The social media landscape in Russia differs vastly from English-speaking countries – with different platforms, demographics and strategies. Our ultimate guide will steer you through the minefield and help you connect with your Russian audience on social media.

If you’re planning to market your brand in Russia, social media should be at the center of your internet 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 the modern marketer.

But if you’re an international company making your first foray into Russia, there are some big differences to prepare for: most importantly, the dominance of VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK), two Russian networks that easily outstrip Facebook in terms of user numbers. Instagram is relatively popular, but Twitter barely gets a look-in. Above all, there’s a real desire among users for a truly ‘Russian’ experience – the more culturally plugged-in you are, the better. You can’t just translate and go.

So to help you build a well-thought-out marketing strategy, here we’ll take you through the key cultural differences, give you an introduction to VK and OK and explain how international networks fit into the picture.

GOING NATIVE: RUSSIAN PLATFORMS

VK and OK dominate the social media landscape in Russia, with around 90 million and 30.5 million active users respectively, so you need to know how to use them.

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, and the network is still seen as the older generation’s platform.

For reasons we’ll come to later, although it provides access to demographics with disposable income, OK might not be the best way for international brands to reach an older Russian audience – Facebook has a special role to play there.

Four steps to success on Russian platforms

1. 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 – after all, 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 get to the point where members will market your products to their circle of friends and family, creating a community around your brand in the real world. The key to that is generating posts that your group is interested in. Keep it human, shy away from corporate speak and join in with your members’ organic conversations.

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

2. VK has recently improved its demographic targeting tools, so you can now use paid promotion on the site with high accuracy. 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 hit the right people for each promotion.

When users sign up to VK, they are presented with as many as 50 different information entry points on their profile. It’s similar to the way Facebook and LinkedIn suggest you enter your school, university or workplace, but much more in-depth. Not only that, but if users leave a section 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. And 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 leanings. VK makes it easy to approach the right people with the right material, ultimately increasing the chance of lead conversion.

3. Don’t just transfer your US or UK ads straight across 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, and VK’s focus on regional music and video helps explain how it’s kept Facebook at bay. Be sure your content chimes with local pop culture – don’t treat Russia as the 51st US state just waiting to happen.

A great way to do this is to take advantage of 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 adverts – 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. Finally, make sure your eCommerce presence is up to scratch before jumping into VK. Russian web censors have been known to ban sites entirely, and cybercrime and poor connectivity threaten sites’ performance on a daily basis. The obvious problem with this is that 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 PLATFORMS IN RUSSIA

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

Facebook

Although Facebook remains behind VK in terms of user numbers (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 way to go straight to those with disposable cash. Most international brands are also already well-versed in how to run a Facebook marketing campaign, so the start-up costs will be minimal, and Facebook’s demographic tools are powerful and constantly improving.

These are also the reasons Facebook should be your go-to over and above OK. OK is a less familiar platform with fewer concessions to non-Russian speakers, which makes getting up and running difficult without hiring local admins. While OK does have a large number of affluent, middle-aged female users, a particularly attractive market for fashion and beauty brands, Facebook is fast catching up in terms of 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. A strong Russian Facebook campaign is an investment in the future as well as the present.

Instagram 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 good place to start 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 dominance in Russia that it does in the West, possibly due to its connection to dissidence and authority-baiting. 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-heeled 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 international companies take the time to master it, they’ll see a strong return on their investment. Fortune favors the bold – now is the time to get involved.