An unexpected fallout of Covid-19 is the acceleration towards online engagements. Ajit Mohan, vice-president and managing director, Facebook India, speaks to Nalin Mehta on recent online trends and his firm’s plans to tap them:
What big changes are you seeing in Facebook consumption patterns after the coronavirus?
The story in India in many ways is not that dramatically different from what we are seeing on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp around the world. Clearly there is a lot of appetite for the core premise of what these platforms offer. In the case of Facebook and Instagram it is connectedness with friends and family as well as interests and communities of all kinds. On WhatsApp all of that is happening in the context of a private messaging space. As the world entered the lockdown, we have seen growth across our family of apps- across whichever metric you look at. For example, if I look at live videos, Instagram has in the last three months has seen a 60% rise in video hits. If you looked at the I for India concert on Facebook, there has been a fundamental shift with artists, celebrities and any group or brand which has a large following essentially shifting online not just to stay connected with their followers but also to drive performance. Equally, we have seen a growth in messages. You can’t call out one part: the growth has been constant across Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. The underlying driver for this growth is the desire to stay connected with friends and families and communities you are part of as the physical world shut down. This could have happened even before the shutdown. I have family all over the world. We have got into a rhythm of speaking every Sunday morning from the West Coast of the US to Australia. We could have done this five years ago but we didn’t but now people have a desire to be even more connected. Secondly, a lot of the products themselves are evolving to response to the boom: like with the launch of Rooms or WhatsApp expanding video calling. Our products have responded to take this moment where people looking to stay connected almost independent of geography.
There is clearly a shift from offline to online. Look at any industry, even for companies or industries which saw themselves as having a few more years before they had to actually think about how to leverage technology or even the act of establishing a virtual presence. This process has got accelerated over the last 3-4 months. We have seen that around the world where there is a rapid movement and a desire to embrace online tools and establish a virtual presence.
Secondly. people are increasingly looking for richer experiences on virtual presence, not just pure audio and video. What may have been a bridged conference call a few years ago became a video call today. There is clearly a desire for that engagement to be even deeper, any immersive experience focused around AR or VR. A lot of times when you are on these video calls, the kids immediately start playing with AR effects. For me that gives us a sense of what this generation will be growing up with.
Thirdly, there is the rise of hyperlocal models. We saw that even in the shutdown where we saw local ecommerce growing and a lot more appetite for it. There is more tailwind to that either because of physical constraints imposed by the outbreak or because people have more consciousness and comfort with local products. We have seen a demonstration of that clearly in the last few months with specific companies showing up as spikes on the back of changes in behavior.
Are you seeing differences on languages on Facebook in India or is it uniform growth?
India has always been about multiple languages. Diversity of languages has been there for hundreds of years to the extent that any kind of media or consumer model that was built only on English or even only on English or Hindi, we know it invariably limited their relevance. Online was always vernacular. India was always vernacular.
On a platform like Facebook which is so deep in all parts of India, it was never only English or Hindi. You had a manifestation of multiplicity of languages on Facebook for a long time.
When I look at growth of videos for example on Facebook, it is across languages. When we look at engagement of people, it is across states.
On WhatsApp payments gateway, you still haven’t got approval so what’s the way forward?
We have approval to run a test pilot programme for one million people users. We are now waiting for the green light from NPCI for us to launch payments on WhatsApp. There is no update to share on the timelines. We are hoping we will get regulatory approval. I genuinely think that payments on WhatsApp will be good for small businesses. It will reduce frictions in the world of payments quite dramatically. It will help the agenda of cashless movement of money and given the scale of WhatsApp this is an opportunity to drive financial inclusion. Payments on WhatsApp are built on the UPI stack. The opportunity is to build WhatsApp as a vehicle to accelerate and broaden UPI even more than its extraordinary success so far.
Facebook made a big bet as the largest minority investor in Jio. How do you see that relationship panning out as big bet by Facebook ?
It is a minority stake- 9.99% — so we continue to operate as independent companies. Equally, the two companies are aligned that where there are good partnership opportunities, we will work together to enable new ways of fueling the ecosystem. The first partnership we have identified is the one between WhatsApp and JioMart. When we talk to consumers it is clear that a lot of them already connect with their local stores through WhatsApp. Its part of their everyday conversations on picking products, prices and what they buy. Delivery then happens offline and payments is often through cash. The opportunity we saw through this partnership is that you can structure and reduce the friction in a particular behavior that already happens today while making it easier for people from within WhatsApp to easily identify a store that has a product that they are looking for, to see product catalogue and price points easily. If we do get approval for payments through WhatsApp you have the opportunity to close the transaction from within WhatsApp.
JioMart is driving to digitize these small business enterprises – 20-25 million in a short period of time. There are about 60 million small businesses in India. The opportunity should be to cover all 60 million. The way we are thinking about is that we do the front-end work on the WhatsApp side and once the order is made, we hand over the order to JioMart and they do the hard work in terms of fulfilment and working with the local store. The reason why this is exciting is that here is an opportunity to structure a consumer behavior that today happens with a lot of pain. If we can do this, then a lot of cash transactions can shift to digital payments which is a priority fir the government. Second, it will actually be a massive fueler for small businesses and it will allow then to grow the pie and the size of the business in a way that is good for the economy at large. Lastly, for us, if we are able to pioneer and build the model here then we can essentially apply those learnings to other countries. That is one of the reasons why we are excited
Now that Google is also the second biggest minority stakeholder in Jio, how will that interaction play out for you?
This ecosystem is going to be built on the energy of multiple companies. Some of them will be very large enterprises and a lot of them will be new ventures and startups. This is a virtuous cycle we have kicked off with the agenda of digitizing small businesses. This will have multiplier impact on the economy. There will be roles for third parties- large and small.
The fabulous thing Jio did was to bring 400-450 million online with access to affordable mobile broadband, followed by Vodafone and Airtel. A lot of the effort we are doing now addresses the other side of it now that we have 500 million plus people online. The next agenda is how do we bring the next 500 million online but equally how do we get these 60 million small businesses online so we create a virtuous economic cycle. Every sector is waiting to be renewed, unleashed – whether it is education or health.
A lot of the framing sometimes becomes if you are carving up opportunities but the real game here is can different companies dramatically accelerate this digital transformation for the next generation of entrepreneurs. We were the first to make this investment. We had multiple financial investors who came in. We then had Google follow that. It reinforces the bet we made both in terms of the role Jio played in seeding this transformation and our excitement about India’s economic potential
Isn’t this also consolidation of the market?
I don’t think so. The way we look at our minority investment in Jio and in particular the partnership between WhatsApp and JioMart is that you can only interpret it as being good for the two companies because it is pioneering a new model. Too much of the conversation is if there is a big short term revenue gain. But both of us are approaching it fundamentally from the lens of can we pioneer a new model that is good for the ecosystem as a whole. I am absolutely convinced that this partnership will engender multiple economic opportunities for small companies in a way that we have not fully understood. Second order impact will come out of it and it will spin off all kinds of new areas which will open new doors. I don’t see this as consolidation but as an opportunity to unleash resources jointly towards models that can be very good for India.
Several big advertisers have withdrawn from Facebook globally. How is that playing out in India in the way you do business here?
We don’t profit from hate. We believe that the entire model of Facebook is all to create mechanism for people to connect with each other and to the extent that there is an economic model we benefit from love, not hate. We have done a lot of work already. We can continue to evolve and make changes. In the context of advertisers, some of them are global in nature and some of those conversation are in India as well. If I look at my conversations with CEOs and CMOs here, we recognize the responsibility we have. We have seen the company globally really leaning in and trying to do the right thing.