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Facebook To Use 'Missed Calls' To Dial Up Ad Dollars In India

New Ad Format Tailored to Unique Mobile Habit

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Facebook hopes to dial up its ad dollars in India, its second-largest market, through a new mobile-ad format unique to the country.

During COO Sheryl Sandberg's visit to India this week, Facebook announced it was introducing a new ad format tailored to the country's unique mobile behavior: the "missed call." Data costs for voice calls and texts can be prohibitively high for most Indians, who typically have pre-paid phone contracts. Missed calls are a popular workaround -- dial up a friend then hang up, and they're alerted without mobile charges.

In recent years, several technology companies in India have tapped the practice for sports polling, brand campaigns and ad dollars. The tactic is effective largely because it works with feature phones, without Internet access, which are dominant in emerging markets. Now Facebook is leaping in.

"When a person sees an ad on Facebook they can place a 'missed call' by clicking the ad from their mobile device," Facebook explained in a post announcing the new format. "In the return call, the person receives valuable content, such as music, cricket scores or celebrity messages, alongside a brand message from the advertiser -- all without using airtime or data."

Facebook has tentative plans to take the new ad format to Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil.

India is quickly catching up to the U.S. as Facebook's biggest market. In April, the company announced it had reached 100 million users in the country. But it barely dents Facebook's bottom line. India generates around $12.6 million in ad dollars for Facebook, just 0.23% of its total revenue.

Facebook has been placing ads on feature phones for more than a year and half, helped by deals with emerging market telecom providers to subsizide data for accessing a stripped-down version of the site. Facebook works with Bharti Airtel, one of India's largest telecom operators. Around 66% of Indians reaching Facebook on mobile devices use feature phones, according to the company.

With its new ad format, Facebook is partnering with Zipdial, a Bangalore-based startup that operates a missed call platform for advertisers to reach Indian consumers. Zipdial has worked with Indian and international advertisers, such as Unilever.

The Omnicom Group is also a partner. "We are working with Facebook to explore new ad solutions which are directly built from the way people communicate on mobile everyday," Cheuk Chiang, the agency network's Asia Pacific CEO, told Bloomberg.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bharti Airtel is a partner with the new Facebook ad format.

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