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July 21, 2017, 10:15 a.m.
Audience & Social

Chat app Telegram, not much loved by the Russian government, still attracts a loyal readership for news

Meduza, Snob, TV Rain, BBC Russian, and RT weigh in on their publishing and promotion strategies on the platform, which survived a recent tussle with the country’s communications regulator.

Telegram is far from the most popular messaging app in Russia, but it’s been the one under fire recently.

At the end of June, the app faced pressure from Russia’s communications regulator Roskomnadzor to register information about Telegram on an official government list and seemed on the verge of being blocked entirely. Russia’s FSB security service also announced that terrorists who’d carried out the April St. Petersburg metro bombing had used Telegram to communicate. The threat of blocking resulted in a sudden increase of the downloads of the app, followed by an equally quick resolution after Telegram agreed to formally register in Russia.

The incident is notable because Telegram’s most heavily touted features have been the security and privacy afforded to users. The app’s biggest user base is in countries like Iran, Malaysia, and Uzbekistan, where access to the Internet is restricted. In Russia, Telegram follows WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype as the fourth most-used messaging app.

Unlike WhatsApp, Telegram offers the option of unlimited subscriptions to public channels, which helps explain why many media and individual pages have flourished there. One attempt to sample the demographics of the user base on Telegram surveyed 3,612 users and revealed a common portrait of men between the ages of 25 and 30 who work in the digital sphere and mostly live in Moscow. (The survey is self-selecting, but at least one outlet, Snob, seemed to be reaching a similar demographic, according to editor-in-chief of the website Egor Mostovshikov.)

I spoke (in Russian) with editors of some of the most popular media channels on Telegram to learn what features the most successful ones share and how the audience on Telegram in particular is different from the audiences on other popular social and messaging platforms.

Meduza: 45,784 subscribers, 13 posts per day on average

Alexey Ponomarev, distribution editor:

We have the most popular channel among Russian media with more than 45,000 subscribers. But this is actually a small number compared to our Facebook page with its 300,000 people. Nevertheless, our feeling is that Telegram has the audience most interested in news consumption. These are people who care about the news and their own comfort, hence they do want to read the things they have subscribed to. Telegram has practically no spam, trolls, paid comments, suspicious accounts, or other mischief associated with social media. You get the most attentive, caring, and loyal audience. Hence we care about keeping and growing it.

Our main channel is an editorial public channel called Meduza Live. The key idea there is to tell why a certain piece is interesting to a certain journalist. That is why all the posts there are signed — for example, the investigations editor would write why he likes a new investigation of someone from his team, and then post it to the Meduza Live Telegram channel. We suppose that readers like to get a personal message, from a journalist they know. In the year that I’ve run the channel, it has grown from 10,000 to 36,000 followers and still grows, albeit not as fast.

Besides the Live channel, we have a few auxiliary channels. For instance, Meduza Evening has all the content of our evening newsletter for the audience that does not want to read emails. It’s a younger audience there, around 20 to 25 years old, and they feel like using email in 2017 to get news is too much. There is also a separate channel for all the Meduza news, and another one only for breaking news, and funny stuff on yet another channel — but all those except the Meduza Live are automated and created for audiences’ comfort.

We just try to be present on various platforms in the way people would like to consume news, and we keep to an informal language, avoiding news cliches and bureaucratic jargon. In Telegram, the communication between a reader and the newsroom feels almost like a personal conversation, since we get immediate feedback through a separate dedicated channel that we created just for messages from the readers.

RT: 24,834 subscribers, 9 posts per day on average

Editor’s note: RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is controversial, often considered a mouthpiece for Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. We thought it was valuable nevertheless to get some insight into how they approach their audiences on new platforms.

Anna Belkina, director of marketing and strategic development:

Telegram is a relatively new platform with untapped potential. It’s a frontier that is being explored right now, with no established rules and ever-changing best practices to reach the audiences. Unlike social media, Telegram does not allow us to get any immediate feedback through a public channel, so we judge the audience’s reaction on our publication’s reach and number of subscribers. In our Telegram channel, we adhere to the principle of being absolutely user-friendly; sort of anti-clickbait. For instance, we use Telegram’s Instant View feature, and we upload the video directly into the channel. Our priority is the user’s comfort.

For Telegram, we send the best of our stories and compile two digests per day with the most interesting RT content in our view, published when people are getting to work in the morning or when they are back home in the evening. On weekends, we publish the morning digests earlier and the evening ones later, so as not to disturb people during their weekend activities. With that concern in mind, we will often keep silent for several hours if nothing interesting happens, but at the same time, we will publish several stories in a row when there is breaking news, and the subscribers will not take it as intrusiveness.

