Using VKontakte for Business Purposes
Facebook may be the biggest brand in the social media space, but it is not the end-all and be-all of social media tools, especially outside of the United States. If you’re looking to engage consumers in Eastern Europe and Russia, your ideal social media tool is, instead, VKontakte (often abbreviated as either VK or Vk). The premier social networking site in the region, VK, (literally translated as “in contact”, also meaning “in touch”), is often called the Russian Facebook, and compared to Mark Zuckerberg’s firm. Though VK is the smaller in absolute numbers of users, revenue, and several other measures, it is the go-to network in brand engagement for businesses looking to sell products and services in this region.
In this article, we will explore: 1) the history of VK, 2) the purpose of VK, 3) the benefits of using VK, 4) setting up a VK account, 5) using VK for business, 6) VK’s key terms, 7) best practices for using VK, and 8) a case study of Adidas’ business usage of VK.
HISTORY OF VKontakte
VK was founded by Pavel Durov in September 2006. Durov, then a recent graduate of St. Petersburg State University, followed a similar launch strategy to Facebook, opening it to college students by invitation only. Once it was open to the public, its growth exploded. As of April 2014, the site counted a quarter of a billion active users, predominantly in Russian-speaking countries. An IPO was planned in 2012; however Durov scrapped that idea after Facebook’s well-publicized IPO issues.
Though a relatively young social network, VKontakte has seen its fair share of controversy. In 2011, Durov was pressured by the Federal Security Service to turn over the names of VK users involved in anti-Kremlin protests. The following April, he was accused of hitting a police officer with a car, and after VK’s offices were searched by the authorities, Durov fled the country. The day after the search, United Capital Partners (UCP), a firm with Kremlin ties bought 48% of the firm from two of VK’s founding partners. In May of 2013, VK was added to a blacklist of websites that contained child pornography, which some anti-Kremlin activists called a political move. And later in the year, the firm offered a job to Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who leaked classified U.S. documents in June of 2013.
In April 2014, VK was taken over by Alisher Usmanov, head of Mail.ru, and Igor Sechin, CEO of UCP. Durov claimed that this was part of Russia’s ongoing efforts to control media in the country, as both men are tied to the Kremlin. Durov, while resisting pressure to provide VK user data on those involved in anti-government protests, gradually sold his shares in the company. His sale, combined with the sale of shares to UCP, afforded Usmanov and Sechin control of VK.
In September 2014, VK came under fire for posting content supportive of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), though it quickly pulled said content down after media reports.
PURPOSE OF VKontakte
VK was created to be a social networking site for, and of interest to, Russian and Eastern European speakers. It is meant for users to communicate with each other, share digital content, and play games, and intended for businesses and brands to use as a means of promotion and marketing.
VK is known for rapidly adopting Facebook functions, integrating them into its own site, and tailoring them to its unique market (earning it its moniker of “the Russian Facebook”). In fact, its structure and design are extremely similar – down to the Pages and Groups. With this strategic orientation, VK has managed to maintain a dominant position in the Russian social media market, despite rivals such as Odnoklassniki’s (meaning “Classmates”), and Moy Mir, both owned by Mail.ru, as well as the Russian version of Facebook.
BENEFITS OF VKontakte
VK, offered officially in English, Russian, and Ukrainian (but available in many others), provides a number of benefits to its users, as well as to brands. VK’s features include private messaging, news feeds, Groups, Public Pages, browser-based games, and privacy settings, as well as the ability to communicate, like and share content. Featuring a notably more robust search function than Facebook, it also allows you to add audio files and listen to music for free as well as to watch full-length movies, free of charge (though both are, for the most part, pirated). In August of 2014, VK announced the launch of three mobile apps – for downloading music, sharing photos, and sending messages, respectively.
These features are one reason that VK is extremely popular in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldava, and Belarus, as well as Israel and the U.S. As of February 2014, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had a total of 60 million user accounts. By contrast, Facebook’s total number of users in these three countries was 12.4 million. As of August 2014, VK averaged 34 million users per day compared to Facebook’s 6.5 million. Even with a Facebook-Yandex partnership in early 2014, VK remains the market leader in Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Many Russians view their choice of VK over Facebook as a matter of national pride. Further, some foreign social networks have clashed with the Russian government over issues of censorship. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have come under fire by the Russian government for refusing to block content the Russian government requests they block, as the social media firm’s deem this content free speech.
The market VK covers uses the Internet on average 4.8 hours a day, and in the case of Russia, spends 40% of its time online on social media websites. Partially because of this, VK brand pages have twice the engagement of Facebook’s Company pages. Further, VK collects considerable demographic information on VK users – from jobs to political preferences. These factors make VK a very effective marketing tool for brands and firms.
SETTING UP A VKontakte ACCOUNT
To utilize VK for business, you’ll want to set up a company and/or brand Page and a Group page. The first step is to sign up for an account. You can do so by visiting www.vk.com, and entering your name, email address and gender, and clicking Sign Up. Once you’ve done that, and entered your country, you’ll be prompted to validate your account. Enter your mobile phone number and VK will send a code to it. Enter the code and create a password, and you’ll be ready to start using your VK account. Alternatively, you can sign up by allowing VK to access your Facebook account.
You’ll be prompted to enter in personal information about yourself, much concerning your college years. You can skip this step, especially if you are setting up a personal account, specifically to take advantage of VK’s branded pages and communities. From your personal page, click My Communities, to the right on your profile page. Click Create community, and select Public Page to create a page. Enter the firm name, select Company, organization, or website, indicate that you are an official representative and accept the Terms of Service and then click Create page. the following page will allow you to customize the appearance of the page. Fill out these fields thoroughly, as they are the extent of the customization you are allowed on VK. from public pages, you can place targeted ads, add news updates and view statistics about page visitors.
