Facebook has been quietly working for more than two years on a project that is vital to expanding its base of 1.1 billion users: getting the social network onto the billions of cheap, simple “feature phones” that have largely disappeared in America and Europe but are still the norm in developing countries like India and Brazil.
Facebook soon plans to announce the first results of the initiative, which it calls Facebook for Every Phone: More than 100 million people, or roughly one out of eight of its mobile users worldwide, now regularly access the social network from more than 3,000 different models of feature phones, some costing as little as $20.
Many of those users, who rank among the world’s poorest people, pay little or nothing to download their Facebook news feeds and photos, with the data usage subsidized by phone carriers and manufacturers.
Facebook has only just begun to sell ads to these customers, so it makes no money from them yet. But the countries in which the simple phone software is doing the best — India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and Vietnam — are among the fastest-growing markets for use of the Internet and social networks, according to the research firm eMarketer.
Facebook is struggling with the seismic shift of its customers away from computers to mobile devices and the erosion of profits.
Last year, the company overhauled its apps for Apple iPhones and Android-based smartphones to improve mobile access while introducing new types of ads that nudge users to install a new game or other apps on their phones. But customer growth in developed markets like the United States has still slowed markedly because just about everyone who wants to be on Facebook has already joined the network.
Analysts say Facebook has a powerful opportunity to win the long-term loyalty of millions of new global users by giving them their first taste of the Internet through Facebook on cellphone.
“In a lot of foreign markets, people think that the Internet is Facebook,” said Clark Fredricksen, a vice president at eMarketer.
Those users, Facebook hopes, will become more attractive to advertisers as their incomes grow and they gain broader access to the Web.
To understand how far Facebook has come in its approach to mobile devices, consider this: until two years ago, the only way to sign up for the service was through a Web browser, which is much slower to use than an app.
The immediate prospects of making money from feature phone users are modest.
During the first quarter of this year, Facebook got only 24 percent of its $1.5 billion in revenue from outside of the United States, Canada and Europe.
It is just beginning to ramp up its mobile advertising revenue, which was 30 percent of its overall global ad revenue in the first quarter. Those mobile ads are not as profitable as desktop ads, whose growth is flat.