Former Slack CMO, Bill Macaitis, on How Slack Uses Slack

Yes, you read that right.

Bill Macaitis has driven marketing for some of the best-known software brands on the market, including three of the five fastest-growing SaaS brands in the industry’s history. He spent four years leading a global online marketing team at Salesforce, was an innovative CMO at Zendesk for two years, and then spent nearly three years as CRO and CMO at Slack. Today, he continues to support Slack as a key advisor, providing guidance and insight on go-to-market strategy and overall growth.

While he’s no longer as hands-on at Slack as he once was, Macaitis is still a true fan of the immensely popular messaging platform that emerged out of a failed gaming project. “It’s a crazy origin story,” Macaitis says. “Essentially, the team was creating a game and using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to keep their remote team connected. At one point, they thought it would be really cool if each time they got a new game sign-up, the info would be typed into the IRC channel instead of into an email. As the project went on, they thought of other features that would be great: an IRC channel that worked on mobile phones, the ability to scan back and search through message history, multiple channels, and so on.” Ultimately, the game launch didn’t pan out, but the team realized that they had inadvertently built a whole new messaging system, and it had changed the way they worked together. To their credit, the company’s investors decided to roll with it, and Slack was born.

Like any paradigm-shifting technology, Slack has attracted fanatics and detractors – all with passionate opinions. Touted early on as the “end of email,” Slack quickly won over many fans who were delighted with the app’s user experience and the associated boost in productivity. At the other end of the spectrum, some people fell out of love with the app and parted ways citing irreconcilable differences over a perception of the need to be always-on and always-available.

Macaitis doesn’t label Slack as an email killer, but he does think it’s a natural evolution of communication tools. He also understands why it’s hard for some people to make the leap. “You’re trying to re-teach people a 30-year-old workflow. People get very comfortable and email is at the heart of what they do,” he says. “We’re not saying email is going away. Slack is really for internal team communication, but you’ll still have external communication with partners and customers. However, there’s a big movement away from email toward messaging.”

Why People Love Slack

Despite the ongoing debate over whether Slack is, in fact, the long-awaited silver bullet to solve bulging inboxes, many people already agree wholeheartedly that it’s a vast improvement over email.

The benefits of Slack are many,” Macaitis says, “starting with a 32% lift in productivity. This is what our customers tell us – that they have fewer meetings, less email, and don’t have to deal with spam.” Slack also has a lot of built-in features that help with information organization and access. The fact that messages are automatically sorted into topical channels and easily searchable can streamline almost any communication task.

In addition to productivity, Macaitis consistently hears from users about a variety of other benefits that make them raving fans. “People like the real-time nature of it, and having a variety of channels,” he says. “Customers also say that Slack helps them connect with people more. Eighty percent of people say that Slack helps improve company culture and transparency, which are both big things.”

Whether a company is new to Slack or has been using it for a while, to get the most out of the platform, you have to know how to use it properly. Like any software, system, or process there are best practices that enhance both the experience and the results.

Getting the Most Out of Slack

While Slack was originally built for remote teams (and continues to be a great solution in that scenario), teams of all kinds and sizes have adopted the product and made it their own. Since the two-and-a-half years since Slack’s formal launch, best practices have emerged on everything from channel creation to meeting strategies.

Go All In

“You’ll get the most benefit out of Slack if you put everything in Slack,” says Macaitis. “I’ve seen a couple companies work with a hybrid – using both email and Slack – but that makes it hard on people because they have to go to multiple places to check things.”

In addition to creating a consistent, real-time communication channel, putting everything in Slack serves multiple, after-the-fact purposes. “One of the best things about Slack is that you can search on anything in it at a later point in time,” Macaitis says. “This makes it easier for people joining the company to get up to speed. They can, for instance, go into the marketing and sales channels to see what’s been released, what’s going on, and lots of other information. When that information is in an email, it’s locked forever, and the minute someone leaves you lose all that institutional knowledge. Put it all in Slack. It’ll make life easier.”

Do Channels the Right Way

Once you’ve made the commitment to use Slack across your organization, the next item to tackle is setting up channels. Slack uses channels to organize conversations under topical categories, and there are a number of best practices that will ensure an effective channel-based communication strategy.

One of the first considerations is about privacy and transparency. “We’ve found that most companies start off with 80 – 90% of their channels set to private,” says Macaitis. “But, over time, they start to add open channels. At Slack, we thought business would work better if we were more transparent about what was going on. Not knowing what other teams are doing is such a pain point. Part of the power of Slack is being able see what different teams are up to. It’s amazing to be able to go into a product roadmap channel and see the next key features coming out or jump into a support channel and see the top issues our customers are having. For many companies, that knowledge is locked away and as the company gets bigger you increasingly become more out of touch with what is going on in different teams.”

There will always be certain channels that need to remain private – channels about sensitive topics such as compensation, reviews, or mergers and acquisitions; but Macaitis recommends being as open as possible on Slack. “In general, if you can keep more things open you’re going to have a much more transparent culture,” says Macaitis.

