The largest social network Vkontakte keeps evolving

April 20, 2011

Vkontakte continues to change and introduce new rules and features. I’d say that despite visual similarity to Facebook, running campaigns on Vkontakte requires more patience and a different approach. Before tapping into the most popular social network in Russia, it’s crucial to speak Russian and have a clear understanding of your target audience.

I want to emphasise that people spending time on Vkontakte are different from Russians who’ve chosen to be on Facebook. For example, if you want to create awareness about expensive gadgets, it’s not worth the effort running a campaign on Vkontakte, as this network is predominantly occupied by the younger generation with a weak purchasing power, whilst Early Adopters with money prefer Facebook.

In contrast, if you’re promoting summer English language courses, Vkontakte is the place to be; because the majority of Russian teens  actively participate in this network . Some argue that it’s not worth investing in advertising Vkontakte, as SEM on Yandex and Google are bringing more return on investment. In my opinion, it all depends on objectives. For instance, if you want to create a buzz around your brand and listen to what others have to say it’s definitely worth trying Vkontakte.

Vkontakte is completely overwhelmed with adverts, groups, and spammers. My advice to advertisers would be to ensure a high level of prominence in order to stand in this information-dense environment. The Network’s recent decision to stop banner advertising was a definite shift towards better user experience. However, this month Vkontakte has introduced a new type of advertising: video banners. This exciting innovation means that each time a user clicks on a small textual and visual advert a full screen video appears. These adverts are made to encourage sharing of content between the network users. People can “Like” adverts, add to ‘Favourites’ and see other people who are fond of the same videos.

video ad Vkontakte

The Russian digital agency, AdWatch Isobar, is the first in the market to start using this type of advertising. Their ad campaign for Megafon, a major Russian mobile network operator, which was launched 15th of April, has already proved to be a success. According to the MD of the agency, a сlickthrough rate of the campaign was four to five times higher compared with traditional targeted adverts.

Another significant change is the possibility to create public pages. Vkontakte allows the changing of groups into public pages. This makes it easier for organizations and businesses which previously were only able to use groups to engage with their audience. It’s free to create a public page and any member can do so easily. The only difference to Facebook is that you have to provide a phone number to get the page activated. As of today there are 410 967 public pages falling into the following categories: places, small business, companies, organizations, celebrities and goods

The first public page on Vkontakte was created by Sberbank Rossii (Сбербанк России ), the largest bank in Russia  and is run under the supervision of the famous Russian social media expert, Arthur Welf  It appears that Vkontakte encourages users to switch into public pages as it’s becoming increasingly complicated to recruit members to groups. It’s not possible to send out invitations to anyone in the network except your friends. The most simple, but expensive way to recruit new people to groups is through targeted advertising. The other option is to visit other groups and advertise on their walls or by posting engaging and catchy content.

Another option to attract members is through applications. Such an approach is less expensive than targeted advertising, but can be just as effective.

The most popular app on Vkontakte is a game called Тюряга (Prison) with 6 134 947 installations. The goal of the game is to make tattoos to become a respectful criminal. Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols and this application educates widely on this topic. I think this is an interesting fact, compared to the relatively innocent leader of Facebook apps CityVille.

Furthermore, it is possible to promote a group or a public page by endorsing celebrity accounts and to attract users from external websites. There are many individuals in the network offering promotion services, although I haven’t used any of them and can’t recommend anyone who can deliver notable results.

It’s exciting to follow developments introduced by this network and learn about its members. Bearing in mind that Vkontakte provides many opportunities for understanding how the product or brand is being perceived in various regions of Russia, not simply exclusive to major cities. Facebook is still the favourite network in the Moscow and St.Petersburg population.

Social Media Monitoring in the Russian Speaking Internet

March 13, 2011
The social media monitoring tools industry in the Russian speaking countries is still in the early stages of development . Until recently , all monitoring was done manually by using free search tools  such as Yandex.blogs, Google.ru, Twitter, Facebook and Vkontakte search. The data was presented in Excel, sentiment analysis was carried out and the results were presented in the form of graphs and reports. NetMind is one of the first social media monitoring agencies in Moscow, working specifically in this area. Anna Rokina, the Director of Research  explains the particulars of online monitoring in Runet. From this podcast I learnt about the current state of the industry. Further to this, I used the following presentation whereby she compares all the social media monitoring platforms available in the Russian market. I’ve translated the main function of the each tool and its developers.

Social media monitoring tools produced in Russia and Ukraine.

Brandspotter – produced by marketers and web developers. Offers sentiment analysis, has its own metrics system and is applicable for measuring the efficiency of social media campaigns.

