As digital interactions play a growing role in our lives, the need to connect and converse directly with others is as important as ever. In-app and online chat is a powerful, intuitive way for users to make these connections within the experiences they engage with every day. From getting help from support agents, to work collaboration and social gatherings, many of our conversations now happen through online chat.
When companies need to quickly and easily bring online chat into their applications, they turn to chat platforms rather than developing from scratch. Digital chat platforms make it easy to implement the features and functionality that users care about, with minimal up-front effort and no ongoing maintenance. By doing so, these platforms let anybody—not just companies focused on chat—create conversational experiences that connect and delight their users.
This guide will dig into the kinds of online chat platforms available, explore the value they bring to your use case, and offer actionable advice for selecting a platform for your development. By the end of this guide, you will come away knowing why chat platforms are the best way to build in-app chat, and you’ll have a clear path forward to start building.
Chat platforms let you add real-time chat functionality to your website or app, with the chat features and polished user experience that have come to define chat experiences already built in. These platforms let you offer an excellent chat experience to your users right from the start and without the need to develop from scratch.
Web-based chat platforms generally come in one of two flavors: SaaS-based, or API-based. SaaS chat platforms usually offer a drag-and-drop chat widget, and are best suited for use cases where chat is a self-contained feature, like reaching a support agent on a website.
Because SaaS-based chat platforms come as a complete package, they are easy to use and deploy, but this comes at the major cost of flexibility, customization, and full integration with your app.
On the other hand, chat platform API gives you the ability to implement chat into any application. They give you a much greater degree of control over the look, feel, and functionality of chat for your product. These enable the creation of chat that integrates deeply into both your end-user experience and the backend logic for your app.
To briefly compare the two, consider a customer support use case. A SaaS chat support solution will let you quickly deploy support chat on your company website, but stops there. It won’t let you add custom features, like screen-sharing to triage issues, and it can’t be used to offer support directly within an application. For any custom features, or for chat that needs to integrate into your own product, you need code-level control. For these needs, an API-based chat platform is the answer.
The power of a chat platform API, like PubNub’s, comes from the way they build upon a set of core technologies. At the heart is a chat service, which routes conversations and handles the basic sending and receiving of messages. This chat service also handles reliability, scale, and global availability. This means that chat stays up and running no matter how many users are active.
An online chat platform will then build upon this core service in two ways. On the front end, it can integrate with user-facing features like SMS, voice, and video calls. On the backend, it can connect to databases, route data directly through AI, and consult CRMs to enable complex workflows.
Companies use this kind of digital chat platform by integrating it directly into their app on the code level with language-specific SDKs. SDKs package all the power of a hosted chat service into a set of intuitive methods, making it easy for developers to get up and running with chat in minutes. In production, SDKs afford a high degree of control over the final chat experience. And, they do so without the burden of building and maintaining complex messaging infrastructure from scratch.
Because of their extensive benefits to teams of all sizes, this guide will primarily focus on the use cases and benefits of API-based chat platforms.
A chat platform is the perfect tool for any company that wants to connect its users without building from scratch. This is doubly true for apps that were initially built for individual users, like games and live-streaming services, but that now could benefit from connecting and engaging users in the context of their favorite activities. Whether chat is planned from the start or added later, chat platforms empower companies to:
Social media has become an integral part of the way we connect with friends and family, and meet new people. And with the growth of remote life, apps for social connections have likewise evolved into chat experiences that connect us in interesting, unexpected ways.
In virtual live events like those delivered by LiveLike, online chat lets fans share immediate reactions to pivotal moments, like a touchdown or goal, emulating the communal energy of a full stadium. In apps for smaller gatherings, like remote watch parties, online chat allows friends and family to communicate instantly and intimately, capturing the feeling of being in-person and truly coming together. And, these are just a few examples of a whole host of new experiences that use chat, video, and other interactions to bring users together in real time.
