Jun 20, 2024

Slack: Blowing Up the Business Communications Realm

Digging through old email threads for specific details is a tedious, frustrating task. And it doesn’t get any easier when different teams and companies use different platforms to communicate on.

Communication is vital in business. The creators of the workplace collaboration hub Slack understood that.

Slack - the Searchable Log of All Communications and Knowledge – may, at first sight, seem like a run-of-the-mill messaging app. However, its massive range of integrations and use of separate channels set it apart from many others, and its visual identity and user interface add to a general sense of ease and even fun when using it.

Plus it’s looking into Slack AI to give users generative capabilities to find answers, distill knowledge and spark ideas. 

By daring to be different, while embracing so many existing platforms, this intuitive business communications app quickly became the fastest-growing startup company in the world - until it was acquired by software giant Salesforce for a record $27.7 billion in 2021 and headed up by a long-time executive at Slack.

Let's see how they did it. 

A Phoenix from the Ashes

Stewart Butterfield
Stewart Butterfield

Stewart Butterfield was not exactly a prodigious coding genius from his earliest years in Canada. In fact, it wasn’t until his university days that he discovered his real passion for technology. 

Soon after college, in 2004, he launched the original photo storage and sharing platform, Flickr, which attracted tens of millions of members and  gave him his first taste of entrepreneurial success.

On the back of this, Butterfield and his close-knit team had the clout they would need to get investment for future ventures. He was intent on conquering the gaming world, and so he started a game development company called Tiny Speck.

Its flagship title was to be a massively multiplayer online game called Glitch, released in 2011. It generated investment and  interest, but ultimately, the game was a disaster. The beta launch failed to gain traction, and eventually, the company pulled the game from the market.

Retaining a small core team, he had to find a new place for their creativity to go.

During the Glitch project, the team had created their own internal communications platform, which was unlike anything else on the market. They  loved it and they thought perhaps other enterprises would love it too.

Out of the (digital) ashes, a phoenix rose.

Early Hype

Slack: Blowing Up the Business Communications Realm

There were plenty of office chat apps on the market, such as Skype, HipChat, and Yammer. However, from the early days, it was clear Slack had something unique going for it.

It offered users a way to synchronize all communications in the workplace. It didn’t matter whether you used email, social media, messaging apps, Google Docs, Asana, or Trello. Suddenly, there was a channel to bring everything together.

Slack can integrate with hundreds of third-party apps, and operates on a system of channels, which allows teams to set up dedicated `chat rooms’ and ‘huddles’ for each project, client, or task.  

With just a couple of clicks, it was now possible to attach photos, PDF files, Microsoft Office files, links, and other business documents, then send them off to the right team.

This changed the game, making workplace communications and collaboration easier for everyone.

“On average, people switch between nine apps per day, which fragments communication and reduces efficiency. By integrating into our customers’ existing tech stacks, we bring that essential information into one central place: Slack.” - Neel Patel, Product Marketing Manager, Asana

Early on they launched a `Preview Release’, which helped sidestep the skeptical welcome that a `beta version’ can often receive. This launch garnered considerable hype purely through word-of-mouth marketing, which encouraged people to ask for an invite to use the preview version of the app.

Over 8,000 requests came in, with that number doubling within two weeks.

At the time, Butterfield claimed that `the world is in the very early stages of a 100-year shift in how people communicate, and we’re determined to push the boundaries.’

Making the Workplace More Enjoyable and Engaging

While email is direct, it doesn’t always incite a response or nurture open collaboration in a group. Often, emails can be overlooked or left buried. 

By comparison, Slack rapidly became the digital water cooler in many businesses, instigating more conversations around projects, and helping create a more welcoming, inclusive group atmosphere.

Even new members can jump into a channel and catch up quickly by reading through the archives - something that would be impossible if all communications were done through email.

While Asana and Basecamp are great for project management, Slack stands out as the platform that really gets conversation flowing. Unlike the others, it offers video calls, and a way to casually fire messages back and forth throughout the workday (and beyond!)

With the aim of making everything easy to find on the platform, Slack created Canvas - a single space to capture and document your most important information and get everyone on the same page. 

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And another thing - Slack is just plain fun! It allows for shortcuts and custom reminders while its popular library of emojis, user-friendly Slackbot, and quirky branding set the tone for a cool business app that makes the workplace more engaging and enjoyable.

In a millennial-led, mobile-mad world, it’s perhaps no surprise that this souped-up instant messaging app was such a hit from the get-go.

Harnessing the Power of the People

One of the main reasons Slack has enjoyed such meteoric growth is because it listens to consumers. As a communications app, it excels at customer communications.

Customer service reports show that a typical business handles about 52 tickets and 976 chats each month. Every month, Slack addresses about 8,000 Zendesk help tickets, and responds to an additional 10,000 tweets. This may be a massive job in itself, but the company has always valued user feedback, and the team is constantly learning from it.

Whenever any team member discovers a new idea, they will post it to a dedicated channel for the team to discuss the possibility of adding it to Slack’s features.

This commitment to providing a better service has been recognized by its fanbase, which fact paved the way for a clever marketing gimmick…the Wall of Love.

Slack’s Marketing Channels

With over 200k paid customers in 150+ countries and 77 of Fortune 100 companies using Slack, it’s doing something right! But how does it attract and retain customers? 

Seeing over 329 million visits per month to the website, the US accounts for 34% of the traffic followed by Japan and the UK, according to Similarweb. 

