Slack Copywriting: What They Say to 9.6 Million Pageviews Every Month

An investigation into five iterations of Slack’s homepage reveals:

  • When selling features is more powerful than selling benefits
  • An oft-overlooked technique to share emotion through a website
  • How Slack changes what they say about their most important features

Words don’t appear out of thin air. They are borne of ideas and values, and painstakingly combined, chosen, then refined. Over, and over, and over again.

The right words, in the right order, in the right place, at the right time, sets off billions of neurons in the reader’s brain. The brain says, “A-ha!” Aware of the power of words, Slack founder Stewart Butterfield writes that their mission is important, but “our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms.”

Here are five techniques that every CEO, marketer, and copywriter need to consider for their websites:

1. When to Sell Features Instead of Benefits

Full version (December 5, 2013)

There’s a fundamental sales and marketing idea, that everyone is best off selling a benefit instead of a feature. Most people treat this like a hard and fast rule, a timeless best practice. Copywriter Bob Bly has written, “ In consumer advertising classes, we are taught that benefits are everything, and that features are unimportant.”

In a memo to his team, Butterfield adheres to this principle, affirming that selling valuable results like “a reduction in the cost of communication” will enable Slack to find many more buyers than if they’d only written about their software product or specific feature set. That’s exactly what they do in the first version (V1) of their website, “Be less busy.”

Full version (October 20, 2014)

V2 of their website doesn’t have as many words, but the main story in the explainer video is how communications limits growth (“I told him my company runs entirely on email and Dropbox, and we were doing just fine… This wasn’t sustainable as I wanted my company to grow. Something had to change”).

The question the website tackled was, “Does Slack really work?” The website would serve the answer, also ideally compelling readers to take action.

And yet, Slack takes an unexpected, hard, right with V3 of their website. The headline might make you scratch your head:

Full version (July 23, 2015)

Rather than selling a result, Slack sells a software product and a list of features:

“A messaging app for teams.”

“All your communication in one place, integrating with the tools and services you use every day.”

I don’t believe this is a step backwards or an oversight. In V1, Slack started off with a benefit (“Be less busy”). In V3, Slack wanted to take greater control of how people described them.

For example, Slack took care to frame itself as “a messaging app,” instead of a “chat app” like The Verge and Time’s descriptions of Slack. The connotation of “messaging” sounds more professional and modern than “chat” (AIM, ICQ, etc).

More importantly, Slack also promoted their feature, which first appeared in V1, to a lead feature in V3, “All your communication in one place.”

Both these sentences are deliberately put there for people to easily remember and share through word of mouth.

Investor Marc Andreessen tweeted this chart to show Slack’s unprecedented viral word of mouth growth. To capitalize on this buzz, Slack’s team made sure other people could describe it in a concrete way. “Be less busy” describes the result, but doesn’t describe what Slack really is, so people are forced to freestyle some clumsy version of, “Group chat, but better.”

In that situation, the conversation might’ve ended with, “Oh, we’ve already tried that.” Slack would be better served having as many people as possible share an easy-to-remember message. In V3, Slack sells a product and lead feature because it’s easier for customers to understand, remember, and share through word of mouth. They’ve established the results they can generate, the messaging that resonated, and they want to pour fuel on the fire with word of mouth growth.

I also suspect this copy was positioning Slack to honor specific customers, a variation of how Nike honors athletes and Apple honors creativity. This is hinted at in an incremental update, which builds on this website…

In this half iteration, which we’ll call V3.5, the page starts:

Full version (September 18, 2015)

““A messaging app for teams”

And the animation then types out, “who put robots on Mars!!”

“NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of tens of thousands of teams around the world using Slack to make their working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive”

The original “A messaging app for teams” makes more sense now. I could see Slack highlighting other clients. For example, NBCUniversal, “A messaging app for teams who entertain millions of viewers.” It makes for strong social proof, names which larger buyers in enterprises are interested in. (“If it works for NASA, it’ll work for us.”)

Image by Dwayne Nesmith

Such is the nature of these larger buyers, what Geoffrey A. Moore describes as “pragmatists” in his seminal work, “Crossing the Chasm.” He describes pragmatists, saying, “References and relationships are very important to these people, and there is a kind of catch-22 operating: Pragmatists won’t buy from you until you are established, yet you can’t get established until they buy from you.”

Slack’s goal with this site was to disseminate an upgraded sentence easy for readers to share, infused with the social proof that NASA brings them. Whenever one of these pragmatist readers get frustrated with their email or their current group chat solution, they’ll remember Slack not just as “a messaging app,” but “a messaging app used by NASA.”

