If this rumours this morning are correct, Facebook is planning to go after business users, with a new product called “Facebook at Work”. According to the FT, the new service will “allow users to chat with colleagues, connect with professional contacts and collaborate over documents”.
It’s a really interesting move – here’s five things we can take from these rumours:
1) Facebook is worried about its growth flatlining
Facebook now has over 1.2bn users worldwide – a staggering number. But eventually this is going to start causing problems for the company as eventually everyone will be on it. I bet you can count on one hand how many people under the age of 30 you know who aren’t Facebook users (however regularly). This is a recognised problem too – with growth already starting to slow.
So what is Facebook to do? The obvious step to take is to try and get existing users to use Facebook even more, so they can be exposed to more adverts, thus meaning more money for the company. Given we spend a huge chunk of our lives at work, it makes sense for Facebook to try to give us a good reason to tear our eyes away from Excel spreadsheets (or whatever else it is that business people do), and put them on to Facebook instead.
Presumably next we’ll be learning about how we can Facebook even when we’re asleep.
2) Facebook is worried about Slack, Google Drive and LinkedIn
Business is often a bit of an enigma for many companies that specialise in consumer products, because businesses tend to require more complex collaboration tools, not to mention a tonne of extra security. It’s the reason Blackberry has managed to stay afloat despite the challenge from Apple and the many Android producers.
It’s the same for social media. Businesses have different requirements: Which is why, seemingly inexplicably, LinkedIn is the tool of choice for business professionals. Despite being a relentlessly awful experience, and feeling broadly pointless, LinkedIn represents a threat to Facebook as it is another database of people, and can connect them up. Facebook is right to be worried.
The rumours also suggest there will be document collaboration along the lines of Google Drive/Docs – which would enable functionality previously unseen on Facebook. Attacking Google here could be a great idea – as Facebook already has the network of people to collaborate with sorted out. Google’s sharing tools meanwhile, whilst great, are slightly more fiddly because it can require email addresses rather than simply names.
There is one other major business player that has emerged recently though: Slack. Think a mash-up of Twitter and an Instant Messenger app which lets you split different streams office chat into different rooms, enabling everyone across a business to access the chatrooms on both mobile and desktop. Whilst Slack probably only has a handful of users compared to bigger players at the moment it has a lot of critical buzz, and crucially a great product that could see it grow fast.
If Facebook entered this space, it could quickly destroy Slack as it already has the technical capabilities and user base to compete… if it waits too longer, it risks conceding the battleground and having to accept that another company will have a big stake in something lucrative: Like how Microsoft Office for iPad was veterans Microsoft admitting that it is never going to be able to grow its own Windows Phone operating system to the same sort of scale, because it is too late.
3) The company will have to do something to boost its image on privacy
Facebook has a bit of a reputation for playing fast and loose with privacy: Constantly changing privacy options has left users confused and suspicious of who will see whatever they are posting. If it is to get a foothold in business, it is going to have sort this out, because businesses are hugely paranoid about security and with good reason: Whilst you accidentally sharing your love of U2 with the world might be embarrassing, it is unlikely to have multi-million pound consequences.
This will probably be the biggest challenge. Business moves slowly for this reason – Blackberry is still perceived as more secure, so whilst we were using Android and iOS years ago, they are still scary and new to business. Facebook’s challenge is going to be persuading companies to step away from more established “enterprise” competitors like Cisco, IBM, SAP and so on.
Expect any announcements about Facebook at Work to be relentlessly emphasising security – with pictures of padlocks and the like everywhere.
4) Offices might have to re-think Facebook bans
Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: Loads of offices around the world will have Facebook banned, in order to stop employees slacking off by spending time on the site… but if Facebook could be used for work, then they’d have to unban the site. Is Zuckerberg secretly just trying to make life easier for office employees around the world?
More seriously, a major social site being used for business could conceivably hasten the cultural shift in many large organisations to one that is more open to letting employees communicate with the outside world, which could lead to more bottom-up ideas and less top-down management control of businesses.
5) Work-Life separation looks set to become more confused
Finally, when Facebook launches its work product, it is going to have to think very carefully. According to the FT, the new site will look like Facebook – and have a newsfeed and groups, but will be kept separate. This seems like a hugely sensible approach to take – as otherwise for consumers Facebook could soon go from a fun way to connect us with friends and turn into a hugely oppressive tool to keep us working around the clock. Does anyone really want to receive notifications from work on a Saturday morning?
There’s also the inevitable complex administration: People change jobs more often than they change, umm, entire lives – so FB will have to build a mechanism for the company’s administrators to add and remove users from a company at will – which means surely it will have to user separate user accounts?
It’ll be interesting to see what happens.