An investigation of the Slack blog, Several People Are Typing, reveals:
- How Slack’s content marketing integrates with publicity and product marketing
- How Slack renews its relevance in an accelerating media cycle
- The manifesto that drives Slack’s communications
This article is an excerpt of the original, published here.
Most blogs start off with optimism. The idea for the blog might be the fruit of a business leader seeing brands like Slack being driven by publications like the Slack blog. Their observation makes them say, “I want something like that. Let’s do that.”
The marketing team agrees, seeing either their competitors surging ahead or an opportunity to be a leading thinker in their industry. They might hire an editorial manager or a content marketer, who is supported by a ragtag group of freelancers or an external team, and start firing away.
But, then what?
A blog is not made with sparks of excitement or ideas, but with words. Ruthless production might create some momentum, but will not sustain it. Only an understanding and application of a successful blog’s underlying system will.
I wrote this piece as an outsider looking into the Slack blog to deduce the thinking behind it. Here are two fundamental insights:
How the Slack blog capitalizes on Slack’s PR strength
Slack is known as a media darling these days, but its publicity foundation started in humble beginnings. When Slack was in beta, one of their earliest press appearances was coverage in VentureBeat. If this Tweet is accurate, the article was the result of persistent publicist Rebecca Reeve Henderson from Rsquared Communication. At the time, Slack chose to focus on its incredible user acquisition rate. But that story can only be told so many times.
Just a few months later, Slack refined its story as an “email killer,” earning features in Fast Company and ReadWrite. This would go on to be a pattern, as Slack talked about interesting big ideas, often telling stories of diversity, its ambitions (being the next Microsoft in its prime), and its eccentric past (emerging from its earlier failure to make a game).
Very occasionally, they also made controversial statements. For example, their response to the launch of Microsoft Teams, “Dear Microsoft,” was an advertisement that divided the Internet. People loved and hated it. (When the Slack blog was hosted on Medium, it was also the article with the most claps.)
These points are all proof that every company is capable of engagement through public relations if they’re willing to tell stories. You could argue that Slack had fortunate timing as a business to show such drastic growth momentum. But, understanding and creating its own values, and telling stories related to that, was just as important. It’s the people and businesses courageous enough to expose themselves, with thick enough skin to keep executing through its mistakes, that will win.
Anyway, we could do a whole series on Slack’s publicity, but I say all that just to say Slack’s brand today is in a unique, incredibly buzzworthy, position. This is not worth shrugging off, because Slack has figured out how to make the most of this value.
A Slack launch vs. a Pinterest launch
While other businesses may have similar brands and buzzworthiness (like Pinterest, Uber, Airbnb, and such), none of them have a publication like the Slack blog. Instead, their press clippings link back to generic blogs and newsrooms which are basically clippings of talking points for journalists to draw from:
Products Blog | Uber Blog Toronto
The latest services and features and where to find them
These companies, who don’t build their own internal media capabilities, will continue to rely on social and mainstream media to get coverage. Let’s look into a recent Pinterest launch, for example:
Self-serve shopping ads. This feature is important enough for Pinterest’s leadership team to talk about in their earning calls. It’s a strong development for their product and important to communicate. And yet, in the little publicity it received, there was no link for a real person to read and understand the new capabilities. Instead, a Marketingland article on the topic links to a dense, clunky, Newsroom entry. An AdAge article on the topic links to quarterly earnings. What a waste of link love, and an opportunity for the self serve ads product team to tell a story — about their predecessors (e.g., Google, Facebook, etc.), about the momentum they expect to see, about some interesting customer anecdotes they’ve seen already.
I don’t mean to single Pinterest out, as all prior mentioned brands face this challenge. They could have so much to say, but they don’t have the infrastructure to say it… so they just don’t say anything.