IQ Buzz – produced by IT specialists for social media monitoring
Kribrum – produced by SEO experts and programmers for social media monitoring
Monitorix – produced by programmers for online media and social media monitoring
Youscan -  - produced by online marketing experts and web developers for social media monitoring
Wobot - produced by students of Moscow State Technical University of N.E. Bauman (MGTU) for social media monitoring
Sematicforce - produced by product management, social CRM, web crawling and semantic search professionals
Buzzware – produced by monitoring experts, marketers and researchers for social media monitoring. 

I spoke with Alexander Sirach, the Sales and Marketing Director at YouScan and  Anton Popov , the MD of Buzzware to learn more about these products. YouScan is the first automated social media monitoring platform in Russia and Ukraine, it released to the market in January 2010. This platform’s  clients are  leading digital marketing & PR agencies in Russia and international companies. According to Alexander the main competitive advantage of the tool is its unique web crawling technology. This enables more content to be indexed as they are not solely pulling the data from the search engines API’s. Sentiment analysis is done manually by trained analysts,categorizing results and reporting to clients.
Buzzware’s advantage is that it was created by social media monitoring experts with a good understanding of the specifics of this industry. In addition, the platform has the most intuitive interface and a great reporting system.

So, what about the Western Social Media Monitoring platforms?

As far as I know the  Western tools struggle to develop a good quality of monitoring tools applicable to the Russian Internet. The main challenge has always been the Russian morphology and now it’s the competition with local players. I came across only Radian6 which offers monitoring in the Russian cyberspace. Sysomos claims to  provide multilingual services, but I haven’t received confirmation that Russian is included.

I believe, foreign companies should consider working directly with monitoring companies in Russia or Ukraine. I found prices for their service much cheaper compared to the West. For example the monthly fee for a full monitoring service with an account manager at YouScan is approximately 500 GBP per month and Buzzware  550 GBP per month.

Russian Vkontakte adopts “ Invites Only” policy.

February 12, 2011

The biggest Russian social network Vkontakte has became the most visited website in Russia with 23 million visitors daily. To celebrate its success the founder of the network, Pavel Durov has introduced a new registration scheme. From the 11th of February 2011 the only way to become a member of the network is to receive an invitation from an existing user. On Vkontakte’s official blog Pavel Durov says that now it’s time to return to the “invites only” system, which was introduced in the very beginning of the network’s development. Now some users have rights to invite new members, whilst others don’t have such a privilege as yet. It’s not clear from Pavel Durov’s message on which criteria the members’ rights to issue invitations is based.

Vkontakte blog

Also in his post Pavel Durov emphasises the importance of using mobile numbers for user identification. He says that the only way for a user to access their account if they forget their log in details is via a mobile phone number. An SMS with a code will be sent to the number provided upon the initial account registration. In case a member fails to provide the a valid phone number it will be not possible for them to obtain access to their account.

A person can become a member of Vkontakte by submitting a code sent to their mobile phone by whoever invites them. The screenshot below demonstrates the new “No phone – no account policy”. The screenshot is in Russian, because the new regulations have not yet been translated to English.

The founder of the site hasn’t explained the reasons behind these unexpected changes. Considering the fact that Vkontakte has serious problems with spam this move can be the opening salvo with the spammers. However, the new rules will make a registration process much more difficult for some users and in some cases impossible. For example, if a foreigner who doesn’t have any Russian connections would like to become a part of the network? How can they solicit an invitation?

This change may restrict opportunities for international businesses to interact with the Vkontakte audience and create online communities inside the network. After listening to online discussions of Russian speaking bloggers about their reaction to the introduction of the new rules I have identified a few opinions.

  • Vkontakte is seeking ways of making more money by creating a mechanism of selling invitations.
  • Vkontakte is increasing its value by making it a more exclusive and desirable place to be, thus empowering their competitive position against Facebook and Odnoklassniki
  • Vkontakte wants to expand its database of members’ mobile numbers with an aim to sell it to businesses.

Obviously, these opinions belong to people who dislike Vkontakte. There is a very negative perception of the network by a small percentage of the online Russian population who don’t like mainstream projects and prefer more elite networks such as Livejournal, Habrahabr, Лепрозорий and Facebook.

Well, there is definitely space for speculation. Vkontakte is usually referred to as Facebook’s clone due to the very similar interface and features. However, Facebook doesn’t apply such undemocratic ways of restricting spam. Anyone can register to become a member and it’s absolutely not necessary to provide mobile numbers. In order to restrict spammers capcha forms are being used on Facebook which seem to work quite well.

