A few weeks ago, young Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on record at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in southern France to predict that the company’s billionth customer would sign up for the social networking site sometime in 2011. But with many faces in developed countries largely tapped and much of the low-hanging fruit already picked, the company is targeting emerging markets as its next source of new users.
Javier Olivan, the company’s head of international growth, recently had an exclusive interview with SocialBeat to discuss expansion strategies in a mix of rural countries and already developed countries that haven’t embraced the Facebook platform as much as its regional competitors. Oliver explained that mobile broadband access to Facebook is one of the major prongs for expansion right now and consists of securing deals with mobile operators to enable low-bandwidth versions of the site to be accessed for feature phones. For instance, the company recently signed two major deals with Bharti Airtel in India and Beeline and MTS in Russie to provide free mobile access for users.
In perspective, the idea is to have the wireless operators subsidize the data expenses on the user-end access to the site from any feature phone, rather than on Facebook’s end of the deal. However, one of the major challenges in mobile platform development is developing a version of the software that naturally works for the respective market. In Japan, for instance, the majority of mobile Facebook users reach the site through either feature phones or touch-optimized web sites. In contrast, the majority of North American and European users access the site through mobile apps that can be downloaded from an app marketplace for the respective mobile platform.
“If you look at the product eight months ago, it was unusable, Olivan said. Part of the problem was that many Japanese phones don’t recognize cookies, making it difficult to keep a user logged in through the service.”
The interview went on to highlight specific Facebook contract deals in India, China, Russia, Indonesia, and Brazil where some markets may have competing social networking services that pose a threat to Facebook’s adoption numbers. For instance, Facebook faces a steep challenge in Russia where it has just 1.2 million users versus Vkontakte with 75 million.
“Facebook competes with other social networking sites] by not competing,” said Olivan. “We focus on having a great product and we try to basically break away all the barriers that stand between people using it everywhere in the world.”