familiar yet different: navigating the Russian digital landscape

Written By

Rafael Gabrilian

Client Service Director

Central Asia & CIS

Published OnApril 21, 2021


Written By

Rafael Gabrilian

Client Service Director

Central Asia & CIS

Published OnApril 21, 2021

No matter where you are in the world, any digital marketing and communications strategy will almost always include the names of global giants like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, in some cases, Amazon or LinkedIn. Whether you’re generating awareness about the new endeavours of a multinational pharmaceutical enterprise, or helping to boost the image of a local coffee shop, you can’t escape promoting their brand stories, values, products and services, and quite frankly, their very existence, on one or more of these digital platforms.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and there are great parts of the world, like China and Russia, now demonstrating their own diverse range of choices, with their very own digital ecosystems (the massively popular Chinese Tik Tok is a prime example). This article provides our unique insights into several popular digital channels that are sometimes overlooked, helping you navigate the wide Russian digital landscape and build a successful communications strategy in a country that is, in many ways, a world unto itself. 

russians online – at a glance 

First and foremost, let’s take a look at some key numbers. According to Hootsuite’s We Are Social 2020 report, there are currently 118 million Russian internet users, indicating an 81% penetration rate. 70 million of these users
are active on social media or messaging platforms. Exemplifying the importance of digital PR and marketing in the Russian market, the average daily time that internet users (aged 16 to 64) spend online is a whopping 7 hours
and 17 minutes, and 2 hours 26 minutes on social media.

search engines – google vs yandex, or both?

THE LOWDOWN: According to the Statcounter service , the Russian search engine market was almost equally shared in 2020, with Google claiming 51.61% of the market share, and Yandex, 45.96%. The rest of the market was divided between Mail.ru, Bing, Yahoo! and DuckDuckGo. Yandex should be a real focal point right now – Google’s main competitor in the region, and the fifth most popular search engine in the world, as per the same Statcounter data. Founded in 1997, it is now a multinational corporation, providing Internet-related products and over 70 services, including online advertising, search and information services, email, eCommerce, navigation and transportation, streaming, mobile applications and more. 

OUR INSIGHTS: Here at Action Russia, we suggest brands consider advertising on both Google and Yandex, to cover a wider audience, especially when they are first entering the market. Apart from ads in search feed, Yandex features The Yandex Advertising Network (similar to Google Display Network), a traffic source which includes thousands of websites, their mobile-friendly versions, mobile apps and Smart TV apps, that serve contextual ads from Yandex. As Yandex declares, if search ads respond to a user’s current search query, contextual ads focus on the users themselves — their interests, online behaviour and the content of the site they are currently viewing. Over 80% of visitors on the Yandex Advertising Network are not part of the Yandex Search audience.

We recommend Yandex advertising when coordinating joint campaigns, for example those of our travel destination clients with their tour operating partners. If a Russian traveller is searching for a trip to Dubai, tour operators want to be on the first page of both the Yandex and Google search feed. Of course, for some clients, the first step into the world of contextual advertising is the localization or from scratch-development of a Russian-language website; a service which Action Russia has been offering clients for almost 20 years.

social media – an unusual landscape

The Russian social media landscape is different to most international markets. According to Mediascope, the top five social media channels in Russia in 2020 were as follows:

  • YouTube
  • VKontakte
  • Instagram
  • Odnoklassniki
  • Facebook

While three out of five leaders are well-known and recognizable, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki are harder to pronounce and each have their own special functions and audiences that are sometimes easier for many brands to target. Here’s some useful insights on both.


THE LOWDOWN: In June 2020, the number of VKontakte users in Russia jumped to 73 million, almost 5% more than the previous year, according to the platform’s official report. The social network is used internationally by 97 million people, with the majority of VKontakte users between 25 and 34 years old. According to Mediascope, women slightly outnumber men on VK, at 54.9% of all users. The majority of users declare an average income (39.6% of the average monthly audience), while users with an above aver age income account for 31.8% of all users. Mediascope estimates that the mobile audience using the social network amounts to 61.6 million people.

OUR INSIGHTS: Action Russia manages the social media channels of almost every client on our portfolio including official VK pages for the Malta Tourism Authority, the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism and Lego Education. VK is a good tool for attracting audiences for all kinds of events, master classes and courses, due to its large student following. 

