The Russian social media landscape differs vastly from English-speaking countries in terms of their platforms, demographics and strategies. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you connect with your Russian audience on social media.

If you’re planning to market your brand in Russia, social media should be a priority in your online strategy. Over 48% of Russians are currently registered on a social media platform, and that’s expected to rise to 80% by 2019 (source: Russian Search Marketing). Less than a third of Russian internet users shop online, but over 90% use social media (source: eCommerce Worldwide), so social media is clearly an invaluable resource for reaching this particular market.

If you’re an international company making your first entrance into Russia, there are some big differences to consider: most importantly, the dominance of VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK), two Russian social networks that easily overshadow Facebook in terms of the number of users. Instagram is relatively popular, but Twitter barely gets viewed. Ultimately, users desire an authentic ‘Russian’ experience – the more culturally plugged-in you are, the better. Translation is just the minimum.

GOING NATIVE: RUSSIAN SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS

VK and OK dominate the social media landscape in Russia, with around 90 million and 30.5 million active users, respectively, making them vital networks to understand.

Background

VK is the most visited website in Russia and has the second highest social media traffic in the world (source: SimilarWeb). It has a young user base – around 70% are aged between 18 and 34 (source: Mail.ru Annual Report), making it the best medium for connecting with teens and young adults. It also has an English interface for overseas users, so it can be quickly mastered by English speakers.

OK is the fifth most visited site in Russia (source: SimilarWeb) and reaches an older audience than VK. In 2012, just under 40% of its users were aged between 35 and 44.

Although OK provides access to demographics with disposable income, it might not be the best way for international brands to reach an older, Russian audience – Facebook may be more suitable for this role.

Four steps to success on Russian Social Media platforms

1. Set up groups. Setting up groups is the best way to reach your target audience on VK and OK. Russians respond better to communities than brand-produced content, so if you engage in a more ‘social’ context, you’ll get better results. You can engage directly through the group, or target members with ads – once they’ve joined, you know they’re interested in your products.

Once you’ve created your community, it’s important to provide relevant content in order to drive engagement and keep members coming back for more. The group should not be an end in itself; the ultimate aim is to have  members market your products to their circle of friends and family, creating a community around your brand. The key is to create posts that appeal to your group’s interests. Keep it human, shy away from corporate speak and join in on your members’ organic conversations.

VK provides tools to help with this. Much like Facebook’s Page Insights tool, VK group admins can access advanced analytics, which means you can gather deep insights into users’ social media habits and thus their likes and dislikes. You can use those insights to drive a more relevant group experience and over time, build a strong community of brand advocates.

Illustrationist coloring2. Target the right people. VK has recently improved its demographic targeting tools, so you can now use paid promotion accurately on the site. You can push out banner ads, sidebar ads and paid posts to users based on everything from age and location to military service and personal interests, so it’s easy to target the right people for each promotion.

When users sign up on VK, they are presented with as many as 50 different information fields on their profile. It’s similar to how Facebook and LinkedIn suggest you enter your school, university or workplace, but much more in-depth. If users leave a field blank, VK will continue to prompt them to fill it in as they browse, increasing the chance that they will eventually comply, even if just to make the message disappear.

The sheer volume of granular data VK collects on its users means that it can effectively hone in on very small subsets of people, depending on what you’re looking for. VK goes deeper than Facebook – marketers can use its demographic tools to run highly targeted campaigns based on their views on alcohol or smoking, for example, or their political beliefs. VK’s advanced targeting makes it easy to reach the right people, ultimately increasing the chance of lead conversion.

3. Localize your content. Don’t just directly transfer your US or UK ads over to VK. Russian users respond well when brands integrate local cultural content into their web presence. Unlike many Europeans, Russians don’t gravitate strongly to US culture. In fact, VK focuses on regional music and video, so be sure to sync your content with local pop culture.

A great way to do this is to leverage VK’s paid post service. This allows you to have community admins post your content for a fee (you pay VK, and VK pays the community manager for a cut of between 20% and 40%). The benefit is that these posts don’t look like ads – to community members they’re just another organic post, which means they have a much higher engagement rate than banner ads. For example, a sports brand could pay a fitness community owner through VK to post about their latest products, back-linking to their site. Users trust the post, so they’re more likely to click through. This tool is unique to VK – Facebook has no equivalent.

4. Take time for appropriate site preparation. Don’t just jump into VK if you haven’t first properly set up your eCommerce. Russian web censors have been known to ban sites entirely, and cybercrime and poor connectivity threaten sites’ performance on a daily basis. After all, if users can’t access your site, you can’t convert impressions into revenue.

No matter how good your site looks in your home country, to succeed in Russia, you’re going to need localized network coverage and a strong working knowledge of government restrictions to ensure your back-links actually go somewhere. An efficient cyber-security program is also a must.

USING INTERNATIONAL SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS IN RUSSIA

The big American players also have a presence in Russia, making it worth understanding how they can be part of a successful strategy.

Facebook

Although Facebook remains behind VK in terms of the number of users (currently around 20 million), it’s mostly used by well-off, cosmopolitan Russians based around hub cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

For international brands looking to sell into Russia’s fluctuating economy without cutting prices, Facebook is a good platform for directly targeting those with disposable cash. Its demographic targeting is also constantly improving, which makes it a powerful tool. Most international brands are also already well-versed in how to run a Facebook marketing campaign, so the start-up costs will be minimal.

Facebook also has its own advantages over OK. OK is a less familiar platform with fewer exceptions to non-Russian speakers, which makes the setup process difficult without hiring local admins. While OK has a large number of affluent, middle-aged female users, a particularly attractive market for fashion and beauty brands, Facebook follows closely in reach and remains easier for international brands to use.

It’s also worth noting that although VK and OK have maintained their market leadership over the last five years, Facebook recently topped 2 billion active users worldwide. Its momentum and commitment to expansion make it highly likely that the platform will grow its Russian user base exponentially between now and 2020. Therefore, a strong Russian Facebook campaign is both an investment in the future as well as the present.

Aerial view of woman with a hot cup of coffee and a smartphoneInstagram and Twitter

Instagram is often used for linking to other networks – 50% of Instagram posts in Russia are shared to other social networks (source: eCommerce Worldwide). If you’re planning on using it, make sure that your content will translate onto VK or Facebook, and be aware that Russian users often add long captions to their posts, unlike the shorter Western style.

Instagram is also a highly popular platform for posting about beauty and fashion, making it a relevant tool for brands in those fields. 9% of search queries from mobile devices in Russia are related to health and beauty, and Instagram has built a reputation in Russia as the platform for beauty-related content – much like in the USA (source: Contactlab).

Twitter is showing some signs of growth but has nowhere near the same dominance in Russia that it does in the West, possibly for being a platform that is notoriously used to challenge authority. As a result, it’s probably not worth investing in a Russian presence until the platform can prove it has staying power in the region.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A combination of VK and Facebook is the best way to reach large numbers of users and single out the top commercial targets. While OK also has a well developed user base, it can be hard for international companies to start and maintain a presence there, so Facebook is the wise choice for beginners.

Make sure you build dedicated groups to access users who love your brand. Treat Russians like Russians, use locally generated content to blend in with Russian culture and take advantage of VK’s advanced-paid-marketing and demographic-targeting tools to push out relevant content to the ideal audience.

Social media’s power to influence buying behavior in Russia is beyond dispute. If you take the time to master it, you’ll see a strong return on your investment. Fortune favors the bold – now is the time to get involved. Get in touch to learn more.