Before you build and grow a community, one of the biggest decisions you will make is which platform to use.
There are plenty of options out there to choose from – from real-time messaging platforms like Slack and Discord to forum platforms like Discourse, not to mention the ‘old-school’ social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Each one brings its own unique benefits and drawbacks. The one you choose will shape how your community members interact – and the degree to which your community thrives.
In this article, we’ll focus on one of the most popular instant-messaging platforms: Slack.
Slack is an instant-messaging platform that allows users to participate in real-time text-based conversations within public channels, private groups, and direct messages. It also supports limited video and audio calls.
It’s important to note that Slack wasn’t designed with communities in mind. It is specifically a workplace communications tool, designed to enable collaboration within professional teams.
Slack has almost single-handedly changed workplace culture and the way teams operate, replacing email as the go-to communication method in countless businesses.
Despite its workplace focus, many companies also choose to build their communities on Slack because:
The fact that Slack is designed for the workplace, not for autonomous communities, is evident in its design.
One key example is Slack’s lack of built-in moderation settings. If you use Slack for its intended purpose – workplace collaboration – moderation isn’t really an issue. All users are part of the same company, so there’s less need to worry about them abusing, spamming, or scamming each other.
If you use Slack to build your community, however, moderation becomes much more important – particularly as you grow. There are ways around this. You can vet new members, for example, or outline your community rules and guidelines for all to see. But policing those rules can be tricky.
Furthermore, Slack offers little in the way of recognition, gamification, or detailed user profiles, all of which can help engage and motivate users to sign up and stick around.
Before you choose a platform, it’s important to have a solid understanding of your community strategy. You should be able to answer these questions with confidence:
If you want a place where lively conversations can take place around a range of subjects, using a slick but not-very-customizable platform, Slack might be a great option.
But if you are concerned about effective ways to moderate content, want to be able to organize conversations in a more conventional message-board style, or think your community members would benefit from real-time learning via video and audio channels, Slack might not be the best choice.
Assuming you’ve answered the questions above and are happy to join the countless number of companies using Slack as their go-to community-building platform, let’s go ahead and discuss how to do it.
Now we know what Slack has to offer, let’s dive deeper into the process of community-building on Slack. We’ll focus on three key areas: how to build, grow, and maintain your community.
Even the largest, most successful communities have to start somewhere. Those that enjoy sustained growth and engagement get the basics right from the start. Here are some nuts-and-bolts suggestions for setting up your Slack community to succeed.
This is an important one. Outside of DMs, Slack communication takes place in channels. Think of each channel as a virtual room where discussions take place around a particular subject. How you organize channels will largely dictate how your Slack community is used.
While there’s no limit to the number of channels you can set up, it’s important not to overdo it at first. Create enough channels to cover key areas of discussion, but no more. Over time, as your community grows, you can add more as needed.
Again, the channels you create will depend on your community’s needs. Here are some examples you could use:
Remember to keep channel names as simple and unambiguous as possible. You can add a description as well to ensure that everyone knows what the channel is for. If you have particular rules or housekeeping notes for a channel, you can pin a post for all to see.
You can also set up private channels that are invite-only. You might not need this option at first, but later on, private channels could be useful for creating exclusive spaces where select members can converse.
For example, you might have a private channel for a focus group reviewing a new product feature before launch, or another for a select group of brand ambassadors you rely on to promote your products.
It’s important to understand which channels are being used and which aren’t. Slack does provide channel analytics, but you will have to upgrade to the paid plan to unlock them. The free plan only provides access to two metrics: monthly active users and messages sent.
Channel analytics will help you gain insights into engagement and popularity, clean up unneeded channels, and understand where new channels could be added.
Now your community is up and running, it’s time to focus on growth. Here are some ways you can spread the word and attract new members.
Now it’s time to turn your community from an idea into a reality. At first, you’ll need to spread the word and invite people in.
There are several ways you can do this. You could start slow by finding a group of loyal customers and inviting them personally, or you could invite all of your current customers via a blanket email or notification. Once up and running, you could automate the invitation process or build it into your product onboarding.
Once you’ve got people signed up, you’ll need to ensure that the onboarding process is smooth, hassle-free, and clear.
Welcome everyone with a personal message outlining what the community is about and what they can gain from it. Explain any initial steps they should take, like introducing themselves via the ‘welcome’ channel. Make sure everyone has read your community rules and guidelines and knows what to do if they find someone breaking them.
Get the word out about your community via social channels. Create a hashtag, get people talking, and build a bit of buzz.
Attracting new members is one thing. Retaining existing ones is another altogether. If you want people to stick around, you’ll need to deliver a virtual space that is fun, helpful, and safe. Here are some ways to do it.
