A Network Buried Underground

WHAT IS THERE BEYOND SOCIAL MEDIA DOOMSDAY?

On the 16th of May, Sasha Kievtseva was sitting in the office when the first news came out on Facebook. Reading the posts of the Ukrainian news sites, she thought it was just some kind of a joke. Then official information appeared on the website of the government. The communique disturbed the calm Tuesday morning of the digital agency: Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko announced that the largest social media channel of the country, VKontakte would be banned in Ukraine due to national security reasons.

The strategist of Liquid7 digital agency and her colleagues, whose daily tasks had included the management of the VKontakte pages of their clients up until that point, started to devour the news. It turned out that the presidential decree expanded the sanctions against Russia (applied due to the annexation of Crimea and the support of Eastern-Ukrainian separatist forces), and blocked the most popular Russian owned web services of the country for three years. By blocking Yandex that, among other Internet-related services, operates a highly popular search engine, and Mail.ru that includes a well-known email service, and the country’s two major social media platforms, Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte, the Ukrainian government aspired to put an end to Russian hybrid warfare. Internet and mobile service providers were given 15 days to implement the technical blocking.

Half a Country Stood Helplessly

VKontakte, owned by a Russian group of companies called Mail.ru, is the most popular social media channel in former Soviet states – before Facebook and other Western community pages in the area – and it was used by 75-80% of the Ukrainian Internet users before the ban. The approximately 25 million people were taken unawares by the news, as were Sasha and her colleagues. Most of them did not have a clue about what would happen to their profiles and the contact networks they had built over the years. Although VKontakte came to their help the next day with a detailed description about how they can keep on using the platform through VPN, most of the VK users lacked the skills to connect to a non-Ukrainian IP address through VPN. A lot of them did not want to be left without social media, so they registered to Facebook. Due to the exodus from VKontakte, the number of Ukrainian Facebook users increased by 1.5 million in just two weeks. The blocking of the site caused little heartache to millions of users but a great deal of it to brands. Lesia Shchygol, a digital marketing expert of Lay’s, was attending a workshop in Prague, when she heard the news. “We immediately stopped all running campaigns and suspended all planned activity” she recalls.

From now on, you cannot find us on Odnoklassniki or VKontakte”, reads the farewell message of Lay’s Ukraine on VK, which was also a call for followers to like the Facebook page of the brand. The page had about 73,000 fans.

Where Did People Go?

“After a huge buzz, all the swarming calmed down a bit and we started to think about what should we advise our clients?” remembers Sasha. VKontakte closed its Ukrainian office when the site was blocked, so you could only make payments for the advertisements directly to the Russian parent company. However, in accordance with the decree, Ukrainian enterprises cannot have business relations with sanctioned Russian companies, thus all the doors to advertising were shut on brands and agencies alike. Still, this was not the only aspect of social media management that became a problem.

Head of Service on Issues of Information Security of the Staff of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine Valentin Petrov ensured Ukrainian citizens that bypassing the law on the blocking of Russian websites would not be punished, so in theory, users are still able to use VKontakte. Nevertheless, due to the relative complexity of the anonymity-proof VPN access, the Ukrainian userbase of the page has fallen by 61% in just three months. “The volume of access is decreasing at such a fast pace that it is not reasonable [for brands] to stay on this platform,” says German Sevalnev, Head of SMM at Liquid7.

So, from one week to the other, brands bid farewell to their VKontakte communities that they had been building for years arduously, for a lot of money. They published a post in growing numbers announcing that they would stop managing their pages. Some companies had to start building their Facebook communities from scratch, while others – including Lay’s – had been active on the Western platform already, so they could simply invite their fans to follow them on the other channel. However, many of them kept away.

Brands used to approach Facebook and VKontakte with different communication objectives in Ukraine, because one could reach two quite different target groups on these platforms. VKontakte users used to be mainly young people who used the site to listen to music, watch videos and chat. On the other hand, the audience on Facebook was typically older than 24, with higher level of education and besides consuming and sharing content, they put a huge emphasis on networking as well. Due to the different profiles of the two platforms, not all VKontakte users switched to Facebook right after its shutdown. 45% of them already had an account on the Western site and it is likely that the rest of them will sooner or later follow them. Until then, brands are faced with the challenge of reaching this suddenly invisible audience. Until there is enough information gathered in the surveys of TNS and Gemius, professionals try to reach younger audiences through other social platforms. “We simply advised our clients to use VK in case they wanted to reach young target groups before. Today, we rather plan with Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and other messenger apps” notes Sasha.

Besides the target audiences, the two sites differ in terms of the available advertising formats and targeting options as well, which justifies the difficulty of adapting creative concepts running on VK to Facebook. “The tone of interaction with the users of the two sites are very different, so it makes no sense to copy the campaigns,” says German. “We have to entirely rebuild our creative approach and our strategy.”

