Author: Chloe McKenna, International Strategist, Oban Digital
Many brands are interested in tapping into the opportunity Russia presents as one of the fastest-growing online shopping countries globally - the market is growing at an impressive 20% per year - however for many businesses, it’s difficult to know how to break into it. Building brand awareness from scratch can be a challenge in any market, but in a country like Russia, where people are spread over nine time zones, have varying degrees of connectivity and access to different infrastructures, the challenge can be even more daunting. So what’s the solution to reaching and engaging with potential Russian customers effectively? It could lie with a social platform which many people outside of Russia have never even heard of - Vkontakte.
VKontakte (VK), is a Russian social network with a staggering 300+ million registered accounts and around 85 million active users. As the second most popular website in Russia after Yandex (the Country’s largest search engine), as ranked by Alexa, VK undeniably offers a huge opportunity as a platform through which to communicate with potential customers. Greig Holbrook, founder of specialist international media and marketing agency Oban Digital, describes how:
“Just as China has WeChat in place of Facebook and German users are active on Xing rather than LinkedIn, for brands seeking to break into Russia in any real way VK is a platform which needs to be considered. It comes down to the fundamental importance of doing your research, finding out where your potential customers in-market really are online, and communicating with them there in the right way. Just as with any market, Russia has a distinct landscape with a unique audience profile, so you need to understand what that looks like (and the practical implications of this in terms of platforms, audience targeting and activity etc), before taking time to plan localised campaign activity which will really engage users.”
Brands and products are actively discussed on VK between users within dedicated groups. These groups can be both official (set up by businesses themselves equivalent to a ‘verified’ social profile or group on Facebook) or unofficial (set up by fans or those interested in a brand but with no actual affiliation). For larger brands such as Nike and Apple, even if they have never been active in an official capacity on VK, they will find that users have independently created groups where people share news, products, photos and other content relating to their products.
These unofficial groups can understandably be viewed with suspicion by marketers from English-speaking countries. They can have fears over reputation management and the lack of control they have over how users are discussing their products or services within them. And while these concerns are valid, unofficial groups shouldn’t be dismissed entirely. Indeed, advertising within these groups can be an effective and lucrative strategy for reaching an already engaged and loyal audience. It makes perfect sense that if people are passionate enough about your products to set up or join a group to talk about them, they are an ideal audience for targeting your promotions.
But what about those brands who don’t yet have recognition in Russia? If you aren't lucky enough to be in the position of Nike or Apple who are already household names in Russia, all is not lost. Advertising options on the platform have become far more sophisticated recently, following last year’s change of management, and VK’s new CEO has overhauled the advertising integration and developed more sophisticated ways of delivering paid content to users.
The result is that VK now has a number of features, including an English language advertising interface and the ability to target specific groups, which make it easier to reach relevant users who might not have known you existed previously.
While the opportunities on VK are undoubtedly attractive, before rushing into any type of VK campaign with the goal of driving users to a retail website, there are several considerations around site visibility and performance, unique to Russia, that are important to address first. The so-called ‘Russian firewall’ which has seen the government filter and censor content (with some sites banned entirely), cybercrime (companies lose $3.3bn to cyberattacks annually) and poor internet connectivity can all impact on how a website performs.
As Alex Nam, Managing Director, EMEA at CD Networks explains:
“The best ways to ensure traffic from VK is going to have the maximum chance to convert is to have a strategy which focusses on creating the best local customer experience. Even if you have optimized architecture, code and content you will have to ensure fast delivery of your web content with local coverage, knowledge and expertise of regulations.”
Russia undeniably presents an exciting opportunity for etailers who are bold enough to take the plunge and try to penetrate this complex market. VK is a great platform through which brands can work to grow their presence in Russia, because it has so many users and is already so popular as a network to discuss products and brands. The naturally evolved unofficial groups on VK are certainly worth exploring in order to better understand how users are discussing your own, or similar brands within the industry. While official groups are valuable to set up when working towards leading some of those discussions yourself. Paid promotion increasingly is an attractive method for boosting engagements and visibility on the platform as improvements have been made to the infrastructure.
But whatever activity you plan to embark on, remember that in Russia especially, ensuring your website is fast and reliable offering the best web performance, and has a solid foundation in terms of offering customers a localised and efficient user experience is paramount. Thorough research into local legislation regarding acceptable content is also essential, to avoid any setbacks and loss of visibility within the market.