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Facebook as a business tool? Really

To all those CIOs who refuse to embrace Facebook on the grounds that it's not a business tool: look a little closer.

What is it about Facebook that CIOs really don't like? Over the past few months, I've concluded that it's several things, really. It's a bandwidth hog, a productivity spoiler, a security risk. I don't necessarily agree, but then again, I'm not a CIO and I'm not the one called to task if something goes kaput with my company's network.

But to all those CIOs who say Facebook isn't a business tool (which I've not just read in articles but have also been told in person, via email and in comments on my Facebook page), I have this to say: You're not paying attention.

If you are a CIO who has tried Facebook -- really tried it, not just created a profile page so you can see what other people are doing -- and you still don't like it, my apologies. (Good luck trying to deactivate your account.)

To the rest of you: Have you been living on Mars?

I'll be the first to admit that Facebook is loaded with ridiculous, time-sucking applications that should only be used by middle school-age boys. Since I've had a Facebook page I've been poked, super poked, bitten, asked to compare movie tastes and asked to take a quiz that will tell me which Beatle I most resemble (George). I've been hugged, high-fived, chest bumped, drop kicked, slapped, spanked, and had a sheep, a pumpkin and a cosmo thrown at me.

Admittedly, these applications are partly to blame for Facebook's reputation as just a social outlet for teenaged and 20-something morons who have nothing better to do than share pictures of themselves in compromising positions.

Yet despite itself, Facebook is growing in popularity among business professionals (one of the fastest-growing demographics). Business is hot for Facebook. And the move by Facebook to allow outside application development is fueling the flames. Branded widgets could soon be a thing of the past.

My friend Kirti hesitates to call it a business tool but does agree that it is a networking tool. Kirti, an IT professional based in India, uses Facebook to send me holiday greetings as well as articles that address IT-related issues. I would venture to say that for some people (like CIOs, in fact), a networking tool by definition is a business tool. If networking is important for the business, then there is value in Facebook.

Why the resistance, then, on the part of the CIO or business executives, for that matter? "It's a control thing," says marketing executive Kristin Sundin Brandt, vice president of Sundin Associates, a marketing firm specializing in the financial and retail banking industry.

Brandt said she finds that clients are averse to exposing their businesses on Facebook because they have little control over what happens to it once it's out there. If a company were to expose itself on Facebook, say through creating a Facebook profile, the company would open itself up to getting "comments." Visitors to the page can say anything they want (true or not), and the company has no control over it. Brandt agrees that businesses lose some control but says the benefits far outweigh any risks. "You've got to take the good with the bad."

I'll be the first to admit that Facebook is loaded with ridiculous, time-sucking applications that should only be used by middle school-age boys.

Brandt's firm is also on the forefront of getting her clients' ads on Facebook using the recently introduced Facebook Ads. Although she has had significant traction, Brandt says her clients' reluctance is understandable. These same clients don't hesitate to advertise on, or (a local community newspaper), but only because it's an "accepted means of advertising." Targeting your advertising is the thing to do, and Google AdWords is an accepted way to do it. "But the thought of using the same strategy on Facebook or social networks befuddles them."

I get that CIOs have an agenda to make sure the applications they support have business value. And midmarket CIOs, in particular, have a keen sensitivity (and justified skepticism) to anything that wastes precious resources. But it concerns me that you, as a CIO, might fail to understand the significance of Facebook and business tools like it. When the time comes to take the ride, you'll have missed the bus. I guarantee that at some point your boss is going to come to you and ask you to support Facebook (or at least other tools like it.) Shame on you if you don't understand the business value.

Granted, of the 60 million people using Facebook, the majority do it for the social networking. Even many of my CIO friends who took up my Facebook challenge would rather just be left alone to throw things at people and have no intention of trying to use it to network professionally.

It's a total escape to explore all his interests outside of work, says my friend Joel. He doesn't want to mix work and his personal life. But there are others who use it only professionally. My friend John says, it's business all the way.

So even if you know more people like Joel than John and see no point in exposing your business to the likes of those who might poke, prod or otherwise flame you and your business, you can't stop progress. You can't pretend that the Johns, Kirtis and Kristins of the world aren't leading the way and connecting with colleagues and customers, and perhaps collaborating on what will turn out to be the next big idea for their business.

If you still choose to turn the other cheek, so be it. But don't slam Facebook for the rest of us. Some of us, after all, are having fun.

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