Chat happens: Your guide to 8 group-chat services

If you're still relying on conference calls or IM, it's time your team explored group chat. Here's what Slack, HipChat, and six other providers have to offer

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Everyone knows the secret to success – personal and business alike – is good communication. But in what form? If you're trying to communicate with a group in real time, you're no doubt familiar with the old standby: conference calls. You know: those mind-numbing phone meetings in which talkers overlap, voice quality is terrible, half the people aren't paying attention and somebody's dog barks intermittently throughout the call.

But what's the alternative? Consider an old (very old) standby: instant messaging. Except nobody calls it that anymore; now it's group chat. These virtual meeting rooms are focused on text-based communication – and often vastly preferable to conference calls.

Why type when you can talk? A chat session makes it easier for everyone to be "heard," as you can instantly see who said what. (No more having to start every sentence by identifying yourself.) If someone is momentarily distracted, they can easily jump back into the conversation by reviewing the previous comments. And, perhaps best of all, there's no static or background noise. On a group chat, no one knows you're listening to your favorite playlist.

There are other advantages, too, like the option of keeping a permanent, searchable transcript of each session. Most chat services also let you share or embed files in real time (as opposed to, "Hang on, I'll email you the spreadsheet. Did you get it yet? How about now?"). Many will let you break off into side chats if you need a quick one-on-one discussion of what's happening in the group. ("Do you think Bob is going to need some extra help on this project?") And don't forget the security advantages: Voice conversations can be overheard; text-based chats cannot. (To that end, the vast majority of chat services offer heavily encrypted sessions.)

Okay, but why not just fire off a text message or loop in a few co-workers through iMessage? Texting is too cumbersome for anything longer than a quick exchange, and too "cramped" if you're trying to communicate with more than a few people.

This is not to say that group chats are ideal for every scenario, merely that they're an option worth considering – especially if you're finding your current communication methods lacking. For this story we looked at eight group-chat services that offer the same core function – Web- and app-based instant messaging for two or more people – but with different interfaces, features and focuses.

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