we asked you if in 6 months time Facebook would have more business contacts than LinkedIn. Over 2/3rds of you thought that LinkedIn would still be the dominant business networking tool. It hasn't quite been six months, but a lot has changed since then, and Facebook looks poised to make a serious run at the business networking crowd.Last November,
Bernard Lunn predicted on this blog in December that 2008 would be a huge year for business networking. He also said that Facebook would continue to be a major player in the consumer market, but wouldn't make much headway among business networkers. The infrastructure for Facebook to make noise in that area, though, is starting to fall into place.
From the Consumer Perspective
privacy controls last week, Facebook users now have more granular control over who sees what on the site.Probably the biggest concern from a consumer perspective about using general social networks for business networking had to do with privacy. When you start adding colleagues or other business contacts, you have to be more careful about what you expose on your profile. But with the addition of new
Profile information and other shared items -- such as photos -- can now be restricted to user-created groups of friends, to specific people, networks, or "friends-of-friends." Users even have the option of barring specific content from specific users. Though we also noted that they are so inclusive they could potentially be overwhelming for some users, they are also a necessary step in making users feel comfortable using Facebook for professional networking.
Facebook is slowly positioning itself to be a place where both casual and business networking can take place at the same time, which means that rather than maintaining two accounts -- one at Facebook and one at LinkedIn or Xing -- users could stay at Facebook and use the tools they grew accustomed to in college.
From the Business Perspective
The concerns from the business side are a little more complicated for Facebook to deal with. First, there's the issue of security. The photo lapse we reported on earlier this week may seem inconsequential for most business uses, and was apparently fixed once it was discovered, but security issues like that don't make businesses happy about storing data on a site. Another, potentially more serious (from a business use scenario) security issue that was reported recently is a phishing technique that allows users to record some information from private Facebook groups. Though the info it is able to gather was mostly benign, it still highlights the concern that business users might have about Facebook security.
It is important to note that the above concern assumes a business use case for Facebook that is slightly different than the networking going on at LinkedIn. In the above scenario, businesses would actually be utilizing the network at Facebook internally, rather than professionals merely using the site to network on their own time.
However, the larger hurdle to getting businesses and professionals to adopt Facebook as a networking platform is about attention. Unlike LinkedIn or Xing or Plaxo, Facebook is not all about business. First and foremost, Facebook has been about connecting with your friends and having fun, and that will worry business users. Facebook might have potential as a great business networking platform, but it's also a guaranteed timesink.
Facebook, of course, already has a huge number of business users, they're just not using Facebook for business. The business networks on Facebook are already enormous. Microsoft's network has 30,000 users, Google has 8,500, Well Fargo has 4,200, The US Army has 74,000, and the list goes on. Even MySpace has 407 users in its Facebook network.
The trick is to get those users to start looking at Facebook as a place for work as well as a place for play, and the way to do that may be to leverage something that LinkedIn doesn't really have: a platform full of eager developer. (Yes, LinkedIn did launch its platform last December, and it does have OpenSocial involvement, but as we've pointed out, so far it has been quite closed and the results have been less than stellar.)
What Facebook should do, is appeal to the companies that these networks -- which have grown organically as employees voluntarily joined Facebook and declared allegiance to this network or that one -- to utilize Facebook for a closed corporate networking environment. Facebook should encourage platform developers to create tools aimed at enriching company networks (or create them in house if need be), and encourage companies to leverage their existing Facebook network as a corporate intranet by installing applications on it.
That's no small task, certainly, but it is plausible. It's not the same route that LinkedIn has taken -- where company networks have grown organically in much the same way that they have on Facebook. But the end result is the same: making people comfortable enough with the network to do business on it.
Facebook has a history of attacking their competitors at their strongest points. MySpace had a strong widget ecosystem, so Facebook launched their application platform which forced MySpace to scramble to do that same. MySpace has strong ties to music and film, so Facebook has recently tried to forge their own (too early to tell if it is working). LinkedIn has a strong stake in business networking, and Facebook has recently been making moves to suggest that they could be laying the groundwork to go after LinkedIn's audience they way they've gone after MySpace's.
What do you think? Could Facebook ever be a place where serious business is done? Or does it pay to maintain two separate network profiles -- one for work and one for play? Let us know in the comments.
Update: According to Webware, Facebook quietly launched a "People You May Know" feature that is basically identical to a popular LinkedIn feature of the same name. Hmmm...