The teams creating these social applications face a challenge: they must now bring their unique vision to life while also building and supporting chat. Chat platforms solve this major challenge by making it easy to deliver and operate excellent chat right alongside core functionality, like live-streaming events, video, or even gameplay. A chat platform like PubNub helps social app development by letting teams connect people in new ways while saving on costs, time, and development effort.
With many offices going fully remote this year, web-based chat platforms for workplaces and professional teams has never been more necessary. Chat apps like Slack have become an integral part of many workplaces, and for good reason: they’re tried-and-true, robust applications fully dedicated to text-based conversations.
Yet, Slack is just one tool amongst many, and specialty teams often spend their workday immersed in programs designed for complex tasks like UX design, CAD, video editing, or coding. These kinds of remote teams still need collaboration, and there’s a growing gap between the tools they use to communicate, and the tools they use to do work.
For companies building the next generation of specialty tools for these teams, chat tools close this gap. With minimal time and effort, they let developers build collaborative tools that embed chat directly into the work environment. And, they help deliver the chat features that are key to productivity, like group chat, the ability to freely share files in context, and live screen-sharing and annotation.
Altogether, a chat platform API like PubNub is the perfect fit for building collaboration software. They give those building the next wave of productivity tools the power to harmonize work and communication for remote situations. As remote work evolves, in-app chat will be key to the growing number of teams that need more than just Slack.
When faced with a complex issue, many of us immediately look for a way to speak directly to a human. When FAQs and docs fall short, it’s hard to overstate the value of an open conversation with an expert.
With the expansion of e-commerce, SaaS, and remote services in general, customer support has more demands placed on it than before. Especially for web-based products, support is usually customers’ quickest road to an answer. Because help desks are where customers and companies meet, the comfort, ease-of-use, and security of chat support all contribute to the customer experience.
At its most basic, chat software makes it easy for companies to set up anything from a simple chat widget to a full support portal. This basic communication is key to customer engagement, creating an intuitive, comfortable way for users to solve problems, answer questions, and get in touch with experts. Happier, more well-informed customers in turn means less churn for SaaS businesses, and more loyal, active customers for e-commerce.
Yet, beyond the basics, more customers (and more message volume) means staffing a support channel can become an obstacle. In response, many customer service workflows now embrace automation, usually by handling simple queries with chatbots.
Online chat platforms like PubNub meet this need as well. We offer tools to develop chatbots that can handle conversations intelligently, pull relevant information from your CRM, and hand off the conversation seamlessly to a human agent when needed. This lets companies connect with more customers without losing the personable and detailed interaction that underpins the customer experience.
Finally, when it comes to telemedicine, more patients than ever are seeking remote healthcare options that replicate the comfort and quality of in-person care. To rise to this demand, telemedicine apps must offer a secure, online chat experience that’s comfortable, accessible, and secure.
Chat platforms that offer HIPAA-compliant chat meet the needs of healthcare providers, care teams, and patients alike. HIPAA-compliant platforms like PubNub make it easy to build chat that’s natural for patients to use, protects sensitive information, and integrates seamlessly with services for voice, video, and AI for advanced workflows. The right chat platform allows healthcare teams to both satisfy regulatory requirements and meet the usability and security needs of individual patients.
Across use cases, API-based chat platforms remove the complexity of integrating chat directly into any application. Up front, they make it easy for developers to meet user needs with in-app chat that’s fully-featured, right from the start. Over the long term, chat platforms that prioritize reliability, like PubNub, also remove the need for ongoing monitoring and maintenance. This frees up time and resources over the entire product lifecycle, letting companies instead continually reinvest in their own unique vision.
As we’ve seen, chat software systems are a great choice if chat is necessary to your use case, but not your core focus as a business. They let you skip the groundwork and get right to implementing great chat, without worrying about ongoing burdens like routing traffic and maintaining networking infrastructure. But, what truly makes a good chat platform?
As you evaluate a chat platform solution, you should first ensure that it meets your users’ needs. Without this, any cost or time savings are practically moot. This is because the most important job of any in-app chat is to facilitate conversations that feel natural and comfortable for your users.