It’s worth remembering that the laws about spam in Russia are far less strict compared to the US, thus making it much harder for Russian Internet enterprises to fight spammers. Hopefully, new changes will make Vkontakte a more pleasant place to be allowing their members to enjoy communication with each other with lesse spam on their walls and in their inboxes

Despite all the criticism, Vkontakte will remain the most popular social network among Russian speakers, due to its main feature: free access to the massive library of video and music files.

SEO in the Russian Internet: Where to start?

January 17, 2011

In this post I’m going to have a closer look at the topic of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) in the Russian speaking Internet. I believe that any foreign company who wants to extend their business to the Russian market will have to make a decision on how to implement SEM campaigns in the RuNet.

There are a few options to consider. The less expensive one is to hire a freelancer. I would recommend searching for Russia-based SEO experts on Freelance.ru website. In my previous post I interviewed Mikhail Shakin , an experienced SEO freelancer and excellent blogger. He writes a very interesting and informative blog about the specifics of SEO in Russian search engines. He speaks English well and I am sure would be happy to answer SEM related questions if contacted through his blog. Generally, it’s very important to conduct thorough research about a freelancer’s work and reputation to avoid disappointment. However, it’s hard to undertake such research, if you don’t speak Russian, as this kind of information is mainly available in local non-English industry-related online resources.

Another way to enhance one’s presence in the Russian cyber market is to hire SEO & Internet Marketing companies based in the UK who have native Russian speakers working for them. I found a few UK firms on Google : WebCertain and New Frontier Digital. Unfortunately, not all companies provide employees’ profiles on websites. I came across only one Russian expert working for New Frontie Digital and don’t have a clear idea of the kind of experience Russians working here are expected to have to deliver SEM campaigns.

Some big companies prefer hiring native Russian speakers and let them take charge of online marketing in CIS region. However, it might be difficult to find the right candidate with relevant experience and legal rights to work in the UK. As an option a company can grow their own digital experts by offering Russian speaking employees to take online SEO courses. This will give them an opportunity to learn how to work with Russian search engines whilst practicing on a company’s website. For example, Russia- based company SEO – Study provides such training for approximately £ 360 per month.

Another option is to hire a SEO company based in Russia. This will give certain benefits: local agencies have all the resources to keep abreast with rapid changes of Russian search engines, more native speakers will be available to work on an account and ,finally, prices for services are lower comparing to the UK. In my experience Russians are very motivated to build relationships with clients from the West. Many agencies go the extra mile to deliver great service and results. I understand it’s quite complicated for a foreign company to find the right agency in Russia. I am sure that many still have an assumption that doing business with partners from the former USSR might turn into nightmare. I heard a few concerns from Western marketers about the quality of work middle-sized Russian agencies deliver. I came across a great post by Andrey Milyan, the first editor-in-chief of Search Marketing Standard where he describes the SEO industry in Russia. The article contains lots of criticism. However, the post is almost three years old and I’m sure things have changed.

Obviously, the language barrier is the main handicap for foreign companies to search for agencies in Russia. Many professional SEO forums such as Optimization.ru and other resources where you can look for experts are not translated to English. Usually, websites of Russian SEO independent agencies are only in Russian as well. I think this is the main reason why Western businesses working in the Russian market keep hiring global media agencies with chain offices in Russia. I agree that this is the most straightforward and relativity safe option, but an expensive one.

Someone from an independent local SEM agency explained to me the way some global agencies work in Russia and why their services might be not as excellent as you expect. Usually, big media agencies offer a broad range of services and started offering SEM not long ago. High-quality SEO services require a lot of time, expertise and human resources. Great SEM department requires investment in human resources and extensive training. To avoid these costs some big agencies tend to hire smaller sub-agencies or freelancers whose services are much cheaper and make profit on a price difference. Thus, a client pays a lot for cheap work and the quality of the work delivered turns out to be poor.

Well-known Russian Internet Marketing Agency Ashmanov & Parners conducted research about the state of the Russian SEO industry in October 2008 which was published in the Internet Marketing Practice magazine. According to their findings the price range for SEO services varies from 60,000 rubles (£1,260) - 120,000 (£2,510) rubles  per month. Despite the fact that this research is three years old it still gives a rough idea about the cost of SEO services in Russia. The authors of the research concluded that different companies provide different levels of customer service and ways of satisfying clients’ needs. My advice would be to spend more time shopping around before making a final choice. If I were to choose a SEM company in Russia, I would consider companies with employees speaking at industry events, that have strong social media presence and have staff members that are fluent in English.


