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The Best Team Chat App for Your Company

Matthew Guay
Matthew Guay / April 29, 2014

“To err is human,” the poet Alexander Pope wrote, but he could have just as easily written, “To communicate is human.” From pictograms carved into stone to the latest chat apps, humans have always been finding better ways to communicate. It’s no surprise that AIM and MSN Messenger were some of the strongest lures of the internet in the '90s, while messaging apps like WhatsApp and LINE are persuading the next billion to get online today. We like to talk.

Chat is one thing you don’t have to explain. Type a message, talk in real-time or get a notification when you receive a reply, and it just works. There’s nothing complicated, confusing, or time consuming. Emails lead you to write a letter-length reply, and video calls can be as frustrating to schedule as a face-to-face meeting. Chat, on the other hand, only requires a tiny message, one that’s far more likely to get answered than your full emails since it’s so easy to reply, but still doesn’t require everyone to be chatting at the exact same time.

If your business communications are still centered on email, or your team is using personal Skype, Google Talk or Twitter (direct message) accounts to chat internally, it’s time to get a team chat app. There are tons of chat apps that can help your business keep its communications in one place, making it easier for your teams to talk, search through old messages, and stop hunting through a half dozen apps to find that snippet of information they need.

A Team Chat Primer

Before you go register for a team chat service and get your company signed up, though, it’s worth thinking through the benefits of using a team chat app. After all, email does work, as well as iMessage, Skype, Google Talk and Twitter direct messages. Each have their place, and you can get business done with them just as much as with a professional chat app.

No Email

What a team chat app offers is the chance to keep all of your company’s communications in one place, making it easier for everyone to talk together with group or private chats. No more searching for a team member’s email address; everyone’s a tap away, even from your phone. Better still, team chat apps often include conference calls and video chat, screen-sharing, integration with cloud storage services, and more. With any luck, a team chat app will make internal communications richer than emails with attachments, simpler than sending a text, and as easy to search through as your Evernote notebooks.

Best of all, you can integrate chat apps with almost any other app or information source that’s crucial to your company with Zapier. As we’ll look at again in more detail, you can setup Zaps (integrations) that’ll let everyone know when an invoice is paid, a competitor issues an announcement, or your company is mentioned on Twitter. With a few simple tweaks, your chat app will automatically broadcast the information everyone would otherwise have to search for manually.

Tying it all together in a rich, universal search that’ll let you quickly find an old group or private conversation, a file shared in them, or an automated post from one of your other services. No one will ever have to search through a half-dozen apps attempting to find out what was said or when something happened when everything’s in one chat app. It’ll save time, and hopefully spark productive discussions—or silly GIF wars—that’ll keep your company an exciting place to work.

Instant messaging, from anywhere and anyone, that’ll keep your team informed and interacting, and make it simple to rediscover any bit of information that’s ever been shared. That’s quite a promise, and it’s what the best chat apps offer your team. Now, all that’s left to do is to find the app with the perfect combination of features, and get your team using it.

The Big 6

The Big 6

Picking the best chat app can be tough, though, since there’s so many great ones. After looking through the most popular, and comparing what they offer, six of them stood out as the best options for the majority of teams. Plus, each of these apps work great with Zapier, so you can link them with every other app your company uses.

HipChat

From a billboard featuring a rage comic to being acquired by Atlassian, the Australian tech company known for Jira, Confluence, and Bitbucket, HipChat is easily one of the most well-known team chat apps. And for good reason: it’s fast, reasonably priced, has native apps for every platform, and includes almost everything your team could want.

HipChat’s built around team chat, with your group chats front-and-center on the sidebar. You can make public or private groups, invite guests to join in individual chat rooms, and see who’s online and strike up a private conversation with them. You can even have fun, with HipChat’s vast built-in emoji library or your own icons. Best of all, it has brand-new video-chat and real-time screen sharing, so you can talk face-to-face with your colleagues and collaborate on projects, right in the same app where everyone’s talking.

Its features, apps, and pricing make it the default choice if you want to pick a quick and simple team chat app.

