Consumers are using Slack beyond the enterprise, whether the company likes it or not

By Michael Carney , written on February 23, 2015

From The News Desk

Rarely when a team sets out to build a new product do they have an accurate idea of how users will actually adopt and make use of its features. Look no further than Twitter, which has embraced and productized the hacked-together features created by its earliest and most engaged users, including tagging (@), retweets (RT), hashtags (#), and favorites (✭). The truth is, when you build a great product that solves a real market need, users will flock to that solution and in many cases fund new and novel ways to make use of it.

We are starting to see the same phenomenon with Slack, the popular team communication platform that has quickly emerged as an enterprise favorite and a darling in Silicon Valley. But it’s not just business teams that are using the platform for internal communication. Organizations and individual consumers are flocking to the platform in droves, repurposing Slack as a public or at least external communication forum.

The phenomenon is so pronounced that San Francisco-based developer Jeff Morris Jr. created an online aggregator called Slack Chats to aid in discovery of the growing number of public Slack channels. As Morris pointed out in his Product Hunt submission two months ago, “Slack does not currently offer discovery features for these groups.”

Slack Chats currently features more than 100 public Slack channels, all discoverable via search, trending status, and a list of latest channels to be added. In effect, these are online communities that may have previously congregated on Reddit, forums, IRC, AIM, or other platforms, but which are now choosing Slack as their preferred method of interaction.

The topics covered span a wide range, but – perhaps not surprisingly given Slack’s golden startup status and enterprise focus – tend to lean toward technology and business at this stage. For example, Slack Chats currently lists channels dedicated to Game Design / Development, Enterprise Sales, Internet Marketing, Product Management, NYC Tech, Boston Startups, and Female Founders, among dozens of others. But there are also more casual communities dedicated to interests like Music Discovery and Pet Ownership.

Some of these groups are charging for access, according to Morris, who notes that these transactions are obviously happening outside of the Slack platform but are indicative of existing demand for real-time community chat. The most successful groups, he adds, appear to be the ones with strong moderator presence who can drive the direction of discussions and foster engagement. One potential benefit for those already using Slack for work is that the app (or website) is already open and something they’re regularly checking, making it easier to maintain engagement levels than it would be via a standalone consumer chat platform.

This is still a new phenomenon and Slack Chats is still a largely unknown portal, outside of its brief brush with stardom on Product Hunt. As a result, the above is almost certainly a less than exhaustive list of the public Slack communities that exist or will exist, assuming the company makes no effort to discourage the practice.

It remains to be seen how the Slack platform, in its current incarnation will lend itself to public usage. Naturally, Slack hasn’t focused on enabling discovery, moderation, channel gating, and other features that are more necessary outside of the safe confines of a single company or organization. Depending on how much value it places in this newfound popularity as a public gathering place, the company may have to dedicate a bit more resources in this area.

As Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover added to the post-launch discussion, “People are creating public rooms but Slack isn't designed for that. It's a hack right now. While it's probably wise for them to continue focusing on internal team communication, there's a clear opportunity to expand to more consumer use cases.” Monkey Inferno CEO Shaan Puri subsequently offered his own product development suggestions, including inter-company communication, truly public channels like “Tech News,” or usage as a corporate suggestion box and help-desk.

Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield tweeted in response to Hoover that “public groups” are “definitely coming.” Slack did not respond to Pando’s requests for comment on this consumer use case and the company has been similarly non-responsive to multiple attempts at outreach by Morris.

Hoover noted in the same thread that Product Hunt has considered launching its own “public” Slack channel, and may in fact still do so. His concerns are ones that other brands and business will need to grapple with if Slack is to become a B2C communication platform, namely the risk of distracting from existing conversations on owned-sites, Facebook, and Twitter. For more consumer community oriented usage, this will be less of an issue. But the enterprise nature of Slack’s product, including its on-boarding flow and administrative tools may present other issues.

If Slack were to successfully make the transition (or expansion) from an enterprise product to one serving mass market consumers it would be one of the first companies to do so. Others, like cloud storage and collaboration company Box have attempted to make this transition, but with limited success. It’s far more common for companies to transition from consumer (or SMB) to enterprise, such as in the way Dropbox and Google Apps have done.

Public Slack groups are without a doubt outside of the initial vision the company’s founders had for how their product would be used. Remember, the product was aimed at weaning corporations off of internal email. Slack has remained mostly mum as to its feelings toward this behavior. But like with many hit platforms before it, consumers haven’t waited for permission from the company to bend its product to their whims. There will come a point, sooner rather than later, when Slack needs to decide whether it wants to encourage or discourage this type of public usage. But for the time being, the company should take it as a giant compliment.

This is the kind of adoption money can’t buy.