Slack as a Community Platform
Estimated reading time: 6 mins
“Why would you pick Slack over a forum platform for your community?”
“Should I go with Slack or Discourse for the community that I’m building?”
“You can’t build a community on Slack.”
I get asked some form of these questions almost daily. The Slack vs forum debate is one that burns eternally amongst community builders, with strong supporters on either side. But it’s a debate without an answer, because there is no answer. Slack and forums are fundamentally different tools, with different core structures, designed for different purposes. You can’t compare the two, nor should you.
Why I love Slack as a community platform
We run the Community Club on Slack, and have no plans to switch off any time soon. A few reasons why I am bullish on Slack (or Slack-like platforms) sticking around for community for the future.
Easy setup & no cost . You can easily spin it up and launch your community in less than a day on Slack. You won’t need a dedicated person to manage it, or months of setup work. And assuming you go with the free tier, it won’t cost you a cent!
Low barrier to engage. Depending on your target audience, Slack is likely something many of them are using every day for work, so it’s very low effort for them to join and participate. Unlike forums, which require you to be intentional about visiting them and engaging
Chat is better than forum posts. This is very dependent on the type of community you’re trying to build. The nature of conversation tends to be different than forums. Chat allows for shorter, more casual messaging, while on forums you tend to have to be more intentional (for lack of a better word).
You can’t compare Slack to forums
Slack is not a forum, and forums are not Slack. Slack is chat-based and forums are thread and post based. The type of conversation that happens on Slack is completely different than what happens on forums. I’m not even sure if you can call forum posts a ‘conversation’ like you can with Slack chats.
One of the big gripes with Slack is the message limit, the fact that (on the free tier at least), you’re capped at 10,000 messages before the history starts becoming unsearchable. While most consider it a drawback to Slack, I consider it one if its best features as a community platform. There, I’ve said the unthinkable.
This sort of image is often used to point to one of Slack’s biggest weaknesses. You can’t search these 155k messages on the free tier, they’re ‘lost’ and it would be better if these messages were on a forum that was searchable. But I’d argue that most of the 155k messages wouldn’t even have happened on a forum, because the nature of conversation is completely different.
The major use case for permanence is to prevent the same topic being talked about multiple times. Why have a new conversation when you can just refer to something someone posted 6 months ago? For starters, this happens on forums anyways, even though history is searchable and permanent. How often do you see a new thread on a forum closed by a moderator and then linking out to an old thread?
This is exactly what is wrong with forums. This style of conversation and management actually surpresses conversation from newcomers. “Oh people have already talked about this before, no need for me to add my voice to the conversation”. The ephemeral nature of chat actually encourages more and newer voices to contribute. There’s a serendipitous nature to chat-based conversation vs forum threads. You can write, enter, read, and respond all in one continuous thought process.
Slack is best compared to platforms like Discord, Telegram and WhatsApp, not forums. Many of the best communities I know find ways to combine an ephermal chat solution with a more permanent forum solution.
Slack isn’t for you if…
Slack is far from perfect as a community platform. I mean, its not even meant to be one! For certain types of communities, it can be a killer choice, but it certainly isn’t for every community. Slack probably isn’t a great choice for you if:
- Your audience isn’t likely to already be on Slack. In this case you lose the benefit of the lower barrier to entry and participation that other communities get from having their members already be on Slack for work.
- Your community is large, more than 5k-10k members. While there are examples of successful Slack communities with 20k+ members, Slack really starts to fall apart around the few thousand member mark. You’ll eat through the 10,000 message limit too fast, conversation will flow faster than anyone can follow, etc.
- You absolutely need permanence. If your commuity is being built as a knowledge-sharing or support-community, a forum platform might be better for you. Can you imagine StackOverflow as a chat-based community? Absolutely not. They need the permanence and searchability.
I’ve seen many companies actually roll with Slack + a forum-based solution to great success. You need to start with your purpose and community goals before deciding on a platform.
Slack should support community
Slack is built for work. In their own words “Slack is where work happens”, and their stock ticker is $WORK. They’ve clearly not built the platform for communities, and it lacks features that we’ve come to expect as standard elsewhere - permanance, moderation tools, analytics, etc. But what do all these features have in common? They’re primarily built for the community manager, not the community member!
It’s easy to fall into this trap of looking at tools from a management perspective. The tools are, after all, designed with you as the buyer in mind. Your community member isn’t buying the tool, so the features that are pushed are all about the benefit to you as a community manager. But community is about the members, their experience, and the value they get out of it. Don’t forget about the community member when making your platform choices.
I strongly feel that Slack should lean into the grassroots community usage that has sprung up on their platform over the past five years. Many communities exist on Slack because people were already on it for work, and by supporting communities more intentionally Slack will be better able to keep people within their ecosystem for work.
Is Slack the best platform for your community? Maybe - it depends on so many factors. At the end of the day, discussing platforms is the community equivalent of picking the right language for software development. In the short term, it probably doesn’t matter. Pick something, understand the why, and just start building your community. You can always switch platforms when you have a reason to. Don’t be frozen by platform paralysis.
Also if you think its not possible to build a succesful community on Slack, I suggest you check out our community, The Community Club. We’re nearly 1,500 members, run on Slack, and going strong.
Shoutout to Colin, Laima, Karl, Alex and many others from the Community Club for talking about this subject and inspiring me to write this post!