Social Media in Russia: why is VKontakte better than Facebook?

social media in russia

After our analysis of successful Social Media campaigns in China, new YDL contributor Flaminia Fogliadini (in collaboration with Guido Ghedin) shares with us her research and her thoughts on the Social Web scenario in Russia.

There’s no need to repeat it: Facebook is dominating the social landscape worldwide. But there still are some local networks that don’t want to give up, as we can see in this map designed by Vincenzo Cosenza. To be more precise, Russia is malignly divided between Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, that we can translate in “In contact” and “Classmates”.

So let’s go to meet the biggest players in the Russian panorama: amongst the local platforms, apart from Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, we can count and Livejournal. And, of course, we will also talk about how Facebook and Twitter are doing over there.

social media world map


Vkontakte is the social network created by Pavel Durov in 2006.  They state they have more than 150 millions of users from all around the world (83 millions just from Russia and Ucraina), but just 28 millions are active every day. The main reason between this big divide is the usage of Vkontakte as a platform for spam, which forces users to be really suspicious: we must consider this crucial aspect when we want to plan a the brand presence on this social network. It’s also curious to notice how it’s relatively easy to access to all the names an profiles, displayed in chronological order based on subscription, completely ignoring any sort of privacy.

Another element we should consider is the massive presence of teenagers, a segment with low buying power; despite Vkontakte vice-president Ilya Perekopskyi stated that more than 60% of users are over 25 and not students, it’s quite hard to believe so by using the platform on daily basis (to know more read this). And our idea is confirmed by an analysis of the brands that can actually show some successful case histories on this social network. As an example we can mention Clearasil, a brand of anti-acne body detergent owned by Reckitt Benckiser.

Clearasil created a Vkontakte app that allowed users to create videos based on the product benefits. Everything was aimed to make the user-generate-content go viral inside the platform, aided by some others collateral micro-campaigns and online and offline PR. The impressive results (more than 13,000 contents created and a total reach of half a million people) caused sales to go up by 30% compared to 2009. To have a more precise idea of the results, here is the campaign report on Vimeo.

clearasil vkontakte


In a country like Russia, where the average time spent on Social Media is double the American one, how can we explain the success of Vkontakte over Facebook?

The answer is pretty easy: VK, apart from being the first comer in the tight national market, offers a file-sharing system that allows users to easily find pirated movies (dubbed in Russian), and illegally download music for free. For many people this is apparently enough to decide to not switch from VK to FB, but it’s also a characteristic we should think of when we decide our target for a brand campaign.

When Facebook arrived in Russia, VK lost a relatively small amount of users (less than 6 millions users according to Ogilvy). But these users were more open towards the brand communication (mainly to emphasize their social status) and they were representing a higher cultural level compared the average Vkontakte users.

Anyways, it’s interesting to notice the effort Vkontakte put into an evolution towards a professional standards: they adopted some anti-spam policies and in April of 2011 they introduced the possibility to open Brand pages, and to launch video advertising campaigns.

In fact, like in many countries in the world, online videos are a crucial tool to increase the awareness of a brand; let’s just take a look at this viral campaign to launch in the Russian market a set of sea salts to cleaned the nose, called Aqua Maris. An agency called Novocortex created the “World Championships of Nose Cleansing”, together with a number of fictional characters and fake-websites, generating big buzz around this pretty funny hoax. This made the campaign bounce on several blogs and newspapers, both in Russia and abroad.

And this clearly shows how the Russian audience is reactive and easy to involve, when contents are well structured (to know more, read here).



This social network has less registered users than Vkontakte: 43 millions between Russia and Ukraine. But it showed an big increase, after VK decided to re-establish the invitation-only subscription, another anti-spam move. This way Odnoklassniki was able to win the Kazakistan, which was owned by the competitor just months before. It’s also very popular in Kyrgyzstan, and it’s the n.2 most visited website in Armenia.

The main usage of this platform (which used to be a paid service) is to get back in touch with old friends and classmates, and it’s not really considered by brands, that usually choose alternative social networks like VK or FB.


Odnoklassniki is part of the group, the biggest Internet corporation in Russia: they also own and a 33% share of di Vkontakte, and two huge instant messaging platforms (ICQ and Agent, with more than 80 million registered email accounts). Even though they basically share the same ownership, it’s curious to notice there have been fight between different social networks: as an example, Pavel Durov (the VK founder) defined “a tasteless warehouse of viruses”, blocking links directing to on Vkontakte.


This network, born in 2007, counts almost 4 million users amongst Russia and Ukraine, most of them teenager and kids according to Ogilvy. The main goal of the platform is to incentivate the creation of connection between young users, offering several platforms to communicate between users. This makes it one of the most relevant network in the Russian panorama.

“My World” members can send private messages, give and get gifts, share their desires, publish pics and videos, listen to music and manage personal blogs. But the most important thing to the young audience is the possibility to know what their friends are doing in real time.


The Californian microblogging platform represents, according to Ogilvy, a niche of less than 2 millions users between Russia and Ukraine; but – as in the rest of the world – it has a high cultural level of interactions, with many users prone to the usage of mobile devices. And this kind of target is the most interesting to me: how is the web working in a country know for its heavy censorship?

At the moment, it seems they’re doing incredibly fine. During the Soviet regime the so-called samizdat (independent publications) were the only way to express an opinion in a society reduced to silence by propaganda. Therefore, when the Web came in the past decade, blogging was the natural way for many people to keep on writing what they thought despite the government monitoring all the online activities. The results were astonishing: 7,4 millions blogs with more than 23 millions readers, according to the Russian Association of Electronic Communications.


Livejournal is an American blogging platform bought by the Russian media company SUP in 2007. Today, the cyrillic section has more than 1,5 millions users: according to Ogilvy, they represent the most mature segment of web users in Russia, often critic towards important authors and members of the establishment. In a world were personal blogs lost popularity after the advent of social networks, Russia is seeing a slower translation from that medium to Social Media.

There are many blogs about typical female issues (like Beauty, Lifestyle, Fashion) and some Brands are already using digital PR strategies to interact with this target. Yves Rocher is a good example: the French cosmetic brand organized an event to launch their Serum Vegetal product line in Russia, involving bloggers through free product trial. The action generated positive buzz, supporting the advertising push.

According to Mikhail Geisherik, social media department director at Grape Advertising Agency, the reason is that Russian blogs are focused on politics, as we can read on this BBC article. The relationship between politics and Social Media is pretty close, to the point that the actual president Dmitry Medvedev has a video blog on Livejournal, and several official Twitter profiles that count more than 600,000 total followers. The English language one reaches 125 thousands people, the Russian one more than 450 thousands.

social media in russia

The president’s approach to Twitter is surprisingly informal, sometimes sharing stories about his youth and personal thoughts:

medvedev twitter

Coming to a conclusion, the Russian scenario is very peculiar, but it has a huge potential: according to a Comscore research from last year, Russia has the highest level of engagement in the whole world.

But there are some crucial aspects that must be understood: as an example, despite the fact that several segment of the population are very Twitter-friendly, Russian people are really skeptic towards location-based devices. And this is probably a thing of the past, related to a dictatorship that often used to invade people’s privacy.

There are no doubts: if we want to promote a brand or a product in this country, we need accurate research and a deep knowledge of the territory. In such a particular environment, missing the target is pretty easy.

Flaminia Fogliadini (in collaboration with Guido Ghedin)


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