Choosing a Chat App For Your Tech Event

WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, Discord, Signal, Teams… seems like every event you go to these days has at least one “official” chat app, and probably at least half-a-dozen unofficial chat groups set up by attendees and speakers.

If you’re running a conference or seminar, should you set one up? And if so, which one should you use?

Let’s get the inevitable out of the way first: even a small community conference is going to attract a few dozen people, and there’s no way they’re going to agree on which chat app is best. Microsoft Teams is great when all the people in it work for the same company; for guests, even signing in can be a showstopper. For everybody who likes WhatsApp because it’s ubiquitous, there’s somebody who refuses to install it because they won’t use Meta products. For everybody who likes Slack because it’s already installed on their company laptop, there’s somebody who hates Slack because of its convoluted authentication system (hi!). For everybody who loves Discord because it’s where all their friends hang out, there’s somebody who can’t use it on their laptop because corporate IT think it’s only for gamers and crypto.

a woman in clown make-up juggling icons for popular chat systems - WhatsApp, Signal, Discord, Telegram, Slack, Teams

That said, having a chat system for folks participating in your event is an excellent idea. For first-time attendees who don’t know anybody, it’s a great way to connect with people, find out where people are having drinks or meeting for dinner. It’s an easy way for organisers to share updates and last-minute agenda changes.

If you’re running coding workshops as part of your event, setting up a dedicated channel for each workshop works brilliantly for sharing code snippets, URLs and diagrams. When I’m teaching workshops, I always ask the organisers to set up a chat with all the attendees, using something people can run on their laptops – there’s no point sharing 25 lines of JavaScript with somebody if the only place they can see it is a WhatsApp notification on their iPhone.

So, here’s a few guiding principles I’d encourage you to consider if you’re creating a chat for your event.

First, ask yourself: are you supporting a physical event, or creating an online community?

It’s lovely to think that people can use your chat to keep in touch after the event, but they don’t need your event chat to do that. Social media exists. Attendees can spin up their own chats and groups any time, on whatever platform they want to, and keep the conversation going there – somewhere where it isn’t your responsibility to answer questions, provide event support, and potentially enforce your event’s code of conduct. Doing those things well for three days is hard enough; do you really want to do it all year round, for free?

Online communities are inclusive: anybody can join, just send them the link. In-person events are exclusive: you’ve actually got to show up. If you’re not there, you’re not part of it. Sure, there’s a huge amount of overlap, but the kind of chat that happens when twenty people are together in an unfamiliar city trying to find a good sushi place is not the same as the chat that happens when those same twenty people are back home, spread across a dozen timezones, and somebody’s asking if anybody knows a good way to show Git commits in PowerPoint.

Consider creating a workspace just for your event: one of the big advantages of creating a new instance/server/workspace/whatever for each event is that it’s easy to invite the right people, and easy to shut it down when you’re done.

Use channels sparingly

You probably need a general chat, a speaker chat, an announcements channel, and if you have separately ticketed events like workshops or seminars, create a channel for each of those. Don’t create fifty different channels for web, JavaScript, ethics, .NET, IOT, crypto, Java: you’ll overwhelm people with choice, and when they see most of those channels are empty and nobody’s posted anything, they’ll lose interest.

Use familiar tools

Online platforms like Pine and gathertown serve a purpose, but the majority of your participants won’t have used them before, which makes them far less likely to get involved in discussion. Stick to something people already know.

During the COVID lockdowns when many events went entirely online, I saw far more engagement and participation during events that used Slack and Discord than I did in events relying on proprietary platforms - we’re talking thousands of chat messages over a few days, vs fewer than a dozen on some of the dedicated event platforms. Familiarity is important.

Encourage your team to get involved

Folks will use chat to ask questions, ask for help, ask if anybody has an extension cord or a Macbook charger or where the vegetarian food is served at lunchtime. Make sure your event staff are around to give helpful answers.

Don’t rely on it if something’s urgent

One of the things I do before I give a talk is to put my phone in airline mode. You ping me on WhatsApp five minutes before I give a presentation? I’m not going to see that until after I’m done. If you need to talk to somebody urgently, call them – and if that doesn’t work, go and find them.

Shut it down when you’re done

This is the one that I personally find the most frustrating. I’m still in Slack workspaces for events that took place in 2020, and like the Hotel California, I can sign out any time I like but I can never leave. Whenever I set up Slack on a new device, they’re all still listed there. I have Telegram chats and WhatsApp groups and Signal chats for old events… and, once in a while, somebody will try to get hold of me via one of those chats. You know if you archive a WhatsApp chat it doesn’t tell other people you’ve archived it… so they have no idea you’re not seeing their messages?

Go on. Delete your old event chats - and I mean delete. Gone. Forever.

Think how much better you’ll feel.

If it was up to me?

Set up a Slack a few months early. Use it to coordinate programme committee, crew, volunteers. Create an announcements channel, a speaker channel and a hallway track for general chit-chat. A few days before you open the doors, invite everybody who’s going to be there. Keep it open for a week or so after the event. Post an announcement that you’ll be shutting it down, give folks the chance to share their LinkedIn, Twitter, email - and then delete the workspace.