MOSCOW, Russia — After more than two years, Russia has lifted its ban on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app that was growing in popularity in fashion circles despite the prohibition.

The Kremlin finally capitulated in June, effectively legitimising the platform not only for individuals but also for businesses and brands. Though Russians were openly active on Telegram during the ban, some foreign companies felt compelled to tread more carefully as the app was in a grey area and considered by some to be a potential compliance risk.

At the time of the original blocking of the app in 2018, Telegram was already an important player in the market and boasted 15 million Russian users, according to Yury Kizhikin, chief executive and founder of Telegram analytics service TGStat. “The important peculiarity of the platform was the fact that it actually grew and developed fast during the blocking — in fact, it managed to double the audience,” he said.

With the ban now over and users growing fast, brands are looking to Telegram as a tool to enhance their PR and marketing strategies, boost customer relationship management and experiment with new kinds of social commerce.

The question is, how valuable is this elusive app — and how should brands invest?

The Secret’s Out

According to an April 2020 statement by Telegram, there were over 400 million people using the app at least monthly. Russians made up 30 million of those monthly active users, which suggests that more than a quarter of all Russian adults are now on the platform.

The app’s ability to protect user data and evade state agencies tasked with blocking it have made Telegram popular not just in Russia, a fashion market worth $44.5 billion according to Euromonitor International, but in many parts of the world with high levels of political repression, including other former Soviet countries, Middle Eastern nations like Iran and, more recently, Hong Kong. In all, it was the most downloaded messenger or social media app in over 20 countries and territories.

There are now over 400 million people using the app and Russians make up 30 million of them.

Telegram was launched in 2013 by Pavel Durov, the 35-year-old billionaire founder of Russian Facebook clone VKontakte, more commonly called VK. Unhappy with the direction VK was heading after Kremlin-friendly investors joined the company, Durov sold his stake and launched Telegram as a messaging app that would be free from both political and commercial interference. Ostensibly subsisting on funds from Durov and the help of volunteers, Telegram doesn’t sell ads or data. Nevertheless, a “Telegram economy” soon emerged and began to boom thanks to a feature added in 2015 that turned this private messenger with social features into a public platform.

“The decision to block Telegram didn’t mean a ban for users, technically,” explains Alexander Shumsky, president of the Russian Fashion Council and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. “Despite the court’s decision to block Telegram for non-compliance with Russian law, it remained legal to use it in Russia. Top officials were even following Telegram channels and [using] its messenger, and the media were using [it for] some insights too. We didn’t stop our Telegram channel [either].”

In addition to one-to-one messaging and groups of up to 200,000 members, Telegram supports ‘channels’ which allow users to share content with an unlimited number of followers. Several of these have since become among the most trusted, entertaining — and criticised — sources of fashion news and memes in Russia.

“Once designed as a pure messenger, Telegram [has] really become a new media,” said Ekaterina Petukhova, a fashion consultant and brand manager based between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. These days, she estimates that 15 percent of Telegram users don’t even send messages with the app, instead using it exclusively to check in on the channels they subscribe to.

A screenshot of a recent post from the Golden Chihuahua
Telegram account | Source: Courtesy

“The most popular and visible [fashion] channels are created by current or ex-journalists, editors, stylists — fashion insiders,” Petukhova said. Tired of being told what they could and couldn’t write by state censors, corporate management and advertising executives, members of Russia’s fashion media took to Telegram where they found a new way to express themselves and, by sharing links to e-commerce stores and brand websites offering richer multimedia experiences, earning an income.

Like Telegram’s user numbers, channels also proliferated under the ban. TGStat recorded 1,177 new fashion and beauty channels on Telegram in 2019, almost double the 685 new channels in 2017. In August this year, 1,181 new channels had already been added to the category.

Sasha Krymova, co-founder of fashion consultancy Dear Progress, said Telegram is a key news source because “no one trusts the media in Russia.”

One of the pioneering fashion channels on Telegram, and one of the go-to sources of fashion news in Russia, was created by Katya Fedorova, a former editor at the Russian editions of Vogue, Grazia and Interview Magazine. Krymova describes her as “the queen of fashion Telegram.”

Fedorova’s Telegram channel Good Morning, Karl! launched in 2017, and has since partnered with both domestic brands and international players like Cartier, Farfetch and Prada. It was with “the Italian Prada [headquarters],” she adds with pride, “not even the local [Russian] Prada office.”

“My Telegram began as a way to share links to my friends,” Fedorova said. “I read somewhere that Karl Lagerfeld had a person who read everything for him and only brought him the relevant articles — that’s what I wanted to be for my readers. I wanted to filter out all the unnecessary shit.”

Since then, it has evolved into a place for her to give unvarnished opinions about collections, industry developments, and even political events, a content mix many Russians feel they can’t get in the pages of glossy magazines.

Telegram also allows her to be cheekier than she could be in traditional media. When she recently saw Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — a dictator who is currently battling a popular uprising in the capital city of Minsk — wearing an unattractive shirt she posted a picture with the comment: “This shirt is another reason for the country to want change.”

Edgy humour and political commentary may be risky for brands, but because authenticity is so valued on Telegram, “brands have to be careful not to impose their voice,” Petukhova cautions.

Return on Investment

On the surface, Telegram shouldn’t hold that much appeal to brands. With just 68,000 followers, Fedorova has one of the bigger fashion channels on Telegram, and even giants like Anti Gloss — started by three former editors at Russia’s SNC Magazine — have fewer than 130,000 followers. Meanwhile, Russian influencers have followings in the millions on Instagram and Youtube, more visual channels that better lend themselves to most fashion content.

