Will Facebook (all but) replace corporate websites?

By Martin Kelley
April 8, 2009 | Comments: 11

I'm looking at the work of a potential non-profit client now. They have a fine website: recently redesigned, it has intuitive navigation, good e-commerce and a design that projects elegance. The client is staffed with some fantastically-creative people and the web team is obviously skilled. Yet despite all this, the website itself feels oddly static. With the rise of the real-time update streams being popularized by Facebook, Twitter and FriendFeed, users are becoming accustomed to a constantly-changing flow of pictures, videos and new snippets. Even actively-maintained websites seem locked in languid stupor in comparison.

Last month Facebook redesigned their advertiser-supported "Pages" to integrate them more closely with individual user profiles. I never liked the old Pages. I found that they tended to get a lot of attention when they were first announced and then quickly fell out of attention. The new Pages support status updates, videos, a Wall and the kinds of dynamic, interactive "streaming" features we've come to expect with the new Facebook. Not surprisingly, the redesign is an attempt to give advertisers better access to individuals. From Techcrunch:

The implication for advertisers is that the new design is going to be great for spreading their messages far and wide--reaching two to four times as many people! No doubt, that is true. Monitoring a stream of constant updates encourages communication because there is always something new to talk about and it has a feeling of immediacy. It does lower the barrier for interactions and makes it easier to connect with people one or two degrees sway from you, but who are brought to your attention because someone in your immediate circle just reacted to something they did or said online.

Over the next few years, we're going to see official institutional websites become less important. They will cease functioning as the only point of web interaction between businesses and customers and will become merely the official storefront. The main "conversion goal" of these retooled portal sites will be to drive interactions onto the third-party social networking sites.

The goal of most websites is to extended the interaction with the visitor beyond this one visit: we seek to sell them a product, join our mailing list, buy tickets to our event or subscribe to us in a news reader. Facebook is quickly becoming the most important email list and news reader. If it continues to innovate (and borrow ideas from innovative competitors) it could quickly become a major commercial portal as well. As its adoption rate climbs within the ranks of our target audiences, it becomes an effective way to extend visitor relationship and build more intimate brand identities.

This will change company's interactions with customers, who will start to expect and then demand real-time interaction. This can take many forms--status updates, calendars, videos--but the emphasis will be on immediacy. The style will shift from slickly-produced mass marketing to a one-on-one responsive back and forth. Smart marketers will think less in terms of selling and more in terms of relationship building. Analytics and constantly-rolling A/B tests will give us a near real-time gage with which to measure the success of these relationships. The recession is bringing a new urgency for measurable results and might actually help shift corporate and non-profit budgets away from high-price opinions and toward this new style of social-network-mediated marketing.

The carnival barkers have been claiming a "Web 3.0" is around the corner ever since "Web 2.0" was coined. But if Facebook replaces email as the main way corporations interact with customers, and if Twitter continues to evolve into a real-time search as important as Google, then I think we'll find ourselves agreed that a major upgrade milestone has been passed.

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Social media sites are broad but fairly shallow while successful individual or institutional web sites will focus on a narrower audience and provide depth of information. Integrating with social media sites already drive traffic to web sites. On the contrary, social media sites may actually drive more traffic to your site than buying adwords on google.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are already eliminating the need for corporate web sites. While I agree with Johan that they are still shallow in overall capabilities they are winning the battle and in time, will win the war:

- Web sites are nothing more than communication platforms, fairly static, to define your value proposition to potential customers and convince them to buy your products. Facebook cannot fully cover this alone today, but combined with a wordpress blog and Twitter it does accomplish this goal.
- For small companies, setting up email environments is complex, and, when combined with regulatory requirements, something that requires talented and expensive IT resources. Once Facebook takes the next step in offering corporate mail accounts (bound to happen) this problem will be eliminated.
- Twitter does an excellent job at relationship building and, when combined with standard e-mail marketing, gives companies real power. Twitter is around 18 months away from providing a robust marketing platform (see my unofficial roadmap for what I mean: http://johnfmoore.wordpress.com/2009/04/08/the-unofficial-twitter-roadmap-for-a-social-marketing-delivery-platform-don%e2%80%99t-pass-it-on/) but it will get there.

John Moore

Interesting article, but perhaps a flawed agruement. The Yellow Pages was once a popular Business Directory but was not the only source of company information. Likewise Facebook is not the only Social Network. Today your Facebook page might reach 10% of your customer base, if you're based in the USA/UK, but not if do business in China, Germany, France, etc. European leaders may love Obama today, but European business will not give control of their corporate communications or their customer database to an Amercia company. From where I site it appears Facebook has already peaked (most of my 'friends' spend less time on Facebook in 2009 than they did in 2008). Twitter has shown that LINKS OUT are the way forward, and which if used effectively drives traffic back to corporate websites.

I agree with Greg: Facebook and Twitter may not have such an impact on the corporate websites, but they will play a key role when it comes to find references about the companies you are looking at. So, corporations may consider a new perspective of those Web 2.0 tools, but not as the final perspective.


