An enterprise social networking (ESN) platform by any other name, Yammer has been described as both “Facebook for business” and “Twitter for the enterprise”. Whatever your take, however, Yammer is all about communicating and sharing information within a business using familiar social networking tools that, thanks to the cloud are both quick and easy to deploy.

It’s also very affordable, with a so-called “freemium” pricing model which means you only have to pay to get premium features such as management tools and integration with other applications. Oh and one other thing, it’s now part of the Microsoft Office family, having been acquired by Microsoft for $1.2 billion back in June 2012.

Getting Social

Getting started with Yammer couldn’t be easier, with no lengthy setup or registration needed. In fact it’s all self-service with users signing up individually, the only requirement being an e-mail address tied to a company domain. So, all you have to do is point a browser at the Yammer portal, tell it your e-mail address and the password you want to use. Your credentials will then be confirmed by e-mail and, a few seconds later, you’re in.

The interface can be customised (if you upgrade to a paid subscription), but the overall look and feel is still a lot like Facebook with posts listed in a central newsfeed complete with buttons to “Like”, “Reply” “Share” and so on. Plus there’s a built-in inbox and support for instant messaging with other users. However, instead of being connected to every man and his dog the only people you can communicate with, either by posts or messages, are co-workers on your network – in other words your e-mail domain.

In terms of client support most browsers will let you access Yammer via the cloud with a Windows desktop client also available for download, although this is about to be replaced with a simpler notifier client. Android, Apple iOS and Windows Phone apps for Yammer are, similarly, available for free download from associated stores.

Post To Talk

As well as straightforward information posts, Yammer lets you post events, praise people and create polls. You can also categorise posts by including hashtags in the content – useful for later searching – and link to individuals with @mentions.

By default, posts are automatically shared with everyone in the company. In addition, however, it’s possible to define specialist groups to limit and target communications, and these can be either publicly accessible or limited to approved users with tools to populate groups in advance from either the Yammer people directory or by importing from an e-mail address book.

Should the need arise posts within groups can also be shared with non-members, either individually or with other groups. Added to which it’s possible to define external networks for collaboration with customers, suppliers and others, Yammer changing the colour of the interface to warn users when communicating outside of the organisation. Posting via e-mail is another useful option with tools to also subscribe to groups via e-mail and embed group newsfeeds into a Web site page.

Beyond The Post

Other useful features include the Yammer people directory which lists everyone subscribed to the network, and user profiles complete with skills listings which are also searchable. With the emphasis very much on communication, it’s good to find tools to attach files to posts and to upload files for sharing within groups or across the network. You can also create Notes (simple text documents) and edit them collaboratively with other users.

What you don’t get, however, are the kind of document management and sharing tools found in SharePoint. That said, integration with a variety of applications, including SharePoint, is an option if you upgrade to the paid subscription with Microsoft also working towards more general crossover between its two platforms.

Freemium Pricing

The “freemium” pricing model adopted by Yammer (and continued by new owner Microsoft) means that the core features are available for free through a Yammer Basic subscription. This is clearly designed to encourage what can best be described as viral take-up, the idea being that groups of employees sign up for free and then, as numbers grow, get the company to pay $3 per user/month to get the premium features found in Yammer Enterprise. Features such as network configuration, user management and other admin tools, including interface branding.

That, though, is just for Yammer and because it’s now a Microsoft product you can also sign up to get other online Microsoft services at the same time. Like Office 365 (from $8 per user/month) or SharePoint Online (from $4 per user/month), with a full Yammer Enterprise licence included in both.

What’s It Really Like?

We found a lot that we liked in Yammer, but evaluating any enterprise social network outside of a real company is difficult. Fortunately the product has been around since 2008 and has a substantial customer base with lots of companies willing to share their likes, dislikes and general experiences with others. And it’s mostly praise, supported by numerous case studies, both on the Yammer Web site and elsewhere, illustrating how Yammer promotes communication within an organisation and commenting on how useful it can be.

One common caveat, however, is the need for focused communication rather that to simply use Yammer for general gossip and chit-chat. Something the Facebook-like look and feel encourages and which needs to be tackled using groups and general education of users as to what is expected of them.

Early adopters also reported issues with the interface and performance, but these have mostly been sorted and we certainly had few issues. Some also point to the lack of document management features and integration with e-mail, calendar and other desktop applications. However, many of these complaints have now been addressed following the Microsoft acquisition, with yet more on the roadmap for coming months and years.

The fact that you can sign up and try Yammer for free is another plus, making it easy to trial virtually risk free. Indeed, the only real risk is that you could easily find it indispensable and end up paying for it.