It’s time to add chat to your communications tools. Which chat platform should you adopt? Teams? Slack? Something else?
First off, take a breath. Your search has brought you to the right place. In this post we’ll go over the available chat platforms, discuss the pros & cons of each, and identify the criteria for you selecting your best option.
Chances are you’re looking at chat platforms for one of these reasons:
- Users are clamoring for a chat option
- Need to get users off Skype (Consumer)
- Time to replace less-advanced communications platforms
- Worried about a data breach through user behavior (this one’s not limited to chat, of course)
Unless there’s another reason – if so, please share it in the comments!
Let’s address all of these reasons in one handy guide. I’ve put anchor links below for quick reference, but I recommend you read the entire guide. Only takes about 8 minutes.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Clarify Your Chat Goals
First, before anything else, you’ll want to identify what you need from the chat platform. What it must do for you from an IT standpoint, and what it must do for the business’ communications.
Consider factors like these when identifying. These have all come from our own customers’ initial discussions about chat and/or voice offerings. Some contradict others, so make sure to decide which is most important.
- Easy transition from another communications system
- Easy adoption of a brand-new platform
- Omni-device (apps for every major OS)
- Focused on Windows devices
- Security is paramount for all devices & data
- Security should not get in the way of ease of use
- Works within an existing cloud subscription we have (e.g. Office 365)
- Stands alone, needs no additional subscriptions or hardware
- Works in the cloud
- Works on-premise
- Has a monthly fee, flat or per-user
- Pay up front, no monthly fees
- Has voice and video options built-in
- Video is equally important to chat
- Voice is equally important to chat
I’ll refer back to this list several times, so keep it in mind. Next up, we must narrow our focus. This is for business use; therefore, we need to look at only business chat offerings.
Focusing on Business Chat Offerings
This guide will focus on chat platforms where chat is the centerpiece product.
That’s why I won’t look at platforms like Fuze and Zoom here. I’m also leaving off consumer-targeted chat platforms, like Discord and Telegram.
No knock against any of these, of course. I like Telegram, but I don’t use it for business. For purposes of this guide, I’m focusing on chat platforms targeted for business use.
In order to qualify, they must meet these criteria:
- Meant for business users
- Good support options available
- Work within existing office environments
That leaves us with a handful of platforms. Each very similar to one another. All crazy usable. All with at least decent security, mobile apps, and lots of integrations. So how do you choose?
Let’s start by identifying the elements you should consider.
ChatOps Adoption – Elements to Consider
Will your users accept a chat platform? Will your current IT infrastructure play nice with one? What about security? These are all important elements to consider…long before you trial anything.
Will your users adopt?
A chat platform’s useless if nobody wants to use it. You may have fielded requests for chat already…if so, you’re good! If not, you’ll want to check their thoughts.
The solution? Survey your users. A simple email, or SurveyMonkey form. I’ve written out a few questions you can use in it.
- If the company adopted a new chat platform, would you use it to communicate with co-workers?
- Which chat platform would you prefer using?
- [List the options you’re considering]
- Do you use a chat app personally?
- [e.g. Telegram, Discord, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp]
- How do you think chat would help you in your daily routine?
- Do our customers use a chat platform in their work? If so, which?
If users vote the idea down, well, less work for you! But if you get a positive response, and these days I expect you will, then you can move to the next element. Compatibility.
Which chat platforms work with your current infrastructure?
Most office networks will work with a cloud-based platform like Slack or Teams as-is. Check your max bandwidth though—you might overtax a smaller pipe.
An on-prem chat offering will obviously require hardware & network changes. That’s a trade-off you’ll have to make, depending on budget & company policy.
Which features are necessary?
While most chat platforms have the same feature sets, they’re not all equal. For instance, Teams still doesn’t support private channels. If that’s something your users want, then Teams is (for now) off the list.
Identify the features your users would like the most, either through the survey or through conversations. These features come up frequently among our customers:
- Private conversations/channels
- Talking with customers on an existing platform
- Use chat app on phones (or blocking chat apps on phones)
- Web-based only, app-based only, or both?
- Voice call function built into chat
- Integration with specific third-party services already in use
Pay Attention to Security
If I’d written this guide in 2016, this would be the biggest section. Think about it%—every chat user types out company IP in text format, every day, in a cloud-based medium that’s saved someplace you don’t control.