Professional groups also use VK, with communities differentiated by regions, specialized interests, and all sorts of social-demographic criteria. For one of our high-profile tech clients, we recently launched a promotional campaign on VK, via its targeting tool, to attract professional programmers of C++ and Python languages to participate in an open course on computer vision and Al.


THE LOWDOWN: According to Mediascope, Odnoklassniki ranks ninth in the rating of top 10 Russian inter net projects. Although most of the users on the channel are Russian, it’s also used by residents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Germany, Armenia, Georgia, and other neighbouring countries. According to official data at the start of 2020, the OK audience amounted to 43 million Russians, with 20.8 million daily visits. On average, users spend approximately 22 minutes on this social network. Odnoklassniki attracts two main age groups in Russia: 25-34 and 35-44.

OUR INSIGHTS: Odnoklassniki users are more family-oriented than other platforms, and the channel is a good fit for medical products, insurance companies, and for household and childcare-related goods, especially in the Russian regions. For one of the Russia’s top kids retail chains, Korablik, we successfully captured the attention of parents around the country on OK, boosting traffic on their website, while encouraging loyalty and attachment to the brand, via creative posts and regular contests.

messengers – telegram in the limelight

THE LOWDOWN: According to Deloitte’s “Media Consumption in Russia 2020” report, Russians have an aver age of four messengers installed on their phones: WhatsApp (88%), Viber (62%), Skype (52%) and Telegram (50%) are the most popular. Interestingly, Telegram is having a real moment, recording the highest spike in popularity (+10pp) in 2020, with Moscow and St. Petersburg standing as two core regions of growth. Tele gram is also more popular with a young audience aged 14-24, and students (both 8pp above the average). 

Unbeknown to many, Telegram has been around since 2013, owned by ‘Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg’, Pavel Durov (also the original founder of VK), and his brother, Nikolai. When WhatsApp (currently the most popular messenger in Russia) announced its new policy in mid-January, Telegram, which is globally famous for its privacy-focused values, reported an increase of 25 million active users over a 72-hour period. The service stipulates that it now has 500 million active users.

The application is also interesting in terms of promotional opportunities – aside from functioning as a messenger, Telegram is a very popular, and an already highly influential media platform too, with numerous channels covering general news, lifestyle, technology, design, gastronomy, travel and more. Telegram has proved to be effective for promoting products or services, with over $170M spent on advertising in Telegram channels in 2020.

Interestingly, the platform doesn’t utilise advertising algorithms. Brands simply have to find a relevant channel, contact its administrator, and negotiate an advertising post in the channel’s feed which is actually not algorithmic either – users see posts chronologically and whenever they enter the channel. The platform does not currently regulate advertising on its channels. However, in December 2020, Pavel Durov announced that in 2021, Telegram is to start earning revenue – without disturbing all existing services – remaining free of charge and free of advertising for its users. Telegram plans to make money from additional functions for business, and for users with more extensive requirements e.g. paid-for stickers.

OUR INSIGHTS: Here at Action Russia, we are great fans of Telegram and begun conducting campaigns on the channel in early 2020. Last year, we successfully used Telegram to promote the first online edition of the Singapore Food Festival and the launch of the official Dubai Tourism Telegram channel. Since then, we man aged an additional campaign on Telegram for Singapore to promote its recently UNESCO-listed hawker culture, while the number of subscribers on the Dubai Tourism channel, a b2b source of information, has topped 2500.

The Peru Trade Office in Moscow has joined the list of our Telegram success stories, when KPIs doubled, via a campaign implemented to promote Peruvian superfoods, coffee, chocolate, spirits and even alpaca wool to an audience of healthy lifestyle enthusiasts, fashionistas and authentic spirits aficionados – all captured in different thematic channels within Telegram.

Conducting business in Russia is not always a typical affair, but it’s definitely an interesting and rewarding one. And although a few of the digital platforms in this article may seem alien for many readers, making sense of the Russian digital landscape, while utilising specific channels best suited to your brand and target audience, can help your brand truly stand out in the Russian market. 

If you would like to learn more about the Russian digital landscape and how to connect with the right Russian audience for your brand via the best channels, contact Rafael at [email protected].

let’s work together