Price: HipChat Basic is free; HipChat Plus (video chat, screensharing and more) is $2/user/month

Slack

Slack’s the new kid in town, the chat app everyone’s talking about. And for good reason: it’s fast, immediately familiar and yet packed with new features, and looks sharp. Plus, it’s free for teams of any size—though you have to pay if you want to keep an unlimited archive of your messages, among other things.

From the moment you start using Slack and the SlackBot helps you setup your account via chat, you’ll know you’re using a different kind of chat app. Chat rooms are organized by hashtag topics (Channels), there’s private group and individual chats, and integrations with almost any app you can imagine. The web app’s slick and fast, and feels more like a native app than a web app, and its mobile apps are equally modern.

But what’s really great is Slack’s search. It looks through your conversations, attachments, and connected accounts, making it quick to locate anything you want. You’ll even be able to store multiple versions of files and look through older copies. Evernote calls itself a brain extension, but Slack is the one app that really feels like it could be the one place where all of your company’s info lives.

Price: Free with up to 10,000 message archive; $8+/user/month for unlimited archive plus extra storage and features.

Campfire

From the team that brought us project management tool Basecamp, Campfire is one of the older team chat web apps. It’s fast, straightforward, and the cheapest of the group, and its integrations with Basecamp Classic and Highrise make it perfect for teams that already rely on those apps.

Campfire is only designed for group chat, so there’s no private messages, but you can make private rooms that only include select participants and can invite guests to join in. There’s also a nice iPhone app for Campfire, along with a wide range of third-party apps for almost every other platform. Campfire even includes a conference call number, so you can get the entire team talking on the phone via a free 1-800 number right from your chat app.

The only caution with Campfire is that its parent company, 37signals, recently rebranded the company Basecamp after their most popular app and decided to stop developing the rest of their apps including Campfire. They’re looking for buyers for each of the apps, and for now you can still signup for Campfire if you’d like, but it might not make the best choice for a new team chat app with its future up in the air.

Price: Free for 4 users, around $1/user/month beyond that ($12/month for 12 users, $25/month for 25 users, etc.)

Kato

Kato’s one of the most unique apps in this list for one reason: multiple conversation view. In a design that’s somewhat reminiscent of the social networking app TweetDeck, Kato lets you keep as many group or private conversations going at once as you want. You’ll see a list of your rooms on the bottom right corner, or the people that are online above that, and all you’ll have to do is click one of them to start chatting alongside the rest of your conversations.

It appears to be more basic than the other chat apps, but don't let that deceive you as Kato offers video conferencing, screen sharing and Markdown support, among other features. Its simple user interface is a plus, too. Everything on one page makes for a quick, clean chat experience.

And now, it's free as well. You can chat with as large of teams as you'd like, and make as many video calls as you want, for free. The only thing that costs is for multi-team enterprise licenses to help large companies get all of their teams working together. Everything else is free. If you weren't already considering trying Kato, the price is enough reason to give it a closer look.

Price: Free; enterprise licenses available for multi-team support

Hall

Most chat apps still feel like they’re desktop-first, but Hall makes it obvious from their front page that they’re focused on mobile-first. You’ll find all the great features you’d expect in any other chat app, from group to private chats, in all the apps, and then can also have video calls in the web app.

Then, as an extra twist, you can chat with any other Hall user just by searching for their name. If your clients use Hall as well, you won’t even need to enable guest access to talk to them—all you’ll have to do is look up their name, add them to your relevant team chats, and start chatting.

Price: Free for up to 5 users, $3/user/month beyond that

Grove

IRC (Internet relay chat) is the original online chat protocol, one that’s still popular especially among developers. It’s fast, supports group and private chats, and has a wide range of third-party apps for every platform imaginable. The only problem is, it’s a tad confusing for new users, and you’ll have to host your own IRC server.

Or, you could use Grove. It’s a hosted IRC service that includes a modern web app, making IRC as simple to use as any other team chat app. There’s search, a complete archive, and integrations with GitHub, BitBucket and Heroku.

Price: Around $2.50/user/month ($10 for 5 users, $50 for 20, etc.)

