The future of enterprise communication is nigh, and it is full of texts. Did you see the word enterprise and tune out? Come back little lamb. When I say “enterprise” I mean businesses big and small, perhaps even the very company you work for. The way we communicate at work impacts anyone with a job, and new forms are emerging.
We’ve been doing a whole series this month on how communication is changing, from the decreased relevance of desktop interfaces to the mind-boggling ineffectiveness of email. The work environment only exacerbates all these information-sharing problems. From too much spam to security issues in our BYOD days, company correspondence is a shit show.
In the past and present, enterprise communication took place mostly over email. Everyone from your company’s CEO to the guy planning the BBQ picnic would reach you in the same place. So would anyone outside your company: from business partners to evil marketers to your mother if she had your work address. All players are equal in email, there is no hierarchy to the information. You’re forced to mitigate the stream by staying permanently attached to your inbox.
Then came Yammer and the world of social meets enterprise. Everyone had a profile with their recent activity and could comment on each other’s posts. This facilitated a virtual office, a sense of community, and collaboration. But Yammer was buggy, and a million other competitors sprang into being. Clarizen, Declara, Convo, Bloomfire, tibbr, Chatter. I made the mistake of writing one story about Yammer sucking, and now every other day I get a pitch of a company that’s the new, better Yammer.
So, the first wave was email, the second wave was social. What if the third wave of enterprise messaging isn’t a better Yammer at all? What if it’s something totally different?
Breaking news: the third wave is upon us, and it’s all about chatting. As in, instant messages and texting. Real-time communication. Snapchatting sexy pictures. Just kidding. That last one still doesn’t have much of a role in business, except maybe the porn business.
Just like how messaging is becoming all the rage in consumer land — see Facebook chat, WeChat, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Voxer — chatting may be the future of how people communicate at work. Entrepreneurs are creating enterprise SMS and instant message products and going after big businesses to find out. “Honestly, I’m pretty excited because two years ago when I got started with this I had people try to talk me out of it,” Brett Hellman, co-founder of work communication platform Hall says. “Now everyone is catching wind of the new world, all about real time messaging on your devices.”
There’s a few different types of companies springing up: those focusing on instant messaging, primarily through a browser, those focused on texting, through mobile, and those focused on B2C chatting, from the business to the customer.
In the first category — instant messaging — falls Hall and Kato. They’re competitors to original group messaging program HipChat. These programs are like more comprehensive gchat or AIM services, with added features like searchable chat, document collaboration and notifications from outside programs like GitHub or WordPress. Hall and Kato both allow companies to create chatrooms and invite people from outside the company. In other words, you can “chat” with non-colleagues too.
“We’re not trying to kill email,” Hall’s founder Brett Hellman says. “But if you need to work in a more immediate way, than you need a more real time communication platform like Hall.”
The next category of enterprise chat, text messaging, is also blowing up. Three of these startups have launched in the last two weeks — Cotap, BranchOut’s Talk.co, and TigerText’s enterprise offerings. They’re tackling texting, so you can chat with colleagues anytime day or night, wherever you or they go with their phones. Joy.
Cotap lets users access corporate email addresses to add contacts. That way, you don’t need the cell number of Bob in accounting in order to shoot him a text to ask when you’re getting your paycheck. Founder Jim Patterson, formerly the Chief Product Officer at Yammer, says the product will be like Blackberry in the good ‘ol days, when co-workers could BBM each other. “You could use it for coordinating movement, you’re running late for a meeting, a last minute change happened,” Patterson says. “Sending a message to coworkers, making sure they’re going to receive it quickly and respond.”
Cotap isn’t the only one playing the texting game. A few days after Cotap’s launch, professional network BranchOut did a pivot to texting — or a simple feature addition if you believe its founder Rick Marini. It launched Talk.co, a separate company with a different name, that does group SMSing for businesses. “We think this will be a very hot market,” Marini says.
Finally TigerText, the original enterprise texting application, made its model freemium last week. It’s hoping to build users from the ground up, convincing companies to cough up money for premium security and organization features after their employees are hooked.
The last group of new companies tackling enterprise messaging are focusing on B2C outwards chat. I.e. Texts from the company to the customer. Miyou, a new app from a student-team out in Atlanta, Georgia, falls into this category, as does SlickText. SlickText for enterprise launched this week, and Miyou launched last month.
Of the two, Miyou is a little more consumer friendly. It’s an app where businesses and customers can ‘follow’ each other. Then, customers can send questions via chat through the app, and business owners can respond. The sort of questions a customer might ask are things they can’t find online but don’t necessarily want to call to get the answers for: do you have WiFi, do you cater, is there a sale going on? “Business owners, they use it as a way to contact customers without actually given them their cell phone number or home number,” co-founder Vick Bouloute says. “Customers use it out of convenience when they don’t have time to talk.”
Miyou is still in early days of development so it’s only available via browser, but Bouloute says they’re hard at work on a mobile app.
SlickText focuses on text messaging marketing, the tactic any consumer who gives their phone number out fears. It allows enterprises to blast SMS’s out to promote their product, offer discounts, and the like. Instead of the spam being relegated to a user’s email or mailbox, it shows up in text. The horror. But SlickTexts only get sent to users who “opt-in” via an online form or contest entry.
You might be thinking to yourself, wait a minute, the grand next wave of enterprise communication is chatting? Like, instant messaging? Doesn’t that bring us back to the nineties when AOL chatrooms were all the rage? To these naysayers, I say: yes. Yes that’s exactly what’s happening. We’ve circled back around to where we started.
The entrepreneurs I’ve talked to believe that real-time conversations are more natural to people than email. Just like texting became a natural replacement for phone conversations — more informal, easier, and faster — chatting will become a natural replacement for email. They’re betting it cuts down on the noise that overwhelms people at work.
That may be true, but I could see also see enterprise messaging trends going the other direction. Just like people get app fatigue on their phones, enterprise chats might feel like an increasingly fragmented and overwhelming way to communicate compared to having everyone talk to you through one portal: your email.
In fact, my brain hurts just writing this article about all the enterprise messaging directions. There’s a lot out there. The day could arrive when you have your work email, your work social platform, your work instant message program, your work texting app. A few more apps we have to keep track of to stay on top of our jobs.
Of course, if chatting takes over where email left off it’s not going to be a perfect evolution. It will take awhile to get everyone on board, and there will be hiccups. I don’t think chatting — or Yammer — or anything else will ever completely take over from email at work. But different conversations will be relegated to different places, and perhaps our inbox will get a little less clogged. Time will tell.
[Image via Thinkstock]