Looking for a simple way to improve communication in your small business? Chat tools can help. Faster than email and easier than phone calls, instant messaging is a convenient way to ask simple questions, bounce off ideas or quickly send a memo to everyone. You and your staff can also use chat platforms for real-time collaboration with file-sharing capabilities, audio and video calls, project management, and more.
An early leader in this space was AIM from AOL. If you're still using AIM for work, you're going to have to pick a new platform. That's because the 20-year-old service will shut down on Dec. 15. The change isn't unforeseen. The company cut off the apps access to third-party chat clients back in March. It's also not the first early leader to shut down. MSN Messenger shuttered in 2014 and Yahoo Messenger shut down in 2016. That's not to say this industry is slowing down. If anything, the market is overcrowded. But we've done the digging to help you pick the right platform for you. Here are eight affordable and easy-to-use chat tools for small business. The best part is they all offer free plans for small business users.
Slack offers a robust and comprehensive chat tool for small businesses. In addition to one-on-one and group chat, Slack comes with individual and team audio calls and video conferencing. Slack also makes collaboration easier than most chat tools. Users can organize multiple projects, teams and other items using hashtags, as well as share files by dragging and dropping them into the platform or via Google Drive, Dropbox and other file-sharing services. All files and chats are also synced, archived and searchable for future reference. You can even edit on other people's screens.
Additionally, Slack offers a wide variety of other third-party integrations, including Google Docs, Sheets or Slides for sharing and viewing files within conversations and during calls. [See Related Story: Collaboration Tools for Small Business]
HipChat is an easy-to-use chat app that also offers collaboration tools. HipChat comes with one-on-one instant messaging, group chat rooms, file sharing, screen sharing and video conferencing. It also integrates with various third-party apps – Facebook, Dropbox, Google Apps and Salesforce – so it becomes a streamlined part of a company's communications.
Businesses can use HipChat either straight from the app's website or install the platform on their own servers at an additional cost. Either way, HipChat is accessible anywhere using a web browser, desktop client and mobile app.
Atlassian, also of HipChat fame, has released another chat program, designed to more directly compete with Slack. Stride is a team communication tool that replicates much of what you find in HipChat, while adding natively hosted video and audio meetings. It includes task assignment and decision tracking, and it has a focus mode that collects important notifications for you. The app is scheduled to roll out gradually to the web, MacOS, iOS, Windows, Android and Linux. There is a free version that offers limited message history and file storage. For $3 per month per user, you get unlimited storage and the ability to add guests to video chats. Ultimately, this tool may replace HipChat completely.
4. Microsoft Teams
Microsoft Teams is software as a service that ties directly to the productivity giant's Office 365 subscription. It creates a chat-based workspace that's focused on real-time collaboration. It includes chat, meetings, notes, Office, Planner, Power BI, and extensions and apps. It looks a bit like Slack and functions similarly, with threaded persistent chats that can be open or private. It also integrates with the company's Skype video service, plus you can invite guests to join your chats. If you're a Microsoft-focused business, Teams may be the way to go.
Flowdock is a chat and inbox platform that lets teams collaborate and keep communications easily accessible in one place. It offers one-on-one private chat with individual team members, group chat and threaded discussions. Its team inbox feature, on the other hand, keeps and organizes emails and messages related to project management, customer support and other sources.
It's accessible anytime, anywhere – over the web, using the Windows or MacOS app and on iOS and Android devices. Push notifications are available across platforms and devices, so no one misses an important chat request, email or other messages. Other features include @ mentions to get a specific user's attention as well as hashtags and chat histories with searchable transcripts.
Part of the Basecamp project management software, Campfire is a web-based chat tool that eliminates the need to install any instant messaging apps or clients. You simply create a password-protected chat room and invite team members to chat. Users can share files with live previews within chat rooms; supported files include image files (PNG, JPG and GIF), Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
The service also comes with such extras as conference calling, chat transcripts, and add-ons for integration with popular Windows and Mac business software. In addition to the web, Campfire is accessible on mobile devices and through the dedicated Campfire iPhone app.
7. Google Hangouts Chat
Hangouts started off as a consumer-friendly chat service, Google recently reimagined it as a business powerhouse featuring deep integration with its G Suite productivity suite (Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Calendar, Mail, etc). Hangouts Chat, which is now officially out of beta, offers one-on-one chats, and now also offers threaded messages. You can assign document permissions based on the team that created them. You can filter rooms by people, file times, links and more. It's also working with developers to create bots that will work within Hangouts. For video chats, you access Hangouts Meet, where up to 30 folks can join. If your company is deep into the G Suite ecosystem, this may be the solution for you.
8. Facebook Workplace
Through Facebook's social network specifically designed for business, some 30,000 organizations are now chatting it up across some 1 million groups. The company offers a desktop app called Workplace Chat that features screen sharing, group video chat for up to 50 people and live video broadcasting. It also works on iOS and Android. Facebook charges not by seat but by monthly active users, with tiers of features that range from $1 to $3.
9. Amazon Chime
Features available with Amazon Chime Basic include one-to-one voice calling, video calling for up to two people, screen sharing, and access to use its chat feature with 30 days of history for messages. Chime also auto-calls all participants when a meeting starts, eliminating the need for memorizing complicated log-in pins and providing a visual roster of everyone on the call. It also provides the ability for everyone to see who is talking and to mute a participant if there is loud background noise on their line.
Chime's two higher tier plans – Plus and Pro – offer some very helpful user management tools for businesses, in addition to all the features of the Basic plan. Plus costs $2.50 per user, per month and includes the ability to manage an entire e-mail domain and disable accounts. Amazon Chime Pro – the highest tier available – steps up the advanced features with screen sharing capabilities, custom meeting URLs, and the ability to schedule and host meetings for up to 100 attendees. Pro costs $15 per user, per month includes all the features of the Plus and Basic plan tiers. It also allows users to record meetings.
10. Skype for Business
Skype's free plan offers a bit more latitude with group video calling for up to 20 people, Skype-to-Skype chat and voice calling, group voice calls for up to 25 people, screen sharing as well as file sharing. Skype for Business has four higher tier plans: Online Plan 1, Online Plan 2, Office 365 Business Essentials and Office 365 Business Premium. What the plans lack in naming creativity they make up for in available features. Online Plan 1 offers HD video and voice conferencing for up to 250 attendees, peer-to-peer VoIP and instant messaging. Online Plan 2 adds to those features with the ability to host scheduled and impromptu meetings, record video and audio calls, screen-share and transfer controls to other participants, and schedule meetings in Outlook. Skypes' Office 365 Business Essentials plan comes with access to the Microsoft Office cloud suite with email. It also offers file sharing with 1TB of storage and a 50GB mailbox per user. Office 365 Business Premium comes with desktop access to the Microsoft Office suite Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, Outlook, Publisher and OneNote – in addition to all the other tiers' features on up to 15 devices.