Or, if you’d rather use XMPP—the protocol used by AIM and other standard chat apps—Jaconda is a hosted XMPP server, similar to Grove, that makes team chat simple over any standard chat app.

Picking the Best

The Big 6 Chart

The toughest part is picking the best chat app for your team. Each of the services above work great and include plenty of unique features to make them all worth trying. The only bad part is that you have to pick just one.

If you just want a great all-around chat app that’s reasonably priced, it’s hard to argue with HipChat—or with the now-free Kato. In the same way, Grove just makes sense if you’d like to use IRC apps, and Hall makes sense if you’re working with others who already use it. Kato’s also great if you always have a lot of conversations going on at once, and want to quickly get caught up on what’s going on—and being free only makes it better. Campfire’s still a great option, and the cheapest, though the lack of private chat and uncertainty about its future make it a tougher choice. And then, Slack is both the newest and nicest of the set, with awesome app integrations and search, but it’s the most expensive if you want to keep a complete archive.

Unless one of the apps sticks out as the obvious best for your team, try signing up for a few of their free trials and see which one works best for your needs in real-life, on the devices your team uses. Don’t worry too much about whether you’ve picked the “perfect” app, either, since each of these team chat apps will work great for team chat—and will integrate with Zapier to help everyone stay informed automatically.

More Than Chat Apps

More Than Chat Apps

Or, there’s one other option: team chat alongside other tools that your team needs as well. There’s a number of project management and collaboration apps that include chat features, and if chat’s not the only thing you need they could be a great option. Here’s a quick overview of some of the best you could consider using:

  • Sqwiggle: An app designed for remote teams, Sqwiggle is an always-on video chat that lets you instantly start talking to any of your colleagues without leaving your desk—or your home. You’ll be able to see everyone else at work, or keep up with the conversation in a text team chat.
  • Unison: If you’d like to keep tabs on what everyone’s working on, as well as streamline internal communications with social network-style group messaging, Unison is a great option. It even includes audio and video calls, something not usually seen in non-dedicated chat apps.
  • Flowdock: Email meets chat in this new team messaging app. You’ll find standard social network-style messages complete with comments and tags, along with real-time team and private chat. You can even integrate Twitter and your support tickets into Flowdock, to keep all communications together.
  • Glassboard: Billed as a private social network for groups, Glassboard is less of a chat app and more of a messaging system complete with comments and likes. But, with instant notifications, it can end up being nearly the same as chat for one-off conversations. If you’re looking for a closer-to-email solution for your team communications, it’s a great alternative to consider.
  • Podio: At first glance, this app from Citrix seems like a competitor to Yammer, but it offers far more than just an internal social network. You’ll also find team and private chat, along with a number of customizable apps to help your team manage any info you want in one place.

Everything in One Place

Now that you’ve found the perfect chat app for your team, it’s time to start putting it to work for you. You’ll first need to connect it to any supported accounts that you team already uses, such as Google Docs and Dropbox if they’re supported in the app of your choice. Then, you’ll need to get your team relying on it as your main place for communication, so it’s the one place anyone needs to search for anything that’s been discussed.

Then, it’s time to get your chat app working for you, with Zapier. With a few minutes of putting together new Zaps, your chat app will automatically keep your team informed of the latest info you’d otherwise have to look up. Just start a new Zap, and find the app you’d like to connect to your chat app: your project management or finance app, an RSS feed of important news, your site’s downtime warnings, code commits, or anything else you’d like. Then, select your chat app in the Do This list, and select to have Zapier send a new message when there’s news from the previous app.

There are many ways you can use automatic messages from Zapier and any other app or service your team uses, so you’ll need to experiment and brainstorm to find the best uses for your team. Once you’ve got everything setup, your team chat app will be the one-stop-shop for everything your company needs, and you’ll automatically get notifications about any new info from your team all from the same place.

Have a favorite team chat app we missed, or a unique way your team is using Zapier with your team chat app? We’d love to hear your favorites in the comments below!

You might also enjoy this post: "How to Make Your Team Chat Room a Notification Command Center".

Last updated September 19th, 2014 with info about Kato's new pricing.

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Alex Minchin, Managing Partner at Zest

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