Nevertheless, targeted fashion marketing on Telegram appears to represent good value for some brands.

“Most brands in Russia — both in fashion and elsewhere — have dabbled in promoting on Telegram,” said Alexander Amato, who runs the Telegram fashion channel Golden Chihuahua, whose 48,000 followers check in for his witty takes on fashion news. “Adidas and Reebok are my consistent partners,” he said.

Amato argues there are far fewer fake followers on Telegram than other platforms. A byproduct of criticism that the app is also used by bad actors including terrorists is that the organisation frequently clears them out. “There are special bots that can search for fake followers on a channel,” he said.

Fedorova said influencer marketing on Telegram sees a high conversion rate, with brands coming back to work with her repeatedly. Partly that’s because her audiences consist largely of fashion industry insiders more likely to act on posts and influence others by amplifying content on their channels when they re-share.

Most brands — both in fashion and elsewhere — have dabbled in promoting on Telegram in Russia.

“Telegram channels generally have a smaller reach, but higher affinity of relevant audience [like] professionals or highly motivated individuals within a more narrow topic,” agreed Lidia Larsen, global publishing director of Russian lifestyle media site Buro, better known as Buro247.com. Because of this audience profile, the app has even become useful for hiring — especially with LinkedIn blocked in Russia since 2016.

And, for the time being, at least, Telegram influencers are anecdotally cheaper than those on other platforms. According to Amato, “a Telegram channel with 100,000 readers is considered to be a giant, and their ads go for upwards of US $1,000 per post.” Fedorova said her posts typically go for closer to $600.

Ultimately, Amato argues that the platform plays an outsized role, claiming that brands are not seeing “as big of a profit [per dollar spent] from Instagram bloggers as they now do with Telegram. The Instagram market is oversaturated, and Russia is no exception.” Facebook declined to comment on its apps’ audiences and revenues in Russia.

Opinionated, Rudimentary and Practical

Shumsky is more circumspect about Telegram’s relevance to fashion brands. Concluding that Instagram will continue to be more popular and important due to its ability to capture fashion’s inherently visual essence, he adds that even smart branded content on Telegram can be lost in the “dozens or sometimes even hundreds of posts going around one channel per day.”

What’s more, he said, Telegram’s followers are “quite modest, compared to Instagram or YouTube” and that many channels “have no exclusive news or real insights, just one-way opinion”.

Telegram’s fans, however, argue that the platform’s opinion-focused content is precisely what makes it stand out from competitors like WhatsApp and helps brands catch users’ attention more easily.

Currently, few brands have their own official Telegram channels, though Anna Dubrovina, press and public relations director of Mercury, which owns Russian luxury department store Tsum, said some brands use it to keep their customers informed of new products and drive traffic to their websites.

When Tsum ran its own promotion on Telegram they found that two channels, Zashmot and Fashion Mur, delivered good results, and “it was a bit of a different audience than the one who came from the Instagram crowd — there were many more unisex items and contemporary brands,” Dubrovina said. Tsum sells brands as diverse as Dolce & Gabbana, Balenciaga and Moncler.

Empowered by an open bot API that Telegram released in 2015, a growing number of brands and retailers use Telegram as a CRM tool. Sima Rozikova, who runs a branding agency called Simple Services said that Kazakhstani luxury retailer Viled Group “uses Telegram bots a lot to send updates to their clients, like how many [membership] points they’ve collected, confirmation of what they’ve just bought that comes in handy when a client lost a receipt for example, [or to promote] private sales and special offers.”

A screenshot of a post about a Russian Fashion Week 
initiative on the MBFWRussia Telegram account | Source: Courtesy

This is significant because Viled Group is a major player in Kazakhstan, selling brands like Alexander McQueen and Off-White on its e-commerce site Viled.kz while representing brands such as Gucci, Cartier and Valentino more broadly in the Central Asia market region.

However, she said, “WhatsApp is more for B2C communication with clients here. Telegram is used more as an information source by topic.”

An App with Many Challenges

For all its potential, Telegram does present some challenges. Because it is an organisation and not a corporation, it doesn’t have a partnerships or ad team to help content creators develop their businesses. Fedorova, for one, said she has never spoken to anyone at Telegram.

“There is no automatisation, targeting or programmatic [advertising],” said Buro’s Larsen. “An agency manager or a direct client will have to manually communicate with a channel administrator to get the ad posted. In this sense, working with Telegram channels is similar to working with bloggers.”

For consumers too, there are limitations. There is no payment function on Telegram, and the development of its own crypto-currency, which might have led to one, was shut down in May after the US Securities and Exchange Commission forced Telegram to return investors’ money.

Currently, “Telegram only offers information that may lead to some external sales platform,” said Anna Lebsak-Kleimans, chief executive of Fashion Consulting Group Russia. “There are channels that introduce services and products, but there’s no conducting direct sales compared to Instagram or VK (VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook which has more user-friendly functionality and a much wider reach).”

Ultimately, many of the challenges brands face using Telegram are inherent to what makes it so powerful. Full integration with banks and brands in the markets where it’s most popular would require compromising on the free expression that makes it invaluable to the people — including fashion professionals, members of the media and consumers — living under authoritarian regimes.

Indeed, for all its shortfalls, Amato’s only concern is that the platform will become too successful.

“Sooner or later, Telegram itself will become oversaturated with fashion bloggers and the big ad money will move on to something else, TikTok perhaps?” he said. “For now, however, I can still say that we’re seeing a golden age of Telegram [here] with the larger channel admins easily making $10,000 USD a month.”

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