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5 Unexpected Benefits of Off Topic Boards for On Topic Forums

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?

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11 Comments on "5 Unexpected Benefits of Off Topic Boards for On Topic Forums"

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anon
Guest
anon
September 3, 2015 2:27 am

Off topic / General sections is the first place I browse after the rules on forums. I like to get a feel for the attitudes before I fully stretch my wings and jump out there in the main topic.

Member
July 22, 2015 2:04 pm

I definitely have had good experiences on forums that have off-topic sections to them! All of your points are spot on here, but the one I relate to the most as an active member of several topic-based forum communities is that it gives a place to relax. Chatting on forums can be a ton of fun, but after a while it can start to feel tiring and – as you stated – overwhelming.

An off-topic section helps you learn more about each other too, because you can post things about yourselves that otherwise wouldn’t be mentioned. I’ve learned surprising things about some of the active members of sites I use through their posts in these sections!

blair
Member
blair
July 20, 2015 1:52 am

If a forum does not have an off topic board I feel like I am going to work every time I sign in. I really feel the pressure to stay on topic and create posts that add value to the forum in any way possible. I think there is only one forum I visit without it and that makes me shy away from it to be honest

Member
July 16, 2015 12:34 pm

These are exactly right! I am on a disaster preparedness forum and it’s so overwhelming sometimes. There’s so much happening all over the world so there’s always posts about disasters happening now and always new and old members debating survival techniques and things….it’s just a huge downer sometimes.

If they had more off topic areas, instead of just one for “general chat” I would probably post there a lot more because this is a subject I am actually very interested in. I’d be able to balance between the topic at hand and blow off steam from it with everyone else. I might even feel like I’m making friends there instead of just making points when I post or reply to someone.

Guest
Michael Besnard
July 14, 2015 3:39 pm

I’ve noticed a lot of off-topic boards in only a small amount of places, and I find myself posting on them more than other boards.
Got some great points here πŸ˜€ thanks

Member
July 12, 2015 5:11 pm

Wow these are some really good points, a lot more in depth than I’ve thought of before but all true. I run a technical support forum and I am constantly asking staff to post in off topic areas so the community can get to know them a bit… but some will and some will avoid it like the plague!

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