Facebook is shifting priorities for product development to rapidly adjust to changing user behavior in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In the early days of the outbreak, Facebook’s top concern was stopping the spread of misinformation about the virus. Now that those efforts are up and running, the company is building new features to help users and small businesses affected by the global lockdown, according to Fidji Simo, the head of Facebook’s main social network.
“This is a really unique moment,” Simo says. Facebook has had to “adjust really quickly and really reshape our roadmap.”
Messaging and voice calls from Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp services have jumped more than 50 percent in some of the regions hit hardest by the response to COVID-19. The number of people in the U.S. watching livestreams on the Facebook Live video feature has increased by 50 percent since January, Simo notes. “Live is definitely exploding right now,” she says.
Facebook is moving quickly to capitalize on rising usage by people stuck at home. The company announced a handful of updates to Facebook Live on Friday, including a way for users to watch streams without a Facebook account. It’s also expanding its digital tipping product so viewers can send money to more creators in need of support during the economic downturn.
Expanding its focus on Live means reducing attention on other products, and Facebook has had to quickly shift priorities. It no longer makes sense to have as many people working on products that encourage in-person gathering, like Facebook Events, Simo says. Facebook has stopped showing as many event reminders to users, and employees have been asked to temporarily volunteer for products in need of more help, like Live, News and Groups.
Facebook is trying to match up skill sets. Facebook Marketplace, for example, isn’t as important right now because it’s not a good time for strangers to meet up to exchange used goods, Simo says. But those employees are well-versed in helping Facebook users make money, and some of them have been redirected to assisting small- and medium-sized businesses weather the current storm.
After the pandemic, Facebook will likely prioritize Groups, live video and News for the long term, Simo says. “It’s a need that exists in times of physical distancing, but it’s a need that exists in normal times as well,” she says.
All of these efforts have been further complicated because Facebook employees are working remotely, which Simo calls a “big disruption” and a particular challenge for employees with children in the house and families to take care of.
As people flock to Facebook properties in record numbers, the company is trying to ensure employees still have balance in their newly chaotic home lives. “In order to allow employees time taking care of children at home, their schedules have become more flexible,” Simo says. She has cut the number of meetings in half.
Despite the rise in usage, Facebook’s business doesn’t stand to benefit in the near term. Many of the products that people are using, like messaging and Facebook Live, don’t have established businesses yet. Facebook said earlier this week that its ads business, which generates almost all of the company’s revenue, has been “weakening” as a result of COVID-19.
Simo says that Facebook needs to move “incredibly quickly” to figure out more ways for users and small businesses to make money from its services, and those efforts are a priority.
“We have a very big ads team whose entire job is focused on figuring that out,” Simo says when asked if there was pressure to start better monetizing these now-popular products. “For now our focus on helping our users during this specific time, and helping with economic opportunity, is really the right focus.”