The top channel for driving traffic is direct followed by organic search and then referrals. This shows the power of the brand name and demonstrates the value of word of mouth marketing to a brand. 

It also uses search engine optimization effectively in its content marketing (by using SEO writing). The top organic keywords are ‘slack’ and ‘slack login’ while the top paid search terms are ‘slack’ and ‘slack pricing’

Slack has a popular blog titled ‘Several people are typing‘ which is inspired by the message that appears when teams chat on Slack workspace. Its colors and typography is on brand and the content is easy to navigate by category or through the ‘most read’ section. 

It also has blogs dedicated to engineering and design to tap into the niche market it has expertise in. 

Slack's blog
Slack's blog

It also has a ‘Customer Stories’ section which features testimonials from users and brands such as Stripe, Ocadao and Wayfair. This showcases the popularity of the platform and demonstrates trust to any prospects. 

Slack is active on social media channels. LinkedIn (over 1 million followers), YouTube (58.9k subscribers) and Facebook (135k followers) are the most successful at driving traffic, while Reddit (25k members) is also popular amongst Slack users or prospects. 

Slack's social traffic - Similarweb data
Slack's social traffic - Similarweb data

It posts many content formats on social channels from image-based posts to videos to company news, announcements and conferences. Its YouTube channel (see below) promotes guides, tutorials, customer and partner stories and security advice videos. 

Slack's YouTube channel
Slack's YouTube channel

On X it also has a community where people can ‘connect, share and create the future of work with other beginners, experts, developers, designers and more’. The company also hosts in-person meet-ups and virtual events for people to learn about the product and meet other ‘slack enthusiasts. 

This combination of quality product-led content, a solid SEO strategy and proactive customer service helps it cultivate a community and solid brand companies trust.

Slack & AI

While AI may be treated with caution by many companies, Slack has embraced the technology. Under CEO, Denise Dressler, AI is seen as a natural fit for Slack because as a communications platform with lots of embedded knowledge, it will help users harness, understand and find knowledge nuggets in the mass of information.

The aim of the platform is to use the conversation data already in Slack to create an intuitive and secure AI experience tailored to an individual and organization. Users can summarize direct messages, threads and channels along with getting a daily recap and a search function. 

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ChatGPT is in a beta stage of being integrated into Slack to summarize conversations, answer questions, or draft replies. 

‘With Slack AI, we're excited to take this transformation to the next level. These new AI capabilities empower our customers to access the collective knowledge within Slack so they can work smarter, move faster, and spend their time on things that spark real innovation and growth. In the era of generative AI, Slack is the trusted, conversational platform that connects every part of a business to supercharge team productivity,” says Denise Dresser CEO at Slack

The Battle with Microsoft

Generally speaking, if Microsoft wants something, more often than not, it will get it.

Slack is so confident in its platform it creates content to pit itself against Microsoft. The company surveyed knowledge workers that used Slack or Microsoft to gauge satisfaction and published a blog with the results.

This image shows some of the feedback that came from it. 

Slack: Blowing Up the Business Communications Realm

Even with Slack’s success, Microsoft is a worthy adversary. The platform combines messaging app Teams with Office 365, Dynamics 365, and the AI-powered Microsoft Copilot. 

Arjun Bhatia, a William Blair analyst highlights the fact that Microsoft still works best inside the Microsoft ecosystem, and Slack may have an advantage in that regard. “Microsoft doesn’t have that interoperability play as much. Their advantage by far is distribution. And two big advantages that Slack has in their market are interoperability and ease of use,” he said.

So the battle continues between two communication behemoths but Microsoft is not the only competitor snapping at Slack’s heels.

Who are Slack’s Competitors?

The rise of hybrid and remote working has meant that organizations need platforms that enable communication and collaboration. That’s why Slack has been so successful in recent years and experience of this type of platform is now expected amongst current and future employees. 

But there have been some issues with Slack from a hacking incident in 2015 (which lead it to employ two-step authentication) and some outage problems in 2021 and 2022. Plus, some people have taken to Trust Pilot to complain about the redesign of the user interface.   

As a result, other platforms are gaining traction in the market to provide an alternative to Slack such as: 

  • Zoom Workplace
  • Google Chat
  • Rocket.Chat 
  • Workplace
  • Webex Suite
  • Chanty
  • RingEX
  • Mattermost
  • ClickUp
  • Filestage
  • Symphony

What’s Next for Slack?

Slack is now a well-established player and has gone from being the internal comms platform of a failed game company to the dominant force in business communications.

To this day, you can still see the video game roots of the company, in its informal branding, and through the helpful Slackbot feature, which acts as a ‘familiar’ that explains the features and functions in the world of Slack.

There is no doubt that the company has revolutionized business communications, and made history in many ways as it has boomed.

But it’s been a turbulent time for the platform under the wings of Salesforce. In just a year post-acquisition the company has had three CEO’s and has seen a downturn in revenue. 

The Wall Street Journal reported that Salesforce announced $402 million in Slack subscription and support revenue in Q3 2022. While that’s quarter-over-quarter growth of 6.9%, it reflects a slowdown from 9.3% growth in the second quarter and 11.7% growth in the first quarter. 

In addition, Salesforce laid off 10% of its workforce as customers take a more cautious approach to spending. 

With Microsoft close on its heels and other competitors waiting in the wings, its fate lies in the hands of Salesforce and the power of generative AI to make it the go-to platform. 

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