Facebook taps mobile for Asia growth

Once late to the mobile game, the social media giant now bets heavily on the platform which it says will ensure Facebook's continued growth in the Asia-Pacific region.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Once late to the mobile game, Facebook now bets heavily on the platform which it believes will ensure its continued growth in the Asia-Pacific region.  

The social media giant currently has 1.19 billion monthly active users, up 20 percent over last year, and over 874 million of this base access the site via their mobile devices. This user demographic is growing at 51 percent year-on-year, highlighting the importance of the mobile space to the company, said Dan Neary, Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice president. 

Dan Neary, Facebook
Dan Neary, Facebook

He pointed to mobile as the driver for user engagement, noting that over 60 percent of users access the site on a daily basis and, on average, check their Facebook 12 to 14 times via their mobile. 

About 80 percent of the site's daily active users live outside the U.S. and Canada. The company has over 5,700 employees worldwide where its international offices include Singapore, Hong Kong, Hyderabad, London, Sydney, and Seoul. 

Asia is its largest and fastest-growing region, accounting for over 340 million active monthly users, up 33 percent year-on-year. In Singapore, Facebook has 3.1 million monthly and 2.1 million daily users, making up 60 percent and about 40 percent, respectively, of the country's population, Neary noted. 

Two of the site's largest markets are in Asia: India, its second-largest after the U.S.; and Indonesia which ranks fourth, behind Brazil. In terms of penetration rate against a country's Internet population, Taiwan is the highest in Asia, where 60 percent of its online community have a Facebook account, followed by Hong Kong at 59.8 percent. 

With its huge networks here, the move toward mobile, and its focus on driving user engagement, Asia-Pacific is the most promising in terms of growth potential, especially with the region leading the way in terms of mobile developments, Neary said. 

Mobile is also raking in the dollars for Facebook, which global revenue comprise 41 percent from mobile advertising, an increase of 30 percent quarter-on-quarter. 

The company's mobile play had been widely observed as late, with its first official Apple iPad app released only in October 2011--18 months after the first iPad was launched in April 2010--and at least five months after it was reportedly already feature-complete

Spotted on the wall of Facebook's Singapore office.

Neary acknowledged that Facebook's mobile journey was an evolutionary one where, two to three years back, the company was still figuring out how it should approach this space. He reminded that the social media site was first developed for the desktop environment. It would train a dedicated group of engineers specialized for the mobile platform. 

"The move toward mobile happened at a rate that exceeded our expectations of the industry. So we really had to take a pause and redesign how we did mobile," he said. "We used to develop mobile experience first for the desktop, and [then] put that into a smaller screen. We determined that wasn't the best user experience and started developing first for mobile. We started out as having a mobile focus, then moved to a 'mobile-first' strategy, and now it's 'mobile-best'.

"We no longer have engineers dedicated to mobile--all of our engineers are trained in mobile development. When we review products, we review first on mobile. We now have a number of features that are clearly meant for mobile environment, specifically those around the geo and location-based services," he said.

And its efforts have paid off, he added, noting that in the U.S. alone, mobile users spend 3.8 billion minutes a day on the social media site. "That's more than [the time they spend on] Google, YouTube, Yahoo, and Microsoft combined," he said. 

Violating user trust will "ruin" Facebook business

Neary also played Facebook's reach as its key differentiator among brands and marketers, as well as its ability to target by real identities, rather than the use of keywords and cookies. 

Asked if this had brought along user concerns in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's U.S. spying revelations, he pointed to the company's global stance on the issue. "We've been very adamant that NSA (U.S. National Security Agency) doesn't have backdoor access to our site. We also think that having conversations around privacy and usage of information is a really good thing because we believe in transparency. And one of the good things that came out of this is we release transparency reports that identify number of requests we get from governments.

"Trust is fundamental to everything we do. If we ever violate that, that will ruin the underpinning of our overall business. We don't give any personal, identifiable data to our advertisers or partners. When we think about targetability, we target based on habits and Likes, and these have nothing to do with turning over user information," he said.

Nonetheless, Facebook has had several run-ins with privacy lobby groups over its privacy policy changes. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange once called the site the "most appalling spying machine ever invented", while European data protection advisors described some of its policy changes as "unacceptable". More recently, a German court last month ruled that fanpage owners were not liable for Facebook privacy violations in the country, though it did not state whether the social networking site was responsible for the violations. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in May said the company was committed to data protection and informing users how their information was being used on the site.

In response to the criticisms, it now seeks public feedback and informs users ahead of time whenever it makes changes to its policies. Adding that the company also designs the site around user management, Neary said: "We've built in controls to allow user the ability to release whatever information they want to release, and to whatever circle they want. We believe the users should have control over what they want others to see."

With countries in the region such as Singapore and Malaysia rolling out personal data protection laws, Facebook aims to comply with local laws in each market it operates, he noted. "That said, it is always a tricky thing. We have the ability to control content delivery by country, and there're plenty of cases where we do that. Outside of that, the general approach that has served us well is transparency and [user] control," he said.

And while the site is still banned in China, Facebook works with a network of local resellers to help Chinese businesses advertise their wares to a global audience via the social networking platform.

"Our mission is to connect the world, and you'll realize you can't do that without China's population of 1.3 billion. Strategically, China continues to be something we think about," said Neary. Asked if there will be a China-only version of Facebook to cater to the Asian economic power, he declined to speculate. 

He also reiterated the company's global stance that it had no plans to be a handset maker, preferring to keep its focus on software. 

Asked how Home was panning out since its launch early this year, Neary gave no specific details except to point to Facebook's adage to "move fast, break things" and that "done is better than perfect"--suggesting that the home screen interface for Android devices had yet to make significant waves. Zuckerberg in April had introduced Home as "the highest quality experience you can have on Android". 

Neary said: "When we think about Home, which is built around individuals for whom Facebook is a big part of their daily routine, we think it's a good start. If you look at time spent on Internet, 1 out of 5 minutes is spent on the Internet [and] many users, Facebook is one of the things they look for on mobile. Home was designed around that individual."

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