Last August, Facebook announced that for the first time, a billion people had used the service in one day. It was a landmark moment. But in a way, it was also a sign that the company was reaching the end of the phase of its history that was mostly about signing up people in developed economies and getting them to spend time on the service. If Facebook is going to continue growing, it needs to cater to the next billion consumers–the ones in emerging nations where you can’t assume that people have PCs, high-end smartphones, or speedy Internet connections.
At an event on Thursday morning at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., the company provided an update on its efforts to make Facebook inviting to people in new markets, as well as to help marketers reach those users.
Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox kicked off the event by noting that it’s not always easy for a Facebook employee in the U.S.–where many people choose to use a shiny new iPhone, connectivity is usually zippy, and using the Internet is second nature–to empathize with the needs of the next billion people who will come online. The issues are cultural as well as technological, and the company is still in the process of addressing them. Instead of using the term “last name” in signup screens, for instance, it now uses the more universal “family name.”
Things that Facebook has assumed everyone knows, it’s now reassessing. “A word like ‘password’ is not a word that can be taken for granted,” Cox said. People may know they want Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, but not understand the basics of creating an account. “We need to help them get started, rather than [say] ‘Hey, you’re a sophisticated American college student, set up your profile.'”
The company is also reacting to the fact that people in different countries use Facebook in different ways. In Indonesia, it discovered, people liked to use the service to buy and sell secondhand kids’ clothing and auto parts. So it began to build functionality designed with that in mind.
A new technology called Network Connection Class lets Facebook build a News Feed designed to identify and accommodate the speed of the network it finds. On a slow connection, for instance, it might load a low-resolution version of a photo while the higher-res one is loading, rather than displaying a gray box. And if users are disconnected from the Internet, they can still see content that the app downloaded and stored earlier.
With the speedy connectivity at the company’s headquarters and other locations, the default state of Facebook is far more optimal than in much of the world. As a reminder, an internal program called 2G Tuesdays prompts employees with an option that lets them simulate a creaky 2G connection for an hour–a strange experience in Menlo Park in 2015, but perfectly normal for millions of people who the company would like to feel at home in its service.
The event also covered the company’s efforts to let advertisers reach consumers in emerging markets, something that it says these new Facebook users are eager to have happen. “There’s this really fascinating connection that people want to have with businesses and brands,” said Kelly MacLean, who’s responsible for this effort as Facebook’s product marketing lead for emerging markets.
Even though emerging countries operate under technological constraints, MacLean said, marketers should know that they can outpace established markets when it comes to embracing innovation. In the U.K., MacLean said, 5% of retail transactions are made with mobile NFC payments. But in Kenya, a third of the GDP already flows through the country’s mobile payments system.
In developed nations with robust Internet access, marketers love video ads. In emerging markets, however, the resources needed to produce compelling video may be hard to come by–and wireless networks may be too sluggish to stream such ads even if they exist. So Facebook is introducing a new ad format that it announced at today’s event. Called “Slideshow,” it allows for rotating sequences of between three and seven still images, designed to provide the ability to tell a story with some visual pizzazz without clogging networks. Facebook has created a tool to help advertisers assemble them out of stock images, further reducing the bar to entry.
Facebook’s efforts in emerging economies–from its Free Basics app to the drones it’s developing to shoot Internet connectivity down by laser–are not without their controversies. The discussion of marketing in today’s event is a reminder that the company never claimed that it wanted to spread connectivity for purely philanthropic reasons. Bringing another billion people onto the Internet will be good for those individuals and the world in general–and new offerings such as Slideshows are meant to ensure that it’s also good for Facebook’s bottom line.