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What Is Slack, and Why Do People Love It?

Slack's logo

Slack is a workplace chat app that’s so popular, the company that owns it was valued at more than $20 billion. You’ve probably seen it mentioned in the news. If you haven’t used it yet, here’s what you need to know.

What is Slack?

Slack is a workplace communication tool, “a single place for messaging, tools and files.” This means Slack is an instant messaging system with lots of add-ins for other workplace tools. The add-ins aren’t necessary to use Slack, though, because the main functionality is all about talking to other people. There are two methods of chat in Slack: channels (group chat), and direct message or DM (person-to-person chat). Let’s take a quick look at the user interface.

The Slack interface with the instance name, list of channels and DMs, and the chat window
Slack

There are four main things to pay attention to in Slack:

  1. The name of the Slack instance.
  2. The list of channels you’re a member of.
  3. The list of people you’ve direct messaged.
  4. The chat window.

When a customer wants to start using Slack, they choose a name for their Slack instance. This then becomes part of the unique URL. So, if Wile E. Coyote wants to create a Slack instance for ACME Slingshots, his Slack instance would be https://acmeslingshot.slack.com/. Wile E. can then invite anyone he wants to be a member of his Slack instance.

Channels in Slack can be public, meaning any member can see and join that channel, or private, meaning only members of that channel can see it or invite others to join. DMs are always private, although they can include up to 8 people.

The chat window is where all the actual communication happens. You can read any reply to messages, use emoji reactions, add gifs, see RSS feeds, set reminders, get add-in notifications, and various other bells and whistles. But more than anything, this is where you talk to people.

What’s So Great About Slack?

When Slack came along, there were no real competitors in the market. That’s not to say there weren’t other chat apps, but Slack combined an intuitive UI with both group and person-to-person messaging. It also allows companies to have a measure of control over who can use it through the invitation system. Other tools could do the same, but without the same usability (Campfire, now BaseCamp, was an obvious one). None of the traditional vendors (Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Sun, and so on) had anything comparable to Slack.

This lack of corporate size was also a benefit. Slack was small enough to be responsive and quick when it came to adding new features, like emoji reactions (great for users) and 2-factor authentication (great for admins). For some users, the fact that Slack wasn’t owned by a big traditional vendor was benefit enough, but that doesn’t explain why Slack is so popular.

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