The Free Alternative to LiveChat & Intercom

Authored By: James LePage
Published On: May 8, 2020

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Existing live chat services do live chat really well, but they also cost a pretty penny. We set out to find a free & powerful alternative to existing live chat services. Many times, there are some stunning open source alternatives that are free, and offer more features than paid services. For live chat, there's an offering that fits the bill.

First; open source. This is free software. Typically, it's really well designed and developed. Compared to competing commercial offerings, open source sometimes trumps commercial in terms of features and functionality. The drawback is that you'll need to install and host it yourself, which can sometimes be tough to do.

Why do we care about live chat?

We chat about this in our blog post, "How To Make Your Website Convert More".

According to Superoffice, “if a customer has a question, they are now more likely to visit your website and try to engage with a member of your team via live chat.”

And if you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Live chat is instant and on-site, while an Instagram DM or email requires opening a new application. Even, with a contact form, there are multiple non (semi, in the best case) personalized fields.

Despite these benefits only 9% of companies use live chat on their website, which means that employing it not only means a better way for customers to connect (Emarketer discovered that 63% of customers were more likely to return to a website that offers live chat), but it gives you a competitive advantage.

In short, you want to have it, but your budget might not always allow for it.

Your existing options

The following is a chart of the most popular live chat solutions on the market, how much they cost, and what they offer.

We have experience with LiveChat and Tidio and really enjoy them. Tidio integrates well with WordPress via their plugin and LiveChat (the Business Plan) is probably the best solution on the market. But, for small businesses, paying $20-40/month for basic live chat features may not a an option.

TidioLiveChatZenDeskIntercomChatWoot
Unlimited active chatbots
Chatbot templates
Increased limit of unique
reachable visitors/mo
from 5k to unlimited
Visual chatbot editor
Zapier integration
60-day chat history
Basic widget customization
Ticketing system
Data security
Unlimited chats
2 triggers
2 departments
Widget customization
Public apps
Includes 1 seat
Live chat
Targeted outbound chat
Team inbox
Slack integration
Website widget
Twilio SMS Channel
Private Notes
Conversation Labels
Canned Responses
Webhooks
Auto assignment
Widget customization
$18 per month$16 per month$14 per agent per month$39 per month$0 per month

The prices listed are the base plans that allow you to use live chat. Keep in mind, these are the base plans -- the plans that you actually want/need can hover anywhere from $40-100 per month. If you can afford this, it's worth it. Hands down. If you can't you'll still want to figure out a way to have live chat functionality in your website without breaking the bank. Meet Chatwoot, listed in the 5th column of our comparison table. Notice that monthly figure? $0. Let's learn more.

The free alternative to paid live chat

From the Chatwoot Team:

Chatwoot is a customer support tool for instant messaging channels which can help businesses to provide exceptional customer support. The development of Chatwoot started in 2016 and it failed to succeed as a business and eventually shut the shop in 2017. During 2019 #Hacktoberfest, the maintainers decided to make it opensource instead of letting the code rust in a private repo. With a pleasant surprise, Chatwoot became a trending project on Hacker News and best of all, got lots of love from the community.

Now, a failed project is back on track and the prospects are looking great. The team is back to working on the project and we are building it in the open. Thanks to the ideas and contributions from the community.

Chatwoot is enterprise grade live chat software that's open source. That means you can install the fully featured version on your own sever for free. No monthly fees, other than what you pay for hosting.

Like many open source projects, they offer a paid, managed version.

The $0 plan is perfect for a small business looking to incorporate live chat features into their website for no cost. For $0, it's immensely powerful. Not only do you get website live chat, you get SMS integrations, 2 agents and canned (template) responses. That's pretty crazy.

If you know your way around webhooks, you can truly build this product into any one of your existing and future systems too.

As the plan steps up, it become inline with mainstream live chat offerings, like Tidio and LiveChat, and may no longer be the best solution for your company in it's current form.

We tested out the $0 plan -- here are some screenshots of the platform.

I'd like to take a moment to discuss the absolute quality of this service. In our experience as an agency, open source software is usually 100 times more powerful compared to commercial counterparts that may cost $100 per month and do 50% less. But all of that power comes with the drawbacks of a poor UI/UX and difficult installation/hosting.

Chatwoot is not a member of this category. As you can see in our screenshots, this services is beautifully designed and really offers a premium experience. This is partially due to the fact that it used to be a commercial project that shut down and was reborn into an open source one, and partially due to the awesome team behind it.

The bankend offers a killer UI and set of tools that are perfect for business owners. You can respond quickly to customers from a Facebook Messenger like backend. You can also access reports that show things like incoming messages, responses and more. As we said before, and will say again, if you're a small business, this solution is absolutely perfect for you. Pair it with a cost of $0 and... wow.

One thing that we feel the product could focus on are their email notifications (if you're technically oriented, you can style them yourself, but it would be nice if they were better designed for the base installation.) Take a look:

We've discussed the $0 plan, but remember, this product is open source. That means with a little configuration, you can hypothetically access the features contained in the enterprise plan for free. We tested it out and with some tweaking, got it installed and up and running with our website, Facebook and Twitter. Currently the email functionality is not working.

You can get started directly from this blog by clicking the "Deploy to Heroku" button. It will load your Heroku account (or prompt you to make a free one), and automatically compile and install Chatwoot. You can then login and play around with the fully featured platform.

Deploy

Click this button to deploy Chatwoot to Heroku automatically.

???? Here's a secret. The managed Chatwoot service is actually hosted on Heroku as well.

Note that your Heroku installation of Chatwoot will require some configuration to get started. We'll have a guide out on how to do this soon, as we're big fans of this offering. After configuration, you can connect your installation to Twitter, Facebook, SMS, SMTP and more.

You can even configure cloud storage in something like AWS or Google Compute Engine.

You can also host Chatwoot on a DigitalOcean droplet. This is probably the best setup for a production installation, and it will cost you $5/month. We set up our installation by following the Ubuntu Documentation published by Chatwoot. Expect a step by step tutorial in the future on how to do this.

If you're going to experiment with this route, click the button below for a $100 credit to your DigitalOcean account.

Conclusion

To conclude, Chatwoot goes glove to glove with estabilished live host offerings like Intercom and Zen Desk. As an open source product, you can access enterprise level features for free -- just bring a host.

For small businesses who can't afford the steep prices that many live chat providers offer, the $0 managed plan is super capable and cost friendly. Installing the open-source Chatwoot is also very quick (1 click with the purple button above), and is a viable competitor to established companies.

As an agency, we're super excited to be a part of this project, and will begin recommending it to all future clients. For $0, you can't really go wrong. Subscribe to our mailing list to get future tutorials on Chatwoot installation and configuration.

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James LePage is the founder of Isotropic Design, a digital agency that builds WordPress websites. I read, write and design constantly!

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