8 Interesting Things About Russia

June 22, 2009

Here’s a list of some of the most intriguing social media insights about Russia that the class uncovered this week:

  1. Russian social networks are huge, but insular. There are two large social networks in Russia that the vast majority of Internet users belong to – Odnoklassniki.ru and Facebook-clone Vkontakte.ru. These networks are almost wholly in Russian and present an important, but insular, form of social networking between Russian speakers – but also prevent the rise of more global players like Facebook or MySpace who are each setting their sites on expansion in Russia.
  2. Yandex is a Google-killer (so far). Russia is one of the few countries besides China (with Baidu) that has a dominant local search engine that trounces Google, and given the Russian sense of pride in this achievement, it shows few signs of changing anytime soon … even despite Google co-founder Sergeiy Brin’s Russian background.
  3. Moscow area accounts for over 70% of Internet usage in Russia. The majority of Russia is largely rural and sparsely located, particularly when it comes to Internet usage. The implications of this for social media marketing programs is that it may be reasonable to have a real life element to a program if the majority of people are in relatively close proximity to one another.
  4. Twitter isn’t redefining social media in Russia. Social networking is still the king of social media in Russia, followed by blogging. When it comes to Twitter, the site has been hampered in its growth due to difficulty users have with the comparatively long Russian alphabet and fitting meaningful dialogue into 140 characters. Come to think of it, we have that problem in English too …
  5. Mobile adoption is huge … and mobile marketing is on the rise. Though mobile penetration by some accounts is even more than one per person (a strangely confusing stat), there is no doubt that mobile messaging is the communication of choice for the country’s youth. Marketing through this channel, though, is growing but has not yet reached full maturity.
  6. Russia is much more than one market. Several sources of marketing reading looking at the entire country pointed out that what works in Moscow won’t in Siberia. From ethnicities, to languages, to cultures, the nuances of Russia create a challenging communications environment.
  7. Russia’s President has a video blog. Currently on LiveJournal (interesting platform choice), the leader of Russia does have a video blog and tends to keep it relatively up to date. It’s an interesting irony as the government is still notoriously sensitive to criticism, yet it does signal an acceptance from the Kremlin that these tools are important and can have a global impact.
  8. Rise of aspirational Russian advertising. For many years, advertising in Russia was of necessity and simply relayed information to people on where to buy something. In recent times, this has shifted to advertising that actively sells and promotes – and is mostly aspirational.



Mind Needs to Catch Up With Growth

June 20, 2009

I was shocked to find that Russia has the fourth largest social networking market and the fastest growing internet population in Europe (internet users grew 27% year over year in June 2008).  It’s wonderful that this large country is becoming connected in the online world in such a fast paced manner. Quick to jump on the social networking band-wagon, the top ranked Russian social networking sites, in particular Odnoklassniki, does not yet understand the basic rules and principles that we’ve come to learn the hard way.

The “walled-garden” of the AOL days in the 90’s are a distant memory but taught us all a great deal about the internet.  Suzanne Choney said it perfectly when she described it as “the internet on training wheels.”  In the mid-1990’s, we were all content with our knowledge and use of the AOL internet as we knew it (moderated chat rooms, pre-spam, “You’ve Got Mail,” and all), but only because we had no idea of what it could be.  In just the past 10-15 years, we come very far in both what the internet can do for us and our scope of what the internet will hold for us in the future.  Now we have Social Media tools that have allowed us to grow and learn immensely like Blogs (i.e. WordPress and LiveJournal), Social Networking (i.e. Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn), Micro-blogs (i.e. Twitter and Jaiku), Wikis (i.e. Wikipedia, wetpaint), Social Tagging (i.e. delicious), Collaborative Social News (i.e. digg), Collaborative Opinions (Yelp, Epinions), Photo Sharing (i.e. Flickr), Video Sharing (YouTube), and Virtual Worlds (i.e. Second Life), to name a few.  Things only kids dreamed of in the ’90s…

With all of this, came a progressive sort of learning.  We learned what worked.  We learned what didn’t work.  It was a hit or miss.  Trial by error.

Russia has advanced so rapidly in its population’s online activity that the users are simply unaware of the “olden days” of the internet.  For them, the internet IS social media, and it’s never been anything different.

So the question is, do they fully understand what makes the internet, as we know it now, work?  I’m not so sure.

