Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images
By Heather Clancy
May 21, 2015

Marketing teams who think of Facebook as strictly a way to influence consumer behavior may want to reconsider that perception. Apparently, the massive social network is becoming a more useful way for businesses to reach other businesses, although the behavior is definitely generational.

An annual survey of more than 1,500 marketers by research firm Outsell found that 53% of the respondents regarded Facebook as an “effective” business-to-business (B2B) marketing channel for generating meaningful sales leads. That compares with 55% who thought the same about LinkedIn. That’s somewhat puzzling since the latter is generally thought of as “the place” for B2B messaging, but it underscores the fact that the lines between personal and professional lives are blurring.

Although the influence of Instagram and Pinterest was smaller than Facebook, it’s on the rise, the Outsell metrics show.

The firm has been conducting its annual study of marketing and advertising priorities for a decade. This year’s edition represents organizations that will spend close to $154 billion on B2B advertising and marketing in 2015. This is the first year in which marketers were asked to rate various social media networks for effectiveness in lead generation, said Outsell analyst Randy Giusto.

“This study not only indicates that B2B marketers are actively kicking the tires with Instagram and Pinterest, it shows that there is a noticeable difference in where younger marketers are headed, with those under 40 turning in greater numbers to Facebook over LinkedIn,” Giusto said. “These platforms represent where Millennials live, as they continue to build out advertising to drive future revenue.”

Mind you, context is everything. You wouldn’t necessarily want an advertisement for business software to show up while looking through a friend’s vacation photographs. Then again, a subtle nudge might make more sense if you happen to be reading an update from a professional connection or a high-profile industry executive that you “follow,” such as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

According to data released last year, at least two-thirds of U.S. workers across a broad range of industries use Facebook, LinkedIn and other networks to keep tabs or connect with work colleagues. The motivation: it helps reduce friction, even at companies where social media usage on work time is discouraged. This is part of the strategy behind Facebook at Work, a professional edition of its service that is currently available in a limited pilot.

What’s more, Facebook’s overall influence with companies, especially smaller ones, has visibly accelerated. In late April, the company disclosed that it is home to 40 million “active” small business pages—it added 10 million in the last 12 months alone. Its new Instant Articles service launched last week is meant to give people even more reason to hang around during hours and after hours.

“Regardless of the changes that we’ve made, Facebook actually is still the best way to distribute stuff to all of the people that you are trying to reach and all your customers,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last week during the company’s Town Hall meeting. “Probably all your customers, or most of them, are on Facebook and you probably have more connections on Facebook than any other tool. So, I actually think that even if the amount declined a little bit as we are trying to make people’s New Feeds better and more personal, Facebook remains a great way to reach people.”

And apparently, more people are hanging out for professional purposes, not just personal reasons.

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