When it comes to off topic boards many admins are unsure if they will add anything of value to their forum, and worry about the implications. While at times they can be a distraction from the topic at hand, they can also keep forums alive and kicking – even thriving – when they are approached effectively.
So the question is not whether you should have an off topic board, but how to approach it. Essentially it’s the same as on topic areas: Establish a posting standard and enforce it through moderation and by example. By deleting the topics that don’t add to the forum (eg: “Show us your desktop!” type topics) and posting more meaningful topics you will see the benefits these boards can bring…
1. It gives members a place to bond
The most important reason to have an off topic area is that members bond with each other. When members bond they’re more likely to interact, stick around, and keep coming back. Content is king to getting members, but members bonding (a sense of community) is king to keeping members coming back.
2. It gives members a reason to return
If your forum is strictly on topic members will come back for information as much as they need it. This is great for niche’s with a lot of growth or activity (such as entertainment), but not so much for the niches that have very little growth, activity, or are seasonal (specific sports, software, companies, etc).
This makes off topic boards highly beneficial for keeping members visiting, posting, and coming back. When activity in your niche is waning members will post more in these areas which is the best possible outcome. Keeping members posting and coming back when there is little activity in the niche could mean more of them are still posting when the activity returns – which could be the difference between your forum dying or thriving (if no one is there to post when things pick up the forum will be in trouble).
3. It allows staff and community to interact without pressure
Off topic areas feel a lot less formal than on topic areas which makes members feel more comfortable to chat and joke around. This casual atmosphere can be a key catalyst in members bonding with staff or becoming more involved in a project or forum.
It makes the staff more approachable by humanising them; it reminds members that they’re real people just like they are with families and stories and a life outside of the forum (as silly as it sounds there can be a bit of a disconnect here, especially with technical support staff). This can help members to show more gratitude towards the staff and project, and even encourage them to give back or become more involved.
In fact it was talking to the staff and feeling like I got along with them that encouraged me to volunteer my time for the Simple Machines project. I worked my way up from a Documentation Help Squad member to an official Documentation Writer who trained the Documentation Help Squad members. I gave a lot of my time and energy to the project all because a few casual conversations gave way to friends who told me my skills were valuable and encouraged me to join in.
4. It gives everyone a place to relax and recharge
A common issue with strictly on topic forums is that the topic itself can become quite overwhelming if it’s the only thing discussed on the forum. Members and staff will need an escape from the topic itself where they can relax a bit and talk about other things. You probably don’t spend all day talking about one topic only, and the same is true for your members…giving them an area to escape to could help keep them around. Without it you could find your members avoiding the forum entirely because it feels too full-on.
For example if you run a support type forum for relationships, special needs kids, or depression you will find members not only need a place to receive support but a safe place they can come to vent, and to interact with people who they can relate to. They’re dealing with these issues 24/7 and they need a place where they can forget about them for a moment and recharge. This makes off topic boards a vital asset in satisfying and keeping your members.
5. It will reduce off topic posts in on topic areas
Nothing is worse than off topic content in an on topic area. Having a spot for these sort of posts means you can move these topics to their rightful place instead of having to delete them and losing the content.
It also provides a place for slightly off topic content to be posted. These can add to your forum and encourage discussion. For example if you run a support forum for a specific forum software you might find topics about how Microsoft is Finally Scrapping Internet Explorer and other internet related news, jokes, etc.
Don’t get caught up in whether the topics are adding to your forum. It’s more important that the board is adding to the forum experience in a positive way.
We hope you found this article helpful! Have you had any positive or negative experiences with off topic boards?