How to start buzzing Yammer conversations

July 23, 2019

The original article is published on the Microsoft Tech Community Yammer Blog.

“I'd never post a message that everyone else could see”.

This was the first reaction in a focus group I was running to discuss the role of Yammer at a large charity organization. Contrary to stereotype, it was made by a millennial. She used social media in her private life, and wasn't afraid of the concept, but she was acutely aware that people carefully curated what they posted because others would make judgements. She didn't want that in her work life. 

Although her concerns were valid, there was also potentially huge benefit to the charity: they run over 200 nature reserves, often in quite isolated parts of the country. Connecting the knowledge of people working in each reserve would be invaluable. Sharing front-line stories and images from their conservation work would also help fundraisers forge closer connections with supporters.

So how do you get conversations going when people are reluctant?

Think of a town hall 

When I run workshops for internal communicators, there's always a good discussion about Yammer. The first fear is that the conversation will run riot (on this point see What do I do if they talk? And if they don’t?). The second fear is that nobody will say anything, and tumbleweed will roll through. 

I think this second scenario is usually the greater risk, so I remind communicators that they already deal with this scenario when they facilitate events such as town halls; it’s all about translating those principles to an online setting.

Getting the first person to speak

Facilitators know that it can be hard to get the first question asked at the end of a presentation, but that the fifth and sixth questions come pretty readily. So they set someone up in advance to speak first. In Yammer you can do the same thing: prime somebody to post the first comment. Ideally somebody who is recognised in the community. It can be helpful if they are relatively senior, but they can be influential in other ways that are not necessarily their pay grade.

Lower the barrier

If you start things off with a question, begin with an easy one. When you begin a Yammer group, it can be tempting to start with the big, important questions because these feel most pressing. But they are also the hardest to answer. Ones where there is no right or wrong answer can be easier. Or ones that are asked often and the best answer can be selected via using the Q&A feature. In addition, a Yammer poll can be a great start, as people often start discussing the results naturally. 

You could even begin by asking people what questions they have, rather than seeking answers. You may need to create separate threads or conversations if people start answering multiple questions within the same conversation!

Help or problem solving can be safer than opinion

Sometimes at work we’re more comfortable sticking to a professional role. So if people are uneasy about what can and can’t be said on Yammer, then it is often topics that are more fact than opinion-based that take off. For example, a deep technical discussion or case study may come more readily than asking for feedback about company culture. You could even try using the new question and answer functionality. 

Build a critical mass

I know several organizations that have launched Yammer with a company-wide YamJam. Although going big from the start may sound higher-risk it has the advantage of having many people to draw from. This makes it easier to get the conversation started and for others to see that it’s safe and valuable to participate. YamJams also typically have senior sponsorship, sending out the message that it’s OK to spend time in the Yammershpere.

Lower the risk

I was once fascinated to hear of a company that allowed anonymous postings via a kind of digital jester. The idea was that if people wanted to post without their name appearing they could send it to a character called ‘The Phantom’ who would post it on their behalf. The Phantom became a way of sharing what people were thinking but wouldn’t say out loud, but avoided the risks of fully-anonymous posts because The Phantom knew who they were.

Letting people practice on safe topics first is a good idea too. Matthew Dodd recently blogged about the value of pet pics (Building trust through pet pics? Are you barking mad?!), and it’s true that a space where you can’t really get it wrong gives them opportunity to learn how Yammer works.

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Although one of the appeals of Yammer is that it supports large-scale discussions, it may be best to start with very small groups first, ones where the members already know each other, and then build up to bigger groups. Over time, people who have similar comments to the one at the beginning of the post, come around to see that “everyone” really isn’t so bad. 

What have you done to get conversations started in your organization? 

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Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialised in intranets and the digital workplace for over 19 years, working with companies such as GSK, Vodafone, TUI Travel, Sony and Unilever. His current activities focus on intranet and digital workplace strategy, and the business side of Office 365.
Sam is a regular keynote speaker at international conferences and has been named a ‘Contributor of the year’ for his CMSWire column four years in a row.
Contact: sam@clearbox.co.uk or @sammarshall

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