Sep
27

Talking Slack: Why is Group Messaging Hot?

Talking Slack: Why is Group Messaging Hot?

September 27
By

Back in 2009, I purchased an iPhone and hooked it up to my corporate email account. My life changed almost overnight. I could leave the office early and still feel connected to my group. Blackberry devices had been around for a while, but my company didn’t support their email servers. The iPhone worked with Microsoft Exchange and, I didn’t require IT approval. The smartphone, as much as any device, has blurred the lines between work and personal time.

The brings me to today. I work for a small company with less than 40 employees organized into five departments. Each group is physically segregated from other groups making communication a challenge. Relying on email wasn’t working well for those outside of the sales group, so management searched for a solution.

Slack logo

They decided to put every employee on Slack. Simply put, Slack is group messaging for teams. It allows me to connect with those outside my team in real time. I can quickly get answers to questions without creating a long email thread. But the killer feature is that it has reduced my email by 90%. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it has turned my inbox into a ghost town. No lie.

This week, I want to take a look at Slack and other group messaging application aimed at businesses. Should you consider standardizing on such a platform or let your employees select their own? What do you gain by going with a product like Slack? I’ll also look at some of the negatives I’ve experienced in using Slack.

Slack is Hot

Slack wasn’t first to market with a group messaging app, but they have garnered the most attention. The company is now now valued at staggering $3.8 billion. They also have over 2.7 million active users, 800,000 paid users and 430 employees. Their success flew under the radar for a while. I can imagine many CEOs didn’t recognize the value in subscribing to yet another chat application. Many probably considered chat apps like Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and Skype to be consumer chat programs that only served to distract those at work.

So how is Slack different than the many other chat apps? For starters, Slack is a hosted application. IT can seed groups and help create policies that work best for the company, but it doesn’t require a lot of babysitting. Most chat apps focus on one-on-one discussions whereas Slack focuses on group discussions. The sales group at my company has their own Slack channel. When I’m working on the phone with a customer, I can quickly bounce questions off my coworkers through the sales channel. Support, production and management have their own channels as well.

Slack doesn’t do away with email. Longer conversations are still handled best in person or over email. But what Slack does is make it easy to reach any employee at my company in real time or near real time. I can jump into the support or production channel and ask a question instead of sending off an email to the department. The entire concept almost sounds too simple, but it’s incredibly effective when your entire company uses the product. I’ve connected with employees over Slack that I never spoke to before.

The Competition

Slack’s rocket to stardom has many companies clamoring for a slice of the market. Companies such as Cisco and Salesforce have chat programs that included a number of features found in Slack, but are not as simple to use. Microsoft purchased Skype back in 2011, and has begun to position it as a strong alternative to Slack. They have renamed Skype to Skype Teams. Microsoft’s advantage is that it can deeply integrate Skype Teams into other Microsoft products such as SharePoint. Skype has an API that allows it to tie into other services, but it’s essentially a standalone product. If Microsoft can offer nearly as many features in a simple to use product at a lower price, I could see them gaining ground on Slack.

hipchat
HipChat encourages file sharing within groups

Slack’s closest competitor today is called HipChat. It has a whimsical design, but is still easy to use. HipChat includes group messaging, but also touts features such as file and screen sharing as well as video chat. Like Slack, HipChat is a hosted service with clients that run on desktop and mobile platforms. I used HipChat during its early stages of development, and we considered it at my place of employment before selecting Slack. Two features that felt better implement on Slack were notifications and search. Otherwise there was a lot more overlap than differences when comparing features between the two products.

Considerations

Do you work at a company where departments feel like silos? Are you interested in drastically reducing email? Then you might benefit from a group messaging platform.

Group messaging programs come with some downsides. They are easy to implement, but still need someone to set policy, approve group creation, and train new employees on proper usage. This doesn’t have to be someone in IT, although it will help to get IT involved from a login/security standpoint. They can also help recommend the best desktop and mobile apps. At our company, we put the sales manager in charge of helping create user policies that benefit the company and make sure we’re not just adding another time waster to everyone’s computer and phone.

Like other messaging program, Slack can be used to pass the time if there’s not much else going in, and that can cause a distraction for others. Tools within group messaging programs make it easy to mute channels. During work hours, I configure Slack to show notifications for only those messages where I’m directly tagged. When I’m not as busy, I’ll monitor one or two channels relevant to my job.

One should also consider the costs involved before making a decision. Slack costs between $8 and $15/month per employee. HipChat is only $2/month per employee.

Another question to ask is this: Is our company culture conducive to a group messaging product? Sales, marketing and support departments at my company have embraced Slack, while production has been slow to get involved. You might find that employees are already using a chat program like Skype or Yahoo Messenger. That’s a great sign that a group messaging platform would be embraced.

Conclusion

If you decided your company would benefit from adding a group messaging product like Slack, I strongly recommend rolling it out to one department for at least a month. A naturally chatty department such as sales is a smart choice because they will use it, and tell others about it. If you see employees encouraging other employees to get on Slack you know it’s catching on, and you can begin to roll it out to other departments. We started with a small group of employees that represented each department, and found this approach also worked well. Within a month we had employees for other departments asking to join channels.

As you can tell, I like Slack a lot, and consider it the most valuable software tool I use each day. It can be noisy if not configured properly though. I would feel disconnected from my team and the rest of the company if Slack were taken away, and that’s probably the highest complement I can give the product.

Has your company implemented Slack or HipChat? If so, have you found it to be valuable to your work flow?