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Storyboard 18 I India has a special role in our plans: Meta's Ajit Mohan

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In an interview with Storyboard18, Ajit Mohan, Managing Director, Meta India, talks about the big shift from offline to online in the last 18 months, new content czars, brand safety, the Reels rocketship and India’s role in building the metaverse

Storyboard 18 I India has a special role in our plans: Meta's Ajit Mohan
2022 is going to be an important year for Meta and India has a huge role to play in it. Ajit Mohan says India will not just benefit from the metaverse but will also have a significant role in building it.
When we asked him about life after ‘Meta’ and whether they still call it Facebook out of habit, he said “We're all very excited by the ambition we have articulated for ourselves. But equally, we still have Facebook. So I do think we are carrying our past, whether that's Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp."
In an interaction with Storyboard18, Meta India's managing director Mohan says, "There's a direct line from the work that we've already done and the platforms that we have, and in a lot of the newer technologies that we have building in Facebook reality labs, we see a continuation of that, as we put a lot of energy into building the next version of the internet and the metaverse.”
Meta seems laser-focussed on next-gen platform features and products for users, creators and businesses. Here Mohan gives us a glimpse of what’s in store and where India features in its plans.
Edited for length and clarity.
How has India in 2021 fared for Meta as a market when compared to other key global markets? What are plans for the market and where will the growth come from in 2022?
India has a significant role to play in the journey of building the metaverse.
We have 800 million people online with good quality, affordable access to the internet, we have a thriving base of entrepreneurs, tech capacity in the country looks dramatically different from 20-25 years ago and you know this is now a place where a lot of innovation and ideas are surfacing that are cracking fundamental problems faced by the world.
So I do think, given our context is quite different from the 90s. We have an obligation to think through how can India not just benefit from the metaverse that's being shaped over the next decade but also how can we shape it.
What role will it play in shaping the metaverse?
We have been quite overt about it - that we believe that India has a special role in our plans. It's, of course, because of the scale and size of the country but it's also because of everything else that we see. Be it the entrepreneurial energy or the overall energy of a young country that is deeply aspirational.
Therefore, in the last few years for a lot of products we built be it Reels on Instagram or payments on WhatsApp, we have looked at India as a testbed. We learn from India. The ideas that get articulated here and the products that get shaped here solve for some of the big challenges in the world and that continues.
We believe that we play an enabling role in the agenda of businesses in India, especially small businesses and a lot of the success that we have seen in the last few years, is because we have managed to build a platform that adds value for small businesses. That's an agenda that is extremely important to us. Both our partnership with Jio, where we want to make it very easy for people around the country to order from the Kirana stores from within WhatsApp and all the programs that we have activated to skill and train entrepreneurs and small businesses- that's at the heart of the agenda that we have in India. So all of that frames what we are going to bet on and where we are going to put our energy in the next year.
Content has become the key focus area for brands and creators, and influencer marketing has really come of age in India. Tell us about the 25 under 25 Instagrammers of India initiative? What was its genesis and what are its goals?
Reels has transformed the way content is created and consumed on Instagram and given rise to a whole new wave of young creators. The 25 Under 25 Instagrammers of India list is our way of recognizing and celebrating them. These are creators who’re exploring and expressing themselves, telling their communities unique stories and encouraging others to do the same too.
We've seen a massive surge in creators and users from different sections of society and Tier 2-3 cities and beyond in the past few years, further fueled by the pandemic. How have these different users warmed up to your platforms?
If we look at the world of creators and expression in general and specifically the rise of short form video, what we have seen in the last 15 months or so since the launch of Reels on Instagram is nothing but this huge surge in expression and creativity.
From the time that we introduced Reels, it's just been a rocket ship and a lot of what is happening is beyond geographies. I think it's deep inside India. What we're seeing on Instagram and Reels is that people really want to showcase their stories and broadcast it to the world outside. What really stands out for Instagram is that the world is not just India, it's the globe. You can create something that's funny, or a dance or a mimicry or a story and overnight you can find global followership for it. So yes, I think action is across the country, it's across states and well into smaller towns. I don't think that there is any distinction between large cities and small towns. But I do think there is a distinction in terms of the desire to have a voice and to fuel creativity.
How are you seeing marketers’ focus and investments change or shift?
