Slack for communities?

Slack has been hugely successful as a messaging platform for teams.

And it has been used to run online communities - mostly professional or semi-professional. However, Slack was never designed for online communities and suffers from a number of drawbacks as a result.

Slack themselves don't advocate Slack as a community tool

Slack describe themselves in various ways... the 'email killer', the 'place work happens', 'collaboration software' etc. They are very much focused on teams who are working on projects together. Those teams can be internal but may well be distributed or remote.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield confirmed recently (in a Stratechery interview with Ben Thompson) that Slack is not focused on it being a general community product:

"Slack is specifically designed for some group of people who are aligned around the accomplishment of some goal... It's a lousy social network... a lousy replacement for a bulletin board or discussion."
Stewart Butterfield, CEO, Slack

Slack is a workflow communications platform not a community platform which means...

Slack's pricing model punishes successful communities

Slack is designed for teams collaborating on projects. These teams tend to be small - even if there are lots of teams - and as this is business software it is reasonable for Slack to charge around £6 per active user per month (around £70 per year per team member).

There is a free version of Slack which allows unlimited users. So you could create quite a large community on Slack. However, the free version is limited to 10k of the most recent messages and 5GB of file storage, which means a vibrant community quite quickly hits the limits and either has to pay or accept limitations like not being able to post further documents or not being able to search valuable archive content from the community.

If you had quite a small community of, say, 100 members and needed to move to the paid version of Slack then you will need to spend around £7,000 a year for Slack. 100 people is a big team but a small community.

It is worth noting that you cannot export messages from Slack unless you are on the paid version. So if you start on the free version and then realise you cannot afford to move to the paid version and want to change to another platform... you won't be able to take your valuable archive of messages with you.

Slack's features aren't designed for communities

Because Slack wasn't designed for running online communities there are many areas where it is lacking for professional community management. For example:

  • Users' profile information is limited - this matters less when you are in a group with team members you already know but is a problem when you are trying to build a community with people who may not already know one another.  LinkedIn, for example, has much richer profiles for professionals.
  • It is hard to search member profiles - as well as limited profiles (see above) it is hard to search for people based on their profile. The 'people' search is separate to the normal search, which is only messages and files, and it only searches on names, not organisation or job title etc.
  • Separate login needed for each 'workspace' - you need to create a different email/password login for each workspace (equivalent of a group or community on Slack) which makes it more difficult to navigate between communities if you ever log out. With community platforms like Guild or LinkedIn the individual has the same login and profile across all their groups. Slack is built for teams within a company so it makes sense to have a login per company.
  • Moderation features are very limited - Slack isn't designed with community moderation features even the most basic things like allowing admins to delete messages which violate community guidelines etc.
  • You can't block someone from spamming you - you can't stop someone direct messaging you on Slack even if it is spam, annoying or harassing. This is because Slack assumes these people are team members and should be allowed to message you. However, individuals in communities need these protections. In Guild you can remove someone as a contact and they can no longer message you.  
  • No subject lines for threads or messages - Slack is designed to be used by teams working on projects together so users needs to be 'in Slack' pretty much all the time to keep up with the flow and make sense of conversations. Channels give some sense of structure but as there are no subject lines to threads or messages it is very hard otherwise to understand what is going on and what has been talked about if you are not in Slack all day long. Community members may visit more occasionally so need more structure and clarity.
  • Very limited networking features - Slack is designed for team members who typically already know each other so they do not offer networking features like the ability to introduce two individuals. You cannot connect with individual contacts of yours via Slack. Groups, or user profiles, cannot be made discoverable to encourage networking and help you grow your community - there is no underlying Slack network to benefit from like, say, LinkedIn or Guild.  
  • It is not clear who is in charge - it is usually important for communities to have some kind of leader, manager, or host, who is the 'face' of the community and who community members can turn to with questions etc.  Slack does provide a lot of admin features and controls but can feel quite impersonal and there is no sense of a community 'host' or community manager.
  • Limited email notifications - Slack is designed for co-workers who are 'in Slack' most of the day. So email notifications aren't that important. However, even big platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter rely on email to get their users back and to notice that there are new direct or group messages. You will need email to help encourage your community members to (re)engage. Slack doesn't send email notifications for all messages and replies to threads aren't sent by email either (only mobile notifications).
  • Limited branding - many communities have a strong sense of identity that may be conveyed graphically. Slack is a business productivity tool that is less concerned with providing customisable branding beyond colour schemes.
  • Too much freedom and complexity - Slack provides all sorts of abilities for team members to create new channels, integrate with other apps, start threads, create DM groups etc. This freedom can become chaos, noise and overwhelming complexity in a community. Communities, and community managers, often want to restrict what community members can do to maintain quality and avoid too much complexity and loss of focus.

Slack can be just 'too much' for many users

If the members of your community 'live in Slack' then it might work for them - although some also want to escape the environment they spend their working day in. For many, perhaps more used to simple messaging experiences like WhatsApp, Slack is just too overwhelming.

Slack has workspaces you need to switch between (with different logins), then channels, then threads, then various DMs, apps, bots... And you need to decide whether you open in the browser or the desktop app. Power users might like this complexity but many find it too much.

If you are not 'in Slack' all the time then it is very hard to keep on top of community conversations. When you do return you cannot see how much you have missed, nor what the conversations are about, so have to click and scroll through everything to find out. Even with disciplined categorisation by channel it can be hard to know where to start in keeping up:

Conclusion

Slack is a great tool for team workflow comms - if used correctly. What about Slack for communities? There are examples of successful professional communities running on Slack although many of them, because they are often quite open, have become too noisy to be valuable. However, most now recognise Slack isn't a good community building tool.

As Slack is particularly popular with tech startups the best Slack communities tend to be small, invite-only, and focused around tech and/or entrepreneurial themes. If kept small these communities may never need to pay and might not mind the limitations of the free version of Slack. For other types of community, you should definitely look into alternative online community platform options.


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