Thanks for the comments. I wish I could point you to some URLs and contextualize some of the sites I'm thinking of.

@Johan M: I can think of a number of nonprofit sites that don't have a lot of content. The site is used rather unimaginatively only to support the traditional organization structures. The site is a publicity front with little content that isn't tied directly to organizational self-promotion.

@John M: I agree and I'm seeing IT resources being cut further in places--soon some organizations are going to have to use alternate Web 2.0 media or have the barest websites possible. I have seen private school where teachers and secretaries are taking on a content creation role. They can do quite a lot with blogs and online photo sharing. Much of my current paying work is setting up systems for these non-techie staffers (i.e., having Flickr integrate directly to a website).

@Gregg C: sure, Facebook is only one tool. It's not universal either geographically or demographically. In my circles it will soon be ubiquitous for anyone under 40, the way cell phones are. I will add, though, that publicity doesn't need to have 100% penetration--if you can get the trendsetters to adopt your work they will act as ambassadors.

@Silvio: yes, the reference factor!! I'm currently acting as IT support for a campaign against the closure of some churches and it's amazing to see how visible they are and how they're shaping the debate. I think the new systems will push closed-door social institutions toward greater transparency.

John makes good points but I disagree that a combonation of Facebook and Twitter would replace the need for a corporate website. Sure you can define your value with Facebook and keep in touch with your customers in real-time with Twitter, but in practice when you are outside meeting people, the question will come: "Does your company have a website? Can I have the address?" If you cannot provide this they will not think much of your company. Same goes with corporate email accounts, its a necessity for closing deals. Perception is reality, don't appear to be behind the times.

I don't think social networks like FB, MySpace will replace corporate websites. Those sites are ever evolving. Corporates don't have any control over the directions the sites take and it could well be that FB or others come up with a complete re-design or changes in their TOC. Also, you are limited in what you can do on those sites.

Instead, those networks are great for creating outposts and drawing people to your site. There, you can implement your own engagement model. Thanks to FB Connect, OAuth etc. you can leverage you viewers' social graph and make that engagement visible to their network.

Hi John, I'm late to your particular party, but working with non-profits myself, I thought I'd take a look at your post which you referenced a few hours ago on Mashable.

It is important to look at the technology as a whole and not just at the current implementations of the technology. Facebook, Twitter and corporate websites shouldn't be considered in a vacuum. For years HTML was monolithic and homogenous. Content and design were one and the same. You couldn't alter one without tweeking the other. Today content is more portable as website design and content are no longer joined at the hip read CSS. From a tech perspective, our thinking about data and its uses has evolved and as a result the technology has evolved. Proprietary email and even website design is less prevalent. Photoshop is a big deal (Dreamweaver?), but its designs increasingly are finding their way to ExpressionEngine and WordPress MU or other blogging engines which when implemented properly don't require designers just to modify content involving the owners of the site much more than before. Digg and Delicio.us free content from their original blogs or websites.

Is it that no one cared about the mundane things people did throughout the day, do we suddenly really want to be involved in a friend wondering what they're going to have for dinner or is it the amount of effort that computer bound email required coupled with cell phones starting to take on more computer characteristics and so more data friendly yet remaining platform agnostic. Postgresql and apache are being joined by Disqus, Campfire, Basecamp, KYTE, PollDaddy, TinyChat and CoverItLive as even corporations are moving away from 'for us to trust it and use it, we must build it'. I don't know what changed first, but when corporations actively use technology running on remote servers they don't control as in SixApart or 37signals, that is a rethinking of ownership that speaks volumes about corporate ability to adapt.

Web 2.0 was never about Facebook or Twitter, its about content being completely free of its point of origination. It used to be said, "If you build it they will come." Today the saying might be, 'You don't actually have to build it and they don't have to come to see it.'

Really, FB replacing corporate sites? Umm, how would I order a Dell computer on FB? Look up a part number? Find the local city budget? Get the schedule of next semester's classes at my local community college? I could go on & on. I have not seen ONE corporate website that has been replaced by FB for things like this. By the way, why am I reading this article on O'Reilly's website and not FB?

Great article and it helps me to sort some things out for my upcoming article for UX Magazine: " The Dilemma of an Instantly Reactive Web: There is no Place for a Classic Website. What I’ve learned from observing 37 ski resort websites in the last 3 years."

I would like to address a few questions to some commenters:
@Dukester – How did people buy, order, look up things without the internet?

There were also some interesting comments about data security and hosting company information on 3rd party providers and systems like Facebook. In my opinion, organisations give away to much information anyways. If people wanna find out some insights, than way not go the old school way? I mean, what did people do before the web?

Marc Oliver

I agree with your thoughts Martin, but i think Facebook's user interface for the most part, either, and yet there are a bajillion people who "like" this company or that on Facebook, and people spend a huge slice of time at Facebook, which means at least a certain amount of advertising money in one form or another will follow. I can't imagine corporate Web sites are dead, but I think Facebook will become more of a communications medium unto itself, middleman issues notwithstanding.

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