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Why Russia’s Social Media Boom Is Big News for Business

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Article from Mashable , Written by Dallas Lawrence

Dallas Lawrence is the chief global digital strategist for Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s leading public relations and communications firms. He is a Mashable contributor on emerging media trends, online reputation management and digital issue advocacy. You can connect with him on Twitter @dallaslawrence.

Nearly a century after the October Revolution ushered in Socialist rule throughout the USSR, a new generation of Russians is beginning to step out from behind the Iron Curtain and join the global online marketplace. The millions of 18 to 27-year-olds now poised to drive the next generation of social and economic change in Russia are setting aside previously held perceptions about global engagement and are tweeting, blogging, liking, posting and emailing through a myriad of online social communities.

In just one generation, the paradigm that shaped most Western perceptions of Russia has dramatically shifted. As one American expat now living in the heart of the country told me during a recent visit to Russia, “Twenty years ago, if there was a line in Moscow, you got in it because it meant there was something — anything — for sale. The speed at which things are now changing is incredible.”

Russia’s Social Media Awakening

By nearly every indicator, Russians are embracing social and digital media in ways deeper and more impactful than most other countries around the world. For those looking to do business in the former Republic, significant opportunities now exist to leverage this new wave of social adoption.

Consider that in the first four months after its January 2010 launch in Russia, Facebook use grew by 376%, and today more than 4.5 million people use the site regularly. Nearly three-quarters of those making the switch from homegrown social platforms such as Vkontakte (with tens of millions of members) to Facebook are under 27, signaling a generational desire to engage in global communities and interact with brands, celebrities, friends and politicians in decidedly new ways. Twitter usage, while still in its infancy in Russian, grew three-fold in 2010.

And while it should come as little surprise that nearly 80% of the Russian population owns a mobile device, the dramatic adoption of smartphone technology and advanced mobile usage are beginning to change the way in which businesses — and the government — communicate. According to Nielsen, Russians under 24 are the third-largest users worldwide of “advanced mobile data,” behind only China and the United States.

While interesting in the macro-sense, these broad numbers paint an incomplete picture of the complex future of social and digital media in Russia. The real story behind the social revolution lies less in the initial platform adoption we are witnessing and far more in the sheer volume of engagement occurring within them.

According to a Comscore global study this past summer, Russia had the most engaged social networking audience worldwide. Let me repeat that: Russians are more social than anyone else on the planet.

In 2010, Russians spent on average twice the amount of time within social networks as their global counterparts, racking up nearly 10 hours per month. Last week, Comscore released a benchmark report on the initial study showing the number had actually surged again to 10.2 hours per month — nearly twice the average time U.S. users spend within social sites.

In Russia, Twitter has managed to avoid the initial user fall-off that the platform suffers from in the United States — roughly 60% of Russians update their profile daily according to Yandex, the preeminent search provider in Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is one of those prolific tweeters (he has more than half a million followers on his four accounts). Medvedev has engaged on social platforms such as Twitter with an often refreshing and surprisingly candid approach.

One recent tweet recalled his days as a high school DJ: “Meeting Deep Purple, I remembered being a DJ in my school years. The set had to be approved by the Komsomol – ‘Child in Time’ passed.” Another post offered a frank assessment of his government’s failure to address security needs following a terrorist attack on a local railway station, stating, “Checked on security at railway stations – it’s unsatisfactory. The Prosecutor General’s Office will have to deal with it.”

What It Means for Global Brands

So, what does all of this mean for the future Russia? Just as with the U.S. and other Western companies that moved first into the social space, those in Russia who are willing to get in on the ground floor of social engagement and to build social connectivity with key audiences stand to benefit mightily over the next 12 to 18 months.

To be sure, tens of thousands of Western companies and brands have already established online profiles in Russia, but nearly all have failed to move beyond simply replicating offline content online. Russian communicators have not invested in building the long term relationships and value-driven conversations necessary to truly leverage the power of the social marketplace.

The challenge, as I heard time and again from state-owned entities and global multinational companies with which I met, is achieving buy-in from their leadership for anything other than tried and true one-way “broadcasting” programs.

This has been the universal conundrum facing advocates for social media in nearly every country where user adoption leaps ahead of corporate engagement. However, as a recent study of the Global Fortune 100 noted earlier this year, most successful companies have now moved past these barriers and embraced the value of engaged social media programs. If Russian operators are looking for a competitive advantage amongst the next generation of consumers, they must quickly do the same.

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