Moderation is key to a happy and healthy community. Your members won’t stick around long if they feel threatened, hassled, or bombarded with messages and content that aren’t useful or relevant.
For the most part, it’s best to leave your community to grow and interact organically. But if things get out of hand, you’ll have to step in. Unfortunately, Slack doesn’t have built-in moderation settings. This does leave you and your members a little bit exposed.
The best way to avoid unruly or unacceptable behavior is to set expectations from the get-go. Outline your community rules and guidelines. Make sure everyone reads them during onboarding. Explain what is acceptable and what isn’t. Ensure that people know what to do if they spot someone breaking the rules.
Vetting new members will increase the chances of them playing by the rules. As part of the onboarding process, you could guide people through a series of questions or tick-boxes, getting them to agree to your community guidelines.
While this isn’t a foolproof method of guaranteeing the right kind of behavior, anyone signing up just to mess around will likely be put off at this early stage.
A steady stream of high-quality content is an excellent way to motivate people to stick around. The type of content you deliver will largely depend on your target audience and the type of community you are building.
Communities that focus more on informal, fun interactions might enjoy short-form articles, competitions, and campaigns they can get involved in. Communities that are specifically a place for learning and support will benefit from videos, webinars, workshops, and Q&A sessions.
It’s also important to get community members involved in content creation. Research shows that 72% of people trust what other people say over what your company says, making user-generated content a powerful way to build trust, loyalty, and engagement.
While your community is all about its members, you must have a presence too. By interacting with people, you’ll close the gap between community members and your company and brand.
If you have a channel specifically for feedback, support, or questions, make sure any posts are acknowledged. Solve support-related issues as soon as possible. Show people that you appreciate – and act on – their suggestions.
There are countless ways to keep community members engaged. You can run regular competitions where the best answer gets a free sample, a new product, or VIP tickets to an event.
You could ask community members to describe your product in three words, take photos of themselves using your product in unusual places, or show off the amazing things they have built using your product. You could even include them in the process of naming or designing new products. Whatever you choose, make it as fun and inclusive as possible.
At this stage, you might be wondering how all of these ideas might look in practice. Here are some examples of Slack communities in action.
Software debugging tool Honeycomb runs a vibrant Slack community called Pollinators. Everyone who signs up for their product gets an automatic invite as part of the onboarding experience.
Pollinators is a place where customers meet each other and share ideas. They can also communicate directly with Honeycomb’s engineering and customer success teams to get real-time support and guidance.
With over 20,000 members, Product Marketing Alliance’s Slack group provides a wealth of knowledge, inspiration, and wisdom for product marketing enthusiasts from over 80 countries.
In true community spirit, members from some of the world’s most successful company’s come together to learn and grow as a group.
ArangoDB is an open-source database system, and its Slack community is a place where users can start live discussions and share best practices.
Interestingly, the ArangoDB community spans several platforms in addition to Slack, including Github, Stack Overflow, and Google Groups, each one solving a unique issue for community members.
Another one for the techies, KubeSphere is a distributed operating system for cloud-native application management. Like ArangoDB, KubeSphere uses Slack as a way to ask and answer questions, alongside Github and Google Groups to cover all community bases.
Hazelcast advertises its Slack community as a place to inform, contribute, and promote. Community members are encouraged to provide feedback, answer queries, and share success stories from using Hazelcast’s platform.
Timescale’s Slack community is where members “learn, exchange, and meet with fellow developers of time-intensive applications.”
Interestingly, Timescale uses Slack’s real-time chat platform alongside Discourse, a forum platform that focuses on asynchronous communications. This allows the community to serve everyone’s needs and preferences.
Slack is certainly among the most popular platforms for online communities, thanks largely to its established brand, intuitive UX, and vast ecosystem of integrations and bots. But how does it stack up against competitors?
While there are many to choose from, Discord and Discourse are perhaps the most popular platforms to consider as Slack alternatives.
Discord is the closest thing to a Slack competitor in that it offers a similar real-time chat approach to communication. But where Slack was designed for the workplace, Discord was designed to support gaming communities. Since then, it has expanded its use case to cover all virtual communities.
Unlike the other two platforms, Discourse is a message-board platform, focussing solely on asynchronous, text-based chat. But don’t be put off by the clunky message boards of old – Discourse is slick, customizable, and designed with community-building in mind.
Comparing all three platforms would take an entire article, so here are some top reasons to choose each one.
Choose Slack because:
Choose Discord because:
Choose Discourse because:
Slack is one of the most popular and trusted places to build online communities. Its clean aesthetic and smooth UX make it an excellent place to spark real-time conversations about your brand or products.
It does have its drawbacks, however – most of which are grounded in the fact it wasn’t designed specifically for online communities. But with the right strategy in place, most of these can be overcome. If you follow the suggestions in this article, you’ll be off to a great start.