At the heart of its recent success, however, is its ability to
turn Facebook's global solutions into more relevant applications
for this very specific local market. Every time Facebook develops a
new function, Vkontakte adapts it for the Russian-speaking market,
building engagement and retaining its competitive edge.
But the truth is that without Facebook, Vkontakte would not
exist in its present form. It needs the Facebook interface, its
technology development and social-design creativity. Any
development Facebook introduces is quickly adopted and made more
relevant to the site.
Vkontakte has lost another advantage now that Facebook
communicates in Russian, but the Russian site benefits from what
might generously be termed a more lax approach to copyright than
Content is becoming a much more significant part of the
social-media space, and Vkontakte allows users to watch movies
(including ones not yet released to DVD) or listen to music for
free within its walled garden, dramatically increasing time spent
on the site. Facebook, by contrast, might only have official clips
from movies. ComScore data show that its video service attracted
12.6 million unique users in March 2012 and its music service
attracted 11.2 million unique users.
Vkontake allows users to record notes, audio albums and
playlists. It also offers the ability to host audio and video files
within groups and personal pages, share text documents and write
personal notes and share them with friends, like a blog. Sitting at
the heart of a Russian language internet ecosystem, Vkontakte
reflects the cultural and political influence of the country and
extends to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and beyond.
In some of these markets, Vkontakte has built its powerbase by
being cooler and smarter than its local rivals. In Ukraine it
benefited from surge in users numbers when rival Odnoklassniki
temporarily started charging for access. The social network's
youthful users decided Vkontakte was cooler and decamped
While Facebook was able to appeal to Germans and Dutch via its
English language interface before it became localized, far fewer
Russians speak English, and most Russian-speaking countries
reference a sphere of influence where connections are more likely
to be in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Bloc.
Vkontakte's ability to resist the rise of Facebook is a direct
contrast to the former social leaders in Germany and the
Netherlands. By aping Facebook so closely, Vkontakte ensures that
the global leader's strengths are its strengths and by adapting to
local needs, protects itself from Facebook's weaknesses. (Vkontakte
won't follow Facebook into the stock market; founder and ceo Pavel
Durov postoned plans for an IPO indefinitely after Facebook's
The approach of both Hyves and the VZ Network was different.
Hyves is a semi-closed network and its API connections were
comparatively hard to work with, so some crucial innovations did
not come fast enough or at all.
Its failure to create an international platform cut Hyves off
from users abroad (important given the international outlook of
many Dutch consumers), and it also experimented with ad formats
that blurred the line between real content and commercial activity,
The situation in Germany was similar. The VZ Network never
provided a developers' area to encourage external development and,
like Hyves, failed to gather as much benefit from outside
development as Facebook.
Facebook also benefited from brand promotion in both countries.
Its great marketing potential (as well as its ability to run
multimarket campaigns without incurring massive costs on bespoke
development) helped position it as the leading network in both
One thing that we can be certain of is that Facebook will be
exerting strenuous efforts to extend its foothold in Russia and
surrounding countries as it looks to top 1 billion global
If Facebook wants to overtake Vkontake, it will have to
recognize that its Russian rival has successfully found a way to
provide local users with a local solution. It will have to find a
way to allow learn to adapt to cultural differences, rather than
simply continuing to develop a platform for the masses, built
top-down from California.