Community is in these days.
The pandemic left many of us yearning for connection with others. Web3 is changing the way we think about technology. The no-code movement makes it possible to turn indie communities into growing businesses. We have gotten used to connecting with peers online.
The stage is set for a community revolution. Whether it’s venture-backed SaaS companies looking to offset paid advertising costs or professional groups looking to aggregate jobs and talent, many people are creating and participating in niche communities.
While great tools are available, Slack is the default choice for many Community Managers. When I launched Superpath, a free community for Content Marketers back in 2019, I didn’t even consider any alternatives. I’ve learned a lot about the consequences of that decision over the last three years, for better and worse. I’ll explore some of those pros and cons today, with an eye toward the second-order effects — i.e., how will your choice affect you a year or two from now?
This is why I didn’t consider alternatives when I created Superpath. Nearly all Content Marketing teams are already using Slack. None use Discord, Facebook isn’t professional enough, LinkedIn is too noisy, and tools like Circle hadn’t even launched yet.
Slack is installed on almost every Content Marketer’s phone and laptop already. They understand how it works, social norms, threads, channels, etc. Once they log in, they get relevant push notifications and emails.
The takeaway is that you should make it easy for your members to activate. Developers may prefer Discord, and parents may prefer Facebook. For Superpath, getting members to join a new Slack instance is easy.
More customizable platforms like Circle or Podia deserve a look as well. While your members may not be familiar with these tools, they are full-featured and easy to use. You can build a fantastic community on a platform like this, but you should plan to spend time educating members on how to use them and training them to log in frequently.
Superpath is a free community and we monetize the audience via a job board and ads. This means that we want a lot of people to sign up. We do verify that each applicant works in content marketing, but it’s not an exclusive club.
Again, Slack works in our favor here since it’s easy to get new members signed up. But the more members we have, the harder moderation is — and Slack doesn’t offer any moderation features.
For example, a new member could send spam DMs to 1,000 people and I’d have no idea unless someone reported it. (We, of course, encourage everyone to report unwanted behavior like this.) Still, it happens from time to time. I also can’t flag an account or limit access. This didn’t seem like a big deal when we first started, or even at 1,000 members. But at 10,000 members with 500 more each month, it’s become a real headache. Our Community Manager and I monitor Slack nearly all day to watch out for violations of our community guidelines.
If your strategy is volume, you need to consider moderation. Luckily, there are some tools to help. Which brings us to…
In the three years I’ve run Superpath, the tooling has improved significantly. Commsor is at the forefront of that movement, helping communities segment users, analyze engagement data, and run events. This is massively helpful, especially when you’re running a community with a tool like Slack that’s built for a completely different use case.
We rely heavily on Zapier. It’s embedded in nearly everything we do, from tracking applications to triggering follow-up campaigns and even moderation. For example, we use Zapier to send periodic reminders to our #reading-list channel, reminding them that no promotion is allowed in that channel. We also use it to create a weekly digest email in our #job-listings channel.
Some Slack apps can be really useful too. We use one called Send It Later to schedule messages. We’ve even started using it to run sponsored messages on a weekly or monthly basis. We also built a custom app to help us archive and search the best threads.
Slack is not designed for communities, but since it’s massively popular, it’s attracted indie devs and VC-backed companies to its app ecosystem. This is great for independent communities like ours. And while I do sometimes worry about how much we rely on Slack to run our business, I’m encouraged by the tooling that seems to get more robust all the time.
There are plenty of paid communities that run on Slack — Traffic Think Tank is a great example — but I’ve come to believe that Slack is best for free communities that aim to achieve scale.
It’s not just that Slack doesn’t have built-in monetization tools. It’s also that it’s a free tool. Most people who use Slack don’t pay anything for it. It’s difficult to build a premium experience worth paying for in an app that most people take for granted.
This may seem dramatic, but consider a tool like Patreon. People expect to pay for content through Patreon. And while it’s a community app per se, it’s a piece of software that people are accustomed to seeing on their credit card statements. This may feel too in the weeds for some, but if you’re aiming to build a premium paid community, I would strongly recommend using a tool designed for premium paid communities. Luckily there are great ones out there, including Circle, Mighty Networks, and Podia. These tools have built-in monetization features to collect payments, tier content, and more. But they also have a proprietary feel, which is key to creating an experience worth paying for.
In retrospect, this hasn’t been a problem for Superpath, but I imagine there are many paid communities out there that wish they had started with a better platform.
This is where Slack really shines. Conversations happen in real-time, which makes for a sticky user experience.
Imagine being able to ask your peers a question and get answers in just a few minutes. This happens in our Slack community every single day. And even better, since Slack isn’t a social network, there are no points awarded for engagement or followers, or likes. People answer questions simply because they want to help out. (Side note: we do reward users for helpful answers, but we do it with swag, gift cards, and shoutouts.)
Just this week, a thread popped up on content attribution models. Over the course of about an hour, a handful of genuine experts weighed in, turning the thread into a massively valuable resource very quickly. I’ve never seen so much crowdsourced wisdom on any other platform — all of the big social platforms actually disincentivize real knowledge sharing by choosing to showcase clickbait content (think Twitter threads, LinkedIn “broetry” and the like).
People are used to using Slack to work together, and no one really expects to be rewarded for their contributions. The real-time nature of it makes a more pure form of connection. And that makes Slack inherently useful for communities.
I run an entire business on Slack — you can read more about it here if you’re interested — but I’ve never paid them a dime. This is nice in some ways but dangerous in others. They could turn off communities anytime they want since we aren’t contributing to their bottom line.
But there’s a reason I’m on the free plan three years and 10,000 members later — Slack is crazy expensive for communities. It would cost Superpath about $11,000 per month to get on a “Pro” plan which is the cheapest paid tier.
Luckily, Slack’s free plan is pretty good, but it does come with a few frustrating limitations. At the moment, our community can only access the last 90 days of messages. That means we have 344,000 messages that no one will ever see again. That’s really too bad because there is some amazing stuff lost in there. (This is why we built a custom archive tool. It’s helpful but not nearly as good as unlocking the full archive.)
Is our full archive worth $11,000 per month? No, not really. But it does seem like a silly way to stifle a community. If you do choose Slack, know that it’s almost impossible to justify paying for it unless you run a paid community. And if you do run a paid community, don’t use Slack.
Frankly, I don’t know. Slack has been a wonderful option for Superpath despite some of the challenges I mentioned in this article. Our community is free and designed to scale, and Slack largely helps us achieve those goals.
The right tool for you could be Discord, Facebook, Patreon, Circle, Podia, or something else. It really depends on the business case, the user demographics, and your long-term plans. And if you’d like some help deciding, consider talking with a Commsor expert to get advice on tooling, strategy, and GTM plans.