In my next post I’m going to focus on the search habits of Internet users in Russia.

Vkontakte or Facebook? Consider both when promoting your brand on the Russian Internet.

January 4, 2011

I’d like to share an experience I had while working on creating online communities on two powerful social networking sites: Facebook and Vkontakte.I set up a group on Vkontakte for a company, specialising in English language courses and was involved in running a Facebook page for the same brand.

I’m sure there is no need to introduce Facebook; there are no doubts about its global success. According to Social Bakers stats today Facebook has 3 195 140 users in Russia and the number continues to grow. In order to develop a better understanding of the battle for a Russian speaking audience I recommend reading an article in Business Week about Zuckerberg’s ambition to expand to Russia.

For those who aren’t familiar with Vkontakte, it is the most popular social network in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Azerbaijan. According to the Visualize Traffic Vkontakte attracts 7,741,804 visitors per day and 1 in every 215 internet users in Russia logs into this site daily. The average age of the users varies from 12 to 34 years. The site is highly popular with school children and university students who spend their time here rather than watching television. The graph below illustrates that more people prefer to occupy the prime time surfing Vkontakte rather than main TV channels and radio stations which continue to lose audience.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Vkontakte is Facebook’s largest competitor for the Russian speaking Internet audience. Of course there are other Russian speaking social networks, but Vkontakte is the most comparable to Facebook and shares the same ambition; to attract as many members as possible and maximize revenue in the Russian speaking advertising market. Established five years ago, the Vkontakte network has grown into the third most visited website in Russia.

In my opinion, its success primarily relies on a free and high-quality streaming of the pirated video and audio content. Anyone registered on Vkontakte instantly obtains free access to a variety of movies and music, quite often in HD quality.

Recently, Vkontakte has been adapting their offering in order to improve user experience and meet the requirements of prospective advertisers. Gradually Vkontakte is becoming a much more sophisticated and user friendly network. It’s clear that Facebook’s penetration to the Russian market is having an impact on the way Vkontakte operates. For instance, their recent decision to stop banner advertising and the introduction of ‘Vkontakte Pages’ is a definite shift towards better user experience.

It is unquestionable that foreign companies operating in the Russian market should consider Vkontakte as a communication channel for their target audiences. It is also essential to understand whether your target audience spends enough time on Vkontakte to be able to acknowledge your brand and advertising effort. Russian intellectuals and influential online personas consider Vkontakte as a low-class website, full of spammers and time-wasters, however, as a social network you are targeting the masses, and so exposure here is crucial. It’s a great way to introduce your brand to Russian speakers and establish a presence on a localised social network, thus demonstrating your understanding of the Russian culture and people.

I’ve noticed recently that Vkontakte targeted advertising is more cost-effective and better tailored to the Russian market than Facebook. I give an example in a table below. It is my firm belief that for successful promotion on Vkontakte it is fundamental to have a native Russian speaker to do the job. Russian is a complicated language and Google Translate is not enough to grasp important nuances. Even though the site has an English version, not all content is being translated and it seems that the customer service team is not trained to work with foreign clients. My English speaking colleague emailed Vkontakte several times with a request to be introduced to an English speaking account manager, but he failed to receive a response.

Another option is to hire an agency in Russia in order for them to build up an online community and interact with an audience. However, this can be costly and it is more than probable that you won’t be able to fully monitor the communication process.

The table below highlights some of differences between promoting a brand on Vkontakte and Facebook. I’m sure due to a rapid development of both sites these observations will shortly become outdated. My colleague Natalie Copuroglu who specializes predominantly on Facebook campaigns helped me to come up with a few good points.

facebook versus vkontakte



Lastminute, hours, days…

December 18, 2010

In this post I’m not going to talk about Russia and will share my unfortunate experience of dealing with the UK online travel agency and e-tailor Lastminute.com. Firstly, I’d like to clarify that I’m not the type of customer, who enjoys writing long furious letters to customer service departments, expecting long apologies and £10 vouchers from the companies which let them down. I value my time and try to avoid at any cost opportunities of building relationships with overseas customer service representatives. My view is that they are mainly trained to be polite and not helpful. On the other hand, I’m not a credulous person and won’t wait patiently for a response from another brand, spending much more money on marketing activities, rather than genuinely supporting their clients. Unfortunately, sometimes I fight with huge brands for my basic right to get what I have paid for.

