Rumour has it that Facebook is set to launch a new work-oriented platform in 2015, with "Facebook at Work" functioning as a communication and collaboration hub for the business community on which users can maintain a corporate presence on the social network that is distinct from their personal profile.
Of course, Facebook has never shied away from incorporating successful elements from other social networks within its offering - from the Twitter-esque "Trending" section to the various features its launched in an attempt to combat Snapchat's huge popularity among the coveted teen segment. But rarely has Facebook introduced something which so openly and overtly places it in direct competition with an established player - in this case, LinkedIn. What's more, it's not that long ago that Facebook established its own innovation team and promised to develop new features rather than simply acquiring successful rivals; yet Facebook at Work feels much more like imitation than innovation. So, why is Facebook trying to grab a slice of the corporate networking action? What will set it apart as a new offering? And in such a crowded networking landscape, can Facebook at Work, well, work?
There's no shortage of services and software platforms designed for business communication and collaboration - with Salesforce Chatter, Yammer, Google+ and, of course, LinkedIn all being major go-to points which offer various benefits for corporate users. And they're pretty successful, too. Over the last six months, GlobalWebIndex's data shows that LinkedIn's membership base increased by more than 25% and its active user number rose by over 50% (something we explore in the new GWI Social report). Compare that to Facebook's much more modest growth - a 6% rise in members and a virtually stagnant increase of just 2% in terms of active users - and we begin to see the reasons behind Facebook's thinking here.
Now, there are few things as guaranteed in life as Facebook's self-reported user numbers; every single quarter, we're told it's continuing to enjoy buoyant levels of growth. But the reality is that this is being driven by two fairly unsustainable metrics: firstly, it's having to look to fast-growth markets - where internet populations continue to expand rapidly each year - to add new members in any meaningful quantities; and secondly, it's definition of an active user is now so broad that you can do very little on the site and still be counted within its figures. From country to country, membership levels are now so high that - quite simply - Facebook is reaching saturation point. It knows that it can't keep growing exponentially and hence will need to look for new ideas, and new audience types, to maintain momentum and to keep investors/headline writers happy. Enter Facebook at Work - a way to increase engagement among an existing and highly attractive audience.
Look at the demographics of LinkedIn users and it's not hard to understand why Facebook has a business audience of its horizon. Most significantly of all, LinkedIn's age profile is extremely similar to Facebook's; on both services, more than 50% of active users come from the 25-44 age brackets, with a further fifth being 45-64. Facebook might now be the oldest network of all in terms of the average age of users, but LinkedIn is close behind in second-place. In short, there's a huge degree of overlap between the two, which means Facebook can be confident that a business offering will resonate with its members. In fact, GWI's data shows that two thirds of LinkedIn's active users are also active on Facebook.
But it's not just age that makes LinkedIn's audience so attractive. A quarter of LinkedIn's active users are in the top income quartile, a third say they have discovered a brand through an ad and almost half say they tend to buy brands they see advertised. While the mechanics of Facebook at Work are yet to be revealed - with reports suggesting it will be ad-free space - it's clearly important that, across all of these measures, LinkedIn users are notably ahead of Facebook's. And this wouldn't be the first time that Facebook has introduced an ad-free feature which then receives advertising further down the line.
Although many may have difficulty accepting it as a business platform, Facebook Inc has been working hard to set an example. According to reports, the network's employees have been using the platform to manage projects and internal communication for years. Facebook can also benefit from the fact that services such as LinkedIn are arguably most loved by sales or recruitment reps looking for information on new leads or contacts. Many other user types are using it much more lightly, simply maintaining a membership in order to be seen. Facebook thus has a key opportunity to drive much more engaged and useful interaction types.
Of course, only time will tell if Facebook at Work is a re-energising force for the social networking giant or is consigned to the 'nice try' group of projects like Gifts, Pages and Slingshot. But one thing is certain: Facebook's vast global audience gives it a type of reach that any existing business network would covet.