I. VKontakte or VK
Pavel Durov’s biography has already been published so many times that rewriting the official version of the sequence of his childhood and youth events in one’s own words one more time makes absolutely no sense. Therefore, let’s fast forward to the milestone after which Pavel Durov became ‘The Pavel Durov’, and namely late 2007, when a recently launched communication service for students VKontakte reached 3 million users and was still rapidly growing.
There are lots of assumptions and versions (with many reasonable ones among them) as to what steps allowed the project team to jumpstart an exponential growth of the social network’s user base, which reached 60 million in 2010. However, in any case, this story is based on one simple idea: Durov and Co. really know how to design an attractive user experience. Actually, this is their "unique selling proposition", which allowed VKontakte to successfully develop into a giant social network, despite the fact that originally it was secondary to Facebook.
II. VKontakte is better than Facebook
One can contrast similarities and differences of the two social networks as long as one likes, but the fact remains: VKontakte is incomparably more convenient for the user than Facebook. And thanks to the fact that it originated in Russia at that point in time, VK seems to be more honest for domestic users too. The platform looks natural and obvious; it’s fast; there are practically no eye-catching interface elements the majority of users hardly use; but most importantly, it’s very, very logical. And half of Facebook's functionality appears to have been designed by the developers without paying any attention to user feedback; it looks like they expand the platform by relying solely on their own narrative about the outside world giving no thought to the fact that they actually aren’t the users.
Defining Facebook without courtesy, one could say that it’s a good idea implemented poorly: a product that has become popular owing to great marketing and therefore considered by users as good (millions can't be wrong, and such). But in fact, it is only good for Zuckerberg and Co. as well as their partners; users are the last thing these guys think about.
Both VKontakte and Telegram represent great ideas implemented very well that have become popular thanks to the used approach. The efforts made by Durov's team to promote these platforms, of course, played a role, but were not a determining factor. Their steps to improve services were indeed, however (meaning attempts to improve user experience). When it became possible in 2007 to publish and share any music and video in VKontakte without regard to the opinion of copyright holders, everyone got very worried — like it's a complete disaster and no one should do that. It turned out, one can, at least for a while, and this was an absolutely brilliant move, a nonconformist and somewhat unsafe one but it’s only the result that matters, isn’t it?
It’s exactly the same story with Telegram. The app entered the IMs market at a time when it was already quite mature, and therefore, carefully split between the major players. Powerful applications with hundreds of millions of regular users have long been around and quite successfully so. Messengers were getting massive investments, and highly professional teams were marketing the applications. However, it quickly turned out that, even upon its arrival, Telegram was in many ways much more convenient than the competing apps. In addition, it also featured something that many people dreamed of, but no developer has yet implemented back then: an option to communicate with other people without anyone knowing about it, even the service providers, because data exchange is tightly encrypted.
And it’s no surprise then that Telegram’s user base skyrocketed exponentially: even disregarding the Russian market where the majority of users installed Telegram “just to try it” only because it was the product by VKontakte creator. Here’s my personal take: I knew Telegram was destined for success when it took me only a couple of minutes to digest its interface — everything was logical and intuitive. And as soon as I realized that this stupid OK button (which has been driving me crazy for the last 15 years) was nowhere to find in the app, I immediately felt like I need someone to hug and cry on her shoulder. Can anyone please explain this to me: well, imagine you entered some pin code in an app, why it was only Durov’s team who realized that making everything to take care of itself automatically without any additional button-pressing was the only right way to go?
At some point, even Telegram’s competitors unwittingly contributed to its explosion in popularity. For instance, Facebook announced its acquisition of WhatsApp, and its users received numerous viral “it’s-time-to-leave” messages. They say 5 million users switched to Telegram in a little less than a day. And by the way, these users had no objective reasons for that switch. I mean, you wouldn’t call a straight connection like “Telegram equals freedom” and “Zuckerberg is a henchman of big corporations” a reason, would you?
I wonder, who was behind those messages in the first place! Oh, you bet, I’d love to know that.
IV. Marketing Oneself. The Right Way
It’s also necessary to understand that Durov has an extremely powerful weapon that none of its competitors has or can even dream of: it’s Durov’s public image. He’s kind of a handsome guy; self-made; not afraid of wrangling with regulators and biting government’s nose off; a libertarian and vegetarian; young technocrat who’s totally pro-freedom, pro-youth and pro-beauty of this world. Can any student resist the temptation?
Which of the above has in fact anything to do with the Telegram creator and which is some showing off or part of the marketing story - that’s absolutely unimportant. The key is that it works. And maybe, exactly as part of improving himself as an ‘instrument in his own hands’, the freedom-on-the-web evangelist has replaced his hair and undergone some lifting. He very well may have been pissed off by an early-stage alopecia, and as soon as he had enough money, he may have remedied that thing for himself — only Durov himself can tell us for sure about the real case behind all that.
And by the way, positioning oneself as an irrepressible fighter for free internet and freedom of speech is a great point not only for the Russian speaking community. When Iran blocked Viber in 2014 amidst elections, the country’s population unanimously switched to Telegram, although Viber works fine there now; one only needs a VPN connection. However, why would anyone use Viber if Telegram is a simpler-to-use and better option?
Summary: The Secret Sauce
Any attempts to find some incredible marketing secrets that make Durov’s projects grow so efficiently make no sense because there are no secrets. Everything happens as it does because Pavel and his team (and first and foremost his older brother who, they say, has superhuman skills in programming and mathematics) truly care about the users, which is really keenly felt, and in particular in contrast to other similar products. And, of course, the role of a charismatic leader who is “for everything good and against everything bad” is huge; Pavel Durov is kind of a Russian Steve Jobs - any hipster’s dream come true. Professionalism, talent, care about comfortable user experience, and charisma — that’s a cocktail destined for popularity, which, in fact, explains Telegram’s evolution over the recent years.
And what that evolution is all about we’ll cover in the next articles of that series soon.