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Facebook plans to take on companies trying to be the Facebook for work

Aaron Pressman

Facebook (FB) has been an explosive social phenomenon pretty much since it was founded in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room a decade ago, letting people share their personal lives with friends around the world.

Now Zuckerberg is looking to tap into people's work lives, with plans to expand Facebook-like connectivity and sharing into corporations. Ironically, he’ll be following in the footsteps of more corporate-oriented tech firms that have been racing to become “Facebook for the office.”

The secret new website, dubbed Facebook at Work, will look much like the current Facebook site with newsfeeds, groups and chat, the Financial Times reported. Users will be able to keep their personal posts separate from work-related material, the story said. Facebook did not immediately return a request for comment.

The features for workers are similar to offerings from Salesforce.com (CRM), Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOGL), among other large tech companies. A host of start ups, including Slack, Convo and Hipchat, have also been chasing the title of Facebook for work.

It’s a smart move by Zuckerberg, as personal membership growth slows in Facebook’s most lucrative advertising markets, especially the United States. The number of monthly active members in the US and Canada increased only 4% last quarter from a year earlier compared to a 16% increase in the rest of the world.

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Inside the company, thousands of employees already use Facebook tools to help get their work done, providing a foundation for the new offering. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy for Facebook to succeed.

The company’s advertising revenue model isn’t necessarily a good fit with businesses, which prefer paying for software and preserving the privacy of their information. The offering will be free initially, the FT reported.

Even advertising titan Google has discovered that big businesses don’t like the free with ads model. Customers of Google Apps for work pay $5 to $10 per user per month. And while Google has had some success, it trails other companies offering competing services, like Microsoft and Salesforce.com, that have closer ties to the IT departments of big companies and more overlap with their other products aimed at the corporate market.

And some large companies block access to Facebook from their office networks, fearing that employees will waste time checking up on the latest social happenings. Facebook would probably have a tough sell convincing them to open access to the work-oriented site.

Most stories about the new Facebook at work effort led with the competitive threat to LinkedIn (LNKD), the popular social network for workers with 332 million members. Shares of LinkedIn were down 5% in midday trading on Monday on news of Facebook’s plans, while shares of Facebook itself were off about 1%. Shares of small-cap enterprise chat and collaboration software maker Jive Software (JIVE), more directly in Facebook's sights, were down 4%.

Investors seemed to be missing that the main thrust of Facebook’s new site and LinkedIn’s offerings look more complementary at this point. While Facebook appears to be focusing on improving communication and collaboration within a business, LinkedIn’s mission is more about connecting people at different companies, to help them find or fill a job.

Businesses that use Google Apps for Work, Salesforce.com’s Chatter or Microsoft’s Yammer and Office 365 products want to keep their internal data and communications secure and private, not shared with competitors. LinkedIn is a totally different kind of social network, one that crisscrosses the business world because it content is shared and controlled by individuals, not companies.

That’s what Facebook does for people’s private lives, but it’s taking a very different approach for work life.