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Companies with truly global aspirations will try to reach out to every corner of the world, but some corners are harder to reach than others. In digital marketing terms, Russia is among these more difficult territories, due in part to home-grown social networks such as VK and Odnoklassniki.

Big brands already on these platforms provide content in Russian, to engage with their consumers on a deeper level. However, large brands such as Apple and Nike, face a different phenomenon: users who self-organise to create groups and provide brand-related content, without any backing from the official brand. In many cases, these groups outgrow the official brand page by a significant margin.

Don’t dismiss unofficial user created brand groups

Unofficial groups would potentially be viewed with suspicion in English-speaking contexts, but they shouldn’t be dismissed entirely. Not only are there potential monetary gains from advertising within these groups, but more importantly, those who use them display exceptionally high loyalty to a brand, and they band together and pride themselves on being part of such a community.
The content in this type of group is often not marketing oriented: it provides entertainment through satire, competitions, music, motivational quotes and more. A large quantity of this content has nothing to do with the brand at all – its only purpose is to get people to engage with the group. These groups are not subject to brand guidelines and there are very few restrictions on activity. At the same time, the lack of constant direct advertisement is highly appealing to users.

Ecommerce platforms attract users

These unofficial groups also achieve popularity by providing an e-commerce platform for products that aren’t widely available, especially luxury and non-essential goods. Though brands often create Russian-language Facebook and VK groups to engage with their audiences, these have a different dynamic: they focus on exclusive brand-related news updates, product promotion and customers’ feedback.
Unofficial groups are especially capable of explosive growth in the absence of an official channel. For example, Apple doesn’t have an official social presence on Russian social networks or a Facebook page in Russian. Instead, there are several user-created groups on VK for brand-loyalists. Currently there are more than 10 different groups with over 100,000 possible to provide regular content without spending a lot of time on research. Users interact in the gallery section of the group, by commenting and uploading their own photos of their devices, as well as having albums to play games such as hangman.

Nike user created group four times bigger than official presence

 Another brand worth mentioning is Nike. Although it has an official presence on VK with collective number of followers around 400,000, there is still an independent group which is four times bigger (1.6 million users). The content of these groups present some interesting contrasts.

Official social media channels are forced to keep within brand guidelines and are restricted on the type of content they can provide, whereas the only restrictions for unofficial groups are the internal VK guidelines. In the independent Nike group, plenty of content is not relevant to the brand, such as inspirational quotes, interesting facts and image macros.  A large number of users in this group are under 18 (25%), which explains the popularity of this type of content. By posting images with the Nike brand on them, the group arguably raises loyalty levels and people feel proud of owning and purchasing Nike products in the future.

This group has no gallery, and content is therefore limited to the constantly evolving timeline. Apart from the profits the group-owner receives from advertising within the group, this page links to an e-commerce web-site that sells a range of products from established sports brands. As with all pages of this type, the main indicators of engagement are likes and shares. Due to the fact that content isn’t directly advertising Nike products, but rather providing entertainment based on the brand, it feels less commercial and more accessible for the general public.

As mentioned before, another popular reason for forming an unofficial brand group, is to establish an e-commerce platform to sell goods which aren’t easily available. A good example is a group dedicated to Toyota, which acts as an outlet for a Toyota specialised car-service and car-parts re-seller. Posting photos of Toyota cars along with audio tracks as well as newly available car-parts, the group provides a platform for users to interact with each other. It also facilitates indirect interaction with the brand. Other luxury brands that are officially sold through VK are L’Oreal, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Omega and many more. This method of purchase is attractive due to a personal delivery option (the federal post service isn’t very reliable) along with the ability to consume information in a familiar format.

User created groups form around well-established brands

Unofficial groups provide a more relaxed platform for interaction, can and should be used by the large brands to investigate social sentiments towards the brand and the potential for future sales, as pointed out by Econsultancy.

“For a long time VK has been seen purely as a marketing platform to boost brand awareness. Over the last two years, however, it is increasingly being recognised (especially in the retail and travel industries) as a revenue-driving channel that is outperforming traditional marketing channels such as search and display in terms of reach and ROI.” Econsultancy, 2015

Overall, only well-established consumer goods brands who have a high level of engagement with their customers will have unofficial groups forming around them. Although the VK community is well-established and there is less chance of new unofficial groups forming, there is still demand for a specific type of entertainment content for users under 25 that official accounts are unlikely to meet. As for the e-commerce side of VK, this segment is likely to continue to grow as the supply of luxury goods decreases, following recent sanctions against Russia from EU and US.