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Your Legal Guide To Setting Up Online Community And Membership Platforms

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Legal Guide To Setting Up Online Community And Membership Platforms

Building communities is something humankind has done since early civilisation. It enables us to connect, share information, access skills, learn from one another and enhance our personal development and social experiences. In the digital world though, we’re able to do this in far more diverse ways. With many people either working from home or commuting for work, we don’t spend as much time in the neighbourhoods that were the basis for the communities of former generations. With fewer local shops and services, we are also less likely to meet our local community. However, many of us may talk to our neighbours through a local Facebook group, sharing local news, searching for wandering pets, asking for opinions on nearby schools and giving shout-outs to local businesses. LinkedIn has also connected professionals not only through its main platform but through its networking groups. In the last year, online communities have thrived through various newer platforms like Circle, Tribe and Slack. These platforms have been used for all sorts of purposes from business and education to leisure, support and fan communities, with the key aim being connecting like-minded people.

However, you needn’t use an existing platform to build an online community. Many organisations and business people are setting up their own online membership sites and apps. This can be a better option for more bespoke features and design as well as enhanced control and greater adaptability. However, if you’re setting up an online community, whether on an existing platform or one you create yourself, there are a few things to be mindful of. As well as a few things you’ll need to know to stay compliant with various legal and regulatory requirements.

Setting Up An Online Community

Whether you’re establishing a Facebook group for the neighbourhood or launching a membership platform to bring together a huge network of professionals, your purpose should be clear. Therefore, regardless of whether the community group is for profit, you should be writing some form of a business plan.

This will help you to set your goals, establish your mission and help you to clarify what the group is and is not for. Once you have done this, it should be far easier to write your online content. You’ll need:

  • A welcome page (usually the homepage) introducing the platform and setting out what its purpose is, as well as any other ways users are benefiting from using the platform

  • Guidelines for how users/members are to interact with the community, including rules of conduct

  • An email for anyone who joins or subscribes, reiterating the group’s purpose, features and rules, with a link to the guidelines

These guidelines may also be used to inform your terms of use and other legal contracts your website/platform might need (we'll cover this further on).

If you're using an established platform to build your community on, it will have its own rules and terms of use and it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with these. It's also essential that you select a secure platform with robust safety features. Not only does this help to protect your community but not selecting a platform with a good reputation for security may put off potential members.

Each group will be different and the decisions you make in how you set it up will be guided by your wider purpose. However, things you may want to consider may include:

Creating Community Managers - Depending on the size of the community you build, you may find that moderating, updating and responding to your members, quickly becomes unmanageable. Bring in support if you need it because these communities do need proper management to ensure they remain compliant and nurtured and that they stay true to their purpose.

Organising Your Community - Most members will not wish to be part of every discussion that takes place or be updated about events they aren’t attending or projects they aren’t involved in. This is why many mid-sized and larger community groups establish more specific threads or topics. This way, members can access the information and areas they have an interest in efficiently, avoiding being spammed or having to wade through irrelevant posts. Furthermore, creating sub-groups, topics and threads can help further define and/or develop the objectives and interests of the community.

Soft Launch - At some point, you’ll need to launch, but it’s wise to begin with a soft launch. Hopefully, you will already have gathered some interest in your community group and can invite relevant connections to join you when ready. It’s important to ensure you have all of your key communications and legal guidelines in place before you welcome others onto the platform because rules and tone are far easier to manage when established from the outset. A soft launch is recommended because inviting a smaller group to the platform, to test it out, offer feedback and explore, can help you to iron out any issues and perfect the user experience before you properly go public.

Promoting Your Community - When your group is ready you can begin promoting it and growing your community. Likely, this may be a busy time for you and the platform will require some close monitoring. On-going testing of the platform, asking for feedback and keeping an eye on KPIs are also key to ensuring the best user experience.

Moderating An Online Community Platform

Protecting your online community should not only be something to bear in mind but something you have a written plan for. One that you share with other platform moderators. This plan may be similar to a risk assessment and should include how you intend to protect your members from:

  • Bullying and/or harassment

  • Discrimination

  • Fraud

  • Their personal information being shared without permission

  • Other illegal activity

If you’re setting up an online community you probably envision being an advisor, facilitator and host, not a referee. Establishing the group rules from the outset is essential in avoiding this. However, reminding members of the terms of use they agreed to, especially whenever these are publicly breached, is also important. People in your community will only care about the rules as much as you appear to.

Legal Documents An Online Community Needs

Building an online membership group is fun. It can reignite passion in an area of interest, bring people together and develop communities. However, you will be dealing with people’s personal data and so you must ensure you’re GDPR compliant. Furthermore, they are trusting you with keeping them safe on the platform and so you'll need a contract/contracts that underpin your ability to do so.

Cookie Policy And Privacy Policy For Membership Platforms

Under UK laws, all websites must have a cookie policy and a privacy policy. Templates for cookie policies and privacy policies are available online. However, if you're building an online membership, particularly if it’s a paid membership, you may require something more bespoke. As a community group, members may be sharing personal information with you as well as each other. It’s important you know and can inform them as to how this information might be used. For instance, will you store personal details, how long for, how will these be protected and will these be shared with other parties? This is the kind of information your privacy policy will need to include and although many businesses operating online can tailor a standardised policy, online memberships can be more complex.

A privacy policy should be simple and easy for users to understand. It’s also important that you understand your privacy policy too, so you can ensure you are following it in all that you do. Therefore, it may be worth working with a commercial lawyer (like me) to create your online community privacy policy.

Terms Of Use For Membership Platforms

Whilst your privacy policy should protect your users, your terms of use aim to protect your platform. Terms of use may also be referred to as ‘terms and conditions’ or ‘terms of sale’ but ‘terms of use’ is the more common name for websites and especially membership platforms.

Terms of use are an agreement between you and your users regarding how they may, and may not, interact with your website. In short, they are the rules you need your members to follow. Terms of use can save you valuable time dealing with user complaints and they can be used should anyone seek legal action against your platform or your business. However, for community groups, terms of use tend to have a strong focus on protecting other users of the platform. For instance, they may make clear that:

  • Users are not to infringe on the intellectual property rights of others

  • All users must treat one another with respect and kindness

  • Users must not share posts, discussions or personal information of other users outside of the platform

They will also cover various other specific conditions.

Terms of use needn’t be overly complex. In fact, the simpler they are the more likely they are to be read and understood. If members are on paid subscriptions then you may also need to clarify what their membership does and does not include and what will happen should there be a disruption to service.

Legal documents for online community groups should be bespoke to the group and its unique requirements. Especially since you’re responsible for keeping your online community safe and able to converse without fear of verbal attack or fear that their privacy may be compromised.

As a commercial solicitor, and a user of online community platforms too, I'm an expert in data protection/ GDPR compliance and commercial terms of use. I’m here to help. Get in touch with me if you need terms of use, a privacy policy or a cookie policy drafted for your membership platform. Or if you want to have a chat about anything else you might need to consider when setting up an online community.

Disclaimer: Our blog articles are not legal advice. While we make every effort to provide accurate and useful information, I recommend you book a consultation with myself or another qualified lawyer if you’re seeking specific legal advice or guidance.


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