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5 tips for building a successful internal social network

Last week, I had a very interesting catch-up with NixonMcInnes friend, Tony Stewart (@tonycomms).

Tony is an internal communications executive at Aviva Investors  and he agreed to talk us through his social business journey.

Key to Aviva investor’s internal comms social initiative has been the introduction of Yammer* to help their global teams connect, collaborate and share.

(*Yammer is an internal social network a bit like Twitter that allows colleagues to have real time conversations and share information – more info here)

In the 18 months it has been active, Tony has seen the Yammer network thrive and currently, he estimates that about 85% of colleagues have joined the network. And Aviva Investors’ staff are realising very real business benefits from this, they say:

  • They feel better connected to their colleagues and have a better sense of the global community in their business
  • They are better able to express and share ideas
  • They are better informed about what is happening in the business

Each of these learnings has helped Aviva Investors’ internal community reach critical mass but it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

Tony admits he has faced some challenges on his journey with Yammer.  For example:

  • Adoption has been slow in some markets where a groundswell of advocates does not exist to encourage use
  • Recent restructuring of the business has impacted participation and although the culture on the network is still open and engaged, overall communications have dropped
  • Occasionally sensitive issues have been raised in the community that have required Tony to step in and mediate to guide participants towards resolution

However, each of these issues also provides Tony with the opportunity to grow the community and make it stronger and more effective in the future. This commitment will allow Aviva Investors to capitalise on the early success of its community and ensure its growth in the future.

This is great news for Aviva but I have seen similar initiatives in similar businesses that have failed to thrive in this way. In my experience, many corporations are littered with the bones of failed internal networking attempts.

So what made Yammer work in Aviva? And what learnings can we take from Tony’s journey that you can apply in your business to make sure that your internal network survives?

Tip 1 - Embed your community strategically

Tony’s journey with Yammer began when he found that a team in the IT department were using the free version of the tool to communicate with each other in real-time.

He encouraged this use and learnt from their experiences before extending it out to other teams.

In fact, Aviva Investors didn’t actually move to the paid version of Yammer until the tool was already embedded and they actually needed to upgrade to access its premium features.

Additionally, Tony made a strategic decision not to promote the network to the exec team to get them to join, until it had already gained traction among the wider staff community. He felt that the success of the network depended on staff feeling like it was their space.

This approach has been shrewd and has resulted in a much more open and participatory community.  Staff feel their position in the network is established and they are not intimidated by the senior exec joining the conversation.

This stealth approach to launching the community had several benefits:

  1. Tony had a ready made set of evangelists to extol the virtues of Yammer to other teams
  2. He had a powerful stakeholder group already onside – convincing risk and compliance teams when you already have the support of IT is a whole lot easier than starting without any allies
  3. He didn’t have to launch with an empty network.  Having a small community that grew over time meant that the community never felt new and empty
  4. He didn’t have to make a business case to buy an expensive piece of software – Yammer had already proved itself before the business needed to make the investment

Tip 2 – Manage your community

A thriving community does not happen without support and nurturing.  Tony estimates that he now spends about 30% of his time actively developing, monitoring and managing the network.

This activity includes:

  • Supporting positive interactions.  Tony has found that working groups tend to convene organically in the community. However he does apply some stewardship to ensure that groups do not simply reflect existing business structures and actively connect staff across silos.  For example, when Tony noticed staff using the Yammer stream to sell things, he created a ‘notice board’ group so that these conversations did not clutter the timeline and so that staff could access this information in one place if they needed it.
  • Providing easy to digest training and advice.  Tony regularly publishes tips and tricks to help teams get the most from Yammer – he tailors these to address specific challenges and opportunities that he notices as he manages the community, e.g. a recent release explains what Yammer is and the benefits of using it, and a new doc is planned to cover best practice for creating and managing groups.

Tip 3 – Market your community

Part of the process of building a successful community is to make people aware of it. But once people are aware of it and have signed up, you still have a hurdle to overcome to get them to become a part of the community – to persuade them to join the conversation.

Recognising this, Tony’s internal marketing for the network does not stop once someone has signed up for Yammer. Here are two ways in which he has helped to promote engagement in the network:

  1. Yammer photo day: To stop the community filling up with impersonal default avatars, Tony arranged a photo day where staff could have their photo taken for their Yammer account.  This meant that people were more visible in the network and the community felt warmer and more human.
  2. Love a lurker day:  Staff are encouraged to connect to and start conversations with community members that have yet to contribute.  This is a great way of using the community as advocates and this gentle peer encouragement has proved to be a great way of getting others involved.

Tip 4: Connect your community

Tony made sure that, where possible, Yammer complemented the business’ other existing channels.

For example, Yammer comment functionality is embedded on the news items on the Aviva Investor’s intranet.  This has two benefits – it provides a simple way to allow colleagues to give their opinion on these stories and it also means that these comments are visible on Yammer, thereby increasing the reach of the original article internally.

Tony is also a great advocate of using video to share messaging and has found that Yammer provides a great way to host this content.  He has recently moved the company weekly news round-up to this format and has found that it is gaining a much wider audience as it is shared across the network.

Tip 5:  Make sure your community is aligned to business objectives

Be clear on business objectives that your community can help you meet and measure the success of the community on this basis.

Because Tony was clear on this up front, he was able to identify the operational and cultural opportunities that Yammer provided for the business: increased knowledge sharing, creating new connections, better collaboration, a more open culture and greater efficiency.

He was also able to measure these aspects directly and demonstrate a clear business case for the community.

The measurement survey and the results also provided Tony with insight to focus the community’s development in the future.

If you want to see the detail of this measurement, Tony has produced a fantastic video that explains his findings.  This video also shows that you don’t need a big budget to share a compelling story!

Thanks again to Tony for sharing these insights, we hope they prove helpful when you are creating your own internal communities, and if you have any tips you would like to add, we’d love to hear them!


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