By Alex Heath
Facebook has gone back to its college roots.
On Wednesday, the world’s largest social network quietly set up a small booth at the University of British Columbia in Canada with free t-shirts, dogs to pet, and the opportunity to win a $1,000 cash prize.
Facebook ($FB) wasn’t on campus to promote its main app or even Instagram or WhatsApp. It wasn’t there as part of its big ad campaign to convince users they can trust Facebook with their data. Facebook employees were on a college campus to get the word out about a new video-chat app, Bonfire.
Bonfire was quietly released in Denmark and Norway about a year ago, and Facebook made the app available in Canada this week on both Apple’s ($AAPL) App Store and on Android. The app essentially functions as Apple’s FaceTime with Snapchat-like face filters and Houseparty, a group video-chat app that’s popular among teens.
So far, Bonfire is far from a hit. The app has been downloaded about 12,000 times with 2,500 downloads in the last 30 days, app analytics firm Apptopia told Cheddar. But Facebook’s grassroots efforts to popularize the app among college students indicates that the company sees Bonfire as a potential way to lure younger users.
University of British Columbia students who stopped by Facebook’s booth on Wednesday told Cheddar that they downloaded Bonfire mainly because of a $1,000 cash prize Facebook offered for the student whose Instagram post promoting screenshots of Bonfire received the most likes. The Bonfire account on Instagram quickly started resharing posts from students who were plugging the giveaway with the hopes to win the money.
“They gave me a free long sleeve shirt for downloading the app and inviting some friends, then they told me about the contest which looks like I’m unfortunately not going to win hahah :( sad,” a student named Nicole Bailey told Cheddar over Instagram direct message. Interestingly, Bonfire requires new users to sign in with an Instagram account rather than a Facebook login.
Research has indicated that teens are fleeing the main Facebook app in droves. And while Instagram remains popular with younger users, Bonfire signifies that Facebook hasn’t given up trying to draw teens to more parts of its platform. In January 2017, the company hired former TripAdvisor executive Luc Levesque to be “Head of Youth Products,” according to his LinkedIn.
“Video chat is something we continue to be interested in because of its ability to bring people closer together,” a Facebook spokesperson told Cheddar when asked about Bonfire’s expansion into Canada and future plans for the app. “We've built many great experiences for video chatting across the family of apps and last year began testing an app called Bonfire that lets you hang out with your friends and meet new ones.”
“We'll take feedback from people on how they like the app and how we can make the experience better,” the spokesperson added. Facebook didn’t respond to Cheddar’s question about whether the company planned to do more outreach for the app at other colleges or expand Bonfire and launch in other countries.