The entire notion of breaking the “walled-garden” allows users to converse, interact, and exchange freely and openly, not matter what.  When I read a post by Russian blog guru Svetlana Gladkova, I was not too surprised to hear Svetlana’s reports that popular social networking site (similar to Facebook) called Odnoklassniki restricts members from sending messages with any text containing its largest competitor’s name (Vkontakte.ru).  Further, it also restricts specific images and logos that users post in order to display to their friends that they’ve ‘moved on’ from the Odnoklassniki site to Vkontakte.  Sounds to me like Odnoklassniki is doomed to fail.  The minute users feel like they are being unfairly restricted, surely they will jump over to the more free (and popular) option.  But, how could they know any better?  They didn’t get to see the movie…

There are probably even more examples of this happening in Russia, but alas, I do not read Russian, and not many have been translated into English (scroll to bottom).

Facebook, on the other hand, does know better.  Facebook does not censor its competition from user’s messages and images.  On the contrary, Svetlana even reported that it advertised for Odnoklassniki on its new Russian language Facebook site.  With these types of thoughts and ideals, Facebook is sure to remain #1 for quite some time (and grow to be #1 in countries where it has just started up).

Russia – What are you doing?!

June 18, 2009

russia apple

Russia is on the verge of social media explosion. Yes – Russia!

The former closed communist state is already the fourth biggest market in Europe for social networking. One of the main social networks in Russia, Odnoklassniki (Одноклассники) is reporting 30 million registered users. The site, which connects classmates, is used in both Russia and the Ukraine and attracts 8 million visitors each day.

The problem is these sites only allow Russians to speak with Russians and little interaction is taking place with the rest of the world. The internet is bringing down the ‘cyber walls’ across the world and it is beginning to happen in places like Iran and Russia.

Take for example the Twitter explosion currently happening around the recent Iranian elections and subsequent protests. Iranians flooded the site to get word out about police beatings and information to outsiders about social unrest happening in the streets of Tehran.

To make this social media explosion happen citizens need to network outside their borders. Recently, Facebook has taking a $200 million investment from Digital Sky Technologies, an Internet holding company with Russian roots. This will help Russians talk more outside their borders.

This social media explosion will not come from broadband access and home computers but from use on mobile devices like cell phones. Take for example this interesting statistic that Russian mobile phone penetration is a wacky 131.4%, so one in every three Russians has two cell phones!

What we are seeing with Iranians distributing information by social networks will grow from behind the iron firewall of Russia.

Social Media, Social Impact & Russia

June 18, 2009

“Social Media for Social Good” is a topic we have covered a great deal in our classes specifically looking out how we, as communicators, can leverage this in our own work moving forward. In the United States we have seen how social media can impact a Presidential campaign, raise awareness, provide real-time information and breakdown barriers of communication.

This week, we were given the assignment of researching Russia and its use of social media. In doing my research it was fascinating to find out some interesting statistics about the country.  I should preface this by saying, that at first they may not seem related, but be patient, I’ll get there.

In terms of social media, Russia has the fastest growing internet population in Europe behind France and Spain. Social networking has exploded onto the scene  and the two most popular networks currently in Russia are Vkontakte.ru. and Odnoklassniki.ru,. SO suffice to say, there is great potential with the growing internet population and the power of a two-way conversations.

Then in my research, I came across an alarming story and statistic about the growing AIDS epidemic in Russia. The number of people in Russia living with HIV has more than doubled since 2001. This caught me off guard because typically when you are talking about AIDS – the discussion goes to Africa. Quite honestly, it made me begin to wonder why Russia wasn’t spreading a more effective AIDS awareness message in the country and abroad.

That is when I turned my attention to what organizations were doing on the ground to spread the message of AIDS awareness and protection. The most promising organization I found was a STOP AIDS webpage found here and partnered by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Picture 10

In 2005 the country started what a campaign to educate its population of the AIDS epidemic through the use of television and radio programming and print editorial content, consumer products placement, an extensive interactive internet campaign and free print and online information resources.

So the question I bring to the table is: How can organizations on the ground in Russia leverage the power of social media to increase HIV/AIDS awareness and education? At  the very least bring more people to the site mentioned above. The materials that are currently used to spread awareness are largely one dimensional communications tools where the organization is talking at the target audience as apposed to talking with.

I don’t think that I can even begin to scratch the surface in a blog post but I believe that Russia has yet to tap into power behind joining the conversation and bringing about social impact through the implementation social media.