The situation is trivial but the hectic nature of the festive season turned it into a quite dramatic occasion. This week I decided to spend New Year’s eve abroad and started planning my journey. After a good few hours of surfing online I found an attractive offer from Lastminute.com. My friend with who I travel used her debit card to make the payment. The money seemed to leave her account immediately but the next day she received an Order Declined email. For some reason the card didn’t pass Lastminute’s security check. At this point I became nervous, because exactly the same thing had happened to me a couple of months ago when I booked a hotel via Lastminute.com. The card I mainly use for online payments didn’t pass a mysterious security check. The money left my account on the 27 Sep 2010 and was refunded on the 8 Nov 2010. It was not easy to get my money back and I had to spend a several hours on hold both with Lastminute’s customer service team and my bank. Eventually, I had to fill out the form provided by my bank, post it back and only then was the money returned.I didn’t find out what was wrong with my card and received no reply to my email sent to  billing2@lastminute.com.

Obviously, this time I couldn’t bear the thought of using any of my cards on this website and we didn’t have much time to wait for Lastminute’s response as hotels sell out much faster during the holiday season. Basically, if we wanted to make the same booking again we would have to pay the same amount , without any guarantees that we wouldn’t receive another Order Declined email the next day. I called a customer service number available on the website. Someone gave me vague explanations of what had happened and promised that the money would be refunded within 10 days. As a victim of their Ten-Days = Two-Months Rule I decided to find a shortcut to the core of the sales department and find a solution asap. This is how Social Media made me a VIP customer in 2 hours.

I went to the Lastminute Facebook page and spoiled their festive mood with my grumpy comment about the misfortune I had suffer.

To increase the volume of my voice in cyberspace, I tweeted about the incident and  left a comment on their blog, which was never published. Probably, social media people decided that the fuss I had created on Facebook was enough. That was fine with me, as my aim was to be heard and it worked. After 45 minutes I received a response on the wall. They were experienced enough not to start bickering about it and just gave me an email address to send a complaint to facebook@lastminute.com. I composed an emotional email called Complaint – Please Act Immediately and sent it to facebook@lastminute.com and billing2@lastminute.com at 14.11 pm. In the email I mentioned that I work in social media and will go the extra mile to make my story noticed by as many people as possible. I received a phone call from a VIP Sales and Loyalty Executive at 15.41 along with responses to my email from both addresses. The lady said:”Your card was just pre authed , which means that the payment had only been held and this payment has now been reversed back to your account. To enable us to speed up the refund process please can you provide us with the fax number of your bank”.

I tried to take full advantage of my 15 minutes of fame and asked the lady if she could guarantee that the room could be held for us until we resolved this issue. Her answer was courteous, but not helpful and our booking was cancelled. As you can imagine this solution meant that we had to pay the same amount again by the same card, as Lastminute finally authorised it. This was a very customer unfriendly way of resolving the issue. At this point I lost faith in Lastminute’s ability to handle the booking and contacted the hotel directly.

Moral of the story, social media is an amazing channel of communication which helps individuals to be heard by hardly reachable corporations. I highly recommend people to use any available online platforms to express their concerns and bad customer experiences. Nevertheless, I was left dissatisfied by Lastminute’s custome service but at least they responded quickly enough.

In the meantime, I’ve been speculating about what I could possibly have done if Lastminute didn’t have a presence on Facebook. For instance, with the help of a great tool Social Radar I could identify the most influential websites and blogs where Lastminute has been mentioned recently.

This interactive visual mapping tool retrieves data about requested feeds ( Lastminute.com in this case)  as well as the links between these sites which were created within the last 60 days. Nodes highlighted in blue are the sites which have directly linked to Lastminute. It seems that in this case it wouldn’t help me much, as the Thalasso Biarritz blog is in French, scored 1 influence and they have mentioned Lastminute in their post once in the last 60 days.

I can play around with Social Radar functions and make a request for a data to be presented as a list. This time I’ve chosen to sort out the findings of my search by Relevant Posts, which means the number of posts this source made which matched my Lastminute.com query in the last 90 days. This way I can identify where this brand has been mentioned the most in up to 2 years.

A few clicks brought me to this post where the author shares his unpleasant experience with Lastminute. I’m sure if I dug deeper I would have found similar posts.

Also it’s quite easy to find out who handles communications for a particular brand. As you can imagine PR people are much more sensitive to the negative publicity for the company they represent than an overseas customer service team. This should be a good shortcut to the core of the company.

I don’t want to go crazy and spend the rest of the day fantasising about how ro approach the unfortunate brand. The lesson I’ve learnt this time is that a furious customer who’s at ease with digital communications has ample opportunity to damage the reputation of any brand with a strong presence online. In particular, this is relevant to an e-commerce sector where the majority of transactions occur online. Also it’s always better to target social media and PR people in the organization as they should appreciate the danger of the bad publicity.

