The Internet is an ideal place to build social communities around your brand, but it’s easy for any online community to become mired in negativity. While you may think dealing with negative content and the occasional troll is simply the cost of doing business online, bad attitudes can have a detrimental effect on your community if left unchecked.

Not only does negative content discourage users from being active and engaged with their social feeds, but it can actually cause community members to be more negative themselves. A study shows that when content is evaluated negatively by fellow users, the original poster is more likely to negatively evaluate fellow community-members and post more negative content. On top of that, a psychological tendency to remember bad things more strongly than good ones can mean that individuals focus on the negative aspects of your community over the positive aspects, exacerbating any existing problems your community has.

The end result: negativity in your community can breed more negativity, which encourages community members to be less active and engaged with your brand. That in turn means that a new visitor is not likely to stick around long enough to become an engaged community member, and may also walk away with a poor impression of your brand. Instead of letting negative posts sink your community and your brand, work on building a positive environment, which will help keep your brand’s biggest fans interested and engaged.

But just how do you go about building a positive social community? Let’s talk about some guidelines for encouraging your community to be on its best behavior.

Establish Clear Community Rules

Consider the type of behavior that’s acceptable for your brand and the community you want to build around it. Then spell out these rules for your community members. Don’t take good behavior as assumed: you want to be clear and specific about is and isn’t acceptable. In addition to these behavior guidelines, you also want to outline punishments — perhaps starting at a warning and going up to banning — so your community knows what to expect.

But beyond helping your community know what’s expected of them, these rules outline what’s expected of you. If a community member breaks a rule that’s been clearly spelled out, then your reaction should be just as clearly spelled out. You won’t have to figure out how to punish each case individually and there’s less room for a community member to argue against that punishment — after all, it’s all written in the rules.

Keep in mind that those rules don’t need to be a constant looming presence in order to be effective for your community. Just make them easily available for all members, and perhaps give an occasional gentle reminder to the group at large if you notice the start of a trend toward bad behavior.

A lot of bad behavior can be stopped before it starts by having rules that everyone knows to follow. Still, be prepared to follow up on infractions with fair punishments to keep your community on the right trajectory.

Improve Your Community By Improving Your Community Members

In an interesting social experiment, gaming company Riot Games — which manages a community of 20 million players — has a dedicated Social Systems team, lead by a psychologist, that works to fight toxic players. Some of the lessons Riot has learned are definitely applicable to all social communities.

Riot aims to reform players participating in negative behavior when possible, and found that one warning — provided it offered clear information on the offense — was enough to improve behavior in 74 percent of cases. This implies that simply reaching out to a problematic individual may be enough to solve the problem, and many community managers would agree with this result. A negative community member could be lashing out because they’re having a bad day, don’t understand your community rules (or that they’re breaking them), or had a frustrating customer service issue that you can address. Regardless of the specific situation, talking to them one-on-one could well be enough to resolve it.

However, about 2 percent of Riot’s negative players didn’t improve regardless of punishment. These are the sorts of community members we might kindly refer to as “trolls” — individuals who seem intent on causing trouble no matter how much you try to help or work with them. Riot typically offers lenient punishments with many second chances, which allow individuals an opportunity to improve. In the case of this 2 percent, that only meant these problematic community members stayed in the game longer, creating more negative experiences for other players that rippled through the community as a whole. For these players, Riot attempts to dish out more severe punishments sooner to keep out individuals who show “extreme cases of toxicity.”

The social lesson here is simple: while you want to encourage your community members to get along and play by the rules, you shouldn’t spend all of your time trying to reform the most negative members of your community. Sometimes paying them attention will only encourage their negative behavior, especially if they don’t want to be reformed. Don’t be afraid to impose harsh penalties, like bans, in the appropriate situations to help make the community a more positive experience for everyone.

Listen to Your Community

By listening closely to your community, you’ll be able to identify and address issues before they’ve had the time to become big issues. Regardless of the exact situation or who’s in the wrong, customer complaints or frustrations will only grow worse if ignored, which can turn your community into a hotbed of negativity.

While you may be tempted to delete negative comments, unless they’re abusive or clearly violate your community rules, it can be better to keep them. Deleting comments or comment threads that are critical of your company or raise valid complaints can easily be seen as an attempt to hide something, which will only generate even more comments and complaints. Instead, try to respond quickly in order to resolve the issue before it gets any worse. By jumping in with a polite, helpful, and honest response, you’re putting a stop to the negative talk before it has a chance to snowball.

You’re also representing your brand with a positive sentiment, even in a negative conversation. Beyond resolving the situation at hand, building a reputation as responsive and helpful within your community can have a positive impact on your brand’s reputation and the tone your fans want to set.

Negativity isn’t a fact of life for online communities. With careful and attentive community management, we can encourage a positive atmosphere. This not only makes your group a more pleasant place to be, but also helps cultivate an audience that’s engaged and invested in your brand — something that any business would be happy to have.