. I would have to take a considerable amount of time each day to moderate my forum, even with several other moderators dividing up the work. My forum was a chore to run and the discussion overall suffered.

    Now, after these steps were put in place, it has become rare to see any trolls, spammers, n00bs or other bad members. Discussion has improved overall - people now discuss more intelligent things and avoid silly forum games and bad posting habits. I find the need to moderate nearly gone - saving me time to make more good posts myself!

    I'm sure you are wondering exactly what I had done, so I'll explain the whole set-up. Some things are more obvious than others, but the less obvious ones can make the largest difference. The most important steps of this article in my opinion and in no specific order are step 1, step 3 and step 7. Those ones you should pay attention to the most.

    Table of contents

    • Step 1: Write a long established rule set
    • Step 2: Increase awareness of the rules
    • Step 3: Add a Spell Check
    • Step 4: Add a word filter
    • Step 5: Edit your registration page
    • Step 6: Offer membership upgrades based upon good posting and make examples of bad members
    • The most effective - Step 7: Make a "New Members" usergroup and add "Above the post button" rules
    • Why you shouldn't go overboard on the rules

    Step 1: Write a long established rule set

    This will be a lot of work on your part, but it will be well worth the time gained from less moderation later.

    You should write a clear and well defined set of rules. Here is a basic outline of my forum's rules:

    • Why we have these rules
    • Short form of our rules (to get the basic idea)
      • What this message board is for
      • Keep your posts understandable (easily readable basically)
      • Do what the moderators and administrators ask
      • Be courteous. Respect others. Argue with the post, not the poster.
      • Please avoid apologizing for breaking rules because it is not a big deal.
    • Long form of our rules
      • What to ask yourself before you hit the post button
      • How to contact our forums team
      • How to report bad posts (and what not to do when finding one)
      • Information about your account (and why you can only have one)
      • Posting rules
      • Image and upload rules
      • Signature and avatar rules
      • Why you should respect the moderators and administrators
      • What punishment you will receive
      • Your invitation to leave
    I based my rules upon the ones at other forums and the rules I had established earlier at my forum. I made everything clear and used examples very often. For example, when I explained that at my forum you are allowed only one account, I offered several examples of where a second account would be necessary and offered solutions to each problem.

    There are short and long forms of my rules for a reason: simplicity. Most people will want to read the short rules to get the basic idea of what I'd like people to do at my forum. Other people however, won't get it right after the short form of the rules and will need far more detailed explanations of what not to do.

    Also, please remember to write with usability in mind! Use 3 or 4 sentences at most for a paragraph, use lots of lists and headings. Make the rules easy to read in short. For more about webpage usability, try a few Google searches.

    Below I will explain a few less obvious parts of my outline - I would recommend that you base your rules on these parts or include similar parts.

    Why we have these rules

    I explained that these established rules improve our forum. Some people had thought that I had made rules to be mean (one even called me a tyrant). That honestly wouldn't make any sense at all, so I thought I should explain my rules. In short, I said that "these rules are here to reduce the amount of forum trash we receive."

    Some people will say that by banning them or forcing them to do certain things, I am restricting their "freedom of speech", so I also explain that being a member of this forum is not a right. I tell people to read the Bill of Rights or whatever they have in their country - they'll see that Freedom of Speech applies to the government, not an online forum.

    What to ask yourself before you hit the post button

    The purpose of this part was to make a sort of "checklist" of good posting habits. I reproduced this part on the post screen also, which you can read about deeper in this article under "New Members"/Above the post button rules.

    I will reproduce this section of my forum's rules because it would be the best example:

    • Have you used the Spell Check on your post? We offer this feature for it to get use. Even the administrators who have acceptable spelling use it.
    • Have you reread your posts? Many times you will find small errors when you reread your posts. Some of these errors involve our rules.
    • Are you contributing? If you are posting a question, did you provide information for us to help you? If you are posting a response, do you add something else to the discussion?
    • If you are posting a question, has it already been answered? Try using the search feature to save everyone some time. Also try checking "sticky" topics, our website, and maybe you should even give Google a try.
    • Will this post offend somebody? If it might, you should not post it. Offendable posts can be anything from insults and flaming to profanity and graphic or explicit posts.
    • Is this in the correct forum? We have multiple forums for a reason - they organize the discussion.
    • Is this in the correct topic? Is what you are posting in the current line of discussion?
    • Does your post violate any of our other rules? If it does, do not post it.
    • Have you posted this elsewhere today? Have you posted many posts in total today? "Post-whoring" is making an unneeded amount of posts at one time - do not post more than is necessary.
    How to contact our forums team

    Often I received an email or personal message asking to delete a post or asking why someone was banned. Many times I am not online or did not ban them at all and can not give a reason! My forum has it's own email account which forwards the email to several people including our moderators and administrators, and the appropriate person will take care of it.

