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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Social Networking in Russia
Polina Strandstrem

he Russian social networking audience has the highest engagement among forty of the world’s most prominent economies, reported by comScore, Inc., a leader in measuring the digital world. Russia was followed by Brazil, Canada and Puerto Rico, with the United Kingdom seventh and the United States in ninth place.

This is not that surprising considering the fact that Russia is the largest country in the world and for many people, social networking is the only opportunity they have to connect and communicate with others in distant corners of the country. Another reason is that Russians take full advantage of this superb tool of mass communication in order to be able to express a non-official point of view, and to be aware of facts or events that are not covered at all in the State media. New controversial themes and topics of discussion often arise on blogs and are then transferred to the mass media. Whether social media will become a powerful instrument in politics in Russia is unclear but another study by the agency Rous Creative Strategies, together with HeadHunter, shows that 66% of all internet users read blogs weekly.

What is more certain is that businesses will tap into opportunities with this highly internet-engaged audience. In the West, businesses have recognized that networks produce a powerful viral marketing effect because friends use them to tell each other about things and events. Most articles on social media marketing in Russia focus on ways to calculate the return on investment using social media as a research and marketing tool.

In order to examine myths and collect cases from Russian business practice, a unique project on social media marketing was initiated by Artur Velf, the correspondent of the weekly magazine Dengi. Volunteers from both small and medium-sized business all over Russia, as well as corporations such as Panasonic, joined the social media marketing experiment. All participants agreed to share their experiences in promoting services and products in the social media, and in return they received coverage in the prominent business magazine. Analysis of rare but successful practices in Russia as well as results of the most interesting cases was published in a series of articles under the title: “The nation-wide experiment”.

For instance, Victor Fidosuk, the famous Twitter/taxi driver in Kiev, Ukraine, registered under the name ukrtaxist, uses Twitter to promote his service among locals. He started from twittering on traffic jams and clients he met, then began posting interesting pictures. One of his followers suggested letting his community know his current location, and providing discounts for them. Although it did not provoke the hailstorm of calls he expected, people preferred to use his taxi service when they either know, or at least “e-meet” the person. Thanks to Twitter, Victor is one of the most popular taxi drivers in Ukraine and will never be short of clients.

Of course the Russian-speaking community on Twitter is much smaller than that on blogs. For instance LifeJournal is one of the most popular bloghosting platforms, and a quarter of its 26 million users speak Russian. The leader of the social network sites in use in Russia is VKontakte, the Russian alternative to Facebook. Vkontakte boasts over 60 million users out of which 14 million are active. For those not addicted to social networking, it is unclear what all these people are doing apart from exchanging messages and listening to music, writes Artur Velf. Nevertheless he also finds in Vkontakte a business success story that provides information on how social network marketing can be used in Russia, a country which still has an immature and developing internet market.

The story started in autumn 2007 in Kirov when Pavel (Pasha) Samoylov, a hiphop and club dancer, decided to open his own dance studio called The Laboratory of Dance Pasha 2309. The challenge was to recruit clients. He created a page in VKontakte and started regularly filling it with interesting content and invited everyone who lived in Kirov and was interested in club dancing to join the group. The members had an opportunity to exchange videos from the latest classes and invite friends to join. This a classic example of viral marketing. Now the group has over 40,000 members which is about 10% of the whole population of this central- Russian city. Not bad for a local business!

Despite the fact that facebook is at present not the leader in Russian social networks, a lively discussion whether facebook will overtake VKontakte has already started. Maksim Kuderov from Chastny Correspondent calculated that if facebook continues growing in Russia at the rate it is now, it will catch up with VKontakte in two years.

At the moment the Russian audience for facebook is varied. They are mostly people who are frequent travelers, have friends abroad, speak fluent English, represent the mass media, internet gurus, and business people dealing with companies from oversees. Sergey Kuznetsov from SKCG, the agency that specializes in social media marketing, says that many facebook users in Russia are trend-setters, and businesses which focus on a premium audience. For them, using social networking is crucial to success. For instance, the facebook page of PASSPORT Magazine is regularly updated with special events that the affluent ex-pat and English-speaking Russian community visit.

There are some other social networks that are very popular in Russia. and My World are two of them. The first used to be the leader but has now been overtaken by VKontakte. The second is basically an addition to an e-mail service, but it has over 5 million active users a day. On average in Russia, people tend to register in three social network at a time.

Nobody can predict what the future of social media in Russia will look like, which social networks will develop and which die out. It is also difficult to say exactly what are the cultural differences that need to be addressed in social media. Will social media campaigns by one company that was successful in one country be replicated in another? It seems that the rules are pretty much universal, but should the networks become localized? This has been happening to a certain extent in the professional network LinkedIn where there are lots of groups with their focus on Russia and doing business in Russia, and from time to time discussions about language barriers, perceptions and attitudes sparkle.

Russia differs from other countries in its level of web maturity, local infrastructure and internet penetration. Social media is growing but it is growing differently in different countries. Hopefully, social marketers will manage to unravel the secret of the Russian soul and businesses will start to use social media to market to the most engaged audience in the world.

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