Fortunately for all of us, security around ChatOps has improved immensely since then. Every platform we’ll examine here has documented their security protections. Here are a few reference URLs to help your case-building:
That said, ChatOps adoption still requires some security updates on your network’s end. Pay attention to these adoption aspects as potential security risks:
- MOBILE APPS—Handy, but they can leave chat conversations susceptible to data theft. Chats are not audio clips; they’re whole conversations in text form. Someone steals your phone, they could have a ton of your IP in their hands. As such, use 2FA on mobile apps, or limit who can use the mobile app at all.
- GUEST ACCESS—Important to keep guest access regulated. Teams’ Office 365 account requirement helps with this, but also throws up a roadblock for ease of use. Slack is a little better with guest access, limiting adds with admin controls.
- THIRD-PARTY INTEGRATIONS—If your users connect a third-party service with poor security, it can create a data leak. Make it clear that IT needs to know about integrations, and vet them first.
- PRIVACY—Who owns the data? Most platforms will unequivocally say, “You do.” Still helps to check their TOS. Especially if you have GDPR to consider.
If you choose a cloud-based chat platform, make sure to incorporate its logs into your backups. You may not think you’d need to back up chat conversations when they’re already in the cloud. However, if you’re using chat for work, remember…those conversations contain important information!
With a backup running, you’ve made sure you know where chat logs are stored (and you can retrieve them). I did a post on this for the SpinSucks Blog recently.
Open the link and then come back. We have a lot more to cover!
Now that we have a clearer sense of what to watch for, let’s break out the best business chat platforms, one by one, and weigh them.
The Major Chat Platform Options
There are four ‘major’ chat platforms in use today. The most popular, the one you hear about all the time, is Slack.
With good reason. Slack is a titan of chat—near-infinitely flexible, stable as you can get, friendly with just about every device out there, and designed to support business users. Some businesses run their whole operation through Slack. The company supporting it is stable and plans to go public soon.
The famous Slack window. Names obscured for privacy, of course.
Choose Slack if:
- Ease of use is paramount
- Your company do not already have an Office 365 tenant subscription
- You use Linux on some user devices
Next up, Microsoft Teams.
Teams’ recent growth indicates that people who are new to business chat go for it the most. Not surprising either; it has a short learning curve, Microsoft’s weight behind it, and free options. It isn’t perfect; Teams loses to Slack on a few points (Linux clients, adaptability). However, its incorporation of Skype for Business voice & video tools enhance its appeal.
Choose Teams if:
- Your company has an Office 365 tenant subscription, with accounts for the majority of users
- You primarily use Windows devices
- You want an easy transition from an existing communications system
Thirdly, we have Skype for Business Server.
The only on-prem offering in the majors. For security-conscious mid-markets and enterprises, this is THE chat platform of choice. It requires more up-front investment, but a search of this blog alone will tell you how much communications power Skype for Business provides.
(You might wonder why this is on here, when I made chat the centerpiece. Many would consider Skype for Business Server a voice product, with chat & conferencing added. Be that as it may, we use the IM tool more than any other in our office. So do most of our customers. Besides, this IS the Skype for Business Insider Blog. So it’s included.)
Choose Skype for Business Server if:
- Data/IP security concerns are high
- You must meet regulatory compliance such as GDPR or SOX 404
- You have 150+ users
- You previously used HipChat Data Center and need to switch
Rounding out the major platforms is Google Hangouts Chat. I find this offering a little TOO simplistic, and Google’s privacy shenanigans may dent Hangouts’ appeal. But it’s still popular, cheap, and sports a similar integration level to other G-Suite offerings as Teams.
Choose Hangouts if:
- You already use G-Suite for your company’s email
- You do not have an Office 365 tenant subscription
- You have users who like using Skype Consumer in the office (Hangouts is similar, making a transition easier to accept)
The Challengers/Alternative Chat Platforms
Maybe the major platforms don’t appeal to you for whatever reason. You’re not a Microsoft/Google fan, or you want to test out several options before making a decision. I love testing myself, so if you’re in the latter camp, welcome! Here are a few ‘challenger’ chat platforms to whet your appetite.
These are chat platforms not as popular as the above options, but still chat-focused and business-oriented. I haven’t done official reviews of these yet; as such, please take the following information as general advice.
First up is Twist. Made by a team already known for a popular to-do app, Twist takes a one-topic-per-thread approach to chat. It focuses on simplicity, sticking to chat as its core and leaving the rest to third-party integrations. Not many of those yet, but they already put in a Zapier integration…clever.
Choose Twist if:
- You haven’t used chat in the office yet & want to try it out
- You’ve already tried one of the major platforms, and users complain of confusion or overwhelm
- You need to keep price low (their Unlimited tier only costs $5/month per user)
Next up is Mattermost.