    How to report bad posts

    With a picture, I showed where the button to report posts is in the default skin.

    I also explained that when a bad post is seen, avoid commenting on it (especially if the poster is a troll) and report it. A moderator will lock or delete the topic in a short time after receiving the message. Replying usually would do more damage than good.

    Information about your account

    I explained that each account is the owner's responsibility. The owner must keep it secure because we can not always determine if someone hijacked their account and posted rule-breaking material.

    Members are also not allowed multiple accounts. I will manually reinsert a new duplicate account's posts into the old account through phpMyAdmin, which is time consuming but keeps the order.

    Some examples of situations I pointed out with their solution:

    • If you lose your password, use the password recovery feature.
    • If you changed your email address, contact our forums team to verify who you are.
    • If you would like to change your account's name, please ask an administrator.
    Posting rules

    Your basic posting rules. We know so much about these that it probably would be worthless to explain, and many different forums have different rules.

    The basics of my rules for those who may need them were:

    • Spelling and grammar must be acceptable
    • Break your posts into paragraphs with lines in between each paragraph
    • Respect copyrights
    • Post things in the correct forum
    • Use capitalization correctly (no all caps or lack of caps)
    • Do not reply to yourself unless it is a bump (use the edit button instead)
    • One-line posts typically are bad, unless what is said is best said short
    • Use punctuation and contractions correctly (no !!!!!!!! or Ill and Im)
    • Post quality, not quantity
    • Keep your posts on topic
    • Use the search before asking a question
    • Argue with the post, no the poster (arguments on topic are good, but between members they are bad)
    • Do not post anything illegal, pornographic or anything questionable
    • A forum isn't IM - write words out and avoid posting many replies to yourself
    • Do not avoid the word filter
    • Do not go overboard with the emoticons/smilies

    Image and upload rules

    I explained that some people have small monitors and slow modems, so it would be best to keep posted images small or link to them.

    The upload rules are if your forum has uploads or attachments on the post screen - I said avoid using the attachment feature unless you have to.

    Signature and avatar rules

    I explained that signatures should be a signature and not large. I also applied previous rules and such to avatars - keep them clean and small (avatar sized).

    Your invitation to leave

    You should make it clear at your forum that any member can leave at any time they want to. This covers those annoying "goodbye" threads and is even an alternative to banning and other forms of punishment - if they leave on their own accord and don't want to come back, that's the best you can do! Making the forum uninhabitable for the bad guys will make them leave most of the time.

    Another idea to try

    Once when helping out another forum, I used screen captures of good and bad posting habits from real posts at that forum to help better explain the forum's rules. Sadly, in that forum's deletion, I lost all but three of these pictures.

    If you think that graphical examples would help, by all means you should use them! The pictures I made got the point across fast, one of the strengths of pictures.

    Step 2: Increase awareness of the rules

    Remember to link to these rules on every single page of your forum. I have the link at the top of my forum, on the post screen, and I link to it each time I make a post explaining some moderation I had just done. I also link to the rules in registration emails, as well as the welcome PM.

    Administrators and moderators should always provide a link to the forum's rules when they make a moderatorial post. I always make it clear on what rules they broke and link to where they can read the rules. Some members are blind to the point where they will not see something unless it is made an obstacle to them.

    Also, when teaching your members about how they can improve their posting habits, be their friend! Act like what they did was no real big problem if it really wasn't and they'll be more likely to do what you say.

    Step 3: Add a Spell Check

    A spell check simply is a necessity for forums where spelling is a problem. Spelling has a lot to do with the impression being put across. If they spell poorly, would you trust them? Many times the answer is no, but a spell check will help.

    I must say that once I added a spell check to my forum, the problem posts cleaned up a lot. The spell check is an essential part of many forums where spelling is a problem. Hell, I use it on every one of my posts and I rarely will make a mistake that I do not catch! It's a feature that most will love anyway, so it's just a plain good idea to have one.

    There are many spell check modifications to nearly every forum software, so finding a spell checker should not be a problem. Some are better than others, so you should test a spell check before installing it.

    You will usually need to maintain a special dictionary file with commonly used words related to your forum's subject. For example, my forum is about water fighting, and over a few months after finding water gun words absent from the dictionary, I added them.

    Next to the spell check button, I wrote in bold that spell checking your posts is required by our rules with an arrow pointing to the button. Many people will not notice the spell check, and those people usually are the ones that have the poorest spelling. Of course, there is no way I would know if they actually used the spell check unless they made obvious spelling mistakes.

    Step 4: Add a word filter

    The word filter does far more than filter out bad words - it can also edit out bad posting habits. I realize that it would be better to teach than filter, but usually people will notice the changes to their posts and not write poorly the next time!