During the weeks following the ban, the greatest challenge for brands – besides the measurement of target groups and the readjustment of campaigns – was the revision of social media budgets. Most clients did not change the amount of money; they simply split the sum allocated to VKontakte between other channels. However, Facebook’s algorithm makes advertising more expensive when the demand in a certain country rises. Consequently, brands must pay a higher price for shout over the ad noise rising from the masses of new Ukrainian advertisers.

Local Heroes

Shutting down the most popular social media channel of a country is not necessarily painful for everyone. While due to Poroshenko’s decree millions of Ukrainian users lost their online contact network and many companies had to bid farewell to one of their most valuable marketing assets, the blocking of VK provided a handful of ambitious young people with a great opportunity. “I collected the team and proposed to try and find a way to capture the Ukrainian market before everybody migrated to Facebook” remembers Alex Vasylyk, CEO of the Canadian- based start-up accelerator StartupSoft and co-founder of the community site called Ukrainians.co.

Two days after the blocking of VKontakte, the 29-year-old guy with a psychology degree – who has the portraits of Richard Brandson and Steve jobs hanging on his office wall – started to search for supporters with his colleagues to create a new Ukrainian social platform. In two weeks, they collected 75,000 signatures instead of the planned 50,000, so they started to develop the system at the beginning of June. The landing page for user registration was active on the 3rd of June.

Since then, every week brings a new function to the site that had 370,000 registered users already by the middle of August. Even though it is lower than the number of Ukrainian Facebook profiles, but Ukrainians.co has advantages over the Western giant. The design is simpler and similar to that of VKontakte, which older VK users like. The site has a music sharing function that VK visitors are used to, but is not available on Facebook. Alex and his team keep on monitoring the ways they could differentiate their site better from its competitor in order to reach the desired number of 5 million users and start producing profit through advertising.

The life of the mini-platform is determined by two giants in all aspects. First, Facebook poses a serious threat to the site. “The most difficult thing about creating a new social network is that we are in 2017. There is an absolute and unquestionable market leader, and that is the main risk.” At the same time, Ukrainians.co would not have been created without the suddenly appearing market gap in the place of VKontakte. “This opportunity directly aroused from the presidential ban of VK. A demand for a channel similar to VKontakte appeared on the market, and we simply supplied. Without this gap, the whole project would be too risky.”

Can This Happen Elsewhere?

This is not the first time that a Central-Eastern-European state decides to ban a foreign social medium within its borders. For example, in November 2016, Russia blocked LinkedIn because it stores the personal data of registered Russian citizens on foreign servers. This year, Russian authorities started to investigate Twitter and the Chinese service WeChat for the very same reason.

„…severe Russian cyber-attacks around the world – especially the interference with the French elections recently – pointed out that the time has come to take different and more serious measures. Ukrainian internet service providers can no longer provide access to VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Yandex and other Russian services. The official pages of the President on these sites will be deleted. I invite my fellow patriots to immediately disconnect from all Russian servers due to security reasons” reads the farewell post of Petro Poroshenko on VKontakte, where he had more than 460,000 followers. The same post redirects all fans to the YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages of the President (the latter had more than 630,000 fans in August 2017).

You do not have to be paranoid to wonder whether this can happen in other countries of the region as well. Do not the rule of law proposed by the Polish governing party, the conservative Law and Justice, called “media re-polonization” (aiming at restricting the concentration of capital in the media market in the hands of foreign investors) or the deep repugnance of the Hungarian government towards any independent media point to such events?

“In case of Facebook, which trades in user data globally, it is dif cult to see how the Polish government will be able to single-handedly ‘regulate’ this global digital technology organization whilst bene ting from direct communication with citizen-voters, and using the outreach capabilities of this platform. The Orban government in Hungary will be facing similar dilemmas” comments Pawel Surowiec, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Media and Communications at Bournemouth University and editor of the publication entitled ‘Social Media and Politics in Central-Eastern Europe’. Nevertheless, the theoretical possibility of a turn of events similar to the Ukrainian example still exists, if “the existing governments continue their push towards the consolidation of power and authoritarian governance, and liberal-left opposition will not develop a solid response to, for example, attempt to deconcentrate media markets.”

One Thing You Cannot Be Prepared For

For some weeks following the blocking, agencies spent a lot of time revising their strategies and corresponding with clients. They learned the greatest lesson of the event: it is not enough to rely solely on one platform. One has to get acquainted with new channels and be ready for changes. After this, everything went back to normal.

Until, at the end of June, a devastating cyber attack swept over the country. “Now, we are prepared for anything,” says Sasha, laughing, referring to the unfortunate series of events. And what if Facebook disappeared overnight? Are they ready for that? The voice of the strategist gets serious at this point: “No, you cannot be prepared for that.”

Böbe Barsi

The article was originally published in the CANnual Repot 2017. The full report can be downloaded from www.cannualreport.eu

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