Online communities can create a powerful connection with your target audience, but they need a plan in order to succeed. They need a community charter.

What is a community charter?

An online community charter is a brief document that outlines:
* The purpose of the community
* The ideal member who will get value out of it
* A statement about what you can do there
* A description of the culture or spirit of the community
* A guide to etiquette and rules for being a good citizen there

It’s more than creating a terms of service agreement in legalese. The charter for your online community is a document that should guide the content you use on landing pages where prospective members can decide whether they belong in this online community or not.

It is further useful as a standalone document that you can share with community members when they first join or can be used as an introduction to a FAQ area of the community where you can point newcomers.

Finally, a well-written community charter has power when communicating with your internal stakeholders, allaying concerns and guiding the further development of your software platform.

Who writes a community charter?

A community charter is something that you start working on before your first member joins. Ideally, in its nascent form, it may not even be called a charter, though many tech projects often have a charter associated with them.

You may call your initial charter an element of your community strategy, something that you’re writing to ensure that the virtual microcosm you’re creating is useful, unique, and focused on solving problems for a given group of people.

However, there’s a danger that these kinds of strategy documents get put on a shelf and only dusted off occasionally. The executive team peruses them, smiles indulgently, shaking their heads and says “What were we thinking back then? We were so naive!”

Instead, use your strategy document as a rough guide to creating a living charter that will be updated regularly as an exercise between your community manager, your community ambassadors, and your wider community itself.

How do you I enlist my online community in the co-creation of a charter?

A great place to start is for your community manager to share the existing strategy language justifying the existence of the online community with your community ambassadors.

If you do not have community ambassadors / advocates (you should), consider convening a group of interested and active community members to participate in a conference call.

On the call, explain that you’d like to hold a jam session in order to update and revise the online community charter now that the community has been live and active for awhile.

Present to them the initial language used to describe the community. You may also show them the initial landing page to join again, since it may have been some time since they signed up for the community themselves.

Show them the process for signing up again, to refresh their memories. This will help them to experience coming into the community all over again.

While you are doing this, capture what these members say. They are likely to remember details about their sign-up. The platform may have changed quite a bit since they first joined. They will make remarks about elements of joining, or statements about what membership means that you will want to capture.

Put these into a document, preferably on a screen share, or, better yet, on a collaborative document like Google Docs where everyone can add their ideas.

They will begin to make statements about the value of the community, what new members should know, and what they will get from it.

You will be beginning a collaboration about the new version of your community charter.

Next, ask this group a few pointed questions:

  1. What originally attracted you to the community?
  2. Were your initial expectations met?
  3. What value did the community actually bring you?
  4. What’s the culture of being in this community like?
  5. How has the community changed since you joined?
  6. What etiquette should someone know about posting and participating here?
  7. What’s the best way to post something where it will be seen and get a response?

Keeping the Charter Relevant

Over time, all charters will slowly cease to be relevant to the community they attempt to describe unless you make an effort to revisit it on an annual basis. It probably will not be of much help to assess it more often than that unless there is some radical update to the community’s purpose or membership.

Reconvene a group of ambassadors and take them through an exercise similar to what is described above. Pay special attention to longtime members who may be particularly aware of how the community has changed over time. It will also help if you can invite some brand new community members into this session.

Getting the participation and buy-in from your ambassadors helps them feel a sense of ownership and impact upon the community. They will appreciate the collaboration and openness inherent in the exercise.

As part of your change management, you will want to share with them the updated charter and related onboarding copy in advance of rolling it out in the community. Doing so will help them to assure community members at large that the any updated language about the community they see is not a major change or departure, just an attempt to better reflect what the community is and does.

Some healthy conversations might ensue. As a community manager, you’ll want to be there to listen, exchange ideas, and make further updates as necessary.

Conclusion

These questions and others like them will help you to formulate a long document that should be reduced as simply as possible to an easily scanned single page or infographic. The idea is not to be comprehensive or proscriptive.

Imagine it as a kind of user guide to get the most out of the online community.


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