Facebook’s Middle East and Africa boss on ads, mobile and the scramble for Africa

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Facebook - Jonathan Labin

Africa is an important market for everybody. Facebook is well aware of this and ready to jump abroad the great innovation train blazing through the continent.

Currently towering the world’s stage, Facebook has become synonymous with how we as a society connect with each other. On the heels of defining its business model, deciding that it wants to be a utility and doling out millions and a billion for other startups, everyone’s favourite social network is finally ready to play for keeps in Africa.

The move could not have come too soon for the company. Currently mobile messenger platform 2Go claims to have more users in Nigeria than Facebook, a lucrative market for any web business.

We caught up with Jonathan Labin, Facebook’s head of the Middle East and North Africa region, to chat about the company’s plans for Africa and the successes it has enjoyed in other emerging market regions.

Memeburn: Tell us a bit about Facebook’s plan for Africa?

Jonathan Labin: It’s true that now as a company we are focusing more on emerging markets and we’re also focusing more on Africa. I think over the last year or so you have seen a much bigger focus on that, and it’s true for many different areas. On the one hand, from a user experience point of view, now we have more and more solutions that also cater to users in emerging markets. If you think of Facebook in the past, the mobile app was mainly a smartphone app, now we’re creating better and better solutions for people with any kind of mobile device — smartphone to feature phone, even text-based solutions. That was addressing the user side, providing a solution to anyone no matter what device you had.

Then we started rolling out our business solutions catered specifically to emerging markets. We focused a lot on mobile obviously (that was a big push for us), introducing ads on feature phones, and introducing feature phone targeting, which is mainly something that makes sense in emerging markets. Mobile as a whole has been a big push for us, especially in a market like Africa where mobile is so big, it’s obviously very important to have that solution.

A good example, especially for smartphones, is mobile app installs. That’s something that is very mobile centric and has been working incredibly well. Most of the big publishers of apps use that to drive their mobile app installs. What’s also nice to see is that the first companies here now, since we’ve had conversations with them, are considering using mobile app installs. It really works well.

The last piece is just having people dedicated to Africa. Now we have a small dedicated team that focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on South Africa, then probably Nigeria. But the focus for us initially is South Africa. On the commercial side, that’s where we want to push. We work closer and closer with businesses, understand their businesses needs across the marketing funnel and solve those.

On top of that, Mark [Zuckerberg] is also pushing internet.org, because Africa is also a big part of that. We work with our partners in pushing data costs down, in trying to make apps more efficient, in finding new business models with partners as well, so that we can connect the next few billion people.

MB: How do you plan to adapt to appeal to users who may have never used the web version of Facebook, or even a desktop computer?

JL: We have shifted to become a mobile first company, that’s how we’re organized today. If you think about sub-Saharan Africa as a region, Facebook is very much mobile. People use Facebook a lot on their mobile phones – there are about 42-million users in sub-Saharan Africa and 35-million of those use it on their mobile phone. Yes, mobile is huge for us.

MB: How are other emerging markets like the Middle East different from Africa?

JL: What’s interesting about how people and businesses use Facebook is that there are always certain things that are very much the same and others that are different. I think everyone in the world uses Facebook to connect, and it’s our mission to make the world more open and connected, to connect with friends. But then it’s used a little differently – in the Middle East, people use it a lot to connect with family and friends, but then it’s also quite important around groups and topics, political topics often. That differs from other parts of the world.

When it comes to businesses, what we’re starting to see in the Middle East (and I’m sure we will also see that in Africa) is more of a shift of not thinking about Facebook just in terms of ‘how many likes am I going to get?’ but it’s more and more about solving a business problem. That’s really what we do and that’s also why we have dedicated people to really work with businesses, clients and agencies and figuring out how we can solve the business problems across the whole marketing funnel.

When you get to a point when you have as many users as Facebook – 42-million in sub-Saharan Africa, of which 20-million are on it every single day – then you are a reach platform, you’re an awareness platform, and that’s the top of the funnel. But you also become a very effective platform for conversions, to drive sales, down to building loyalty. We’re now really thinking about having conversations with businesses and identifying the big problem. Is it ‘I want to drive awareness’, is it ‘I want to drive online sales’, is it ‘I want to drive offline sales’, is it ‘I want to build loyalty’, and then we see how the Facebook platform can help to do that.