    In my word filter, I have all sorts of things such as bad words, l33t translations, AOLer talk, punctuation corrections, banned website URLs (typically of spammers), and I even change some words to other more commonly known ones.

    Here's a few example of things I filter:
    • !!, !!! = ! (cuts out extra exclamation points)
    • ??, ??? = ? (cuts out extra question marks)
    • !?, ?1 = ! (cuts out both when used together)
    • ppl = people
    • ur = your (and other AOLer talk)
    • noob, n00b = inexperienced user (I don't like it when people attack the new guys, so I filter it out. This actually stops people from saying n00b altogether!)
    You can make your own word filter with whatever you do not like to see!

    Step 5: Edit your registration page

    On your registration TOS, simply add a small bit about how "joining this forum means that you agree to make every post you make follow our rules or else receive a banning from this forum." and link to the rules. This small part will help you justify some bannings to people who have trouble accepting that they were banned.

    Step 6: Offer membership upgrades based upon good posting and make examples of bad members

    Simply put, offer membership upgrades with additional features for your best members. A lot of people will try to better themselves because of this. You must also be aware that a few people will become jealous and ask "why aren't I a 'supermember'?", and in those situations you must explain very bluntly to each member what they are not doing correctly!

    The absolute best members are the ones who become your moderators and administrators. That is the top of the membership, and people will aspire to become part of that and if they have to post well, they will do it.

    Make examples of bad members. Do not go overboard and make it all everyone talks about, but make it known that no one should not what this member did. Whether it is by banning, public announcement, moderatorial post, or you edit their post, make sure people know what you do not wnat, and point out the bad parts specifically!

    Also, do not be reluctant to ban most anyone if you believe you should to get your point across (to the banned or to everyone). Troublesome members are just that, troublesome. I used to fear banning some of my most active members because I thought the discussion on my forum might die.

    As it turned out, discussion improved because some members came out of their hiding from bad members and everyone who complied with my rules made great discussion! You're only harming your forum by not banning, or at least trying to correct the troublesome.

    Some people will idolize other members, and when you keep bad posting ones around, there's a chance they'll be the one idolized (and I've seen bad members who were idolized at my forum before). You'll want your upgraded members who post great to be the idols, not someone who deserves to be banned. Ban those guys early on - it will just cause trouble down the road if you ban them after everyone likes him.

    Step 7: Make a "New Members" usergroup and add "Above the post button" rules

    I have saved the best for last, and this is a completely unique and original idea. This one simple change has made more difference in my forum than any of the other ones I have listed. It makes clear to all new members that we have rules and that they should be followed. It even makes the rules impossible to ignore, because they will be shown on every post screen.

    What am I speaking of? The above the post button text is simple a short form of my board's rules/TOS in a bulleted list format. These rules can not be ignored because they are going to be present until the member shows their ability to follow them.

    I have noticed that people will take a forum's rules far more seriously if they are presented with them repeatedly, though, most first posts get it right from the start.

    Of course, the rules above the post button is not permanent for all members. Change your normal "Members" usergroup to one called "New Members" - set up your forum so that the rules above the post button will only be shown for the New Members group. Usually this is done through the skin/theme controls, so you may also want to disable changing the skin/theme for New Members.

    You will then make a group called "Members" and keep the group completely the same as the original Members group. People will be forced to read (or at least acknowledge) some of your rules with every post they make unless you manually upgrade them!

    I put a shortened form of my "What to ask yourself before you hit the post button" list above my post buttons. I also make it clear that:

    • These rules being shown are a temporary thing only
    • Showing ability to post well will result in the upgrading of their account

    After their first post, I will make a "Welcome to ..." style post. If they appear to be adequately following our rules, I will say something to the effect of "Your account has been upgraded. Enjoy your stay!". On the other hand, if they have anything that needs work, I will point out each problem specifically and recommend that they read our rules for more information. I also say that this is no problem and if they simply follow our rules, they will be upgraded in no time!

    Above the post buttons skin modifications for Invision Powerboard

    My forum at the moment runs on IPB, so I will include the skin modifications I have made so that users of IPB may set-up their forums to have an "above the post buttons rules" modification. Other forum software users will have to modify their forum on their own.

    Go to the skin manager and edit your default skin's template set for the Post Screen. Please edit the code as is needed. The if statement will show the rules if a member is in the New Members group, which should be group 3 unless you changed your forum so that newly registered members are not group 3.


    Add above everything:

    <if="ipb.member['g_id'] == 3">
    <td colspan="2" class='pformstrip'>Forum rules</td>
    <td class='pformleft' colspan="2">
    <p><strong>This small sniplet of our rules will disappear when an administrator feels that you follow them well.  Please read our <a href="rules.html" target="_blank">full rules set</a> for our full rules.</strong>
    (board rules)
    And that's it! This is a very simply modification.

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