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CNBC

How Facebook hopes to make money in the workplace

Facebook’s Workplace group chat and video app hopes to follow Skype and others into the office, but it’s entering a crowded market

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 11:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 11:28am

Of the five dominant US technology companies, only Facebook has failed to crack the business world.

With the debut of a new business chat product called Workplace by Facebook, the social network is aiming to claw its way into the office.

Microsoft is an enterprise juggernaut, Apple’s iPhones have massive corporate accounts and Alphabet has Google’s Gmail, apps and cloud infrastructure. Then, of course, there’s Amazon Web Services.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s US$370 billion stock market value and US$25 billion in annual revenue is built purely on advertising, with brands of all sizes using the site to reach its 1.7 billion monthly active users.

Workplace by Facebook is rebranding from Facebook at Work and launching as a separate application that teams can use to communicate via text, group chat and video. It’s entering a supremely crowded space that includes emerging companies like Slack and Atlassian’s HipChat and established businesses like Microsoft (Skype and Yammer) and Salesforce.com’s Chatter service.

“The reason Facebook at Work is so compelling is that it’s easy to use — everyone knows the interface,” Charlene Li, a social media analyst at Altimeter Group in San Francisco, said about the product prior to the rebranding. “It’s really dumbed down compared to other tools out there.”

Not that Li is expecting Facebook to suddenly take over the market, or even become a major force. Instead, she views it as a hedge. Should usage take off, the company can invest in hiring and adding new features. But if it flops, no big loss.

That certainly seems to be Facebook’s approach.

At the company’s annual developer conference in April, CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out Facebook’s 10-year plan and made no reference to the enterprise. Products of significance include search, WhatsApp and Instagram, and the technologies Zuckerberg is prioritizing are internet connectivity, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

From a revenue perspective, the total business chat market is dwarfed by Facebook’s ad business. According to Compass Intelligence, the global enterprise messaging app market won’t hit US$1.9 billion until 2019.

Facebook is charging US$3 per month per user for the first 1,000 monthly active users, US$2 per user for teams of 1,001 to 10,000 and US$1 a month per user for groups of more than 10,000.

Slack has a free tier and offers products with more features for US$6.67 per user per month or US$12.50 a month. HipChat has a free product and another for US$2 a month.

As a workplace chat and collaboration service, Facebook has obvious appeal. Group messaging services are cleaner than e-mail threads and far less annoying than endless reply-all messages. For companies that just need that functionality and haven’t yet made the leap to another messaging tool, a low-cost Facebook service is an attractive option. And anything Facebook can do to pull users from Google’s Gmail is a win for Zuckerberg.

The number of companies using the product, which was free until Monday, jumped from 450 six months ago to over 1,000 now, Facebook said. During the 18-month pilot, groups were created at large enterprises including Starbucks , Booking.com and Campbell Soup.

But for Facebook to become a real money-making service, it would have to add integrations to customer relationship management databases, financials and document repositories. Slack, for example, has an entire app ecosystem so that teams can do all sorts of work within the service, be it a design project, handling payments or sending large media files.

Box, the provider of enterprise collaboration and storage software, said in a blog post that it is working with Workplace to “build several integrations that will enable seamless productivity and communication — all of which will power the future of work.”

Eventually, Facebook will need sizeable sales and support teams to build a business, a process that has taken Google many years and numerous iterations to get right, said Altimeter’s Li.

“This is an easy, lightweight way for them to have a finger in the enterprise space,” Li said. “It’s more like an add-on to the core business.”