Microsoft's Secret Social Weapon: Why Yammer Will Replace the Traditional Extranet
Batman has a utility belt: a set of useful gadgets he can rely on during his never-ending fight against crime. Every incarnation of the character has this belt and most people can name a favorite tool -- be it the Batarangs he throws at evildoers, the grapnel he uses to scale and swing from buildings or a simple flashlight.

Yammer is a lot like Batman’s utility belt.

In the same way that the utility belt offers a solution for every scenario Batman might encounter in the fight against crime, Yammer offers -- either out of the box or through an add-on app -- a solution for most every social business use case. Newsfeed? Check. Document collaboration and conversation? Check. Integration with external applications? Check. Mobile apps for all leading platforms? Check. Badging? Check (try the Badgeville app). Et cetera, et cetera.

Every once in a while both Batman and Yammer run into scenarios that aren’t so common. Sometimes (and more often than you might think) Batman might need to fight a shark. And sometimes Yammer makes a lot of sense as a way to engage external users -- in a fashion that goes well beyond the traditional “extranet” scenario.

I’d be willing to bet that within the next two or three years, the number of external networks generated by Yammer will far exceed the number of sharks Batman fights.

Going Beyond the Classical Extranet

The extranet traditionally provides a platform for users within one organization to engage external partners, vendors or customers. Extranets are defined by common characteristics:

  • One organization owns and maintains it 
  • They are secure
  • They provide a limited communication channel
  • They typically provide some level of document collaboration

These traditional extranets have several drawbacks. Their usefulness as a communication channel is fairly limited. Licensing for external users can become very expensive, very quickly. Governing and maintaining a list of approved users is tedious, time-consuming -- and extremely important to security. Getting access to these systems generally requires a browser and is rarely what anyone would call mobile-friendly.

The Yammer external network tackles all of these points with aplomb. This isn't a new product, it’s simply a use case that doesn’t get a lot of attention just yet.

The Four Pillars of a Yammer Extranet

Using Yammer external networks as the foundation of an extranet for customer outreach, vendor management and/or partner collaboration makes too much sense not to catch on. Above and beyond the characteristics of the traditional extranet, Yammer’s external networks also are:

  • Intuitive and easy to adopt
  • Interactive and social
  • Accessible and mobile-friendly
  • Governance-ready

It’s important that any extranet is intuitive and easy to adopt, but they very rarely are. While extranet users are a captive audience, they are not members of your organization and therefore are much harder to engage with from a communications perspective. Getting them trained on a tool they don’t use every day (take SharePoint, for example) can be an exercise in futility. Yammer is easy for users to pick up. This can be proven by Yammer’s viral nature in enterprise deployments -- and the simple fact that Yammer’s user interface and user experience closely resemble that of a certain, ubiquitous consumer social network. I’ve said it before: Familiarity begets usability.

Unlike many traditional extranets, Yammer is interactive and social by nature. Social business is part of Yammer’s DNA, and that makes it an extremely effective communication tool. This is always a good thing for collaborating with vendors and partners, but it’s a beautiful thing when dealing with customers. The hidden appeal to CMOs here -- Yammer offers a friendly (even fun) way to interact with your customers as a captive audience. And beyond the functionality itself, bringing Facebook-like collaboration into your Yammer external network lends those chosen users a cachet they don’t experience in the public forum.

Unlike the classic file transfer protocol sites and many a basic SharePoint site, Yammer’s status as an accessible and mobile-friendly application means people can interact with your users from anywhere. This is a direct benefit of Yammer’s cloud heritage. It doesn’t live on your servers, so it isn’t a pinpoint of light at the far end of some slow and awkward virtual private network tunnel. It’s also served up via supported mobile apps on every major mobile platform (and one or two minor ones), so staying up to date from any device is easy.

Similarly, Yammer’s full-time residence in the cloud is a big part of it being Governance-ready. No messy management of external users in Active Directory here, and no licensing squabbles to make it happen. User access is by invitation only, but those invitations can go to whomever you need to invite. Binding user policies are required for login, and can be subject to the most air-tight strictures of your corporate lawyers’ wildest dreams.

Making It Real

This isn’t some wild vision of a new product coming down the pipe. Everything outlined above is already there in the Yammer Enterprise license, just waiting to be deployed to the customers, partners and vendors you deal with every day. Microsoft makes extensive use of external networks with their huge partner network and customers. My own company does the same. The only reason these networks aren’t everywhere is simply that many organizations are still figuring out how to get social with their own employees, let alone with others. That day will come, and it’s only a couple of years away.

Never mind the utility belt. With the might of Microsoft and the Enterprise Agreement behind it, it’s easy to see a future where the Yammer-driven extranet is almost as well-known as Batman himself.

Title image by Bruce Fingerhood (Flickr) via a Creative Commons Attribution License

Editor's Note: Read more of Rich's thoughts on Yammer in Why Yammer and Office Make SharePoint 'User Adoption' a Dying Concern