BlaBlaCar is one of Europe’s premiere travel sites connecting passengers who need long distance rides and drivers who have an extra seat in their car. BlaBlaCar, which offers passengers and drivers a connection through its website and mobile app, serves over 20 million members in 19 countries. Having expanding into a number of new countries within the last few years, the ride-sharing platform agreed to offer their insight on their international strategies. I asked BlaBlaCar to share their international journey with State of Digital for readers to learn more about the type of approach and collaboration that led to their current global successes. In a joint interview with Timophey Levin, marketing manager for Russia and Nikolay Petrov, business development manager we discussed BlaBlaCar’s international scale in the context of their Russian expansion. From market selections, to site optimization, and marketing efforts, Tim and Nikolay addressed a number of topics relevant to all of our international expansion questions. First, to get me up to speed on the general scene of ride sharing and it’s expansion, Nikolay summarized, “Ride sharing is a part of the sharing economy, which is a global trend that is strongly increasing right now. Ridesharing has not come to substitute trains or buses but to complement existing travel alternatives giving people an opportunity for safe and cheap last-minute trips on an average distance of 350 km.” For a trending business that can select a number of areas to expand, I asked when and why BlaBlaCar first came to Russia. BlaBlaCar saw an opportunity for the size of the market and a great entrance strategy. Tim and Nikolay answered, “BlaBlaCar saw the opportunity through the Ukrainian website “???????????” or Podorozhniki that was geared towards ride sharing and saving on gas prices. The project, which started in 2010 was operating both in Ukraine and Russia at the time.” BlaBlaCar recognized the user interest and established project in the region and made the decision to acquire Podorozhniki in 2014, at which point BlaBlaCar took over and became fully active in Russia. Nikolay continued, “In the first ten months running in Russia, the services brought in 1 million users. Since then, the audience as continued to grow every month.” BlaBlaCar’s initial approach in Russia proved successful but a number of additional marketing and optimization efforts have kept this a lucrative market for the company. I asked what BlaBlaCar learned about attracting and catering to their new foreign audience. According to Tim, “The Russian Internet and digital advertising market differentiates itself from the standard Western market.” This is something reiterated frequently by foreign companies present in Russia. However, it’s still important to keep detailed localization in mind for every market. There will always be something unique that needs to be adjusted for the local user. Playing into what the local audience uses and expects is always relevant. Prior to talking, I visited a few of BlaBlaCar’s different language pages to see what adjustments they made to localize for different users in Russia. Immediately the first thing that jumped out to me was their social media buttons. In addition to buttons listed on their other sites like Facebook and Pinterest, BlaBlaCar first provides a button to VK, Russia’s top social network. Social linking matters for a number of reasons that Tim nicely explained. “All of our Russian landing pages have a button to VK. This is important because VK has a wide audience of youths across Russia, and a large portion from mobile traffic. Moreover, users can register for BlaBlaCar through VK, which is great for our sign-up conversions. Users come in through a VK ad and can register with a single click.” Utilizing a local platform to advertise, capitalize on mobile traffic, and convert users through VK offers BlaBlaCar a number of benefits but also accessibility for the users. In terms of other localization adjustments, Tim noted that they aim to keep the product consistent worldwide with minimal to no differences from country to country. BlaBlaCar wants to maintain the same product and content but sometimes adaptations are necessary. For example, Tim explained, the mechanics of monetization services can be adapted in different countries. For BlaBlaCar, the market in Russia hasn’t been monetized yet; therefore, there isn’t anything specifically different being done there so far. Another local adjustment to consider is that advertising messages vary by region. For instance, in Russia, less value is placed on the environmental benefits of ride sharing than the economical benefits. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, it’s important for people to save but also to be involved in reducing transportation and environmental problems so this is integrated into our marketing message. BlaBlaCar keeps these differences in mind when creating their marketing materials. Following up on the unique scene in Russia and how different aspects of BlaBlaCar are adjusted by region, I was told, “Abroad there aren’t as many sources for traffic to your website- in Russia, you have several choices for search engines, social networks, and advertising platforms. Before our launch in Russia, it was important to involve all the key platforms for the Russian Internet including Yandex, Google, Mail.ru, VK, and Odnoklassniki.” Already understanding quite clearly how this played out with content and utilizing VK, I asked how this influenced the decision to use Yandex.Direct, Yandex’s advertising platform. Tim stated, “Yandex has a big portion of the search traffic in Russia, even bigger than Google. It was obvious that we couldn’t ignore this. It was also important to consider the fact that Yandex’s advertising network reaches further than Russian TV stations, so this was a great way to