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The human element of Slack: how the communications platform aims to take on imitators with courtesy

Slack logo

It's unusual for a technology company to talk about what it means to them to act in a 'human' fashion but that's been part of the success of Slack, one of the most celebrated tech unicorns in recent years.

Speaking to The Drum while promoting the company's new London office, which will mainly be a sales house as it aims to grow its European operations, Slack chief marketing officer Kelly Watkins talks about the various plans that are coming to fruition at the rapidly growing business.

According to her, London is the fifth most active city on the platform which is why the team of five have been hired to take up situ at the office in Fitzrovia. Slack has also been embraced by the likes of Lush, Ocado and Marks & Spencer, not to mention The Drum, and is revolutionizing how employees communicate with one another all around the world.

The company currently has over 800 employees across seven offices servicing around 5 million daily active users and over 1.5 million paid users.

"How people communicate is changing broadly," she states when asked what the brand stands for. "The formality of communication is changing to be much more flow based and the core truth to the brand as well; what does it mean to take a very people-centric approach to the brand? It's a corporate brochure monotone speak and we have always felt very comfortable to be more conversational in how we approach the things we do as a brand. We have the right product for the way the market is working we believe."

Slack has also just released a new AI powered search feature for paid accounts that aims to help offer company solutions through the results it finds.

"Where we are taking our approach this year is thinking less about industry and more about roles. How slack looks and functions for you is different to how it looks and functions for me," she continues. "We want to tell stories to people who work in sales on slack but also to tell a particular story which is different to those who work in marketing."

The conversation then moves onto global connectivity and how disruptive a tool Slack has been to businesses, while connecting professionals working on freelance and one-off projects without being geographically near each other.

"We are in this fascinating shift just in terms of the world getting smaller," states Watkins. "We have interdependencies internally and externally in business. We are buying from different companies and external partners, we work with ad agencies and PR agencies - and as a result communication becomes very fragmented. Using email creates silos, the flow of information becomes siloed."

Slack allows groups to gather, the right people to be recruited for a task and for them to discuss and move forward with a project no matter where they are located.

"What is interesting is that much of business so far has been built around process design and given that the pace of change today is increasing so much, it's near impossible for businesses today to build processes that can handle the variety of situations that occur. Where Slack is fascinating is that it is about where are you able to come together around a particular thing that is happening in a more nimble way. That applies to freelance too - people see an opportunity and the chance to utilise Slack as a much more rapid response and assembly tool. It almost becomes this work place for people."

The success of Slack has inspired the creation of many similar communications platforms such as Chatter, offered as part of partner company Salesforce's service, not to mention from Line and even Facebook. And while that competition has grown increasingly over the last couple of years, Watkins believes it only validates the belief that her own platform has had in serving users.

Asked how she combats those growing competitors, Watkins, who has been in the role for less than a year, explains that one approach is in not taking 'a very reactionary approach' but to focus on the brand story it wants to tell.

"Something I always say to the team is that tactics are tactics and other people are going to use similar things as we do. We will use digital display ads for example but how do we use those in a way that feels very authentic to us as a company?"

She talks about offering "that human conversational storytelling approach" across all communications.

"We want to grow Slack and let them easily sign up to a team and for that team to grow and for people to understand and feel empowered to use the product. How people think about work is changing and we on the marketing front are continuing to invest to be a part of that conversation," she adds before discussing the podcast that offers insights to listeners on how people think and work.

"For a software enterprise company that may seem an odd approach to run a podcast and invest in it but we really want to tell those stories and help shape that direction for where that conversation goes. What you can expect from us is continued investment in those things to show up in human ways so that people sign up for slack but doing those other aspects of marketing that are more systemic in terms of broader dynamics of work."

On the 'human' side of the platform's personality, Watkins explains that the belief in courtesy across its marketing communications should also be present across the platform itself with bespoke messages offering advice as one element whenever someone opens it.

"That courteousness infuses everything including product development but it also thinks about marketing. Doing email marketing for example - what does that look like if done with courtesy? How do you respect someone's inbox when it's overloaded with information and Slack has something they want to say to someone? So that element is really important. Another piece is craftsmanship which is such an important standard for us and this idea that when we execute things, how do we feel? That is intentionally and thoughtfully done. When you bring those together that is a strong aspect of humanity, and it's so fascinating. If you look at human beings there is this element of playfulness and personality that is true for everybody. We want Slack to continue to have a personality and to be playful at times and to have a tone that feels more human. When you stack those things up; playfulness, craftsmanship and courtesy, those are elements that differentiate how we approach things."

With that human approach certain to reach others from positive word of mouth, still it's most powerful marketing tool the business has, Slack is sure to reaches many new potential users all around the world in the months and years ahead.

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Stephen Lepitak

Stephen Lepitak is editor of The Drum, with responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day running of the content produced for the various platforms run by the publication. Over the years he has interviewed agency network bosses such as Sir Martin Sorrell, Maurice Lévy and Arthur Sadoun, as well as Cindy Gallop, Kim Kardashian, film directors James Cameron, Spike Jonze and producers Harvey Weinstein and Lord David Puttnam. With a keen interest in media and breaking news, Lepitak has been with The Drum since 2005 and is based across its UK, US and Asia operations.

All by Stephen