Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing State of Content series. The full State of Content report will publish January 2016 on Content Science Review.

As Senior Content Managers for Alibaba’s international B2C e-commerce platform, our mission is to help AliExpress expand in the Russian market. As we have developed content marketing efforts in this region, we’ve gained many insights on challenges that international companies face when targeting overseas markets.

In an era of ubiquitous consumer technology and rapidly expanding Internet access, e-commerce has become essential for brands and retailers. As more and more consumers forgo the brick-and-mortar experience, computers, tablets, and mobile phones have become the frontline for customer service and engagement. The shift is even more dramatic in developing markets, which – lacking the decades of well-developed shopping infrastructure found in the West – have leapfrogged into the digital age.

According to Data Insight, the turnover for Russian e-commerce in the first half of 2015 rose 28% to 305 billion rubles, capturing the attention of both foreign and domestic players. Finding success in this lucrative and growing market, however, requires international firms to implement effective localization strategies. In this article, we’ll offer some insight on how to localize your content strategy in Russia. We’ll discuss language challenges, unique channels for engaging Russian users, and lessons you can learn from brands that have found success in Russia.

1. Culture & Language

It’s easy to underestimate how much you can learn about the culture of a country from its language. While market research can reveal your customers’ preferences and cultural studies will indicate that Russia is characterized by collectivism, high power distance, and uncertainty avoidance, this knowledge is not enough to create a successful content strategy. When it comes to content, you must first and foremost focus on the language itself.

Lexically, the Russian language is incredibly rich – nearly every word has more than ten direct synonyms. Even basic words such as ‘you’ can be expressed in respectful and familiar forms. Try asking a Russian person to translate a simple phrase like ‘How are you?’ and you will be amazed at the variety of answers you receive. Such linguistic diversity creates unique challenges for content creation, requiring research, cultural study, and original copywriting as opposed to traditional translation.

2. Choosing the Right Network

When devising your content marketing strategy, it is essential to consider not only whom you are talking to, but also where the conversation is taking place.

At the beginning of the social media era, few global SNS platforms were available in Russian. As many Russians are not proficient in English, they created their own social networking platforms such as VK.com and OK.ru. Their preference for local platforms continues today. While Facebook has been growing its presence in numerous countries, for example, Russian users strongly prefer VK.com to its global counterpart – VK’s user base in Russia is twice the size of Facebook’s.

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But targeting the right platforms is only the first step. You also need to adapt your message to the specific user group and behavior of each site. If you were to compare a Russian user’s profile on two different social networking sites, you may get the impression that they belong to two different people. This is largely a result of each site focusing on different contact groups. On Facebook, for example, many Russians add their relatives and colleagues, whereas on VK they add their friends and former classmates.

Just like your own behavior changes depending on whether you are talking to your boss or your mother, the behavior of social media users also varies. On Facebook, Russian users tend to discuss business news or social and political topics – they are less likely to share information from companies or brands, which their contacts may view as spam. On VK, however, users feel more at ease to reveal their personality and share ‘guilty pleasures’. As a result, brand stories, silly jokes, and Internet memes are much more common. OK’s audience, on the other hand, are much more sincere and eager to share their personal lives.

Social media engagement is an essential component of any content strategy. AliExpress, for example – the most visited e-commerce website in Russia – began its social media presence in the country with a small VK community which has now grown to nearly two million users. Such user engagement can only be achieved with content strategies targeted to your audience’s unique behaviors and preferences.

One example of successful social media targeting is Lamoda.ru, one of the biggest fashion retailers in Russia. Lamoda is present on most major SNS-sites, but while their posts on Facebook primarily consist of promotions and fashion advice, their VK page includes humorous cat pictures and interactive polls. And on Instagram, they focus on lifestyle pictures and looks-of-the-day.

content marketing

content marketing

Adidas Originals is another great example of user engagement on VK: they actively use the site’s interface to create applications and – with an element of gamification – give their users special discounts for ‘Likes’ and concert or party tickets for user-generated content.

Online clothing retailer Quelle successfully targets its more mature audience on OK: they provide carefully curated themes (for moms or retro-looks), fashion quotes from celebrities and even long URLs for users who are more accustomed to traditional-looking links.

So now you’ve mastered the art of targeting your content to Russian users by platform. But there’s one more element to consider in the equation of ‘where’ a conversation takes place – the user’s device.

3. Mobile: To Push or Not to Push?

Mobile phones and devices have become an essential channel for Russian users to access content, connect with friends, share information, and purchase goods and services. Brands and retailers hoping to engage users on the device that never leaves their side must utilize new tools and strategies. One of the most important – and difficult to master – is push notifications.

Push notifications are SMS-like messages delivered to mobile users through an app. They provide a concise, short message to users without requiring them to open the app or in many cases even unlock the screen. This format allows companies to achieve maximum impact with a targeted, timely message sent straight to the user. However, companies must be careful to avoid distracting and annoying the user with long, complicated messages or confusing topics – users have little patience for spam on their mobile.

Unsurprisingly, language plays a critical role when it comes to content marketing by push notification. In general, Russian words are significantly longer than their English counterparts. For example, a simply word like ‘sale’ would be translated into Russian as «Распродажа». Companies seeking to engage users by push notification must carefully craft their messages to get the key information to the user within a very limited space.

To Russia with Love

Russia offers both obstacles and opportunities to any firm looking to penetrate the market. With the rapid development of the country’s digital ecosystem, e-commerce, social media, and mobile, Internet usage has skyrocketed. But successfully engaging Russian users with content requires international firms to understand the language, culture, and user behavior of their target audience. With 145 million people and a population eagerly adopting Internet consumption, Russia is a key market for any global content strategy.

The Authors

Ekaterina Igosheva is a Senior Content Manager for the International User Experience & Design Department at Alibaba Group. Based out of the company headquarters in Hangzhou, China, she is in charge of content strategy and localization efforts for the Russian market for AliExpress.com.

Iuliia Mozharovskaia is a Senior Russian Content Manager for the International User Experience & Design Department at Alibaba Group. Based out of the company headquarters in Hangzhou, China, she is in charge of Russian content strategy and localization efforts for AliExpress.com, as well as Russian content for Alipay, Alibaba.com and the AliExpress app. Prior to joining Alibaba Group, she worked as a localization specialist for a software company.

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