reach our Russian audience.” Tim continued to explain that the Internet offers them the best way to reach their desired audience and offline advertising is not part of their marketing plan right now. There are still a number of ways to optimize their online efforts but an offline plan will be implemented sometime in the future. That being said, considerable effort is put into their online advertising. “Yandex requires significant strength on search: tens of campaigns and a thousand ads demand significant effort. The optimization process also requires attention for viewers of all the thousands of keywords. Besides that, it’s constantly important to work on the account: testing new words, new text, landing pages etc. This requires a lot of time although some of the process can be automated.” BlaBlaCar uses automated bidding to distribute their campaigns budgets according to their conversion goals. Utilizing Yandex.Direct automated bidding strategies and API options are just a few of the ways automation is integrated into many Yandex advertisers’ digital efforts. Nikolay chimed in that BlaBlaCar also decided to integrate its advertising with other Yandex services relevant to their product, Yandex.Maps and Yandex.Timetables. When users go to Yandex.Maps, to map a route with the itinerary services or Yandex.Timetables, searching for public A to B transportation schedules and tickets, they are served BlaBlaCar ads in a special format designed to fit into the interface. Users are presented with relevant information about a BlaBlaCar ride and can then directly compare the prices and timing to their other travel options. Nikolay confirmed the popularity of the services offers BlaBlaCar a wide audience, “Yandex and its services like Yandex.Maps or Yandex.Timetables are well known and often used by a lot of people in Russia.” He continued, “Keeping this in mind our integration on Yandex.Timetables improves A to B destination search results for users by giving them more travel choices. It brings us a significant amount of active users who are not only interested in the phenomena of ridesharing but ready to start using it immediately. We have also seen that over the course of time more and more people come to Yandex.Timetables to search for available BlaBlaCar trips. We welcome this sort of user behavior. We can truthfully say that our cooperation with Yandex is an example of a win-win partnership and we are very much happy to have such partner in Russia.” To compare with other markets, I asked how BlaBlaCar also utilized such partnerships to aid in their international success. I learned that this is a big part of BlaBlaCar’s model. “Speaking about BlaBlaCar’s experience in general, partnership with Yandex.Timetables is not a unique case, partnerships are one of the top priorities for us worldwide. Following up on the partnership that started last February in Russia we can say that we are following similar step-by-step best practices.” Nikolay went on to list a number of examples of the way BlaBlaCar partners with other web services like IRCTC of India. In more detail, Tim told me, “IRCTC is an Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, an Indian government enterprise. Now we are visible on their website and you can search and find not only train offers but also BlaBlaCar ones now too.” Beyond these efforts to reach users through search, social media, and other partnerships, I had to ask about BlaBlaCar’s mobile efforts. With over 15 million app downloads, I was curious about the way BlaBlaCar is handling the mobile scene. Often times a user needs a ride in a pinch or a driver perhaps makes a decision to travel while in the car. I asked how this plays into the emphasis BlaBlaCar needs to put on their mobile apps. Tim confirmed that the mobile scene is pretty important for their business. “Over half our members use the mobile app or come to us through the mobile version of our site. Drivers tend to be more active on the mobile platform and passengers on desktop. People on the app are a bit more involved: they fill out more on their profile and add more photos.” Reaching the maintaining a mobile audience has been achieved not only through social buttons but also through mobile specific ads. As advice to others entering Russia, Tim suggests, “Hire people who are well experienced in Russian contextual advertising and performance marketing. Many Western companies check their ads from their head quarter offices and copy techniques for AdWords. That results in Yandex campaigns working out poorly, using unconfirmed strategies, and not having command of the Russian language.” Tim added that knowledge of Yandex features and bidding technologies is crucial for efficient budget spending. Utilizing Yandex.Metrica, the free web analytics tool, further ensures advertisers’ with the ability to optimize their campaigns. Overall, each time BlaBlaCar enters a new market they are able to apply their lessons from one area to the next. Tim explained, “The launch of BlaBlaCar in Russia and Ukraine proved that BlaBlaCar had the ability to succeed as a global business and not only in Western European. The successful start in these two countries convinced investors and company management that BlaBlaCar can be scaled for other developing markets. Ultimately, this greatly contributed to the decisions to entering markets in in Turkey, India and Mexico.” Thanks to Tim, Nikolay, and BlaBlaCar for sharing this knowledge for the rest of us learning about international launches!
Melissa McDonald is the International Marketing Manager at Yandex, Russia's leading search engine, which offers free English to Russian translation and optimization for advertisers. Melissa also regularly blogs for RussianSearchMarketing.com, a news and information resource for digital advertising in Russia.
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