With businesses increasingly relying on social networking tools to improve communication with employees and partners, the most popular one of them all, Facebook, could be at the heart of a major shift in the way we do business.
Analyst firm Gartner recently predicted that 20 per cent of employees will use social networks as their preferred mode of communication by 2014, with the trend driven by greater availability of social-networking services that are suited to the business, coupled with changing demographics and work styles.
Meanwhile, recent research from Virgin Media Business has revealed that 24 per cent of businesses in London said keeping in touch with colleagues and customers via social networking sites was essential.
Now though, Facebook has launched its own email service to rival Gmail, Google's email platform that is already being used by a host of large and small businesses across a variety of sectors.
The site is offering an @facebook.com email address to every one of its users, which will enable them to communicate with friends via SMS, instant messaging or email. Users will receive messages through whatever medium or device is convenient for them, and the function also enables users to have a conversation in real time.
Facebook engineer Joel Seligstein claims that the evolution of Facebook Messages will even lead to telephone numbers becoming obsolete.
"Relatively soon, we'll probably all stop using arbitrary ten-digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters to contact each other," he posted on the Facebook blog.
"We will just select friends by name and be able to share with them instantly. We aren't there yet, but the changes today are a small first step."
And according to Jeff Bonforte, CEO of Xobni, an email plug-in that brings added functionality to Microsoft Outlook, Facebook is about to take the functionality of email as we know it to the next stage in its evolution.
"Way back when, AOL let us know we, in fact, had mail. Yahoo! and Hotmail made it global and free. Microsoft made it work for business with Exchange and Outlook. BlackBerry made it portable. And Gmail took off the storage limits," said Bonforte.
"Facebook announced this morning that it intends to make two more contributions. They will make messaging social and, undeterred by Google Wave, more real-time."
But Facebook is not just keen to become a better communication tool for its users; it is even taking strides in the e-commerce arena.
Bazaarvoice, a software and services provider, has now launched its Ratings and Reviews application for Facebook, which allows retailers and manufacturers to promote a dialogue between their customers on Facebook.
The application allows user-generated content to flow in real time between Facebook and a business' primary e-commerce site, integrating customer conversations across different channels, and allowing businesses to also protect their brand.
The application integrates into a brand's Facebook fan page as a tab, which displays a catalogue of available goods and related customer ratings and reviews. This lets users explore products by using the opinions of their friends and other Facebook users who have ‘liked' the product or the brand. Shoppers can also purchase through a ‘buy now' capability that directs the user to the product page on the brand's website.
"Figures show that half of Facebook users log in every day," explained Richard Anderson, international VP of client services at Bazaarvoice.
"By connecting friends, shoppers and brand advocates within the internet's most popular social networking site, companies are able to expand their audience and engage more potential customers through the sharing and liking of content in a familiar and social environment."
The application adds credence to the idea that social media sites will become a popular avenue for e-commerce.
Dell's head of social media Manish Mehta recently told Computing that CIOs need to prepare for the day when sites such as Facebook become a revenue channel for businesses.
"Social media may not have driven sales in an obvious way so far, but the next logical step will be transactional social media. When you can buy products through Facebook, rather than just liking them, we'll start to see a shift in the role of social media in the business," he said.
With the announcements of new Facebook functionality in both the communication and e-commerce sites, that shift is beginning to take place.