How will Facebook find the next billion people?

From virtual-reality goggles to free Internet access, the world's largest social network is finding new ways to expand beyond its billion daily users.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read
A Lego model of the Facebook logo sits on the desk of a programmer inside the company's office in Palo Alto, Calif., in June 2009.

The population of people using Facebook is larger than most countries. What does it take to grow even bigger?

James Martin/CNET

Facebook attracts more than a billion users every day. Now the social network needs to find its next billion.

The Menlo Park, California-based Internet titan has been expanding a series of projects aimed at reaching that goal. That takes striking a delicate balance between pleasing its dedicated members, who are used to the site's current feel, while doing more to attract a new audience.

Some of those initiatives are relatively mundane. Facebook has introduced prompts to encourage users to talk about current events, a clear effort to keep its current fans enthusiastic about visiting the site. It's also altered its well-loved Like button, giving users animated emoji to express feelings, such as "haha" and "angry."

Others are downright wacky. Facebook is investigating whether it can use drones to broadcast Wi-Fi signals to people in places without coverage, hoping that by giving people free Internet services, they'll join the social network.

It's also testing artificial-intelligence software that can tell you the weather or place your restaurant order. It's partnered with Samsung through its Oculus VR subsidiary to begin selling virtual-reality goggles. All of these efforts circle back to the common theme of Facebook expanding its already huge user base.

The company's already seeing the fruits of some of those efforts, according to the quarterly earnings it reported Wednesday. The number of people using its service at least once a month rose to 1.55 billion during the quarter ended September 30, up 14 percent from the same period a year ago and up 4 percent from its tally in June.

"We've got about half the world's online population on Facebook," said David Wehner, Facebook's chief finance officer, in an interview. Sixty-five percent of those people use the service daily, he added. "It's a testament to how engaging the experience has become."

Of course, Facebook knows more users means more opportunities to show them advertisements, the way the company makes money. It's building out various tools so that advertisers can create better ads, even in developing countries where videos and other data-rich content are too burdensome for slow and expensive connections.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and CEO, prefers to discuss the company's efforts in grandiose terms, calling Internet access an engine of economic growth and VR the next step in the technology industry. But he also hopes they drive advertising, which represented most of the $ 4.5 billion in revenue Facebook tallied in the quarter. That's up nearly 41 percent from the same time a year prior.

Despite all these disparate and often expensive efforts, the company turned an $896 million profit in the quarter, up 11 percent from the same period last year. After adjustments for items such as stock-based compensation, the company said it earned 57 cents per share, above the 52 cents analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected.

Whether Facebook's efforts will succeed is an open question. It's telling that other companies, such as Google owner Alphabet, have similar programs . Still, as long as it aims to count more people using its service, you're likely to see Facebook attempting new ways to attract even more of them.