Marketers, expand your knowledge and meet the Russian online users. 

December 13, 2010

At school my favorite subjects were Russian language and literature. I truly enjoyed writing essays, reading, discussing the Russian classics and exploring sophisticated grammar. At the same time, I was also fond of English and assiduously learned the language of business and international communications. It was an unquestionable fact that fluent English would be essential for my career, leisure and overall success in life. Currently, I work for a company providing English language training and it doesn’t take much to put across the message about the importance of English as a second language in someone’s life. I’m very proud that I speak Russian and grateful for all the opportunities I had to master my English which definitely makes my life so much more exciting.

Certainly, English is a global language and this explains why the majority of  native English speakers are not that keen on learning other languages. I’ve met a few self – deluded marketers who believe that Google Translate is enough for desktop marketing research and basic marketing communications. Of course, you can always hire a global marketing agency to implement your campaigns in foreign markets. This is a very common practice and makes perfect sense, but can be costly and less efficient than you expect. I think the  worldwide rise of the Internet provides plenty of opportunities for businesses to meet local partners online and secure brand awareness abroad without spending too much money. However, this requires a genuine desire to learn about other cultures and languages plus it requires time to build relationships with people from another cultural and social background. So, despite the fact that the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sang in English a few days ago the majority of Russians still prefer surfing online in their native language and it’s definitely worth making an effort and spend some time trying to understand the differences between .COM and.RU.

In my future posts I’m going to take a closer look at the particulars of online marketing, SEO, social media, public relations and market research in Russia. In order to obtain the most up-to-date and relevant information I have contacted some Russia-based agencies who kindly agreed to help me with content.

Firstly, I’d like to give a brief overview of Runet. I gathered the data from a few open sources: a report called The State of the Russian Internet produced by a group of enthusiasts from infact.ru, the widely – known www.internetworldstats.com and from the Russian Public Opinion Foundation fom.ru

Currently, there are about 59.7 million Russian speaking people using the Internet, this represents 3.0 % of all the Internet users in the world. Out of the estimated 139,390,205 population of the world that speaks Russian, 42.8 % use the Internet. The number of Russian Speaking Internet Users has grown 1,825.8% in the last ten years (2000-2010). According to the Russian Public Opinion Foundation ( Фонд Общественное Мнение) research this summer 28,6 million Russians logged in online at least once a day, with 38,8 million weekly users and 43.7 million monthly.

Bearing in mind that Russia is a vast country with various economic growth rates in different regions, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of Internet penetration at each region. Today, around 51% of the  population of multi-million cities are regular online users. In smaller places  30%-40% people have access to the Internet and only 20% in villages.  It’s worth emphasizing the Internet penetration growth in Russia depends on regions. 33% of .Ru domains are owned by webmasters from Russia’s remote regions ( not from Moscow and St.Petersburg)

The Internet penetration map of Russia.

Russian Internet Penetration Map

This map demonstrates that 30% of online users live in the Central Region (including Moscow), 13% – in the North-West region (including St. Petersburg), 20% – in the Volga region (cities around the Volga river), 13% – in the South and Caucasian regions, 8% – in the Ural region (cities around the Ural mountain chain), 13% – in Siberia and still about 4% – in the Far East region of the Russian Federation.

So what kind of Russians could be referred as regulars in cyberspace? The table below shows that a typical Internet user in Russia is relatively well-off and can afford the following: 37% of Internet savvy population own a car, 23%  have the pleasure of holding a credit card and 47% possess debit cards, 16% use paid medical services, 12% visit cinemas several times a month, 5% use a PDA and 66% of all Internet users  drink beer.

Russian Internet Users

This graph was provided by a very friendly and successful Russian SEO and search marketing agency, Ingate, with offices in Moscow and Tula. In my next post I’m going to look into the Russian search engine market, contextual advertising, popular searches in Yandex and much more.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing on Russian Search Engines.

December 7, 2010

Russian InternetWhile interest in the Russian speaking Internet is steadily growing, more businesses are exploring efficient ways of reaching the Russian speaking audience online. I’m going to take a closer look at the very relevant and controversial topic of SEO and marketing on Runet. I find it exciting because all successful businesses strive to be at the top of search engines results. No doubts, it’s important to secure the best spot in search rankings. Especially, if the company is targeting a foreign market and has to compete with local businesses. Surely, there is a big difference between Search Engine Marketing with Google and Yandex, the largest search engine in Russia and the particularities are not restricted to language itself. I call the topic of search engine marketing in Russia controversial because I heard a few opinions about some unethical tactics companies use while implementing Russian Search Marketing techniques.

