Facebook at MWC: The World Is Shifting Mobile

Together with Nokia X announcement this morning and Samsung Galaxy S5 later today, one of the most expected events of Day 1 at Mobile World Congress was Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote. He did not announce anything new and mostly shared his vision of the Internet.org coalition. Facebook wants to connect up to 3 billion people in the next five years.

Facebook already has numerous agreements with telecom operators worldwide – especially in emerging countries where the social media giant can be used to generate acquisitions of new customers. On the contrary, operators are a key distribution platform to help Facebook acquire its next billion customers.

This morning at MWC, WhatsApp’s CEO announced that the messaging app will enable voice within its app starting from Q2 2014. Services like WhatsApp are already cannibalizing SMS among smartphone owners as highlighted here by colleague Dan Bieler. What if WhatsApp does the same thing, further cannibalizing operators’ core voice revenues? This will for sure force operators to reinvent their business models and to embrace agile innovation and partnerships with OTT players. For example, Reliance in India and Mobily in Saudi Arabia have existing partnerships with WhatsApp.

However, Facebook’s CEO first keynote at MWC goes beyond the love-hate relationship with telcos.

Firstly, with more than 1.2 billion active users, Facebook demonstrates why mobile is the next battleground and why emerging economies are a game-changer for mobile. When looking at Forrester’s Mobile Mind Shift Index, people in Turkey, Metropolitan China, or India are already more shifted than in the US. I just spent 10 days in remote villages in India and I could start feeling why mobile will be incredibly disruptive in emerging economies. I believe the largest change will take place in less developed areas like Africa, where mobile banking, mobile health, and access to mobile information could transform whole nations. Inexpensive mobile devices like the ones demonstrated during the show in Barcelona could create an economic boom by unleashing the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to a generation of previously disconnected consumers.

Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp further reinforces this new battle for global reach. Most of WhatsApp’s audience is coming from countries outside of Europe and the US. Mobile social networks like WeChat or Line have huge audiences and are turning into platforms providing much more than just messaging – including games, payments, and much more. They are the new gateways to hundreds of millions of customers for whom mobile becomes the primary touchpoint. I recently interviewed the CEO of a large advertising agency in China and the call was extremely clear: “We no longer recommend brands to launch standalone apps but to embed their services into WeChat.”

Secondly, Facebook exemplifies the ability for companies to go mobile first. By acknowledging its past mistakes and shifting the strategy of Facebook, Zuckerberg demonstrated both the ability for Facebook to successfully focus on engaging consumers while monetizing its audience with now more than 50% of revenues coming from mobile devices. That said, I think it is early days to prove how efficient Facebook mobile is at helping marketers reach their objectives beyond app installs. WhatsApp’s business model and DNA are against advertising. Anyway, it does not collect enough data to be really interesting for advertisers. Facebook may also have paid this price to get insights on an installed base of 450 million mobile phone numbers in an approach where those phone numbers would help Facebook’s advertising business outside WhatsApp. Is this the price of global reach? My colleague Julie Ask recently put the $19 billion acquisition in perspective here.  

I think it will be difficult for most marketers to figure out how to efficiently approach new peer to-peer communication platforms. That’s precisely why Facebook is evolving into a collection of apps and not just one core social media network.

I am planning some new research on the convergence of social and mobile and what it means to marketers. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the next couple of weeks. If you want to discuss this theme, please email me at thusson at forrester dot com.