When reading the first set of blogs for the class I noticed that some people were talking about their early days on social media and mentioned funny awkward photos from middle school that they used to post on Facebook. That’s when I realized that I actually did not have any Facebook experience until my first year of college when I came to America. I did not use Facebook before not because I had strict parents or wasn’t interested in social media, but because Facebook is not a go-to social media platform in Russia (my home country). Russia is one of the few markets where Facebook has not been able to overcome local rivalry platforms. The map shows the number one social network by country in 2016:
For example, Facebook is banned in China, which explains its difficulties in attracting users there. However, in Russia Facebook was never illegal so its inability to become the number one platform has different explanations.
VK.com was formerly called Vkontakte which translates from Russian as “in touch”. It was created in 2006 and since its creation the social platform unambiguously resembled Facebook in terms of appearance and features.
Now it has around 90 million Russian users (Facebook has 26 million users in Russia). The founder, Pavel Durov, even first created it as a social platform for students and expanded the user-base from there. The social platform quickly grew in popularity because it allowed Russian users to get the experience of Facebook but in their native language. For years Facebook did not provide Russian language version of the website which was a big deal since most Russian people do not know English well enough to use a website in it. Nowadays, Facebook of course has a Russian language version, but the first-mover advantage was lost.
Additionally, in the past VK had a huge advantage over Facebook because of its lenient piracy laws. I remember you could watch any movie or listen to any song for free on VK, both Russian and international. It was basically free Netflix and Spotify combined. However, over the years many artists and movie production companies were complaining and suing VK so now that advantage is lost. However, VK still remains the dominant social media in Russia.
During the years that Facebook was unavailable to Russian users, VK became the dominant social media in Russia. A lot of Russians now have a Facebook account as well, but they do not use it actively, mostly to keep in touch with their international friends. That reminds me of our discussion last class about the main purpose of Facebook/any other social media. It seems to me that after all the primary purpose is connecting people with all the other features depending on it. For example, for Russian people because most of their friends use VK the content there is more relevant to their lives and they engage with it more actively. Similarly, since Russian people use it more, VK has more relevant data for advertising purposes in this market. Additionally, VK is following Facebook’s platform strategy and encourages website and application developers to incorporate it into their products. Some people think it is one of the main reasons for VK’s ability to hold strong in comparison to other local social media that were overthrown by Facebook.
I do think that Facebook is becoming more popular in Russia. First of all, it is a 140 million people market even without counting all the former Soviet Union countries so it is a good organic growth opportunity for Facebook. Second, the founder of VK had to resign from his CEO position and sell his stock in the company due to political conflicts with the government (he refused to ban certain anti-government content). Similarly to Zuckerberg, he was very important for company’s development and was the main generator of ideas (even though sometimes they were a pure copy of Zuckerberg’s). So I wonder if slowly without the founder’s support and more globalized population Facebook will be able to win the Russian market.
I am interested to find out!