Is Facebook’s Ebola initiative the future of the company’s healthcare strategy?

Well that didn’t take long. A few weeks after Reuters leaked news of Facebook’s plans to take on healthcare, the company has launched one of its first initiatives.

To help manage the mounting Ebola crisis, Facebook is taking a three-pronged approach. It’s placing a donate button at the top of every newsfeed, where people are prompted to choose from three pre-selected charities to give money: International Medical Corps, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Save the Children.

Sample UNICEF message targeting Ebola-stricken areas on the Facebook newsfeed

Sample UNICEF message targeting Ebola-stricken areas on the Facebook newsfeed

It’s promoting health education posts from UNICEF at the top of newsfeeds in places affected by Ebola. You can see a sample post to the left. Lastly, it’s donating satellite terminals to remote parts of Africa that are fighting Ebola. That way, healthcare workers in those areas can use mobile phones to more easily communicate with those providing supplies and assistance.

A complete strategic departure

Michael Leis, a VP at wellness brand advertising agency DigitasHealth, told me the ebola initiative is a “complete strategic departure for Facebook.” Aside from its organ donation program, the company hasn’t intervened in the past to facilitate healthcare issues. Even when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was ripping through the application at the speed of light, Facebook didn’t build any product features, like a donation button, around it.

The ebola initiative was just announced today, so we’ll have to wait to see how it unfolds before we know the impact.

The campaign gives us insight into what future Facebook healthcare initiatives might look like. The Reuters report said that Facebook was considering a variety of strategies, from releasing standalone healthy lifestyle apps to promoting group communities where people can discuss illness and wellness issues.

Now it’s clear Facebook’s healthcare efforts might also include charitable assistance and social good. That’s not surprising given that the organ donation feature that made Facebook consider tackling the healthcare industry — according to Reuters sources — was a big success. It doubled the rate of new organ donor registration in the weeks afterwards.

A bulletin board for the world

Facebook stands in a unique position. With almost a third of the world’s population in its reach – if you include WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger — and a user base that has penetrated everywhere from Africa to Australia, it can harness the power of the global crowds to impact issues of health. Whether that means raising funds for the issue of the moment, convincing more people to register their organs, or sending targeted information to key areas during times of crisis, Facebook can act like a public bulletin board for the world, in essence.

It’s not entirely clear how Facebook benefits from putting resources into those efforts though. Perhaps it’s simply corporate goodwill – Mark Zuckerberg has become an avid charitable giver as he’s matured. But at the end of the day Facebook is a public company, so how do such charitable actions fit into the bigger plan?

Where there’s users, there’s money

It may have to do with shifting tides in healthcare tech. There’s been a steady stream of healthcare IPO’s, and companies like Apple are angling for their piece of the pie with products like HealthKit. That’s what DigitasHealth’s Leis suspects.

“Just like any features that Facebook rolls out, it’s because they see other players doing it at scale,” Leis said. “When they understand that there’s an opportunity or a scale movement behind anything, healthcare included, they look at that as an opportunity.”

Ben Munoz, the founder of a network of rare-illness support sites called Ben’s Friends, thinks the ebola initiative is about Facebook’s bigger healthcare strategy. The company needs to develop consumer and industry trust. After news broke that the social network was moving into this space, patients on his site discussed their concerns. “There’s a lot of anxiety about such a powerful corporation having control over something so personal and private,” Munoz told me.