Why Slack channel names matter more than you think

Novice Slack users severely underestimate the importance of naming channels. When creating a channel, figuring out the right name impacts how your team finds the channel, what they do in that channel and how often they check it.

Great names make it clear not just what you’re talking about, but also who should join the conversation. Every channel should have a who and a what. Doing all that in just 21 characters isn’t easy.

Smart organizations standardize on three to four letter abbreviations for each team and function in the company. By using abbreviations, you can be clear while economizing on characters. For example, marketing might be mktg. and finance might be $$$. Now, any channels created for members of those teams can include the abbreviation and make it clear who should join.

While channels usually fit into categories, Slack doesn’t have any categorization function. We’re left to create hierarchy inside the plain text of channel names. Because channels are sorted alphabetically in the sidebar by default, the best strategy is to create lightweight groups by prefixing channel names with your abbreviations.

With this strategy, when grouping your marketing channels you might end up with channels like #mktg-displayads, #mktg-content and #mktg-communications. This way, related channels live near each other in the sidebar.

You can also use a similar sub-grouping strategy to segment out off-topic channels. By prefixing them with #watercooler not only do they live together, but they also float towards the bottom of the channel list because W is at the end of the alphabet.

Finding your purpose

Alongside their name, every Slack Channel has two additional fields associated with it, a purpose and a topic. While adding a topic and a purpose to channels might feel unnecessary, they’re both surprisingly powerful. In high-impact Slack installations, every channel has a purpose and most have a topic.

Channel purposes show up when your teammates browse your channel list and elsewhere in the application where someone can discover a channel. The purpose is how users understand what to expect from a channel, it functions like the back cover of a novel. They’re a great way to add an extra 250 characters of context about the who, what and where of the channel.

When writing a purpose, your job is to be explicit about who you want to join your channel and what they should talk about. If your purposes are well written, you’re less likely to see off-topic conversation and more likely to attract the right crowd. Without a purpose,it’s unclear what the boundaries for a channel.

Topics may seem similar to purposes, but they serve an entirely different purpose. While users only see a purpose right when they join a channel, the topic is always there.

When used correctly, topics act as a bulletin board for a channel. Although they’re only 100 characters long, topics are a great place to share reference information. Things like out of office schedules or project documentation are great uses of topics. Any time you find yourself pasting a link into the same channel over and over again, think about setting it as a topic.

If you have a goal that you’re working towards as a channel, the topic is a great place to measure progress. Because a topic is so visible, it keeps a key metric or goal top of mind. Topics also get seen by users right when they join a channel. If there are rules or etiquette for a specific channel, the topic is a great place to put that information.

If you’re diligent about the purposes of your channels, both writing them down in Slack and when creating them, Slack becomes even more powerful. Being intentional and clear goes a long way.

This post is a part of a series on getting the most out of Slack. Next week, we’ll share how great Slack users avoid getting overwhelmed by Slack. If you’d like to hear more, follow us on Medium or subscribe to our email newsletter.