Why are so many data-savvy companies buying into Facebook Workplace?

Workplace by Facebook officially launched in 2016

Despite a never-ending story of data leaks, privacy horrors and advertiser boycotts, Facebook has managed to enlist 3 million paying customers into its fledgling B2B offering. The Drum investigates what’s gone right for Workplace when all at its parent company has gone wrong.

Workplace by Facebook, which is regularly held up as a competitor to other internal communication apps such as Slack, began life as a communications tool used solely by the Big Blue’s employees. Now, it is used by 3 million workers across the globe – an increase of 1 million since February.

The caliber of companies that have signed up to the service is arguably as impressive as the growth of its user acquisition.

Customers include multinationals such as Heineken, Starbucks, Spotify, Nestlé, Domino’s and Walmart, as well as its three original beta test partners – Danone, Booking.com and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) – who signed up back in early 2014.

“[Back then], then product was still in a very early stage of development and we got the chance to collaborate with Facebook to test out what was then called Facebook at Work,” recalled Craig Hoey, chief workplace officer at RBS. “We conducted a long pilot internally with our colleagues – starting at 200 and moving to 5,000 – to understand what the opportunities were.”

“It’s become a core channel for our staff, but it didn't happen overnight. It's a slow and continuing journey, and staff are all in different places on that journey because we don’t set out how they have to use it. Some are in an earlier phase of using it just to catch up on the news and updates, whereas some are now using it as their main tool to deliver processes and run meetings.”

Nestled in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, Facebook Workplace is by-and-large removed from the politics of its parent company’s Menlo Park headquarters. However its brand, which recently changed from Workplace by Facebook to Workplace from Facebook as part of the company-wide restyle, is not reputationally removed from the data leakage issues the social network has faced over the past two years.

So, with companies across all sectors and markets finding themselves under cyber-attack with increased regularity, why are so many letting Facebook through their front doors through Workplace?

The answer is a combination of an in-demand product, a successful go-to-market strategy, some nifty sales and marketing and a bona fide security system detached from the parent company.

The data assurance

The first thing the vice-president of Workplace by Facebook, Julien Codorniou, tells a potential client is “Workplace is separate from Facebook”.

In pitches he reiterates the subscription model guarantees no ads and therefore no data sharing with third parties – “the company owns the data – we do not.”

He also leans on the security and privacy certifications Workplace has been granted, which comprise “the whole list that you would expect from a SAS company”.

Still, in the beginning, RBS took some convincing.

“We spent a really long time going through a lot of governance processes to understand why it was safe and secure for us, and some people do make prejudged assumptions due to Facebook’s reputation, meaning we had to work twice as hard to check our facts,” said Hoey.

Now, word-of-mouth recommendation is “the best thing that can happen” for the growing Workplace business, according to Codorniou. The former Microsoft exec talks of building credibility “one customer logo at a time” and can now boast a partner list full of some of the most recognizable brands in the world, as well as governments.

“You don't get to connect and serve all the employees at GlaxoSmithKlein, AstraZeneca, Vodafone, the government of Singapore ... if you don't have a good product that is rock solid when it comes to security and privacy,” he said.

The underserved customer base

For all the software-as-a-service (SaaS) competition it faces, Workplace has succeeded in cutting itself a niche in the internal communications marketplace.

The business prides itself on providing a tool for companies where the majority of staff are not sat behind a desk, such as retailers, airlines and manufacturing businesses.

In these sectors, where the bulk of frontline employees do not have a work email address but do have a cellphone, Workplace is offered as a substitute of the likes of Outlook and Gmail. Workers – often disconnected from each other and head office – are provided with a centralized feed of information about the company and its culture, alongside a messaging system and live video streaming.

This strategy of targeting companies with a mobile workforce came from accident rather than design: Club Med was an early partner, and its chief executive expressed frustration that his in-resort staff were communicating over the social platforms of WhatsApp and Messenger.

But it ultimately led to another key selling point: the margins made from signing companies with millions of staff allow for a “democratic” price point.

The core product costs $4 per person per month, while enterprise clients are charged $8 for added bonuses of a dedicated IT support team and early access to new features. This is in comparison to the monthly $8/$15 cost of Slack (both services offer a basic version for free).

“We had to come up with a price that is disruptive and at the same time build a sustainable, fast-growing business for Facebook,” said Codorniou. “But because we go after a market that has been completely ignored before – the frontline employees – we believe it can be a significant business ... because the number of people we target is much larger than any other market targeted by the traditional SaaS vendors.”

The robust product

The Workplace product offering is improving and expanding, too. The company recently rolled out an integration with Portal, which forms a makeshift video conferencing, and automatic video captioning, which allows all employees to watch live broadcasts, presentations and internal training videos.

But perhaps the biggest draw for companies is Facebook’s ease of use. The majority of staff already know how to operate the Workplace UI because they’ve spent the last 10 years interacting with it in their personal time.

“The design and experience of using Workplace is so similar to Facebook that nearly all employees already know how to use it on day one,” explained Adam Clyne, the chief executive and founder of Coolr, which was the first official Workplace agency partner in EMEA.

“The instant familiarity of Workplace creates unprecedented levels of adoption and engagement rates that businesses are looking for to achieve their objectives but don’t get from rival platforms, without the need for lengthy and expensive deployment and training programs.”

The whole package

Like any new software implementation, Workplace does not come without staff gripes. One agency worker in the UK complained of that “nobody really wants to talk like they do on Facebook on Workplace” yet staff are still added into groups that blur the lines of work and fun, such as ‘photos of office dogs’.

Another Workplace user, who works at an RBS bank, noted the platform has, in some incidences, been responsible for adding a layer of frustration between staff and management – something the platform has been designed to mitigate.

“We're occasionally monitored on ‘attendance’ on Workplace streams to check we've seen the messages,” they said (a representative from RBS said the company refutes this suggestion).

“Also, a load of our training has moved from classroom courses to being broken into various videos on Workplace instead. The connection is dreadful on our browsers and mostly if people don't attend in person they don’t bother to catch up on meetings after.”

Nevertheless, the price – coupled with the seduction and might of Facebook’s sales teams – is likely to keep more and more companies buying into Workplace.

Growth will come quicker once Codorniou’s team finally cracks “what works for us in terms of marketing investment”; when it does, he imagines it “will be like throwing gasoline on fire”.

But for Clyne, it’s not about the sell or the money. Facebook has, he believes, built a genuinely multifaceted, useful and distinctive product in Workplace.

“There is no other product or platform on the market that connects everyone from the chief executive to the most junior person and everyone else in between in the way Workplace can,” he said. “Workplace is not just used as a communication tool but as a revolutionary new way of working for many companies.”

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