Facebook Tries to Jumpstart Vietnam Despite Blockages

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After years of leaving international markets to grow on their own organically, Facebook is trying to fill the missing pieces on the map.

One of the biggest countries remaining is Vietnam, with a total population of more than 85 million people, which is larger than the United Kingdom’s 61 million people.

Because access to the social network has been spotty, the country has languished at around 1.4 million users, according to our Global Monitor data. It has grown 40.7 percent from a year ago. But that’s still much slower than nearby countries like Thailand, which has quadrupled, or Malaysia, which has nearly tripled its users in the same time period.

Herdict, a project of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, says that Facebook is inaccessible 70 percent of the time. While the Vietnamese government hasn’t come out and publicly said it is actively blocking the social network, sources familiar with the matter say that it is a policy issue.

Vietnam, in many ways, could be a fascinating testbed for Facebook’s eventual attempt at the Chinese market.

“Our theory is if we can show that we as a Western company can succeed in a place where no other country has and figure out the right partnerships, we could learn how to succeed in China on our terms,” chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said at Startup School in Palo Alto earlier this month.

A capitalist economy in all but name, Vietnam has had more than 20 years of market reforms and it normalized relations with the United States 15 years ago. It also has an extremely young population; more than 70 percent of the country was born after the Vietnam War, so the country has very receptive demographics for adoption of consumer Internet technologies.

Yet, like China, Vietnam still has an authoritarian government that is wary of Western Internet communications platforms.

The reality is that Facebook, even one year after we started reporting the access issues, doesn’t fully understand the nature and reasons for the intermittent blockages. In November of last year, technicians for the largest Internet service providers in the country told the Associated Press that they had been ordered to turn off access to the social network, while government officials declined to comment. (I lived in the country in 2006 and even then, Facebook would become inexplicably unreachable for hours at a time.)

To jumpstart the market, Facebook is hiring a Policy & Growth Manager in Vietnam on a 12-month contract to reach out to government regulators and represent the company’s interests in the market. Presumably, this would include explaining the value of the social network and how it doesn’t threaten the ruling government’s interests. The person who assumes the role would probably have to be incredibly well-connected on a personal level in Hanoi, the political capital in the north, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s entrepreneurial and commercial hub in the south.

Facebook also faces a host of local competitors from ZingMe, which was founded a little over a year ago and attracts 5.6 million unique visitors in the country, YuMe, which has 2.9 million uniques, to Go.vn, a government-created alternative that launched in May and now attracts 1.1 million uniques. All of the sites launched after the closure of Yahoo360, which opened up a vacuum for a competitor to take its place as the most popular social networking destination there. To counter Facebook’s upcoming assault, the country’s current leader, ZingMe, is aggressively trying to adopt the social network’s platform strategy and attract developers.

But Facebook’s real hurdles may not be the local competitors. It may be in convincing local government officials that the social network and its power to propel information rapidly through groups of people, will not destabilize the ruling Communist party’s control of the country. And if Facebook can do that there, it can take its learnings to Vietnam’s 1 billion-plus neighbor north, China.

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