How Teach for America gets the most out of Yammer on a shoestring budget


Teach for America is the epitome of a distributed organization. Its 2,300 staff members are spread across two national offices and 48 regional offices. Plus, 10 percent of its staff works from home. 

"Connecting people has always been a huge problem," said Aaron French, director of internal communications at Teach for America.

Using Yammer has helped but because Teach for America is on a tight budget, it uses the free version. That means administrators have almost no insight into user engagement. In December though, the organization began using a new low-cost product that for the first time offers analytics into how workers are using Yammer.

Getting the CEOs to participate was key

As far back as 2008, Teach for America staffers started independently signing up for Yammer, although usage was almost nonexistent. (Staffers don't include teachers, who are considered employees of the school districts where they work.) Two years later, the organization hired a vice president of internal communications who was tasked with figuring out how to enable communications across the distributed organization.

The new VP quickly kicked off an effort to encourage staff to sign up to Yammer. At first, workers weren't sure exactly what to do with Yammer. "It felt really Facebooky," said French, who reports to the VP. "People were posting fun stuff. It wasn't really a collaborative tool."

Over time, however, the team began to show people how to make the most of Yammer. "Over the past three years it's gotten continually better through efforts of ours to socially engineer the network to show people what's appropriate and to move people off the main feed into groups," French said.

One method was to set up Yammer as a chat function to accompany a weekly conference call led by the organization's co-CEOs. Typically, 20 percent to 30 percent of the organization dials in to the weekly call. They use Yammer to discuss the topic of the call and to submit questions to the CEOs.

"Our CEOs are watching the feeds. Not their communications people but the CEOs themselves, and they're replying and talking to staff members," French said.

French also organizes Yam Jams, where a leader from the company will respond to questions that anyone can submit.

Yammer is essentially the only way to interact during the weekly phone calls or to chat with a leader during a Yam Jam. "If you want to participate, aside from pressing star 6 to talk to the CEO which a lot of people are scared to do, you have to do it on Yammer," he said.

French also drives people to Yammer through a weekly email about company activities that drives recipients to Yammer for additional information.

Credit: Teach for America
Aaron French

A low-cost engagement tracking tool

Until very recently, however, French had no way to track how well any of his efforts were doing. The best he could do was scroll through the feed to try to figure out who had the most interactions or to find mentions of a campaign. "If the CEO posted something we had no idea if people liked or shared it or commented on it without filtering through the feed," he said. "We had no proof points to say XYZ was successful as a campaign and XYZ wasn't and this is why."

Then he got a cold call from ViewDo, a company that sells an enterprise social media analytics product called ViewPoint Enterprise. Depending on the size of the business, ViewPoint costs between $0.12 up to $1 per month per social media user, although Teach for America gets a discount for being a nonprofit. That's far less expensive than paying for an enterprise version of Yammer, French said.

Teach for America only signed up for ViewPoint in December and so is just starting to discover the benefits.

One is that French can use the ViewPoint dashboard to see the top 50 influential Yammer users ranked in descending order. That will allow him to reach out to influential users to involve them in campaigns to drive engagement.

He can also track influential users within a specified data range. That means he can specifically look for people who were active on the day of a Yam Jam, for instance, which could help identify staff members who are leaders or engaged on a particular topic.  

ViewPoint also lets him track keywords. He has launched a program where people include "#Yammer Solved" when they post a question and get it resolved. "Now I can track how many times questions are answered on Yammer instead of email," he said.

ViewPoint also shows which groups are most active. French already knows that the human resources team has a very active group, using Yammer to discuss policies they are implementing or hiring decisions. There's also a group of workers who develop content and lesson plans for science teachers. Members of that group post articles that set off vibrant discussions, he said. Through ViewPoint, he might discover other groups that are also very active.

French thinks that around 80 percent of staff members have signed up for Yammer and about half of those have signed up to get a weekly email summary of activity. "But we're just starting to track that and learning how to take inactive accounts out of the picture," he said.

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