We send the stories to Telegram as we would send stories to a friend, giving an explanation or a funny comment. One of our notable efforts was to start publications with emojis, and we’ve noticed that others have started doing this as well. On the other hand, it’s important to stay polite while being informal. We tried rap digests and rhymed digests — these posts feel fresh, and the reader understands that the channel is managed by a real person, usually someone from our social media team, which consists of three people.

Snob: 21,756 subscribers, 1 post per day on average

Egor Mostovshikov, website editor-in-chief:

Snob itself has a mixed model of newsroom material and user-generated content, therefore speaking to our audiences is always a priority. Part of our audience prefers to get our content on Telegram. It is a more loyal audience there, because they are ready to get every single notification from us, as they would from a friend in any messaging app. The option to send notifications is an important reason for media to be present on Telegram. Every day we carefully select a few stories for our Telegram audience — unless breaking news happens. Notifications make Telegram a good platform for delivery of breaking news, too.

Our Telegram channel launch was an initiative of one of our news reporters, who also has a side channel in Telegram about media. Our channel was opened in May 2016, and had around 150 users without any strategic promotion. In July 2016, we started working on development more consciously, and had 3,000 people signed up by September. For a few months it was growing fast; now it is still growing, though not this fast anymore. The audience is at around 20,000 subscribers, ranking third among the media channels in Russia. We don’t get any audience feedback, but we know that the majority of them are men 25 to 34 years old, usually from Moscow, using phones, since we get the information on referrals from Yandex.metrics.

We publish the announcements of news and stories, just as we do on the other social media. However, we do not duplicate the text from our other social media channels in our Telegram channel. On Telegram, there is a sense that the subscriber will actually read the message, not just scroll away from it. It has way less distraction than social media, hence you don’t fight for the attention. Specific tips to managing a Telegram channel is keeping things short — you might want to skip the greeting to save space, not send too many messages per day, and establish trustful communication. It is important also not to send the message too late, otherwise you irritate your readers, although some channels I have seen do that, and their audiences are still loyal to the hour. It is still a new platform and a place for experiments. It is also important to promote it on your website and other pages.

TV Rain: 17,569 subscribers, 13 posts per day on average

Vladimir Motorin, website editor-in-chief:

To present our news on Telegram, we have departed from the news story to be more informal. Posting breaking news stories is automated, while the rest is done by our social media managers. Our Telegram audience is younger than on the other social media platforms, so we choose a conversational tone to speak to it, although we do not use slang. It’s still a proper Russian language.

It’s important to understand that Telegram is a platform with hundreds of thousands of active users in Russia, with some of the biggest public channels enjoying an audience of 50,000 to 60,000 users. Hence, we develop ours, but we also don’t spend too much time, money, and resources to find a special way to talk to this audience.

On the other hand, messengers are big competitors to social media as places where people consume news, and Telegram is showing good results. Our audience has grown from 9,000 subscribers three months ago to 14,000 subscribers now. We have promoted Telegram through our main TV Rain website. Plus the audience of the messenger app as a whole is growing, too. We have had some successful posts that went viral, such as the news about postponing the “Direct Line” with Vladimir Putin — which gave us the biggest number of referrals to the main website, about 4,700. As for other successful posts, they could result in 1,000 to 2,000 referrals to our website. It doesn’t seem like a lot, when compared with our other distribution channels such as our Facebook page. On the other hand, 2,000 referrals does mean that one out of every seven Telegram subscribers have actually gone and read the full story on our site.

BBC Russian: 6,363 subscribers, 1 post per day on average

Natalia Touzovskaya, BBC Russian social media editor:

For us, our channel on Telegram is a testing ground. This messenger is not the biggest on the Russian market but it is strategically important, and we are keen to understand how the audience there reacts and grows. For us, it is one of the most loyal audiences of BBC Russian. We don’t have “rules” as such, and this platform for us is an opportunity to experiment and see how the audience reacts to news.

We are currently working in the format of the evening daily news distribution list. Our social media producer puts it together and then our social media editor checks it before publication. We take into account several factors: the evening peak of our audience, the day’s editorial agenda that reaches maximum clarity by evening, our editorial priorities regarding the news. We want to tell our audience about major political news as well as technology, arts, science, and “softer” stories.

Having said that, we realize that the majority of referrals to our website from Telegram are delivered by hard, political news stories. Obviously, a timely delivered major news story gets a higher viewing and delivers more references. But we don’t want to turn our channel into a “breaking news” distribution list.

Taking into consideration our ambition to expand our young and female audience, we don’t prioritize just political news but continue to offer our readers a variety of stories.

Interviews were originally conducted in Russian.

Messaging apps on Android. Photo by Eduardo Woo, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 21, 2017, 10:15 a.m.
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