In its short life span, Facebook has rapidly become one of the most popular destinations on the internet. That hasn’t, however, translated to instant profits.

Despite its incredible metrics, Facebook has struggled with revenue and profitability. Hundreds of millions of dollars in capital have been provided to keep the company growing but thus far, Facebook hasn’t developed a business model that appears to offer the promise of self-sustainability in the near future.

That isn’t for lack of trying, however.

Facebook does have a self-serve advertising platform, has developed a decent virtual goods business and has experimented with new advertising models. Unfortunately, none of these things has done for Facebook what AdWords did for Google; the company is still looking for its breakthrough business model.

Now, Facebook is going to try its hand at market research. According to The Telegraph, Facebook executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos have been demonstrating a market research product that “will soon allow multinational companies to selectively target its members in
order to research the appeal of new products.

The Telegraph goes on:

Companies will be able to pose questions to specially selected members based on such intimate details as whether they are single or married and even whether they are gay or straight.

According to Randi Zuckerberg, who is the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s global markets director, the responses to this product have been positive. “I had tonnes of people saying ‘this could be so incredible for our business’. It takes a very long time to do a focus group, and businesses often don’t have the luxury of time,” she told The Telegraph.

Is this Facebook’s breakthrough?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Facebook launched a similar polling system in 2007 and shuttered it earlier this year. While it sounds like the new product may be better-suited for corporate clients, I have a few questions.

First, what’s in it for the users? Facebook has to walk a very fine line when adding commercial elements to its social network. When corporations get involved in what is really a personal and social medium, users should feel like they’re getting something of value out of the interaction. Facebook’s Beacon flub is a reminder of this.

Second, is it enough? Having been involved in a number of focus group projects in my career (one spanning several months), I think the notion that Facebook is a killer app for focus groups is a little bit shallow. While I do think that Facebook could be an extremely useful platform for focus groups in many instances, qualitative data is often just as valuable (if not more valuable) than quantitative data. I don’t see how a polling-oriented online ‘focus group‘ approach can provide the qualitative aspects that good market research demands. If anything, it seems like a good solution to be used in conjunction with other methods.

When Randi Zuckerberg notes that focus groups can take a lot of time and that some businesses can’t afford to invest that time, I say: if a business doesn’t have the luxury of investing the time needed to conduct thorough market research, it had better have the cash needed to cover failure.

Thus far, CareerBuilder has signed up for Facebook’s new product and AT&T is reportedly conducting trials. It will be interesting to watch the outcome and to see if Facebook can successfully turn a social network into a valuable market research platform as so many have expected social networks would become. I’m not so sure, however, that this will be the billion-dollar product that The Telegraph seems to believe it’s going to become.