Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Storyboard 18 - Metaverse: India will just not benefit from it, it will play a significant role in building it, says Meta's Ajit Mohan

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

Published: Jan 7, 2022 07:06:36 PM IST
Updated: Jan 7, 2022 07:38:45 PM IST

Storyboard 18 - Metaverse: India will just not benefit from it, it will play a significant role in building it, says Meta's Ajit MohanAjit Mohan, Managing Director, Meta India

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 are 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 is Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp."

In an interaction with Storyboard18, Meta India's managing director Mohan says, "There is a direct line between the work that we have already done and the platforms that we have. In a lot of the newer technologies that we have been 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-focused on next-gen platform features and products for users, creators and businesses. Here Mohan gives us a glimpse of what is in store and where India features in its plans.

Edited for length and clarity.
Q. How has India in 2021 fared for Meta as a market 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 is being shaped over the next decade but also how we can shape it.

Q. 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 is, of course, because of the scale and size of the country, but 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 test-bed. We learn from India. The ideas that get articulated and the products that get shaped here, solve 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 for small businesses. 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 is an extremely important agenda to us.

Both, our partnership with Jio—where we want to make it very easy for people around the country to order from kirana stores from within WhatsApp—and all the programs that we have activated to skill and train entrepreneurs and small businesses is at the heart of the agenda that we have in India. All of that frames what we are going to bet on and where we are going to put our energy in the next year.

Q. 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 how 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 recognising and celebrating them. These creators are exploring and expressing themselves; telling their communities unique stories, and encouraging others to do the same.

Q. We have seen a massive surge in creators and users from different sections of society and Tier II and III 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.

Since we introduced Reels, it has just been a rocket ship. A lot of what is happening is beyond geographies. I think it is deep inside India. What we are seeing on Instagram and Reels is that people want to showcase their stories and broadcast them to the world outside. What stands out for Instagram is that the world is not just India, it is the globe.

You can create something funny, 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 is across states and well into smaller towns. I do not think 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.

Q. How are you seeing marketers’ focus and investments change or shift?
Most companies recognise that something big is happening. This is a country that is still young. Demographics skew young compared to the rest of the world and that is showing up in terms of how people are responding to platforms like ours. It is also showing up in terms of how affinity towards brands is 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 is a whole category of companies, products and services that have been born on Instagram. Some do not have a website but have Instagram. They have followers there and they find it to be a great way to build a brand and propel growth for themselves. We also see larger companies experimenting. Lakme, for instance, is experimenting with AR and figuring out ways to engage with consumers in a way that has been never done before. 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—how that is going to translate into the growth of brands.

Q. 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 is distinctive about Instagram and Reels is that we are a global platform. That means anyone in the country can build global followership overnight. That is one of the missions 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. Hopefully, that is someone who does not 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 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 has gone global.

Q. 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. India is a video-first market, with 70-80 percent of all data in the country being video. 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, and on average spend 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 unleashing creativity. Spark AR is already the largest mobile AR platform in the world. We recently also ran a pilot where we paired six emerging and aspiring creators with top Indian AR developers to showcase the ease of AR creation and highlight the way it can unleash creative expression and trigger trends.

Q. 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 is 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.

Q. Overall, with the success of Reels, is it going to become the mainstay of Instagram?
Reels is a big part of Instagram. 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 many other parts of Instagram are quite important. For instance, the work we do around live rooms or the feed itself. 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.

Q. 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 have 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 personalised 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 is safe. The way we do that is by clearly articulating the kind of ads that we allow and the ones that we do not.

We are transparent about it in our ad policies. The algorithms are built to recognise what ads are okay and what ads are not. We are continuously investing in the efficacy of those algorithms to make sure that we are getting it right.

We are fully aligned with the agenda of brand safety. With the kind of growth that we have seen in marketing, not just in terms of the number of businesses that are using us but the scale of their spending, we will be able to do it only if we are delivering the agenda of safety to our advertisers.