It wasn’t the next big thing we were expecting when Slack came into the world in late 2013. Team chat was already everywhere if you wanted it. HipChat had built a growing business around team chat, as had the Basecamp team’s Campfire. There were chat apps galore on mobile, thanks to Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s Messenger apps. And for geeks, IRC still worked.
But here came Slack, promising to help you “Be less busy.” with “an infinite brain for your whole team.”
It wasn’t just a team chat app. Slack positioned itself as a new way to work. And that, among other marketing tips that former Slack head of growth Merci Victoria Grace shared in her Capiche AMA, is what turned Slack into a new software giant.
The first thing you notice when you use Slack—especially if you first used it a few years back—is its copy. It has a voice and tone that’s all its own—a burst of whimsy in the boring workday.
“Hi, Slackbot here!” “Please enjoy Slack responsibly.” “What a day! What cannot be accomplished on such a splendid day?”
“Each piece of copy is seen as an opportunity to be playful,” wrote the design team behind Slack’s initial design and branding, Metalab. “From the loading screen to the error message, Slackbot acts as your wise-cracking robot sidekick, providing injections of fun on those boring days.”
Slack’s copywriting didn’t simply tell you how to use the product or help if you got stuck. It instead is as crucial to Slack as a script is to a movie. It sets the stage for your work.
“High quality product writing is the packaging,” explained Merci. “Even companies with great traction are always leaving money on the table with unclear writing. Hire writers who have good design taste.”
Copy tells potential customers what they’re buying, makes them want to buy it, and helps them use the product once they dive in. “Usability drives funnel conversion,” says Merci. “Constantly improve the product writing and usability of onboarding, invites,” and more.
When founder Stewart Butterfield wrote his vision for Slack in a memo to his team shortly before it launched, copy was the first thing he mentioned when discussing how to help people understand Slack’s value: “We do it with copy accompanying signup forms, with fast-loading pages, with good welcome emails…”. Copy matters—one of the many things Slack got right on its way to becoming a unicorn.
Want people to write about your product and market it for you? Build something they’ll use and love, and PR might not be so hard after all.
“Keep in mind that tech journalists are knowledge workers too,” advised Merci when asked about underrated user acquisition methods. “If relevant, build the product with them in mind as important early adopters and invite them to your beta.”
Or, get people journalists follow using your product. “In a similar vein, getting the popular kids to use your product is also underrated, though maybe not for long,” said Merci.
At the very least, see if you can get to know some tech writers. “Get them on your side early and thoughtfully,” said Merci, “which starts by reading their work, following them on Twitter, and understanding what they care about.”
After all, “A handful of real relationships are much better than emailing dozens of reporters when you’ve decided you want to do a PR launch.”
Being a celebrity helps—and if you’re not, building an audience can be an effective way to get media coverage for free.
“Having a charming CEO who loves attention is its own press strategy,” suggested Merci, mentioning Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra as an example of one who’s done a great job of getting free press coverage. Elon Musk does this so well, Tesla credited “significant media coverage of our company and our products” for the majority of their sales—driven in large part by Musk’s profile (of course, don’t take it too far, as the SEC later charged “Musk’s tweets caused market chaos and harmed Tesla investors”).
“A lot of companies don't do this because they can't – it's more of a personality type than anything else,” says Merci. “Honestly though... get good at Twitter and drive your own press cycle.”
That feeling when you think "we should buy a full page in the Times and publish an open letter," and then you do. 💫 pic.twitter.com/BQiEawRA6d— Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) November 2, 2016
When tech startups decide to advertise, it seems podcasts and Google ads are the only options most consider. Pay a few dollars per click, convert a few percent of clicks into customers, and you gain new customers at a bit lower lifetime value than the customers who showed up on their own.
Or what if you thought big, with an ad campaign that would generate a media cycle that would, in turn, lead people to seek out your product?
That’s what Slack did with their New York Times full-page ad: “using paid spend to generate earned media coverage,” as Merci called the strategy. “Slack took out a full page ad in the NYT when MSFT launched their Teams product, which generated a ton of earned media. Turned out to be very cost-effective.” Especially when every news outlet seemed to be talking about Slack the next day.
A full-page ad might not work the next time—but if you think big, there might be more your ads could accomplish than simply driving clicks.
"Did you know that you already have 43 paid teams at your company using Slack? No?"
That was the story for selling Slack to enterprises according to Merci. With the snowball effect of great design and copy combined with continuous press coverage, it’s only a matter of time before people try Slack, love it, and convince others on their team to use it. Before you knew it, there were Slack teams popping up all over enterprises, and it wasn’t long before it took over the whole company.
“Team activation drives retention,” says Merci. Once people are already using Slack on their own, it’s far more likely they’ll keep using it than if the IT team buys it and mandates from on high that they switch.
How do you build a growth team? After setting goals and making them someone’s job, Merci says to try a ton of stuff, embrace failure, and see what actually works.
“Develop your first hypothesis around what drives adoption/activation, and use the process of building & testing that to develop your first basic tooling. Embrace the fact that 9 out 10 experiments will fail and build a culture out of learning,” says Merci.
That applies to everything: Product, marketing, press, and more. You don’t know what will work; you can’t. But if you try enough, and make smart bets, something is bound to stick.
“A big part of the early culture at Slack was being critical about the state of the product,” shared Merci when asked what Slack could do better.
“Stay fresh” was a similar tip, when asked for effective growth strategies. “Our biggest wins were ideas that people came up when taking a really critical walk through the team creation or team joining experiences. Be critical of your own work.”
Butterfield agreed, saying in his memo that “We need to look at our own work from the perspective of a new potential customer and actually see what’s there.”
“It is always harder to do this with one’s own product: we skip over the bad parts knowing that we plan to fix it later,” he continues later on. “It is very difficult to approach Slack with beginner’s mind. But we have to, all of us, and we have to do it every day, over and over and polish every rough edge off until this product is as smooth as lacquered mahogany.”
Someone bought your product, paid for a year subscription, then decided it wasn’t for them and asks for a refund. What should you do?
“You should always be good to your customers,” says Merci when asked about pricing. “Give them the benefit of the doubt, be nice, treat them with respect, answer their emails, and let them cancel without calling someone on the phone.”
That person may come back later and decide to pay, which is the approach Netflix takes in making it easy to churn. Let them go easily this time and they might be more likely to come back next time. It’s a small loss today for a longterm investment in building a friendlier brand.
“Despite the fact that there are a handful of direct competitors and a muddled history of superficially similar tools, we are setting out to define a new market,” set out Butterfield in his memo on Slack’s vision. “And that means we can’t limit ourselves to tweaking the product; we need to tweak the market too.”
He compares it to a saddle company, selling leather goods and competing on quality and price, versus a horseback riding company, selling the experience of freedom one feels on the back of a horse. The shift in perspective frees the latter company to create its own brand identity and be a market leader in a market of its own creation, unsaddled from strictly selling saddles.
Slack? It sold “better organizations, better teams.” “We will be successful to the extent that we create better teams,” said Butterfield.
Perhaps that’s the best marketing trick of them all. Define your market, and once you’ve built it, when people want to talk about that market they’ll have to talk about you.
You might use Microsoft Teams or Discord where it’s hard to avoid Slack’s influence, or even Twist and Basecamp that brand themselves as the anti-Slacks. Love Slack or hate it, “glorify or vilify them,” as Apple’ famous Crazy Ones commercial said, “about the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things.”
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