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Instagram Nyet! Russian Influencers Lose Mojo On Homegrown Platforms

It's a different kind of "migration" indeed, from Instagram to VKontakte, after U.S. social media were banned in Russia. It's yet another kind of difficulty for Russians trying to continue with daily life.

​Photo of Russian social network VKontakte (VK) logo

Photo of Russian social network VKontakte (VK) logo seen displayed on a computer screen through a magnifying glass.

Yuri Litvinenko and Valeria Lebedeva

MOSCOW — Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, access to international digital platforms and social networks within Russia has become virtually impossible. Facebook and Instagram were banned in late March, the activities of their parent company Meta were declared extremist and blocked, and Twitter was quickly added later to the hit list.

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The platforms themselves also set restrictions: in particular, YouTube prevented the ability to monetize content in Russia, Meta blocked certain advertisers' accounts, and TikTok limited the download of new videos and access to foreign content.

All this has resulted in another mass migration since the start of the war: this time, of a different sort. Russians who earn their living through Western social media must now move their online activity to domestic Russian platforms.

Expectations and Reality

Russian social networks have been busy boasting a growing audience. A representative of VKontakte, the Russian Facebook equivalent, told Kommersant that in March, the daily number of users in the Russian Federation increased by 9% and the total monthly audience in the country amounted to 72 million, the first time it ever exceeded 50 million. Other networks such as Odnoklassniki and Gazprom-Media, which owns the Yappy short-video service, have claimed similar growth.

The transition of the Facebook and Instagram audience to Russian platforms was facilitated not only by its unilateral blockage, but also by the lack of clarity regarding the consequences for those who continued to use the sites via VPN.

The decision of the Moscow Court on Meta states that judicial protection measures do not limit the use of social networks by users who are not involved in prohibited activities. The wording raised major questions, though. The office of the Prosecutor General was asked for clarifications as lawyers wanted to understand whether individuals and legal entities can be held administratively and criminally liable for posting links to Meta resources, “liking” posts, using platform symbols, as well as using the messaging tools that have become integrated into daily life.

No clarification has yet been given.

Lost In Translation

Mediascope notes that the Telegram messaging platform is growing the fastest of all Russian social channels: its average daily coverage has grown from 25% (for the period February 21–27) to 34% (April 11–15). The platform accounts for a significant portion of news content consumption, according to Mediascope.

The coverage of VKontakte has not changed so noticeably - from 38% to 41%, while Odnoklassniki has hardly changed at all. In comparison, the average Instagram reach fell from 32% to 12% and Facebook from 8% to 2%,

But for influencers, the change is not as easy as it seems at first glance. Indeed, Epicstars Communications Director Anastasia Yermoshina said that popular bloggers with an audience of more than 1 million subscribers will not be able to quickly transfer them to new platforms.

The Russian services themselves aren't ready to accept users from Facebook or Instagram.

When switching from Instagram to other social networks, bloggers can lose around 15-20% of the "legacy" audience.

As a result, neither bloggers nor advertisers “can immediately adapt to all the changes and are in no hurry to leave their usual platforms,” Ekaterina Bibik, head of Admitad Affiliate in Russia, emphasizes. Nor are the Russian services themselves yet ready to accept users from Facebook or Instagram.

Kirill Lubnin, vice-president of the CROS agency for strategy and development notes another issue. Users of VKontakte and Odnoklassniki discuss politics and topical issues less than people on Facebook and Instagram who bypass their blocking.

There is a lot of consumer and entertainment content on VK social networks, as well as "content with a regional or territorial reference," he noted. Russian social networks when compared to Instagram, are less aimed at the audiences of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and instead appeal to more rural ones.

Differences in user preferences are largely related to how the platforms were positioned in the early stages of development, Kirill Borisov explains: “Aesthetic content has a greater response on Instagram than on other platforms, since the philosophy of “sharing photos” is still alive.”

\u200bScreen of a smartphone displaying the logos of the social networks

Screen of a smartphone displaying the logos of the apps VKontakte, Twitter, RT News, Facebook, Instagram and Telegram.

Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/dpa/ZUMA

Telegram Is Different

The move to Russian platforms comes with another challenge. Here, the tools for advertisers are still geared towards groups: “In order to become commercially successful, a blogger has to create communities. For many, this is a new practice.”

The hype simply won’t last.

Originally conceived by the founder Pavel Durov as a means of secure messaging, Telegram has become something closer to a social media platform with the addition of “groups” and “channels”. This format, though, remains entirely different to that of Instagram, and bloggers who don't readjust their habits could be at risk of having their followers turn off notifications and therefore drop in audience reach.

While some influencers are taking the move in their stride, attempting to master Russian social networks as quickly as possible and avoid severe drops in earnings, others consider attempts to replace Western social networks with others as doomed to failure. Influencers “may try to build their following on the new platforms," says Yermoshina, "but in the long run, the hype simply won’t last."

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