Blast From the Past: Is 2015 the Year of the Chat Room?

It's been about two decades since the chat room was truly in vogue, but this year could prove a turning point for chat in the private community sector. Need proof? Check the success of Slack.

Last week, iconic Beatle Paul McCartney came out with perhaps his biggest musical splash in a couple of decades.

“Only One,” a new collaboration with Kanye West, was a bit of a surprise for music fans—Macca and Kanye, though arguably the most innovative and popular songwriters of their respective eras, don’t seem to have any clear common ground. (Heck, a lot of Kanye fans don’t even know who Macca is.) But perhaps even more of a surprise is how the 72-year-old McCartney promoted his new collaboration.

Sure, he linked it on his Twitter and Facebook pages, and threw up a mention on his Instagram page—and the results were fairly decent on Facebook and Instagram. Twitter, however, was a little lacking—McCartney ended up deleting his original tweet and retweeting Kanye West instead:

But Macca’s biggest engagement point may have come from Line, a network you’ve probably never heard of. He reached as many as 10 million users through Line, a chat-based network where he did two things: He posted about it on a public profile, and he shared the link through a chat update to his 10 million followers on the network, which suggests he was able to drive a ton of engagement in the process.

That’s a lot of users. So why haven’t you heard of Line? It’s because Line is a Japanese social network focused on chat, complete with manga-style avatars. (McCartney is big in Japan, obviously.)

Nonetheless, that’s a lot of eyeballs, and that kind of engagement is a lot more direct than you can get through any individual social network. There’s a level of intimacy with a push notification that you’d never get with a social engagement that you’re essentially just throwing out there.

“There is no metric to quantify the engagement of that action, but the fact that most of those fans will have gotten a push notification with the message and link to Soundcloud (just like an SMS) gives you an idea that it might well have been hugely effective,” TechCrunch‘s Jon Russell wrote.

What if you were able to leverage this kind of direct engagement with your members?

Chat, the Comeback Kid

Chat, especially in room form, is having a bit of a renaissance as we enter 2015. Once the territory of AOL, Gmail, and the ultra-technical users who could tell you what Internet Relay Chat (IRC) does, we’re reaching a point where the intimacy of chat could become more important than ever.

We’ve heard a lot about this kind of thing before—SnapChat is huge (and getting huger), WhatsApp is now owned by Facebook, and Twitter-based chats remain a noisy but useful form of engagement. But it’s starting to become clearer than ever that more could be done with chat at the private community level.

Maybe there’s some life left in the ‘ol party line after all.

Need proof? Let me point you in the general direction of Slack. Launched in mid-2013, the mobile-enabled platform saw immense growth throughout 2014 as it became a corporate communication tool of choice for a number of businesses. That success seemed fairly unlikely on the surface, too—Slack looks a lot like a supercharged version of IRC, which hasn’t been all that popular outside of programmer circles since the late ’90s.

Maybe there’s some life left in the ‘ol party line after all.

Get a Room

So why do I bring this up here? Because I think there’s a lot of opportunity to take association online communities in new directions in 2015.

Already, Slack is being expanded beyond its initial use as a business conversation tool. Private networks have sprouted up for communities of digital nomads, graphic designers, and Airbnb hosts. And unlike your AOL chat rooms of yore, you can control who gets in.

It encourages a kind of direct engagement that traditional chat rooms can’t. For example:

  • Want to share a project you’re working on, just to get some quick feedback from association members? Shoot over a Dropbox link.
  • Want to start a conversation with someone in your industry or just talk shop? Take it to private—no emails needed.
  • Want to give your members a direct line to the president or executive director of your association? Launch some office hours, and promote it on your social platforms.
  • Want to get a volunteer team on the same page? Remove the friction that a never-ending email thread seems to ferment, and give them their own private channel.

Heck, Slack even has an API, so you could technically program it to hook up with your existing online community software, your Twitter account, or even your blog.

It could be an interesting direction for associations to head into. We already know that private communities are way more valuable than any megaphone associations could ever produce. But, as I’ve pointed out in the past, the problem with things like this is always buy-in. (And a reminder about hype: Before getting too excited by this concept, make sure you read my previous blog post. Keep the buzz in check.)

Still, though, a lot of online community software evokes another relic of the early internet age: the forum. And we all know there’s still plenty of lifeblood in the forum. Maybe the success of Slack, HipChat, or other chat platforms suggests that there’s still some life in the chat room as an engagement platform.

It’s not like we expected Paul McCartney to guest-star on a Kanye West single in 2015, after all.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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