If you think about businesses, it depends on the client. If you think about big businesses, they have millions of consumers, so I think the shift is happening there because having a few thousand people engaged on any kind of platform is nice, but it’s not going to move the needle. It’s not going to shift business results. So if you are a big business, then you want to hit millions of people on Facebook. Thousands is not enough. So more and more people think of Facebook as a reach platform, an awareness platform, but also as a platform that can drive sales. The fans are very important – don’t get me wrong – but they’re more of a means to an end. Because once you have a fan base, you can target them, and you can target their friends, and that way it becomes word of mouth.

MB: What are some of the trends you’re seeing in how brands are using the platform?

JL: I think it very much depends on the type of brand. If I think of big fast-moving consumer goods companies, I see more and more thinking of Facebook as a platform to provide incremental reach to TV, because there are many users on Facebook that may not be watching TV. It’s also something that drives brand love, drives purchase intent, and by doing that you drive offline sales. So it’s more about how Facebook works with TV, etc, not just be in the so-called social space.

They also think of it more — and I think this is why awards shows like the Loeries are a very important event — as a platform to show great creative to people. I think it’s super important to think about the fact that whatever companies post on Facebook is going to be seen by millions of people, often more people than those that see a print ad or a TV ad, and therefore the creative is so important. So another shift that we’re seeing is more brands care about the creative they’re putting on Facebook – it needs to be a really strong creative, because only if you have good work that people find interesting will you get through the clutter.

There’s the branding side, then there’s the ‘let’s drive online sales’, the performance side of things. They’re using that more as well, partly because of the new solutions we’ve introduced. One thing that’s worked really well is something that we call custom audiences. Half the time businesses which try to sell stuff online, but also other kinds of businesses, have a database and information about their consumers. Often these companies have their own customer segments. Now we can match those segments with Facebook in a privacy protected way, so you can see how many of these people are on Facebook.

Maybe 50% of them are on Facebook – then you can target that segment that you already know. That’s been really effective, and it’s also now available in Africa.

MB: Do you think Facebook is being used as a replacement to other ways of contacting people, like email, in Africa specifically?

JL: People use the platform in so many creative ways. I’ve seen examples in the Middle East – I think it was Kuwait – where they’re using Instagram a lot to sell any type of products… even sheep. The same is often true for Facebook. It’s a great utility to communicate.

We see a lot of interesting business models happening on our platform constantly and I think Africa is obviously very well-known to be an innovation hub when it comes to how to use mobile phones for business and for transactions. I think it’s actually something we can also hopefully learn from. Part of why we have a team focused on Africa is to work closer with businesses, but part of it is also to learn from these business, see what’s out here.

MB: Do you think Instagram will ever go over to feature phones?

JL: I think the Instagram team is always looking for ways to improve the business. There’s nothing I can announce at this point in time, but it is still a relatively young company, and as Mark always says (it’s true for Facebook and also for Instagram), our journey is 1% done. They’re constantly doing new things, constantly innovating, so expect innovations across platforms in the future.

MB: Is there profit to be made in Africa for Facebook?

JL: I can’t comment on our Africa financials in particular, but if you look at our latest earnings release, you see that our user numbers have been growing across the world, and also our revenues. A lot of businesses already work on Facebook in Africa, and now that we have people dedicated to the market, we can build closer relationships, solve the problems and grow our revenues.   

MB: If Facebook thinking about enterprise solutions?

JL: We’re constantly looking at new stuff… nothing I can comment on right now, but we’re 1% done.

MB: And the Facebook phone?

JL: There is no Facebook phone. On the Android devices you can have Facebook Home. A number of these things are rolling out… Facebook Home is one example, testing now to see what has worked, what people liked a lot, other features people didn’t like, so a lot of testing.

MB: In-stream video has started testing in the newsfeed… do you think that will destroy the user experience to have so much advertising?

JL: Whatever we do as a company, the users come first. Anything we roll out we really test carefully. If you think about Newsfeed advertising, which we only launched about a year ago, we tested it a lot and we looked at the sentiment of people who had and didn’t have and it was quite a good reaction. That’s why we then rolled it out.

Users come first for us because we know that users are where our business starts. We will always be user-centric when it comes to rolling out new solutions.

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