As part of Facebook’s efforts to spur more growth around the world — especially in places where it doesn’t have many users — the company recently signed deals with two large Russian mobile carriers, making it easier for users to access the Facebook site for free from their devices. The country’s users have, for a few reasons, so far preferred local social networking services.
Russia has recently become a more serious target for Facebook, with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg saying the country has been doubling sign-ups every six months, and a developer blog post recommending that developers localize apps for it. Only a few other countries, including Japan, South Korea and mainland China (where it is banned), still have so few Facebook users.
Indeed, our Global Monitor, part of Inside Facebook Gold, shows Russia having grown more than 200 percent over the last twelve months, to 1.24 million today. That’s under one percent of the Russian population. Local competitors like VKontakte, which began life as a Facebook clone, have managed to hold their own far better than most other local social networks around the world.
The mobile plan is as follows: Facebook and its Russian carrier partners, Beeline and MTS, will provide a free version of its site using “0.facebook.com,” a stripped-down interface that includes status updates, news feeds and other core features but not data-intensive components like photos.
Most Russian mobile users pre-pay for access, meaning that they’ve tended to skimp on using mobile data services in order to save money, as the BBC notes. Making key parts of Facebook freely available means that users might want to try it out.
This free access could push Facebook’s Russia growth up even faster, judging by the success of its mobile efforts. New mobile leader Eric Tseng said at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat conference this week that the company is already reaching 150 million monthly active users via Facebook mobile apps and mobile web sites (watch the video here). That’s roughly a third of the more than 500 million people using Facebook around the world every month. Tseng’s number is up by 50 million from the 100 million mobile users Facebook said it had in February, when it announced that it had reached 400 million MAU total.
Despite Facebook’s recent Russian growth, though, its local competitors continue to have advantages. An oft-stated one is that local competitors are more culturally Russian. That advantage is hard to quantify — and may not be especially significant considering how Facebook has successfully competed against strong rivals in other countries, like StudiVZ in Germany. There are also other reasons why Facebook may still have a long march into the country, as UK-based Russia social media blogger Katya Trubilova notes:
Nevertheless, Vkontakte offers a special feature which attracts more new members daily and makes them spend a lot of time online. Members are able to view thousands of pirated copies of domestic and foreign movies translated into Russian. In addition, it’s possible to upload and download video and audio files via VK Tracker application. This is the most significant advantage of Vkontakte over Facebook. It can be perceived that the majority of Vkontakte members will not be as easily persuaded to join Facebook and to give up their convenient online entertainment. Indeed, Facebook may offer a broader range of features and the possibility to interact with an international crowd. However, this may not entirely be significant enough for the ordinary user. Yet, professionals and companies may favour Facebook’s features to use as a social networking utility for business purposes.