To create a Group, which is helpful for engagement and lead generation, click My Communities, to the right on your profile page. Click Create community, and select Group. There is slightly less customization for Groups than public pages. However, our can also create targeted ads, advertising the group and obtain detailed statistics on Group visitors.
USING VKontakte FOR BUSINESS
VK’s features provide the enterprising marketing department a solid platform to increase its sales through targeted marketing, content marketing, and advertising.
By integrating VK into your social media mix, you can easily tap into a highly connected geo-demographic group. While by taking advantage of Pages and Groups, you will be able to inform and engage (respectively) VK users. Pages are ideal for communicating news and information about your brand. Product launches and demonstrations, firm-hosted events, and the like, are all ideally shared here. Beyond a company and/or brand page, Groups can help deepen engagement. These should be geared towards connecting customers around a common brand-related interest. For example, a manufacturer of children’s educational toys might create a Group about parenting that would encourage parents to share with each other how they supplement their children’s schooling. This Group could help the firm increase their brand and product awareness, gain product insights, and deepen brand loyalty, in addition to increasing sales.
You can also create lists of target users through VK’s search function which contains filters related to all of the (considerable) demographic information it collects.
Extending reach and visibility through content marketing
Page and Group updates are critical to increasing your presence on VK and the adoption of your brand by VK users. But text and photo updates, just scratch the surface. As VK has a large database of pirated video, VK is ideal for video updates. VK is also heavily used for games. Investing in a unique and branded game can drive traffic to your Page and Group, as well as to your website, and lead to sales.
Keep in mind that many of VK’s users use the site for entertainment. Text, photo and video updates should be created with this in mind.
Extending reach and visibility through advertising
VK has a robust advertising platform available to brands, offering targeted premium banner and video ads on either a cost per click or cost per impression model, with pricing determined by auction (and taking demographic information into consideration). Paid posts are also available in Communities. Posts can be either new or recreations of existing posts. In August of 2014, VK made Offers available on the site: these consist of tasks users must complete for virtual currency. Advertisers can also target these users by selecting what tasks VK users must complete, drive them to a specific webpage and/or convert them, and branding the Offer itself.
VK also launched an ad retargeting network, similar to Facebook Exchange, which allows users to track VK user activity on their websites and customize the ads they see.
Generating sales leads
Sales leads can come from Page visitors, Group members, ad viewers, game players, or some combination of all four. Offers are a great tool in direct marketing campaigns as it drives users to complete a task. Brand and/or industry-related Groups are another way to generate sales leads: you can reach out to members outside of your customer base who have joined because of their interest in your industry, and sell them your product. Contests can attract VK users outside of your target demographic, eliciting interest from users from across the site to your brand.
VKontakte KEY TERMS
- Groups – a feature in VK that provides a forum for users to join, share and interact with each other around a common interest.
- Pages – a webpage associated with a brand, company, organization or group.
- Communities – on VK, both Groups and Pages comprise Communities.
BEST PRACTICES FOR USING VKontakte
It is critical, particularly, if you are new to VK, to understand how to use it effectively to reach your target market. While it is extremely similar to Facebook in many regards, it is not Facebook, and its market’s geo-demographics are unique. To use VK effectively:
- Upload content: There is not much you can customize on a Brand page, so post updates, audio/video/photo content frequently, and engage visitors to your brand. Vary the types of updates you offer between text, photo, and video. And create content with some entertainment value, given the conventional usage of the site.
- Create a Group for your business: as VK provides metrics for users who join your Group. You can use these metrics, along with demographic data to refine your profile of your target market(s). More importantly, Groups garner deeper engagement and offer opportunities for you to connect directly with this market. Keep people talking through moderating and updating the Group consistently.
- Create a game relevant to your brand or a branded app with game-like functionality, to tap into a healthy market of VK users.
- Ensure your advertisements are prominent as VK, with its surfeit of piracy, is also awash in spam.
- Create contests on VK communities to generate excitement, engagement, and sales leads. By directing users to create content, you can also obtain branded photos and testimonials with relatively little effort and expense.
A number of firms have developed a strong presence on VKontakte, including Coca-Cola and Samsung, as well as the German multinational firm Adidas. Using NLO Marketing as their digital agency, Adidas worked to reach the Russian audience online beginning in January of 2010, by building a scalable presence on VK. NLO Marketing built, among many others, the Adidas Sport Community on VK, which wound up becoming the single largest VK Adidas-branded community. To populate it, and other Adidas Groups on VK, the agency created a number of contests; a quick-update system to serve users with new ads; branded apps allowing users to create avatars from sports photos, to find tourist routes, to test their impact force, and to check in at hosted events, among other functions. The agency also provided VK users considerable Adidas-related content through uploading catalogues, creating product pages, and posting store information online; and allowed VK users the opportunity to create and upload content. A notable content addition was a reality show, featuring Adidas and VK users training to run an 8km race; this was of course featured on Adidas Sport. Through 15 different VK-based marketing campaigns in its first two years, Vkontakte was able to reach 12 million users and engage over 700,000 VK users.
By February 2014, Adidas Sport had grown to include 385,000 members, communicating in 111 discussions. A second community, Adidas Originals, also launched in 2010, grew in two years to include over 160,000 members; by February 201, it had grown to 189,000 followers. A third, Neo Adidas Label, had 76,050 fans as of February 2014 and a fourth, aimed at women, Adidas Women, had 8,070 as of that date. Other smaller communities totaled another 53,000 members.
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