Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Facebook Advertising Research Around the World


As Facebook approached its tenth birthday earlier this year, we took the opportunity to assess our progress thus far—and to gear up for all the work we still have to do—when it comes to pursuing our company’s mission to make the world more open and connected.

Facebook is used in nearly every country in the world. Over 80% of the people who use Facebook daily live outside of the U.S., which is also where our growth is coming from, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While our Internet.Org efforts are focused on bringing Internet access to more people all over the world, as a company we’re also aggressively focused on improving the experience of the 1.3 billion people around the world who enjoy Facebook already.

Facebook does research to improve its services. Many parts of the world experience Facebook through smartphones but as we continue to grow globally, increasingly we are also seeing a rise in low-end devices with a spotty Internet connection—a far more typical scenario in developing markets. Our growth markets are “mobile-first” markets; in many cases, people are accessing the Internet for the first time on their phones. And Facebook is the cornerstone of their Internet experience.

Over the past year, multiple product teams have packed their bags—stuffed with cameras, tripods, voice recorders, and notebooks—and traveled to some of these countries to better understand how culture, history, infrastructure, social norms, politics, and other forces shape how Facebook is used around the world.

As researchers focusing on Facebook’s advertising, we led research trips with a cross-functional team of product managers, marketers, and engineers to Indonesia, Turkey, and South Africa to develop a solid understanding of cultural differences across these countries. Each of these markets represents a large and rapidly growing Facebook user base. If we are to develop products that will resonate with people in these regions, the importance of researching and understanding the context in which people are using Facebook is key.

How do people across the world connect with businesses they care about? How do they discover new products? How do businesses reach their target customers and ad agencies design the most compelling campaigns when most marketing books are created and written by and for people in the developed world? And, of course, how does Facebook fit into all this? Forming a richer understanding of how businesses and people connect with each other—both on and off of Facebook—around the world works will help us develop better ad solutions that drive a positive feedback cycle: we will make better experiences for the people who use Facebook and for the businesses and brands who want to connect with their core customers and prospects.

In each country, we spoke with men and women across age groups, life stages, income and socioeconomic status, and technological sophistications, conducting several in-depth interviews in participants’ homes as well as multiple focus groups. Over the course of the research, we have learned from hundreds of people. In addition to the semi-structured in-home interviews and focus groups, we immersed ourselves in the quotidian. We walked around universities, loitered in coffee shops, frequented Internet cafés, and walked around malls. We also met with key advertising partners, focusing on global clients and their agencies, with the aim of better understanding how each market is different from the other and how advertising campaigns are approached in each region. We talked about both traditional and digital media, gathering insights into marketing campaigns that have performed well and how we can replicate that success on Facebook.

After each trip, at once exhausted and enthusiastic, we came back to our headquarters with lots of insights for our teams and stakeholders.


Communication tools come and go; innovation leads to disruption. Mobile phones are becoming the primary access point for the Internet, not the desktop PC. In South Africa, online banking via mobile phone is far more common and more advanced than in the U.S. The growth of Netflix in the U.S. over the last several years has spawned talks of cord cutting, but in Turkey, television has a special place in people’s homes; the homes we were invited into for in-depth interviews had TV sets in most rooms and were always on. Specifically when it comes to ads, people and advertisers tell us over and over the importance of being relevant to them. But what “relevance” means varies. In Turkey, given the centrality of television and widely viewed soap operas, we repeatedly heard that the best commercials tell stories, just like their favorite shows. In contrast, many people we spoke with in Indonesia told us that relevant ads for them were ads with lots of specific product information, whereas we repeatedly heard in South Africa that relevant ads were aspirational and “draws me in” with a beautiful photo and emotionally resonant, creative, humorous, and inspirational content.


In addition to making ads more relevant—and tailoring what that means from country to country—we also learned about how the cellular service infrastructure and pricing differs widely outside of the United States, and what that means for the people who use Facebook and our advertising partners. Prepaid data service was common among many people we spoke with, particularly in South Africa and Indonesia. Many of the advertisers we interviewed are also aware of this sensitivity towards data; consumer access to data provides a challenge for marketers who want to reach consumers with low-end phones and with expensive yet unreliable data connectivity.


Since we have returned from our research abroad, we’ve been working closely with our teams to internalize and implement these findings and more. Although it was inspiring to see and hear first hand how important Facebook is to the lives of people all around the world, we know there’s a lot of work to be done in improving people’s and advertisers’ experiences with our services.


About the Author:
Steven Wengrovitz is a Researcher at Facebook. His research focuses primarily on understanding and improving the relevance, quality, and user experience of advertising on Facebook. He graduated from Wesleyan University, from which he also received a master’s degree in psychology. He currently lives in the Bay Area with his partner and their dog.



Steven Wengrovitz, Facebook