After figuring out which kinds of channels need to be private and which can be open, it’s time to determine the exact channels your team needs. Macaitis recommends some basic channels that work for most organizations:

  • Global Announcements: “This is a common, high-level channel that we used at Slack to announce everything from a new 401(K) rollout to a new feature launch to organization-wide questions to gauge how people are feeling about the company culture or annual goals.”
  • Regional Offices: “It’s smart to have regional channels because sometimes there will be topics that are only relevant for a particular office – things like what’s for lunch, local construction, or network maintenance.”
  • Functional Groups: “Having a channel for each of the functional teams – marketing, sales, finance, ops, dev, etc. –  is a great way for all the people within that team to keep up with what’s going on.”
  • Stats Channel: “This is a helpful channel that includes updates on company stats such as number of active users, current ARR, NPS score, etc.”
  • CEO Channel: “We’ve used this in the past as a place where anyone can ask the CEO a question. It’s different from email because if you send an email to the CEO and he responds back to you, it’s a private message. On Slack, however, anyone can go into the channel and see the response. This was great for answering questions about where the company was going, what our office strategy was, or how we defined the role of sales.”
  • Fun & Culture: “Some channels are just fun. At Slack, a really popular channel was ParentLand. We would all commiserate about having our little daughters and sons throw up at 3:00 AM and our total lack of sleep. I also subscribed to the whiskey channel to talk about the fine malts that were coming out. I did notice that the ParentLand and whiskey channel audiences were virtually identical. Maybe there was some correlation there?!”

Often, channels evolve organically based on how teams use the platform, but you want to be careful not to over-segment your channel list. Get specific enough that people can easily determine which channels they should be in, but not so granular that the list is overwhelming.

For larger or dispersed teams, it’s helpful to encourage cross-pollination of channels. “A common complaint we hear from email only based companies is that different functional groups feel out of the loop with other teams,” says Macaitis. “Engineering doesn’t know what marketing’s doing and marketing has no idea what’s going on in engineering. It’s really helpful when people can go into different channels and quickly see what’s happening. One example from Slack was our PR channel. We had two people in the PR department, but maybe three hundred people in the PR channel who were there to keep up on our latest messaging, coverage and launches.”

Finally, remember that you can archive a channel. Macaitis recommends that if no one has used a channel for sixty days, it’s best to archive it.

Use Reactions 🎉

“Reactions are a super-powerful feature,” says Macaitis. “Email encourages people to write a long response. Even just typing ‘Dear Jane, thank you for emailing me. I approve this. Sincerely, Bill.’ can take thirty seconds. With reactions, you can just give the thumbs up emoji 👍 to indicate that something is approved. At Slack, if someone was asked to do something, they’d respond with the eyeballs reaction 👀 to indicate they were working on the task, and could then change it to a green check ✅, which meant that they had finished.” This kind of abbreviated communication is not only faster, it also mirrors the way we often talk in our personal lives – with emojis as an efficient form of digital shorthand.

Take Advantage of Integrations

Integrations are another powerful tool. “Most companies start off using Slack strictly for messaging, but one of the cool things you can do is leverage integrations to nicely sort notifications into defined channels that would normally clog up your inbox,” Macaitis says. “For example, you might get an email every time you get a new lead, a bug or there’s been a change to an expense report. What if you could take all those emails and set up an integration that would automatically post each item to a specific channel? You can even build in workflows so that you never need to leave Slack to see a task from start to finish. Why login into a separate app to approve an expense report when you can do that right in Slack?

“I’m in marketing and I love Net Promoter Score (NPS),” Macaitis adds. “So, we have an integration with Delighted that automatically posts every single NPS survey (when it’s sent out and when the client responds) into an NPS channel. I can see every one of those NPS scores for our bigger enterprise accounts, SMBs, paid users, free users – all in one place, and it’s an open channel so anyone can go in there and see what’s happening. In an email-only company, there’s a good chance that that information gets siloed away and no one has access to it.”

Experiment with Running Meetings

Even Macaitis admits he was initially skeptical about running meetings on Slack. “I thought, that’s crazy,” he says. “But then we started to see people within the company making it work for specific use cases. This was exciting to me because I think meetings are the biggest time killer of your day. As an executive, my typical day is packed with meetings from 8: 00 AM to 6:00 PM. I’d love to be able to get some of that time back to do actual work.”

“Daily stand-ups, whether for development teams or marketing, work well in Slack,” Macaitis says. “Everyone logs into the channel, types in their top three priorities, and says whether they are blocked or not. Boom. Three seconds in, the next person types in their status and the next and so on. The meeting takes six minutes. Not only do you save time, but – again – there’s the benefit of transparency. Anyone else in the organization can come into the channel to see exactly what everybody is working on, what the top priorities are, and where anyone was blocked. That’s an awesome alternative to walking into some conference room, setting up the video conference, waiting for late arrivals, and then sitting through a long call.”

In addition, Macaitis has seen success running project meeting updates, all-hands, and even one-on-ones via Slack. “Meetings are one of the oldest and most hated parts of being part of a company. Try experimenting by putting some in Slack and see if you can get some of your life back.”

Manage Your Time

Macaitis also has a bit of frank advice for anyone who feels like they are spending too much time in Slack to the detriment of their productivity. “I’m a big productivity guy. I read tons of articles about how to be more productive and there’s a large stream of consciousness out there that says you need to have uninterrupted work time,” he says. “This is why – whether I’m dealing with Slack or email – I always block off time to go in and check messages and then return to uninterrupted work.”

Macaitis also points out that Slack has a handy feature that allows you to set your status to reflect your current work and if you don’t want to be interrupted.

Ultimately, the organizations that succeed with Slack are the ones that learn the best practices, but also tailor their use of the platform to the specific needs of their teams. “Email was invented 40 years ago, it was never intended for team communication,” Macaitis sums up. “Using Slack the right way can get you huge advances in productivity while killing a ton of time-suck meetings. You don’t want to let your communication process remain static for the next five hundred years. Sometimes, there’s a more efficient way.”

Casey Renner
Casey Renner
Partner at OpenView

Casey leads the end-to-end strategy & programming for OpenView’s network of industry experts, advisors & corporate partners. Her role is focused on creating connections between founders & their teams and the partners, advisors, board members & events they need to reach their goals. Additionally, she manages the OpenView portfolio peer networks and hosts the #WeeklyWalk series.
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