Cultural Relativism and Entering the Russian Digital Market

June 18, 2009

Let me share a work anecdote with you…I handled the communications component of a public health plan to combat the potential of pandemic avian influenza. The goal was to create a simple, concise and substantiated messaging platform for an international organization that could be used across part of the African continent.  During the bird flu scare a few years ago, experts from the CDC and the World Health Organization were urging people to wash hands several times a day as one of the key ways to minimize risk of infection. These two bodies know more about disease than anyone else. You might assume that our sub-Saharan campaign was therefore built around this key point. But the reality is many people in large parts of the world do not have ready access to water. Water is a valuable life-sustaining resource in much of Africa and not something squandered on hand washing, no matter how important it might be to prevent disease. Developed-world assumptions that everyone has access to water and Western thinking about what constitutes hygiene would have made absolutely no sense in many regions of Africa. The point is it is critical to be aware that we don’t even know what we don’t know about other nations, no matter how worldly we (think we) are. Challenge everything you take for granted from a strategic and communications standpoint when heading overseas.

As regards American companies looking to enter the Russian market through the use of social media, they need to be aware that they face a similar type of cultural relativism challenge. In a video interview with Edward Shenderovich on John Bell’s blog, the lead strategist of the Moscow online media company SUP  explains that while multinational businesses tend to behave similarly no matter where they operate around the world, consumers act differently based on culture. What works in the U.S. or in Europe will not work in Russia. People simply live different realities and have different mindsets depending on where they live. This insight can be gleaned from interpreting Mr. Shenderovich’s remarks:

>Americans are interested in individuality, whereas in Russia, community is the prevalent desire. Russians want to be like other Russians. They seek community feedback to confirm their identity. Corporate messages should therefore be designed to show how the product or service being marketed helps the consumer fit in, not make them better or different. For example (using a beverage brand), it would be better to show videos on Russian YouTube of a group of “average” consumers enjoying themselves in a pub all drinking the product than having a celebrity shown cavorting about with beverage in hand. On Russian social networks, getting real people (who would have to be solicited and converted to the brand before hand) to casually mention that they consider the product their beverage of choice would be better than introducing the beverage with a social network promotion like this one. If Svetlana’s friend likes the drink, there’s a chance she’ll try it to “fit in.” Using consensus tactics in Russian social networks may be the best sales approach.

It Takes One To Know One

June 18, 2009

Although Russia is one of the fastest growing Internet markets in the world, they have been known to reject outside information and influence. Successful marketing and advertising of one’s brand in Russia is imperative for sustainability. In order to achieve acceptance in Russia, one should partner with a Russian firm to gain the trust and understanding from their Russian audience.

Social media tools that thrive in Russia include:
• Одноклассники (http://www.odnoklassniki.ru/), a site that connects classmates in Russia and Ukraine.
• В контакте (http://vkontakte.ru), a site aimed to keep friends, coworkers and classmates in touch.
• Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly popular in Russia, but yet to compare with the 28-30 million users reported from the other sites.

Although innovative, Russians have yet to penetrate the social media sector. In order to successfully infiltrate a brand into Russia, one should partner with a local firm and allow them to be a part of the brainstorming process. Providing an authentic idea, with a Russian twist could make or break the business received in Russia.

French, German, Russian… oh my! The world beyond the Anglosphere

June 18, 2009

Two weeks of vacation this summer and where am I headed? London and Paris. Last summer, I trekked to Denmark. My list of past travels continues: Belize, Philippines, Mexico, Greece, and more.

Manila from a ferry

Manila from a ferry

As I’ve grown older, my idea of paradise is a new country, new culture, new museums, new sites, and new stores (shopping must always be on the schedule)! But send me to a website beyond the Anglosphere, a term coined by author Neal Stephenson, and I scurry back inside my cave, reverting to a sheltered online existence. I don’t know what to do or where to look. My sense of adventure simply evaporates.

It is this same thinking that encourages Internet-savvy entrepreneurs outside of the Anglosphere to set up their own blogs and social networking sites in their own language. They have seen first-hand the mistakes many English-speaking companies have made trying to pitch their products without regard to the culture. Is this just my English fixation speaking to me as suggested by reporter Virginia Heffernan?

For Russia–the fourth largest social networking market in Europe–the top two social networking sites, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, are not known anywhere beyond Russia and Russian-speaking ex-pats. Popular American sites Facebook and MySpace have very little penetration in the market. And why should any Russians switch? Vkontakte looks like a dead-on replica of Facebook.


Despite these challenges, I found Russians Twittering, blogging, and connecting in English. Again, why would they make that choice? It really boils down to choice. Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki only connect Russians with Russians. You won’t find an Italian or an African. No one will be there from Sweden. The same goes for Australia.

If you want to connect to the world, English is the universal language for business. It is also the language of a majority of the online world–for good or for bad.

Yes, my thinking is Anglocentric and may ruffle feathers, but the Internet is supposed to break down language barriers, not build them. I may not be able to truly explore Russia by joining the country’s top social networks, but thanks to English speakers in Russia, I can still cross the virtual ocean to meet.