On March 1, 2022, in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Snap Inc. joined a chorus of companies publicly reassessing their business in Russia. In a statement, Snapchat’s parent company acknowledged the 300 Snap employees who live in Ukraine and said Snapchat has never done business with Russian state media. Although Snapchat would continue to operate in Russia, it would cease all advertising in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Snap’s statement did not mention a small but growing platform in its portfolio – Zenly, a social media app that has a burgeoning user base in Russia. The social mapping app, which was acquired by Snap in 2017, was downloaded more than 51 million times in Russia in 2021, according to data shared with Rest of the world by analytics firm Apptopia. Last week, Techcrunch reported that Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel would step in to lead the platform.
Two months into the war and after several headline-grabbing bans and exits from the country by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Zenly is arguably one of the most popular Western social media services that is still up and running. in Russia. “It’s still a nascent service. It’s not necessarily the best-known app in the West. That could explain the lack of attention that has been drawn to it,” said Steven Tian, director of research at Yale’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute (CELI), which has tracked 1,000 companies’ responses to the invasion of Ukraine. Tian says his team has not seen Snap Inc. make a statement about the future of Zenly’s operations in Russia.
Although neither Snapchat nor Zenly are monetized in the Russian market, says Tian, ”it’s important to keep in mind that when you have lesser-known affiliates, like Zenly, you can argue that it’s possible -be easier for them to get away with exploitation in Russia.” He added that subsidiaries of other Silicon Valley tech giants, including Instagram, YouTube and Twitch, have come under scrutiny from watchdog organizations in Western countries and Russian authorities.
“Zenly continues to be one of the messaging platforms and social apps available in Russia, and it remains an important communication tool for friends and family,” a Zenly spokesperson said in a statement. Rest of the worldspecifying that Zenly does not have an office in Russia.
Zenly’s main interface is a map, where users can track their friends’ locations (although there are options to turn off tracking via “ghost mode”). The app’s fun geolocation features, including “footprints”, visualize the percentage of a given city or country map that a user has traveled since they started using the app.
Founded in 2011 by French co-founders Antoine Martin and Alexis Bonillo, Zenly was acquired by Snap in 2017 for $213 million. Its underlying location-based technologies and product experience were quickly integrated into Snapchat with the launch of bitmoji-based Snap Map. But Zenly has since continued to operate independently of Snap HQ, via its offices in Paris.
Five years after its acquisition, Zenly now appears on the precipice of its next big phase of growth. The app got a complete overhaul this month – from a cotton candy color palette that appealed to younger users, to a sleeker, more mature user interface. Users can now turn to the app for convenience, such as location searches and travel directions.
Zenly recently announced that it had 35 million monthly active users and was among the top 10 most downloaded apps in the world last month, with download peaks in Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia. A Zenly spokesperson said Rest of the world that the app’s “largest and most engaged community is in Japan,” but declined to share user numbers nationwide.
Zenly’s growth in Russia appears to have peaked last summer when it became the country’s third most downloaded app, just behind TikTok and Telegram, according to app analytics firm Data’s Q2 2021 report. .have. Forbes Russia reported on Zenly’s spike in popularity among Gen Z teenagers across the country at the time.
Robert Šiljković, a Moscow-based sports journalist, first downloaded Zenly in September 2019. Now, he says, he opens the app almost every day to check on his close friends. “When I notice they are in unusual places, I can ask them what they are doing. It actually helped me throw a few parties or just connect with my friends and have a good time,” he said. Rest of the world.
Šiljković says Zenly has taken hold in Moscow over the past two years, especially among young teenage users. “I see kids in parks or cafes, sitting around and shaking their phones, and I know exactly what they’re doing,” he said, referring to “banging,” a feature that instantly pings to your friends list with your location, letting them know in real time who you’re hanging out with and where.
According to Jessica Lichy and Margot Racat, two IDRAC Business School researchers who investigated the habits of Gen. Z users in France. “It’s a form of voyeurism,” Racat said. Rest of the world.
Daria, a student at RANEPA University, living in Novosibirsk, Siberia, told Rest of the world that the app has become particularly popular among his friends over the past six months. “It’s really cool; I see people have become less secretive with their friends and are sharing their current location almost every second,” she said.. Daria, who asked to use her first name for privacy reasons, deleted her own account in February following the invasion due to concerns about her safety after reporting cyberattacks on Russian citizens’ data. Overall, downloads in Russia are down so far this year, hitting just under 3 million in the first quarter of 2022, according to Apptopia.
Prior to the invasion, Zenly operated Russian-language social media accounts for court users in the country. Its Russian TikTok account had grown to 165,000 followers, and the company hired a local marketing agency to push influencer campaigns on TikTok that reached millions of viewers. The last posts on these social networks date back to February 22, a week before the company announced that it had stopped all advertising in the country.
Zenly does not currently sell in-app ads or have other forms of direct monetization in any marketplace, which means that Snap Inc. has never directly derived revenue from Russian entities through the app, even if its downloads exploded last year. “When it comes to other technology platforms, I’m not sure there’s [are] many more than Zenly who didn’t even try to monetize in Russia. I think it’s a bit of a unique space,” said Tian, the Yale researcher.
Zenly’s operations in Russia present thorny nuances for Western companies deciding whether or not to exit the market. Two months after the invasion, most industries are reaching consensus on what the withdrawal looks like, but the Yale TFSA database shows there has been little uniformity across the tech sector. Most social media companies that continue to operate in Russia do so after an obscure “partial exit”, potentially halting monetization features, while retaining access to the main platform. The argument is often that a full exit would create a vacuum filled by state media and state-affiliated platforms.
“If you are a restaurant chain, whether or not you sell Subway sandwiches in Russia. You are selling a Rolls-Royce or not,” Tian added. “It’s not that simple for technology platforms.”