How Facebook Plans to Get to One Billion Global Users

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Facebook founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits down with Ad Age editor Abbey Klaassen.
Facebook founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits down with Ad Age editor Abbey Klaassen.

CANNES, France (AdAge.com) -- Facebook is halfway to its goal of 1 billion global users. But to get there, the social network knows it has to crack four key markets in Asia where it's not currently the leader, founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview with Ad Age editor Abbey Klaassen today during the 57th annual Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

Clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, the 26-year-old head of Facebook -- onstage before a crowd of ad agencies and marketers from around the world, packed like sardines into the Debussy Theatre -- explained that the company plans to double down efforts in China, Japan, Korea and Russia. In most of those nations, the site only has 1 million users, Mr. Zuckerberg said, although he noted that Russia is doubling sign-ups about every six months right now.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has "no chance" of hitting that magic billion mark this year, Mr. Zuckerberg indicated, and while he's optimistic that Facebook has the potential to be the first social network to get there, "it's not a layup." That admission is a sign that Facebook is under pressure from competing services in those countries, as well as social-media competitors such as Twitter. It also means Facebook (ironically) doesn't feel comfortable publicly sharing predictions for growth, which partly could be because, in Mr. Zuckerberg's words, it's not been a "straight line up."

Mr. Zuckerberg didn't detail any country-specific strategies the company is deploying; rather, he said he's observed that usage trends on the site around the globe don't vary all that much. "By and large, people are using the service for the same thing," he said, which is engaging with a community of selected family and friends. He also doesn't seem to think that mobile is the answer to Facebook's growth either, stating that the advent of smartphones and apps "is additive" but not necessarily the way forward.

Besides getting bigger, an obvious focus for the company right now is emerging from a user-privacy storm -- a topic Mr. Zuckerberg briefly, but directly, addressed in the interview. "It's a really important dialogue ... people have very legitimate questions," he said, admitting that the biggest problem was that Facebook basically bombarded and confused users with too many privacy-control options. "I think we did a lot of things at once," Mr. Zuckerberg said, adding that he's come around to liking the simplified controls himself.

The privacy issue is bound to get thornier, though, as he confirmed what Ad Age first reported last month, that Facebook is prepping location-based services for users. Marketers, which have taken a keen interest in both Facebook and geo-targeted marketing, will be integrated into the system some time after. He wouldn't provide any specifics, but said that "we're happy with what we're getting to," suggesting a roll-out could be soon, but also making it clear that Facebook is being very careful in light of its privacy issues to square away the details before it launches. "It's a very important area, but it's also a sensitive one," Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Perhaps taking into account the composition of the audience at the advertising festival, Mr. Zuckerberg waxed about the importance of delivering value for Facebook's advertising and developer partners, and told the crowd he's eager "to work together to build great products." He named a slew of recent Facebook-based ad campaigns he was impressed with, like Nike's "Write the Future" World Cup work, a "Toy Story 3" movie-ticket promotion and Starbucks free pastry days campaign.

He had one major gaffe during the interview, when asked by Ms. Klaassen whether the company plans to go public, and if so, whether he would still feel comfortable running it. His initial response was, "Sure, it's probably not that different." But after he was met with much laughter -- and a few heckles -- from the audience, Mr. Zuckerberg hunched over, backtracked, and said: "Actually, I'm sure it's a lot different ... but I can pretend until I get there."

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