I’m trying to find a Russian-based SEO agency to write a post on my blog about the state of SEO, and hopefully this will cover the topic in the near future with more professional insights. In the meantime, I asked my friend Veronika Jermolina who has done some SEO work on the Russian Internet to share her experiences on my blog. Although she may not be an expert, she has a completely independent point of view. This is what she had to say:

“For the past two years I have been working in the usability industry in the UK. In the last 6 months I have taken a keen interest in SEO, mostly through reading and working on optimising a website of a log house construction company for the Russian market. Although I am by no means an expert, I have noticed several differences between the attitudes towards SEO in the UK and Russia.

1. Use of ‘black hat’ methods of SEO

The worst offenders of using these ‘black hat’, or dodgy methods are companies who want to rank highly for competitive queries, such as ‘log houses in Moscow’. For example, link exchange schemes when site A places a link to site B in return for site B placing a link to site A. Another technique that is common in Russia is paid links, when an authoritative website or blogger is paid for placing a link to a website. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen serious businesses use this technique in the UK too, but the use of these techniques in Runet is in my opinion absolutely atrocious.

Such techniques, if discovered, are penalised by search engines. They are also counter-productive for the web as a whole. Due to manipulated ratings the user is not given the best result for his/her query. Further, this effort quickly becomes fruitless if the user exits the site immediately due to its poor content.

2. SEO viewed as a part of user-centred and persuasive design

In Russia SEO is definitely seen as one of the most important success factors for a website. In the UK the concepts of usability and user centred design are much more advanced and seen as a priority. Rather than ranking well in search engines the concern is often about being able to deliver relevant, persuasive content and functionality.

3. Lack of research

SEO in itself is a bit of a black box in a sense that no one really knows how search engines work. If people did, it would be too easy to use this knowledge to manipulate and compromise results. However, it is possible to gain a better understanding through changing variables and observing how they affect ranking over time. There are plenty of resources available to English-speaking audiences, for example SEOmoz. One problem I did come across was the lack of research in Russian, specific to Russian audiences. For example, how does transliteration affect the results?”

Russian language social media platforms: effective tools for political lobbying.

November 20, 2010

This week I’ve been observing how a scandal, published on the famous social media platform Livejournal.ru spread to the mass media and within 24 hours caught the attention of Vladimir Putin’s press office.

Unsurprisingly, the story is about corruption and theft during the construction of a pipeline by the state-owned Transneft. A famous Russian blogger, Navalnyj, who has investigated the case for a few months, collected supporting documents and displayed his findings in an earnest and vigorous post , which he ironically called “How do they saw at Transneft”. In Russian there is an expression “ to saw the money “ from something. Usually, it’s used to describe situations where corrupt authorities steal large sums while working on government projects. The main message of the post is to point out that the highest echelons keep stealing and make a mockery of the country. The author passionately encourages his readers to repost and get as much publicity as possible. There is a press release in English for the international media. The post provoked a gush of anger from the Livejournal community and received 10000 comments.

I am fascinated by the role Facebook plays in Russia. As I mentioned in my earlier posts the Livejournal community has always been the place for highbrow discussions where small communities of Russian intellectuals spark debates about sociopolitical issues. However, it has always been limited and never enjoyed a greater outreach to a mainstream audience. I think its structure didn’t provide opportunities for sharing material as easily as Facebook does now. There were no Share and Like buttons. For example, I wouldn’t know about this post as I don’t have a Livejournal account except I saw a link to Navalnyj’s Livejournal post published on my wall, as one of my friends shared it. I was intrigued by the name of the post and, as I know that my friend is peculiarly interested in Russian political affairs sharing newsworthy stuff , I immediately followed it to check it out. Navalny has a page on Facebook with already more than 2000 friends. On the wall his status update says that he is not sure how to use Facebook and what kind of opportunties it has for dissemination of information and asks people to share the link.

Alexey Navalny

It looks like it’s going to be a great case study of how to use social media in Russia while lobbing political parties. Alexey Navalnyj directly asks the government to comment on the story and start an investigation. He suggests that top managers of the construction company should be arrested for theft and corruption. So far the story has received coverage in an influential business-focused Russian media outlet Vedomosti The mainstream media like Pervj kanal typically praises the opening of a new Transneft pipeline. It’s amazing how the situation is changing. Just a while ago to draw attention to such a dangerous story you had to go to great lengths to convince editors to publish it and make available it to public. Nowadays, a well written post creates such a fuss and gets noticed by the premier within 24 hours. Great news for Russia and I am going to keep an eye on this event which will make it into the textbooks of political PR.