2. Tell Emotional Stories Through Testimonials

Here’s how Slack first introduced itself in V1:

“Slack brings all your communication together in one place. It’s real-time messaging, archiving and search for modern teams.”

Their testimonials, accordingly, come from people in modern teams:

Now, damn near every company uses testimonials. But with their testimonials, Slack gets into highlighting specific situations, solutions, and feelings. Notice an early one from Medium’s Design and UX Lead Dustin Senos:

We were looking for something to help with team communication, and nothing really stuck until we started using Slack. It looks good, feels right and search just works: being able to trust that I can find things again when I need them is good peace of mind [emphasis added].”

Or, in the second version of Slack’s website, About.me founder Tony Conrad says, “I am basically in love with Slack. It took us less than 24 hours to get everyone on board (as you know, people are resistant to change), and it is amazing.”

Naturally, chances are Slack might’ve had a hand in crafting these testimonials as well — similar to how authors get busy people to write book blurbs.

As people build familiarity and trust with the brand, they are no longer interested in the solution’s credibility. The higher priority in the product capabilities. Slack eventually moves these testimonials deeper into their website.

3. Prune Feature Descriptions Carefully

I’ve noticed that Slack follows the Rule of Three very closely (“omne trium perfectum”). If you look above at the testimonial screenshot, they’ve spread out three descriptions amongst the testimonials (“It’s like an infinite brain for your whole team,” “Make better decisions, faster,” and “One search box for everything”).

Their adherence to this rule extends to their description of features. Here’s how these features evolve:


V1

Modern Messaging
Fast, flexible messaging for Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad & Android. Archived and organized as you go, with configurable alerts, notifications and sync so you never miss a beat.

Any File, Anywhere
Share, serve, star & comment on files. Images, PDFs, text snippets, zips — even files you store elsewhere, like Google Docs — are all indexed & accessible wherever you go.

Universal Search
Slack is built around search from the ground up. It captures everything you put in. Slice, dice, filter, sort and winnow: you’ll find what you need faster.

V2

Slack is a platform for team communication: everything in one place, instantly searchable, available wherever you go.

V3 — This is a rotating header GIF.

Channels
Stay organized with channels for conversations across teams, projects, and topics

Integrations
Plug the tools you already use into Slack and get all your notifications in one place.

Powerful Search
Focus your search to find messages or files from a specific person or time.


Let’s unpack how Slack develops each these product features:

V1’s “Any File, Anywhere” became V2’s “everything in one place” becomes V3’s “Integrations.”

V1 is more specific and descriptive, but makes some readers’ eyes gloss over the lengthy description. V2 literally is four words. Then, V3 really strikes at the desirable result — “Get all your notifications in one place.”

V1’s “Universal Search” became V2’s “instantly searchable” became V3’s “Powerful search.”

Although it’s nice that search was built from the ground up, as described in V1, by V3 Slack figured out that most people want two things — to find something from a specific person or time.

Which means, by default, V1’s “Modern Messaging” became V2’s “available wherever you go” became V3’s “Channels.” V3 took a completely different turn here.

“Modern messaging” and “available wherever you go” were basically about Slack’s mobile capabilities. But, Slack decided that Channels were more important by V3. I suspect this decision was actually made last minute (considering the copy is missing a full stop). Mobile was already table stakes for software far before this point, so it was safe for a reader to assume that Slack had mobile. More importantly, this point cements the idea of “organization.” Rather than being restricted to “chat rooms” (vernacular which Hipchat — later Stride — used until the bitter end), teams could organize conversations through teams, projects, and topics.

4. Don’t Let Others Define You

Slack’s original “land and expand” business strategy was one applied by VMware, Twilio, and Salesforce. Sell software with a pricing model cheap enough for people to buy right away, without permission from legal or accounting. The software will then spread through the organization, growing through word-of-mouth, and pricing will increase accordingly (e.g., Slack charges per user, Twilio charges per message, VMware charges per instance, etc.).

Up till this point, I’ve only looked at Slack’s V1, V2, and V3 because they each attempted a variation of this same strategy — solving communications problems for modern teams, typically in large technology organizations or smaller startups. V3 already starts to make this change, starring NASA in V3.5. But in V4 of their website, Slack shifts to a new audience. It addresses a different problem, speaking more directly to the business managers at large enterprises, and no longer the people working for them.

Full version (January 15, 2017)
Where work* happens.
*Whatever work means for you, Slack brings all the pieces and people you need together so you can actually get things done.