Most companies recognize that something big is happening. This is a country which is still young. Demographics skew young compared to the rest of the world, and that's showing up in terms of how people are responding to platforms like ours. It's also showing up in terms of how affinity towards brands are being formed. So every company is aware of it and seeking ways to build followership and a lot of that is happening on Instagram.
There's a whole category of companies and products and services that have been born on Instagram. Some don’t have a website but have Instagram and they have followers there and they find it to be a great way to build a brand and to propel growth for themselves. We also see larger companies experimenting. Lakme for instance is experimenting with AR and figuring out ways to engage with their consumers in a way that's never been done before. So yes, I do think we have barely scratched the surface of the potential for all of the amazing action we have seen on creativity and short form video, and how that's going to translate into growth of brands.
Has Reels helped Instagram make gains in the space which was occupied by TikTok and other homegrown short video apps designed to target not just India but also Bharat?
This space continues to be intensely competitive with global players and regional players. What’s distinctive about Instagram and Reels is that we are a global platform and that means that anyone in the country can build global followership overnight. Frankly, that's one of the missions that we have as a Meta team in India. We articulated this when we were launching Reels last year. Our North Star is really to enable big global creators to come out of India and hopefully that is someone who doesn't have any following today. I think they will build it all on Instagram.
So that makes us distinctive. The second part is that we have really looked at Reels as a product that has emerged out of India and gone global. This is a country where we have huge traction. A lot of product evolution and new tools have been shaped and imagined in India before it's gone global.
What do you see happening in 2022 in terms of content and formats that will dominate?
Video and short form content are clear trends that will continue into next year. With 70-80 percent of all data in the country being video, India is a video-first market. Given the predominant role of video in driving online consumption and social experiences in India, video will be a priority for Meta.
We will continue to lean into short form content with Reels too. As per a recent report, in India the short-form videos (SFV) market has exploded over the past two years—growing 3.5 times in user base and 12 times in total time spent by all users on SFV platforms. By 2025, three in four internet users, or 600 million to 650 million Indians, will consume SFV, on average spending up to 55 to 60 minutes per day on SFV platforms.
AR is also democratising expression, by acting as a trigger for content creation, and for unleashing creativity.
Spark AR is already the largest mobile AR platform in the world and we recently also ran a pilot, where we paired 6 emerging and aspiring creators, known for their talent, with top Indian AR developers, to showcase the ease of AR creation and highlight the way it can unleash creative expression and trigger trends.
How have the categories of advertisers and brands on the platform changed in the past two years?
There are three kinds of companies or categories that are leveraging Instagram. Given the nature of Instagram, which right from its origin, was always friendly towards the discovery of passions and interests and therefore brands and companies here. We have also seen the rise of companies and brands that largely develop all their plans around Instagram whether that's in fashion, or beauty, or travel.
The second category that I would point to is the big shift from offline to online, and therefore, the emergence of what we now call direct to consumer companies. The third category is in the entrepreneurial space.
Overall, with the success of Reels - is it going to become the mainstay of Instagram?
Reels is a big part of Instagram and I think it reflects the big rise of short form video as a form of expression, not just in India, but around the world. But equally, I do think there are many other parts of Instagram that are quite important. For instance, the work we do around live rooms or the feed itself. So Instagram is a place where different formats can coexist, but yes Reels is a big part of it and the platform will continue to evolve as we experiment and find new canvases.
Brand safety is another area that most internet platforms are working on. At Meta what are you doing to ensure advertisements and the content they appear along with are in sync with each other?
We’ve always been pretty clear that we are aligned with the interests of advertisers and making sure that ads show up in a safe environment. I think the power of marketing on Facebook and Instagram is the power of personalized ads. Consumers and people on our platforms find ads relevant, they discover new brands that they end up liking on our platforms. But equally, all of that has to exist in a space where it's safe. The way we do that is by very clearly articulating the kind of ads that we allow and the ones that we don't and we are transparent about it in our ad policies. The algorithms are built to recognize what ads are okay, and what ads are not and we are continuously investing in the efficacy of those algorithms to make sure that we're getting it right.
We are fully aligned with the agenda of brand safety and with the kind of growth that we have seen on marketing, not just in terms of the number of businesses that are using us but the scale of their spent, obviously, we'll be able to do it only if we're delivering the agenda of safety to our advertisers.
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