Compare this with Slack’s…
Enterprise Key Management (EKM) launch. If you thought Pinterest’s announcements about ads were boring, enterprise security is just as bad. But, the post got links at ZDNet, Duo’s Decipher blog, and TechCrunch. More importantly, it featured an actual person — Slack’s security chief — explaining the most important things about Slack’s EKM launch, in a blog post and on video. If Slack users wanted to set it up, they could do that with Slack’s help article. The article serves much better than a press release, and the proxy conversation is full of sound bites that serves as much richer material to write about. While Slack has a newsroom too, they link only to their blog or prominent clippings.
In short, each of Slack’s publicity efforts further builds the Slack blog as an asset. Here are some of their techniques for making it work:
i. Find milestones, announce them exclusively at your blog
Announcements like their 10 million daily active users is a good generator for links, as external publications will cover the announcement and link to the Slack blog. Even after the announcement, journalists will constantly cite the 10 million number (like this) until the next milestone is announced. Slack regularly shows their numbers, announcing their user count every million or so (here are links when they reached four million users, which link back to this blog post). One point is, Slack doesn’t publish it as some press release, and instead encourages external publications to link back to their blog.
Moreover, since the beginning of 2019, Slack actively finds a way to announce something every month (with the exception of May) and translates the announcement for their international readers. In January 2019, it was their new logo. In February 2019, international translations for the 10 million users announcement went live. In March 2019, it removed hate groups and launched Slack Enterprise Key Management. In April 2019, it was their new office in Japan.
Some of Slack’s more popular blog posts revolve around their acquisition announcements and piggyback off other brands. For example, according to SEMrush, the blog post for their Astro acquisition drives 12.05% of search traffic. When the Slack blog was hosted at Medium, this was an incredibly popular blog post. And lastly, of course, the Slack and Hipchat partnership drives a lot of traffic.
ii. Controversy can be an opportunity to bring readers closer
Slack’s logo change was a press event similar to “Dear Microsoft.” Like many prior logo changes, it was controversial, and spread across the Internet. But, the Slack blog post clearly explained the reasoning for its changes. A few positive, popular, tweets praised the write-up (e.g., #1, #2, #3). And, as always, many articles in the press linked back to the Slack blog post (e.g., #1, #2, #3).
There’s also the case of unwanted publicity. For example, Slack needed to deal with an outage in December 2018, unintentionally deactivating accounts they didn’t mean to. They apologized at their blog, and it went viral on Hacker News. A popularcomment approved of the post, noting that Slack accepted responsibility and acted responsibly.
iii. Three search listings instead of one
Each Slack feature announcement or story can get placement at:
That’s three times as many listings and opportunities to start the conversation. The hard part would have been getting the domain authority and such, but thanks to the publicity linking to the Slack blog building its domain authority, Slack does not have a problem with this.
The spirit of the Cluetrain
Nearly two decades ago, a group of writers penned a series of essays and theses on how the internet would fundamentally change the way everybody does business. They believed that all business would take place in the marketplace of the Internet, and that all marketplaces consisted of conversations. Their thoughts were published in a book entitled, The Cluetrain Manifesto.
My summary doesn’t do it much justice, but it has been a cornerstone book for anyone making things, including software, and putting it on the Internet. I believe that one key reason for Slack’s advantage with their blog is their leadership team’s familiarity and buy-in with the Cluetrain Manifesto. For example, Slack’s tactic with the EKM launch was to literally post a conversation (see, the Cluetrain Manifesto theses, “Markets are conversations” and “Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors”).
Far from an afterthought to publicity, Slack has made their blog the front and center of it. Press announcements are published exclusively there, in formats like interviews or candid blog posts.
Similarly, from day one, the Slack blog was also very centered on Slack’s product marketing:
How the Slack blog ties in product marketing to their content marketing
The Slack’s blog @ Slack category stands out from the other three more thematic categories on the searing hot topic of future of work (Collaboration, Productivity, and Transformation). It’s also the category where much of their product marketing is published.