Let’s break this down…

In contrast to Slack’s original promise that users would “Be less busy,” or that it was “a messaging app for teams,” “Where work* happens,” is the promise that Slack is the place where work happens. It’s a different promise to many more people than its original one. And it doesn’t even mention a word about messaging or communications.

Slack’s business strategy was to solve communications problems as a trojan horse into organizations. They reveal a larger ambition here, to become a productivity suite. They no longer focus on just the “communications” portion of “work,” which shows future features/products will target other productivity challenges. If we were to extrapolate from V3, it could be trying to put “All your work in one place.” This message change coincides with the first year anniversary of Slack’s VC fund announcement. The fund encourages third party integrations and expands Slack’s capabilities.

The asterisk syntax is likely remixed from Nike’s mission, “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” which co-founder Bill Bowerman clarifies, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” Much like how honors athletes, and then expands the definition to everyone, this is Slack’s attempt to expand their app beyond a single limited audience. It’s not the first time Slack would remix one of their aspirational brands’ tactics.

The product-centric content from V3’s homepage didn’t disappear into thin air. Instead, they move it to the product page (/is), with slightly refined copy, and a new product highlight. More of this in the follow-up article, which will cover Slack’s content strategy.

Notice the deliberate passiveness of “Where work* happens.” Even though the “Be” in “Be less busy” is a passive verb, Slack is now positioning themselves more as a ubiquitous place. No longer are “teams” mentioned. Slack’s competitors are now no longer IRC, Hipchat, Campfire, and Flowdock. They are:

  • Microsoft Teams (“Microsoft Teams. Meet the hub for teamwork in Office 365”)
  • Cisco Webex Team (“Make teamwork your best work. Webex Teams is an app for continuous teamwork with video meetings, group messaging, file sharing and white boarding”)
  • IBM Verse email (sorta — “IBM Verse. Improve productivity with business email that understands the way you work”)
  • IBM Connections (“IBM Connections. Improve productivity, make better decisions and foster innovation with an integrated collaboration platform”)
  • Microsoft Outlook and Gmail (In my friend Joey’s words, “Slack’s biggest competitor has always been email”)

Gartner might call Slack a “workstream collaboration (WSC) solution,” but Slack’s writing appeals to people unfamiliar with those words. Instead, Slack is positioning itself to usher in an entirely new, amorphous, category. Slack’s description remains concrete, without mentioning buzzwords like “teams,” “collaboration,” or “productivity.” Similar to their manifestation as a messaging app, the WSC solution label is just a temporary phase for them.

Ushering in a new category is no easy feat, especially one where an antiquated technology like email has reigned supreme for decades. There’s a reason for the inertia. And yet, Slack pushes forward, betting that their product and clear communication will enable people to see Slack’s value.

5. Show, Don’t Tell, What You Sell

I remember going through a client pitching exercise with one of their advisors. After all our pitches, the advisor said, “The pitches were good, but you need to excite and inspire me.” I believe most salespeople get taught this lesson in some way or another.

Unfortunately, this often manifests itself as some version of, “I’m excited to tell you that an opportunity has arisen…” and a reader that’s about to close the tab.

Even though organizational transformation is what Slack sells (as described by Butterfield), they never blatantly mention it. For starters, “organizational transformation” would be far too jargon-y for their voice.

Instead, Slack infuses their website with examples. Some more obvious ones — V2 shows viewers how Sandwich Video changed after implementing Slack. In V3.5, Slack gives people a taste of how their messaging app transformed NASA.

Many technology companies are caged into an earnest approach that doesn’t do their product justice. They embrace a boisterous version of Slack’s V2 (“A platform for team communication”), when they’d be better served describing a result (V1’s “Be less busy.”), or a larger vision for the future (V5’s “Where work happens”), and showing examples of what they’re really selling.

Slack started with a very simple user-centric value proposition (“Be less busy”). This phrase and the subheading create a strong visualization, a pattern that lasts every iteration of their website. As you revise and upgrade your website, build it to pace with where your product is, and what your most important readers’ pains and desires are at the time. People — “readers,” “customers,” “the market,” “users” — change constantly, and so do their thoughts.

Special thanks to Joey Loi and Vijay Jeyapalan for their thoughts on early versions of this.

Thanks for reading! I’m Herbert, the creative director at Wonder Shuttle. We’re a marketing studio that works with clients such as Shopify, Wattpad, and Twilio on websites and content. Our content canvas is a framework that marketers and strategists use to create useful, contagious content.

As of July 2018, SimilarWeb estimates Slack’s homepage is visited by 7.5% of 128m pageviews.


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