Facebook is testing out a new way of picking up mobile users in international markets — a crucial part of its strategy to continue building out its user base as subscriber growth slows in markets like the U.S. In India, Facebook has launched Talktime, which gives users 50 Rupees (about $1) in calling credit when they sign up to Facebook via their mobile devices. It also offers users a further Rs 50 when they refer a friend to sign up.
Facebook tells us this is just a test for now. It follows on from Facebook Zero, a mobile-only site where users in select countries can access Facebook free of charge. Like Facebook Zero, Talktime’s aim is to drive more usage in emerging markets, where users are more price sensitive to using their phone credit for more than essential voice calls and texts:
“We partner with a number of telecoms companies around the world, many of whom offer incentives for their customers to use Facebook, such as zero rating mobile internet access to the service. This test is another such initiative,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch today.
The Talktime service was first noticed by India’s MachineHappy blog, and was then brought to our attention by a reader. MachineHappy notes that it’s tested the service but has yet to get its credit — although Facebook notes on its site that it could take up to three days for the credit to appear. Another India-based blog, Pluggd.in, notes a downside to this, however: in a bid to pick up extra voice credits, users might start creating fake profiles, although Facebook presumably has a control in place to limit the amount of credit given to a single phone number.
Here’s MachineHappy’s screenshot of the service. (When I tried to visit the URL provided in their post, it redirected to my own feed, so perhaps it only works in India.)
Pluggd.in also notes that India is a ripe market for such a test: Facebook has pointed out that some 30% of signups to the site in India these days come via mobile devices. In a way, India exemplifies the kind of mobile future that may be in store for Facebook as it continues to grow out.
More generally, emerging and mobile are two key areas for the social network. Facebook recently announced that it reached 1 billion users. In an interview with BusinessWeek to mark the event, CEO Mark Zuckerberg highlighted both mobile and new markets as areas where it was looking to find the next two billion. “The big thing is obviously going to be mobile,” he said. “There are 5 billion people in the world who have phones, and a billion people using Facebook. There are actually already 600 million people using Facebook on phones, so that’s growing really quickly. And as more phones become smartphones, it’s just this massive opportunity.”
What’s interesting about the Talktime test is that it builds one more bridge between Facebook and how it works with mobile carriers to target users.
This is important because while in some markets like the U.S. devices like the iPhone have meant that users largely bypass their carriers, using them mainly as a bit-pipe, in developing markets carriers still play a pretty strong role with users.
In addition to Zero, which works in countries where carriers have turned on the service, Facebook has recently turned on carrier billing services for its apps. This means that mobile users who buy gaming credits or virtual gifts through apps can charge them directly to their mobile phone bills.
Additionally, carriers are also building other services that enable Facebook access in developing markets. Orange in February launched a service that lets users of even the most basic GSM phones use Facebook, via USSD technology built into the handsets. Unlike Facebook Zero, which was co-launched by Facebook, Orange’s service is developed using Facebook’s APIs but is not marketed by the social network itself.
(Photo via Pluggd.in)