Our sole on-prem Challenger. This one’s not trying to compete with Skype for Business though…they’re competing with Slack. Right up to compatibility with Slack’s third-party integrations. It’s probably one of the most extensive open-source projects I’ve come across.
This platform has teeth. A hefty feature set, good documentation, and an unapologetic targeting toward the DevOps community. That may make it a little more technical than some businesses want. Even so, it’s worth a look.
Image courtesy of Mattermost Documentation.
Choose Mattermost if:
- You’d like an on-prem offering, but can’t/don’t want to pay for Skype for Business Server
- You like to tinker with the tech
- You support open-source projects
- You’re a tech company and want a chat platform that can keep up
- You previously used HipChat Data Center and don’t want to move to Skype for Business
Thirdly we have Wire.I’ve seen this one on the fringes of chat discussion, but know very little about it. Wire places a heavy emphasis on security. End-to-end encryption, secure guest rooms, and so on. I think this is an excellent position for a challenger chat platform to take. If they can back the claim up (and I’ll look for that in a review), then I expect this one to grow.
Image courtesy of Wire.com.
Choose Wire if:
- Your company places a high value on security for all communications
- You need a backup communications option for emergencies (Wire offers a “Wire Red” service for this)
- You’re in the EU and would like a chat platform based there
Finally, we have Glip. I only came across Glip a few days ago! It’s a chat offering from RingCentral, the cloud-based phone service. We work with them for some customers, though none mentioned Glip to me.
From reviews I read, Glip is apparently popular with marketing agencies. I think the ‘unlimited guest users’ feature has something to do with that. The in-client document collaboration too. I’ll look into that myself.
Glip doesn’t appear to have any “stand-out” features. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from Slack or Twist, right up to third-party integrations. Pricing’s similarly cheap too. It’s an alternative, if you want to explore.
Choose Glip if:
- You already use RingCentral
- You’re comparing several chat offerings at once
“What do these platforms cost?” That’s what Management will want to know first, right?
I did the legwork on pricing too. This wouldn’t be a complete guide without it. I divided the platforms into Cloud-Based and On-Prem. You’re either paying a small monthly fee per user, or paying up front for server hardware & bandwidth.
Monthly Cost (Cloud-Based)
- SLACK – Standard tier is $6.67/month per user, Plus tier is $12.50/month per user. Plus does come with better support and more administrative options.
- TEAMS – Free, though I recommend getting an Office 365 subscription if you don’t already have one. Three options I’d recommend considering when Teams is your main focus: Business Premium ($12.50/month per user), E1 ($8.00/month per user), and E3 ($20.00/month per user).
- GOOGLE HANGOUTS CHAT – Part of G-Suite for business users. Business tier is $10/month per user, though the Enterprise tier ($25/month per user) comes with more security.
- TWIST – $5/month per user. For business, don’t even consider the Free version; it comes with a 30-day limit on viewing past messages. With Unlimited, you can always access the full message history.
- WIRE – Sliding-scale, starting at €6/month per user. Enterprises go down to €4/month per user. To use their Wire Red emergency collaboration service, you must contact their Sales department.
- GLIP – Like Twist, there’s a Free tier and a Standard tier at $5/month per user. In this case, the difference is the total time allocated for shared video; Free accounts get 500 minutes total, while Standard accounts get 1,000 minutes/month per user.
Up-Front Cost (On-Prem)
- SKYPE FOR BUSINESS (SERVER) – Cost comes in initial deployment. No monthly recurring fees for the software, but you may pay for a SIP trunk mostly depending on configuration. Check my Pricing for Skype for Business and Teams post for details.
- MATTERMOST – Free to download & use (it’s open source). You’ll need a server to host it of course, like Skype for Business Server. The Mattermost team does charge for Enterprise accounts though, starting at $39/year per user.
Try Out Some ChatOps Platforms Before Deciding
Okay, you’ve read all the material in this guide. Your users do want to use chat. You have go-ahead from C-level. Time to start the last part of the search—testing.
Make sure to try out at least two chat platforms. Not just yourself either; invite a handful of tech-savvy users to trial the chat with you. (That way you’re not talking to yourself the whole time. It gets lonely…trust me.)
While many of the same visual elements are the same for all these options, how they work with their own features, and how they interoperate with other tools, can make a big difference in your overall experience. We’ve had customers hate Slack but love Teams (and vice versa). One customer absolutely loved Skype for Business Server’s IM tool. It all depends on the office environment and user tastes.
Using a chat platform in your business can save a ton of time, and make everyone more productive to boot. I hope this guide helps you select the right one!
What chat platform did you end up going with? Please share!