To that end, helping users feel comfortable means meeting and exceeding their expectations for digital experiences. Based on their usage of messaging apps like Slack, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp, users now expect any chat experience, whether standalone or in-app, to offer the same core features, to enable expression, and to offer immediate feedback through features like typing indicators and read receipts.
Among other features, an online chat platform should address these three areas of user expectations through features like:
Core chat software features:
1:1 and Group chat, for all types of conversations
User presence, to see who’s online
Chat message history, to catch up on past or missed messages
File upload, to share images, audio, and more
The option to integrate voice and video chat, for genuine remote interactions
Sharing GIFs in-line
Message reactions that keep conversations lively
Custom or unicode emoji support
Typing indicators to create an instantaneous back-and-forth
Read receipts and timestamps so users know when others have seen their messages
Chat platforms that offer the right feature set, like PubNub, make it easy to quickly deploy chat that brings the best of consumer messaging apps right to your users—even, or especially if, you’re not a chat-first company.
API-based platforms inherently allow you to integrate chat directly with your code, giving you full control over its final look, feel, and functionality. From a code standpoint, a chat platform’s API should never be a black box, and should instead let your team build in the way that makes the most sense for your app.
From an end-user perspective, a beautiful UI and an intuitive UX are essential. Packages like PubNub’s chat UI kits offer customizable templates that help you quickly create best-in-class chat with beautifully designed user interfaces. Using these kits as a roadmap lets you focus on your unique feature set rather than basic user flow and functionality.
One major benefit of chat platform API solutions is that they allow you to build chat that works on multiple platforms, rather than just the web. Chat platforms deliver this functionality through SDKs. To ensure the broadest support possible for both end-users and your developers, the platform you choose should offer SDKs for every end-user device, and in the language your team loves to use. At a minimum, this means offering at least one SDK each for web, mobile, and desktop.
Platforms like PubNub go beyond the basics. PubNub offers chat SDKs for popular frameworks like React and Flutter, and has an SDK for every programming language used to build mobile apps for both iOS and Android. From Kotlin and Android Java to Swift and Objective-C, our broad library of SDKs means that you can use our chat platform no matter what technology your team uses.
Finally, because a chat platform lives within your broader tech stack, it should work seamlessly with the tools and services you already love. Whether that means building advanced chatbots, filtering profanity in community channels, or routing business logic, integrations with best-in-class services are an essential part of your chat solution.
PubNub’s 3rd party integrations let companies using our platform directly implement solutions for:
Voice and video services, for rich communication experiences
NLP services, like text-to-speech, translation, and text analysis
Profanity filtering and image moderation services that perform at scale
Conversational interfaces, for easily building chatbots
Additionally, our serverless Functions ensure that you can write custom connectors to either your own servers, or additional third-party services.
The way a chat platform is priced can make the difference between a viable path and one that’s way out of budget. API-based platforms that offer flexible plans, like PubNub’s pricing, let you scale affordably. With pricing options based either on monthly active users (MAU), PubNub lets you integrate chat in a way that makes the most sense for your current size, use case, or budget, and continues to work with you as you succeed and grow.
Altogether, these chat features ensure that you’ll deliver great chat up front, meeting your users’ needs no matter what device they use. You’ll have the tools to customize chat for your unique use case, and you’ll never need to worry about getting your chat to work in harmony with other parts of your app or external services. Over the long term, choosing a chat platform that offers these features within a flexible pricing model is the best way to make sure your users get the best chat experience possible.
A chat platform is a powerful tool to quickly and easily add communications to any app. And, while chat platforms come in different forms, those based on APIs are the best option for those who need custom chat that integrates natively into their application.
Chat platforms like PubNub offer a complete set of user-friendly features, bringing the best of consumer chat apps into your experience. With APIs designed for full customization, customizable chat UI kits, integrations with best-in-class services, and flexible pricing models to support you as you grow, PubNub is a great choice for those who want to start building chat today that will support and grow with them into the future.
If you’re ready to start connecting your users through chat, get in touch with us. We’ll walk you through the best way to develop chat using our platform, and will work with you to get up and running with chat that your users will love.