Companies turning to Facebook for consumer interactions and commercial transactions will not spell the end of corporate Web sites, say industry watchers. Rather, organizations face security and loss of identity risks if they yield their unique digital outposts to the social media site, they cautioned.
One observer Mark Evans, communications director at social media analytics firm Sysomos, said that companies that utilize a Facebook page for customer engagement and e-commerce would lose control of their identity and data.
"The biggest risk [for] a company that decides to use a Facebook page rather than a corporate Web site is they don't control or own the Facebook page; Facebook does," Evans told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.
As a result, companies are left vulnerable to any changes Facebook make in the look, feel and functionality of a Facebook page. Even if they don't fancy the new interface, they have no choice but to go ahead with it, he added.
Evans' warning was in response to news reports chronicling the growing commercial clout of the social networking giant in e-commerce. Recently, Hollywood film studio Warner Bros. announced it will start renting movies via Facebook while Malaysia Airlines now allows users to book flights and check-in on Facebook.
A Facebook executive also highlighted the scenario of companies ditching their corporate Web sites for Facebook in the near future. Stephen Haines, commercial director of Facebook's U.K. operations, backed his observations up with the example of Starbucks, which received 21.1 million clicks on its Facebook page's "Like" button to just 1.8 million site visitors.
This tide of corporations flocking to the social media platform to capitalize on its massive user base, and Facebook's push to promote its e-commerce capabilities through its Credits program, indicates the social network's emergence as an e-commerce force, "[essentially] Facebook commerce or f-commerce", said Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific digital influence director at Ogilvy.
He said in a phone interview that companies are increasingly questioning the need to have separate corporate sites when the bulk of interest and traffic from customers goes directly to their Facebook pages.
Like Evans, though, Crampton expressed reservations of companies going solo with Facebook pages due to the lack of ownership and control over the data it posts on the site.
"The corporate Web site will outlive Facebook," he surmised.
Potential security pitfalls
Besides the loss of control, there are also security risks companies have to contend with using Facebook, noted Sophos senior technology consultant Graham Cluley.
One example is the possibility of site downtime, he said in his e-mail. "If Facebook goes down or has a problem, then you cut off the only way for your customers to engage with you," he added.
Furthermore, these pages on Facebook are run by administrators who are equally vulnerable to being scammed, phished, attacked as with any other user, Cluley stated. Therefore, if a company's administration function becomes compromised, it inevitably loses customers and could even damage its reputation in the long run, he said.
Quizzed if performing commercial transactions via Facebook are secure, the Sophos executive replied that companies need to "tread carefully" in this area as many users are already concerned about the safety and privacy regulations on Facebook and may not trust its e-commerce system.
With corporate Web sites, however, companies can deploy their own security measures to protect its customers, he noted.
Have corporate site and social presence
That said, Ogilvy's Crampton added that "the days of a single corporate Web site are finished". He pointed out that there's a need for third-party platforms that's where people are gathering and making decisions.
He suggested companies to "tie the two together" by capitalizing on the advantages of social media platforms while enjoying the security of having its own corporate site. A Facebook page, for example, can drive customer traffic to a corporate site, he noted.
Crampton urged organizations to tap all relevant social media platforms to connect with their audience. This is because Facebook may not necessarily be the right platform in markets such as Japan.
He also pointed out that businesses need not care whether a transaction was done on its Web site or Facebook page because, at the end of the day, they have "got a customer". The "crucial part is in the user experience", and firms should ensure this is available on all their online platforms.
Sandeep Lal, managing director, consumer banking group eBusiness at DBS, agreed. He said that while its official Facebook page serves as an "additional touch point to engage our customers", there remains a lot more informational and transactional capabilities on a corporate Web site which Facebook cannot handle at the moment. For instance, there are security and privacy concerns over whether users are confident to of banking online via third-parties' platforms, he explained.
Julia Lim, assistant e-commerce director of Royal Plaza on Scotts, expressed similar sentiments. She said the hotel has a booking engine on its Facebook page, but added it is currently not considering Facebook as an option to replace its corporate Web site, because the functions available on Facebook are limited.
Facebook reserves the right to amend its regulations at any time, and this restrains the hotel's control over the page in the social network, Lim explained.
She did add that this, however, may change with the evolution of social media in future when platforms allow more flexibility for its users, including corporate ones.