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Why you may soon get marketing messages through Slack – and why that’s a concern

Slack is a popular and successful business communication tool, with upwards of 10 million active daily users. So the recent announcement that it is being bought by Salesforce, the customer relationship management (CRM) giant, is big news – almost as big as the price tag on the transaction, which is a whopping $27.7 billion U.S.

Because so many people use Slack, the transaction will have wide-ranging implications, especially if Salesforce tinkers with Slack to tilt it towards marketing instead of just communication.

I’ve been a Salesforce user for over a decade, and I’m a fan of Slack, having used it ever since it was rolled out. As the founder of a tech company in marketing, I think I have a good feel for why Salesforce wanted to buy Slack and how it will use what Slack has to offer.

As a result, I feel concern – concern that Salesforce will turn Slack into a marketing tool; concern that Salesforce will mine Slack for marketing data; and concern, too, for what that all means for the privacy of Slack users.

Will Slack be turned into a marketing tool?

There’s a lot of consolidation happening right now in the sales technology sector. The Salesforce-Slack transaction follows on the heels of the announcement that software giant Adobe Systems was buying Workforce, a developer of Web-based work management and project management software. (I have already written about the implications of that transaction.)

As a result, a few marketing giants are beginning to emerge. As those giants grow, they will be looking to dominate marketing the way Google and Microsoft and Apple dominate their sectors.

Salesforce has two marketing automation platforms that allow businesses to send messages automatically to targeted customers – by email, through the Web, via social media or by text message. 

Slack, as I have already noted, has upwards of 10 million daily users. So my first concern is: Will Salesforce users now be able to start sending marketing messages through Slack to Slack users? 

The temptation will be great. Because the cost of the Slack purchase is huge, Salesforce will be looking for a return on that investment.

That makes me believe that what Salesforce is buying is a communication channel, a way of directly accessing, for marketing purposes, the millions of Slack users.

The way things are set up now, that doesn’t happen. Slack is largely used for communicating inside a company. In that sense, it is a closed ecosystem. No one can see what’s going on in Knak’s Slack world unless they are invited in. 

However, Slack does allow for the creation of communities or channels. These allow for discussion of particular issues among Slack users from different companies. 

Salesforce will almost certainly want access to these communities, both to influence the discussion and to monitor what is going on.

Those communities play an important role in marketing right now.

In the past, you needed to go to sales people to get information about a service or product, especially in business-to-business sales.

But now people increasingly rely on social networks for information, in the belief that recommendations from random users are less likely to be biased. 

Slack channels are perceived by many as an unbiased source of opinion. If someone asks, “Do you use Knak and what do you think of them?” replies will generally come from genuine Knak customers and it’s likely what they say will be the unvarnished truth.

But once Slack is integrated into Salesforce, what is to prevent sales people with access to Slack channels from joining a discussion and – without disclosing their bias – offering up comments (positive or negative) about a particular product or service? Or at the very least, monitoring the discussions to see who’s thinking of making a purchase?

You can get a bit of that kind of information right now; we monitor different channels (for example, there’s a channel that talks about Marketo) and look for mentions of Knak. But if Salesforce allows us to search all of Slack for mentions of us – that’s marketing intelligence on steroids!

And here’s a side issue: If Salesforce does indeed start allowing marketing messaging through Slack, will Salesforce prevent companies that don’t use Salesforce from having access to Slack users for marketing purposes?

As for Knak, we help create marketing emails. Will Salesforce use Slack to bypass emails altogether by sending marketing missives via Slack by direct message? Or does Salesforce change Slack into something like an email or messaging platform open to a wider range of people?

These are all important questions for the future of marketing.

Will Salesforce mine Slack for data?

Salesforce may also want to do more than just sell via Slack. Which brings me to my second concern: data mining.

The discussion that goes on in Slack communities is a gold mine of information to marketers. What if Salesforce starts listening in? What if Salesforce starts collecting data about what it hears? What if they start using that data themselves? What if they start selling it?

Think about it: What if, on a Slack channel, there’s a flurry of posts about a Salesforce competitor? Wouldn’t Salesforce be tempted to mine those posts for information? They could then target the people doing the posting and send them carefully crafted marketing messages addressing the concerns they were raising in the community discussion.

Take that idea one step further: Salesforce could collect data from Slack discussions about any company, and try to sell it to that company. It could also offer to sell a company Slack-mined data on its competitors as well as its customers.

I have no insider information telling me this is going to happen for sure. However, my gut and my own years of business experience tell me something like this could be likely.

The news release announcing the purchase puts it this way: 

“Slack Connect extends the benefits of Slack to enable communication and collaboration between a company’s employees and all its external partners, from vendors to customers.

“Slack will be deeply integrated into every Salesforce Cloud. As the new interface for Salesforce Customer 360, Slack will transform how people communicate, collaborate and take action on customer information across Salesforce, as well as information from all of their other business apps and systems.

“Together, Salesforce and Slack will give companies a single source of truth for their business and a unified platform for connecting employees, customers and partners.”

“This is a match made in heaven,” added Marc Benioff, the Chair and CEO of Salesforce.

Whether or not I agree with what is going on is irrelevant. Access to data is a bit of Pandora’s Box: Once something is out there, it’s impossible to put it back in the box.

If we know, for example, that we can buy information about a competitor from Salesforce, we’d be crazy not to – particularly because we will be pretty sure our rivals will be buying information about us. In fact, not buying it would put us at a major disadvantage.

Because data is so valuable, I feel that obtaining access to Slack’s data is probably Salesforce’s main reason for buying the company, and the reason they were willing to pay so high a price – over 24 times the estimated revenue for 2021.

After all, when you want to sell to anyone, data is what gives you the edge. (It’s worth noting that Salesforce had been interested in buying LinkedIn, but Microsoft got it instead and is reportedly thrilled with the way things have worked out.)

What about privacy issues?

Not only will Salesforce be able to monitor discussions on Slack, they will also have access to the employee directory of every company that uses Slack.

This is where privacy becomes a concern: What do they do with that information? Do they use it to market directly to people, breaching the firewall around each individual firm’s Slack account to target employees with marketing messages from outside the firm?

And of course there are privacy concerns that come from listening in on discussion in Slack channels.

At this point, we don’t know what will happen.

However, for us as marketers, all this is very important. 

As users of Slack, you can be sure we will be keeping close tabs on any changes that are made in the system.

My hope is that Slack remains the amazing internal communications platform it is right now. In fact, I don’t think we could run our company without it. But I don’t want outside sales people to have access to Slack.

So I’ll be watching closely to see how this all unfolds.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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