Interview with a Russian digital PR expert Michael Golovanov

November 15, 2010

On my last visit to Moscow, I met Michael Golovanov, Executive Director of Insiders online, a digital division of the leading communications agency in Russia. Here’s an extract of my interview with him.

What kind of Russian or Western organizations are the most active in running social media campaigns in the Russian speaking internet? What areas do they represent?

Currently, Russian are the main companies apply social media campaigns to promote their business online on Runet. This makes perfect sense, as there is no language barrier and they are more numerous. However, well-established foreign brands like Panasonic, McDonalds and Toyota are very enthusiastic about introducing new promotional techniques in Russia’s digital PR market and could be referred to as true trend setters. Frankly speaking, there are very few examples of successful campaigns. The majority of Western brands choose to stay passive in Russian social networks. I’ve noticed the B2C sector, especially, FMCG companies, are much more exposed to SMM and SMO campaigns because they aim to communicate directly with consumers.

B2B campaigns are harder to implement. Usually, these are quite complex projects combining corporate and product PR strategies involving ads in traditional mass media, banner advertising in niche portals, contextual search engine adverts and various SEO tactics. Despite high efficiency of B2B campaigns, the market is still very conservative applying these tactics. I’m sure this situation will change soon.

How do you identify influential bloggers? What kind of metrics do you use? Do you refer to particular ratings, communities, and personal contacts?

There is no single method for identifying influential bloggers. We consider various methods such as blog.yandex ratings, amount of visitors and subscribers, the blog’s inlinks from high profile resources, and blogger reputations in particular communities. Some bloggers use unethical internet marketing techniques such as faking the number of visitors, link farms, reciprocal link exchange and so on.

What is your opinion on Facebook’s invasion of Russia? Will Facebook takeover Vkontakte?

Originally, Vkontakte’s interface was copied from Facebook, but it’s been developed and tailored to the Russian speaking audience.Bear in mind, there’s a few years’ gap between the appearance of Vkontakte and Facebook. Hence, Vkontkte has a much bigger Russian-speaking audience. Facebook, however, is more widely used by foreigners, expats and immigrants. Undoubtedly, the Vkontakte’s big advantage is its pirate audio/video content. In addition, Vkontakte users experience a weaker censorship and controls compared to Facebook.

Is it worth for Western brands to promote through Russian social networks? Should they start using Twitter or Facebook in Russian language?

Obviously, it makes sense for Western companies aiming to penetrate Russian-speaking markets to promote themselves in Russian social networking sites. Of course, Russian social networking sites have many nuances, if given a choice between Facebook and Twitter, companies should use Facebook because it is a content generating site as opposed to Twitter’s broadcasting platform. According to experts there are just about 1500 active Russian speaking Twitter users. It’s worth emphasizing that LiveJournal.ru is the most influential and authoritative social network in Russia. Many organizations don’t realize this and fail to engage a captive and influential audience.

Can you give me an example of a crisis in the Russian online market space due to unprofessional social media tactics?

The main reason why brands fail to, successfully, implement social media campaigns is lack of experienced social media communicators. This is a global issue not only particular to Russia. Communication with bloggers requires a professional approach. Quite often, these kinds of tasks are delegated to the recent graduates or interns. It’s common practice for communication students to position themselves as social media professionals after maintaining a couple of blogs. They enter a market with low cost digital PR proposals and, as a result, cooperation with such teams is a waste of time, money, and a liability. A recent example of a major communication failure on Runet is the Utkonos story. Utkonos is an online supermarket. “Utkonos” means “Duckbill” in English. Their online PR campaign turned out to be a reputation disaster when it became clear a few popular bloggers wrote posts glorifying the supermarket at the same time and with similar content. Soon after, Russian-speaking bloggers created a new neologism called utkonosit ( to duckbill) to describe a badly crafted social media strategy.

Western brands have an advantage in that they can afford hiring Russian-speaking chains of global PR agencies with experienced, professional staffs to implement their campaigns. On the other hand, Western corporations’ experienced, professional staffs trained in traditional promotional techniques may lack tried and true social media network “evangelizers”. This is why there are no guarantees an expensive, social media campaign will generate the ROI sought. This is the main reason why Western companies shy away from the Runet and choose to rely on more traditional PR campaigns. In general, Western companies, by ignoring the way Russian-speaking audiences consume media, end up missing up on an opportunity to engage a sizeable market.

Does Insiders Online work on the European market?

Currently, we work, mainly, with Russian clients. But, we are planning to expand to the EU and open an office in London.


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