In December 2019, Facebook brought in journalists from across Asia-Pacific to its Marina Bay offices in Singapore for APAC Press Day 2020. The event, a first for the tech giant’s regional headquarters, marked not only the announcement of a slew of new products and practices, but also a recognition of APAC as both the fastest growing market in Facebook and a clear focus region in the coming years.

Currently, Facebook (the company) is still best known for its flagship platform, Facebook (the app). But standouts in the company’s portfolio include Instagram and WhatsApp. Across these platforms, Facebook is seeing massive growth.

With over a billion monthly active users and likely home to the next billion too, nowhere is that more prevalent than in the Asia-Pacific.

According to Cathy Yum, Facebook APAC’s product marketing manager, that regional dominance is due in no small part to the millions of businesses thriving in the platform’s cross-border, digital marketplace.

Whether buying and selling on Groups or peddling goods over Instagram, small and medium enterprises are driving business through these social media platforms at unprecedented rates. Facebook officials shared that the platform currently supports over 140 million small and medium businesses across the globe.

“People in different markets are discovering new businesses and new brands in countries that they don’t live in,” she said. “Where we see the most impact from this trend is with our small businesses.”

Tackling the paradigm shift

Christine Chia, Facebook APAC’s head of commerce partnerships, describes her team’s mission at “the world’s largest social marketplace” as honing their platform to become “a space to experience the pleasure of shopping, without the chore of buying.”

Commerce in the social media age has truly transformed the way people buy and sell products or services. But Chia says this paradigm shift has come at a price.

“We’re not here to build warehouses, we’re not creating products,” she said. “We want to enable connections between businesses and people around the world.”

“And while buying has been made a lot easier, shopping hasn’t been. What we possibly gained in efficiency, we’ve lost when it comes to connections.”

She’s referring, of course, not only to the impersonality and anonymity of selling sans physical storefronts, but also to the difficulty sellers have meeting the new expectations of online commerce.

The need for on-demand information and same-day deliveries mean that automation-friendly businesses able to operate at scale win biggest. To paraphrase Chia, what we get in digital convenience, we lose in human connection.

To solve this, Facebook looked to another rising trend: the number of messages coursing through their platforms. In 2019, an average of over 20 billion messages were exchanged every month between people and businesses using Facebook’s different services, more than double the eight billion messages exchanged per month in 2018.

In 2019, the number of global users of messaging services on Facebook’s platforms surpassed the number of social network users. And while that should indicate a pronounced shift in focus for global businesses and e-marketers, it’s important to note that this is not new news for businesses operating in Asia-Pacific. In APAC, that same shift happened in 2017–and local entrepreneurs have been adapting to what’s become the new primary platform for commerce ever since.

All this leads to what Facebook refers to as the rise of conversational commerce.

In essence, conversational commerce is when people and businesses connect through chat or voice assistance with the intent to drive purchase of goods or services. Today, c-commerce plays a central role in not only facilitating business inquiries, but managing transactions and continued engagement with customers.

According to the company’s commercial insight platform, Facebook for Business, two out of three surveyed users claim to have messaged a business on one of Facebook’s platforms over the 2018 holidays. Of that number, 63% came from Asia-Pacific.

In the Philippines, specifically, these statistics paint a clear preference for personalized communication:

  • 42% of c-commerce buyers use chat to make purchases, primarily via social and messaging platforms.
  • Similarly, 42% of c-commerce buyers say that chat was how they first started shopping online.
  • And a whopping 97% of c-commerce buyers plan to increase or maintain their c-commerce spending in the future.

Filipino buyers utilize chat not only to quickly and conveniently glean information from buyers, but to interact with them–looking for personal insights and negotiating prices. At the end of the day, buyers chat to establish trust, a currency that in many ways went out of circulation in the age of e-commerce, now resurging through c-commerce.

“At the core of messaging from a consumer perspective, is that people want to be able to express themselves, but they also want immediacy,” said Sarah Bennison, director of product marketing at Facebook. “For businesses, we’ve developed a lot of advertising tools and functionalities to make it easier for them to incorporate messaging in their strategies.”

“What we encourage brands to do is incorporate messaging not for messaging’s sake, but to really strive to make being helpful core to what they’re trying to achieve,” she said.

You can learn more about the tools Facebook is developing around facilitating meaningful conversational commerce here.

Beyond c-commerce

This is just one of many examples of how Facebook’s users are influencing how the company sees their platforms growing. According to Christine Chia, just as her group’s decisions shape how users interact on the platform, they too take cues from the myriad of ways the community uses their tools.

“For years people have been hacking our tools to be able to buy and sell,” Chia said. “In buy-and-sell groups, people would be creating post templates for things they’d need to sell and how to notify when they were no longer available. These user requirements are driving how we enable these people and ultimately improve Groups.”

Those who frequent local buy and sell groups may be familiar with some of the local templates Chia refers to. Posts bookended by “LF” (Looking For) or “RFS” (Reason For Selling) provided a shorthand for readers to quickly assess whether or not they’re interested. These informal templates have informed how Facebook designed the fields for product posts today.

“We want to keep making Groups useful for people and that’s led to developing special post formats for selling things, highlighting active users and so much more,” Chia said. To date, over 650 million people in the APAC region are active members of roughly 27 million Facebook Groups.

Recognizing digital businesses as primary drivers of their growth in APAC, Facebook has also launched a number of successful initiatives to support entrepreneurial ventures, many piloted here in the Philippines.

Among them is #SheMeansBusiness, an educational program that aims to empower women as they build their own digital businesses. Since launching in the Philippines in 2017, #SheMeansBusiness has facilitated the training of 92,000 women through online resources and in workshops across 10 cities.

By cultivating new businesses in APAC, funneling them into their social marketplace, and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed, Facebook is ensuring that SMEs continue to be a primary driver of growth in the region.

And on the buyer’s side, Facebook’s new unified commerce stack–a system designed to facilitate frictionless, secure transactions across all of the company’s different apps and platforms–promises a social shopping experience that’s never been easier or safer.

But user growth isn’t Facebook’s only goal. Dan Neary, vice president of Facebook APAC, says the company isn’t stopping at simply being a platform for transactions, it wants to play a role in facilitating those transactions as well.

This year, Facebook is launching a payment solution called Facebook Pay, that will be available within the Messenger app, WhatsApp, and as its own standalone mobile application. The wallet promises to standardize the transaction process across the entire ecosystem, turning their unified commerce stack into a truly end-to-end system.

And with ongoing developments around Libra, the cryptocurrency that will eventually be made available on Facebook’s social marketplace, as well as Calibra, Libra’s digital wallet product, Facebook may not just be facilitating transactions in the future, but owning the currency being exchanged as well.

Facebook Pay will only be available in the US come launch later this year, with no concrete news for when it will be coming to Asia-Pacific. Similarly, Libra and Calibra continue to be in development limbo for the time being.

But with their plans for the next decade laid out, it’s clear that Facebook continues to look at Asia-Pacific as their epicenter for innovation

“You see a lot of the trends that are global in nature, you see are much more pronounced in Asia-Pacific,” Neary said. “The things that drive connections and drive community-building are way more prevalent here than anywhere else.”

“We believe that the next billion people that are going to use our platforms will be coming from Asia-Pacific, and that’s the way that we’re going to be investing.”