How to Turn Start-Up Social Into Community Success

“We’re on Facebook! …but we kinda sorta don’t know what to do next.”

Those weren’t the exact words that faced me when I arrived at my new job at the Crisis Prevention Institute in 2011, but it was the scene that greeted me online.

As with a lot of companies, we had an online presence because everybody had an online presence. What we needed to do next was show — not tell! — that there were people behind the corporate logo. And that, of course, was why I was there as a social media specialist and community manager.

We knew our products and philosophy helped tons of people every day, but of course we’d say that. We had to establish ourselves as authentic and real, providing Stuff and Things that were viable, and even better, find advocates to spread our story simply because they trusted and believed in who we were and what we had to offer.

More off than on(line)

Because social media as a whole was so new to my company, I had work to do on the inside, too. We’re a very person-centered company, which means everything from customers getting a real person on the phone by the second ring to having one of our staff trainers come to your facility no matter where you are in the country. Globally, too!

This is not something we intend to change, so I had to show that social media was a supplement, not a replacement, to all this awesome hands-on, personal collaboration.

What could we do with social that would help us serve our customers better? What would help us internally as well?

Thus came collaboration tech

It started with lassoing the unwieldy communication beast. Even in the most family-feeling organization, communication can break down among departments, within departments, across a cube hallway, and among teammates. We get into silos. We get into ruts. And if you don’t know what awesome product is being developed down the hall until it’s ready to ship, how are you going to help deliver it to your customers in the best possible way?

And so I looked into Yammer.

We’re a Microsoft shop, so we already had Yammer just waiting for us to begin using. We started using it…slowly. Then I had the opportunity to go to SharePoint Conference 2014 and become a Yammer Power User. I came home loaded with strategies to mold and shape our user experience.

And thus came challenges

SharePoint, Outlook, Lync…with the addition of Yammer, there was an underlying (and occasionally vocal) feeling of, “Not another IT thing!”

How could I show, not tell, my coworkers that Yammer was worth a try? That it was a fluid, engaging way to keep us connected no matter where we were — not just adding another thing to the checklist when you start up your computer?

The same way I do it out in the public social media world.

It isn’t about “build it, and they will come.” It’s about presenting a tool that makes sense for this particular community — this culture. It’s about providing use case scenarios and making it okay if, sometimes, Yammer isn’t the best way to get something done — yet.

That’s an important distinction, wrapped up with horses being led to water and herding cats: Yammer has to make sense for someone to use it, whether on an individual or department level. Some departments will avidly toss up a Group and use it for all their communications. Smaller teams may come to Yammer solely when they have a project.

The examples go on, but the point remains the same: Yammer is a tool for you to use, not a tool trying to use you.

(It’s also about getting early adopters and keeping the engagement going, but I could devote a whole blog post to that.)

So what about the rewards of collaboration tech?

Now, we have every employee on the corporate Yammer site. New employees get to ease into our culture and see what’s going on in different departments. People use Yammer in many different ways — from single to evergreen team projects, to posting meeting minutes, to talking about photography and hiking.

By showing the softer side of our own people, I feel it helps us collaborate on the more complicated Stuff and Things that inevitably come up. We also have a growing customer base using an external Yammer network I set up. It’s become a perk of being one of our customers!

We’re in soft launch phase right now, and have many thousands of customers to go, but we’re enjoying daily engagement with questions and answers flying about, hobbies being posted, and again, a chance to show that softer side of us when employees pop over and join in the conversation.

We train on very serious topics, but we’re also all people behind the presentations and workbooks. In the process, we have all sorts of opportunities to deliver microlearning to our customers in a platform they are comfortable using.

With the online world being 24/7, it’s more than a virtual guarantee that someone will be on the other side of your monitor even when the office is closed.

For an active customer community, this is a boon when you’re the Community Manager finally unplugging for the day; I can rest assured that questions posted at all hours will still get answered at all hours.

There are challenges around this, of course. Is the office ever truly closed? With the now near-mythical work-life balance on its final tour, let alone all the social media platforms just waiting for you to touchscreen your way in, I have to guard against the “Let me just check <insert tool of choice> for a second” so I can detox, unwind, and recharge.

Fortunately, a well-groomed community hive mind will understand that not everybody will be around all of the time, but somebody will be around every time.

And now we’ve reached the perennial advice portion of our time here

I will forever be grateful to the boss who told me, “It’s okay to fail.”

It’s not something you tend to hear a lot, especially when you just got handed your pack of goals for the year. It also wasn’t something I heard during my first several years in the workforce.

In fact, I remember being so uncomfortable if something went wrong that I’d find whatever excuses I could to deflect attention away from it.

I wasn’t taking ownership. But I also wasn’t realizing that not meeting a goal didn’t mean that I was somehow less of a person or even that my job was in jeopardy. Instead, it meant that there was something to learn.

And that was the key point right there: It may be an old adage, but as long as you learn something from whatever happens, you’re still coming out ahead.

Our Yammer implementation was not necessarily smooth. No. See above about horses and cats. But we worked through setbacks and found a formula that made sense for us, a combination of strong use-case scenarios, early (and eager) adopters, and a launch party (with food).

Now, it’s as if Yammer had always been here, and we’re learning together how to make it work for us. And that’s how it should be!

How have you herded your cats and watered your horses to get your online communities up, running, and successful?

(This post was originally published on the AvePoint Community blog. Super-awesome people with a super-awesome org!)