Facebook passes 10 million users in Thailand

Facebook now has more than 10 million users in Thailand according to statistics from the world’s leading social network. The latest landmark is particularly impressive considering that the country has  added an additional five million users since September of last year – just nine months ago.

Hitting 10 million users demonstrates not only how popular Facebook is here.

Facebook began modestly in Thailand where Hi5 was the most popular social network, while other services like Friendster developed a strong presence across Southeast Asia. Facebook’s gaming, word of mouth of mouth recommendations and photo sharing (which allowed users to email non-users tagged in photos with an invite to join), and other features superior to the competition, helped elevate it, reaching 2 million users in January 2010.

The introduction of a dedicated Thai-language version of the site, combined with the Bangkok protests – which saw Thai netizens flock to Facebook for updates and discussion – helped drive increased adoption as groups of friends migrated over from from Hi5, Friendster and others.

Lately, however, growth has been based on other factors such as politics (in particular the upcoming election), the increase in company profiles on the service and the increased proliferation of Facebook mobile apps for BlackBerry, iPhone and Android.

However, with Facebook now firmly established as a top destination for Thais online, the key to new growth is less about generating awareness of the service but enabling greater access to the internet. Estimates suggest that there are 20 million Thais online this year (31% of the population) which – if true – gives Facebook a hugely credible 50% penetration amongst online users, although it assumes that those who use the site via mobile also have internet access.

At the beginning of the year I predicted that Thailand would pass 10 million users at some point this year. Though this has happened earlier than I expected I do still believe that the huge growth in new users will slow at some point simply because of the country’s low internet penetration.

I’ve written much about Thailand’s digital divide which, according to said estimates, leaves nearly 60% without regular internet access despite the UN recently declaring internet access as a human right. With social media becoming a more important focus for politicians in the election than ever before, many in the media – and politics – are guilty of over emphasising the significance of social media when close to two thirds of the country are unable to access it… this needs to be a focus if social media and the internet as to become anything like as widespread as in neighbours like Singapore and Malaysia.

Facebook is working on non-PC access options for developing markets. It purchased Snaptu, which it plans to use to enable app-like access to non-smartphone users, while other schemes with operators – such as Bharti in India – are designed to enable greater access amongst non-PC users.

Back to Facebook, growth in Thailand remains huge.

Based on growth over the last six months, Thailand is the third fastest growing market in the world’s top 20 behind only India and Brazil. That is very significant as Facebook very much remains the new boy in these two huge countries having only just surpassed Google’s Orkut in both markets.

Note Socialbakers’ data, in chart below, is a little out of date compared to the most recent data from Facebook

The question remains whether the service can continue to grow its membership with more spectacular growth before it reaches saturation point amongst Thailand’s internet users?

Mobile solutions are key to attracting new users (without mainstream internet access) in the long-term and as Thailand’s smartphone market continues to mature, with devices emerging at multiple pricepoints for more modest budgets, so Facebook’s chance of mobile-based success will increase.