Whether it’s an internal memo on culture, an email transcript on how their explainer video came to life, or a manifesto on their workspace, a good chunk of the Slack blog is about its own company and people:
- Their attempt at a mission control day (part 1 and 2), and a relevant piece on offsites
- Their onboarding process and focus
- How they made their podcast
- The Slack team’s learning program
- An email Stewart Butterfield wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. day (not officially on the blog)
- Stewart Butterfield’s memo on how to think of Slack — not as group chat software, but as organizational transformation (this one as well — but crucial to understanding it)
The curious thing here is that Slack doesn’t necessarily just think of software as its product. As creative director of voice and tone Anna Pickard says in Presentable (33:20):
“Our product is our culture. We’re selling the culture of working better through working in Slack. We have to show our culture through all of our external communications. No matter how brief, whether it’s a ticket to an angry customer, or a marketing piece for an interested party. The culture turned inward creates the product, the culture turned outward creates our brand — our marketing. It’s all two sides of the same coin.”
Or, as founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield once wrote, Slack is selling, “organizational transformation.” Part of selling the future of work means convincing people you actually live in it.
Slack doesn’t just sell software, it sells a better company. And so, Slack’s product marketing extends beyond software to show you what a better company looks like, starting with themselves.
Beyond their culture. Slack also gets technical. Similar to Slack’s regular publicity announcements, they also regularly highlight apps from their ecosystem, doing a round up approximately once a month (e.g., #1, #2). In each of these blog posts, Slack makes the app just a few clicks away with a “Get App” button.
The Slack editorial team also creates specific articles to tie in their software to their blog. There are three main ones:
i. Office Hours
Slack’s product education column at the Slack blog. It’s written by Metafilter founder and Slack veteran Matt Haughey twice a month, and focuses on features and themed roundups for tips. The column started off in 2016 with a question from Twitter, some explorations into how Slack’s own team uses Slack, and now expands into all sorts of Slack’s features and integrations.
ii. Slack Tips
Slack publishes technical tutorials, broken out into step-by-step instructions. These are hosted at Slack.com, and they mainly highlight integrations. The Slack blog introduced this library in March 2019.
The library is simple, and dead useful. It’s designed for new Slack users to hit the ground running. It’ll also appeal to people on the fence, wondering what they can actually do when they try Slack.
The spirit of this idea doesn’t have to manifest as an entire library like Slack does. Rather, a simple list of features or areas for a new user to explore right after they sign up will suffice. (Here’s one I made for the Shopify Plus blog!)
iii. Slack Essentials
Slack productivity tips at the Slack blog. It’s reminiscent of Office Hours, but it’s less focused on Slack’s product and more about processes. It covers topics like gathering feedback, organizing work and styling messages.
The product marketing on the Slack blog encourages readers to get more productive results by using Slack, and piques the curiosity of people who haven’t tried it yet. These specific initiatives evolved over time, but were present in other forms. (For example, the Unusually Slacky series on Tumblr was a predecessor to these forms.) Office Hours is the longest-running of these three, and came about in 2016.
Slack’s @ Slack category is just one of four. In the full investigation, I dive into the other three.
The Slack blog: A publication for an integrated organization
With the Slack blog, Slack ensures that its publicity builds a tangible, lasting, communication and search asset. The product teams work closely with the editorial team to communicate features and development. Slack’s own software is used to build bridges between different teams.
It was insightful to see this post on how Slack uses their own product for quick approvals:
“This very post started as a pitch in a #content-pitches channel, where the idea was discussed and fleshed out and then approved and scheduled on a publishing calendar. A Google Doc draft of this post was added to our #content-blog channel, where an editor and a copy editor took passes on it.”
The Slack blog is both literally and symbolically full of hyperlinks to their publicity efforts and their product.
After all, Slack’s blog is a product of its product.
Special thanks to Joey Loi for his thoughts on this.
Thanks for reading! I’m Herbert, the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle. We’re an editorial studio that works with clients such as Shopify, Wattpad, and Twilio to build publications, resource centers, and technical manuals. Our content canvas is a framework that marketers and strategists use to create useful, contagious content.
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