On March 1, 2022, in the days following Russia’s Ukraine invasion, Snap Inc. joined a chorus of companies publicly reevaluating their business in Russia. In a statement, the parent company of Snapchat acknowledged the 300 Snap employees that call Ukraine home and clarified Snapchat had never done business with Russian state media. Although Snapchat would continue operating in Russia, it would cease all advertising in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Snap’s statement didn’t 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 back in 2017, was downloaded over 51 million times in Russia in 2021, according to data shared with Rest of World by the analytics firm Apptopia. Last week, Techcrunch reported that Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snap Inc., will be stepping in to lead the platform.
Two months into the war and after several headline-making bans and exits from the country by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Zenly is arguably one of the more popular Western-owned social media services that is still operational in Russia. “This is still a nascent service. It’s not necessarily the most well-known app in the West. That might explain the lack of attention that has been drawn to it,” said Steven Tian, the research director at Yale’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute (CELI), which has been tracking the responses of 1,000 companies to the invasion of Ukraine. Tian says his team hasn’t seen Snap Inc. make any statements about the future of Zenly’s operations in Russia.
While neither Snapchat nor Zenly are monetized in the Russian market, Tian says, “it’s important to keep in mind that when you have lesser-known subsidiaries, like Zenly, you can make the case that perhaps it’s easier for them to get away with operating in Russia.” He added that the subsidiaries of other Silicon Valley tech giants, including Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch, have been under intense scrutiny by watchdog organizations in Western countries and by Russian authorities.
“Zenly continues to be one of the messaging platforms and social apps available in Russia, and it remains an important communications tool for friends and family,” a Zenly spokesperson said in a statement to Rest of World, clarifying that Zenly does not have an office in Russia.
Zenly’s primary interface is a map, on which users can track the location of their friends (though there are options to opt out of tracking through “ghost mode”). The app’s gamified geolocation features, including “footprints,” visualize what percentage of a given city or country map 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 geolocation technologies and product experience were quickly folded into Snapchat with the launch of the bitmoji-based Snap Map. But Zenly has since continued to operate independently from Snap HQ, via its offices in Paris.
Five years after acquisition, Zenly now appears on the precipice of its next big phase of growth. The app underwent a full redesign this month — from a cotton candy color palette that appealed to younger users to a sleeker and more mature user interface. Users can now turn to the app for practical purposes, such as location searches and travel routes.
Zenly recently announced it has 35 million monthly active users, and it was one of the top 10 most-downloaded apps globally last month, with download spikes in Brazil, Mexico, and Indonesia. A Zenly spokesperson told Rest of World that the app’s “largest and most-engaged community is in Japan,” but declined to share any country-level user figures.
Zenly’s growth in Russia appears to have peaked last summer when it clocked in as the third most downloaded app in the country, just behind TikTok and Telegram, according to the app analytics firm Data.ai’s Q2 2021 report. Forbes Russia reported on Zenly’s popularity spike among Gen Z teens across the country at the time.
Robert Šiljković, a Moscow-based sports journalist, first downloaded Zenly back in September 2019. Now, he says, he opens the app almost every day to check in on his close friends. “When I notice they are in unusual locations, I can ask what they’re up to. That actually helped me to crash a couple parties or just link up with my friends and have a good time,” he told Rest of World.
Šiljković says Zenly has caught on in Moscow in the past couple years, especially among younger teenage users. “I see kids in parks or cafés, sitting and shaking their phones, and I know exactly what they are doing,” he said, referring to “bumping,” a feature that will instantly ping your friend list with your location, letting them know in real time who you’re hanging out with and where.
Zenly’s marketing promises the potential for organic meetups and safety check-ins, but many use it simply for the entertainment value of casually lurking on friends, according to Jessica Lichy and Margot Racat, two researchers at the IDRAC Business School who surveyed the habits of Gen Z users in France. “It’s a form of voyeurism,” Racat told Rest of World.
Daria, a student at RANEPA University, living in Novosibirsk, Siberia, told Rest of World that the app has become particularly popular among her friends in the last six months. “It’s really cool; I see that people have become less secretive to their friends and share 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, because of concerns about her security after reported cyberattacks on the data of Russian citizens. Overall, downloads in Russia are on the decline so far this year, coming in just shy of 3 million in the first quarter of 2022, according to Apptopia.
Before the invasion, Zenly was operating Russian-language social media accounts to 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 media channels were on February 22 — a week before the company announced it had stopped all advertising in the country.
Zenly currently does not sell ads on its app or have other forms of direct monetization in any markets, which means Snap Inc. was never directly deriving revenue from Russian entities through the app, even as its downloads ballooned last year. “When it comes to other tech platforms, I’m not sure there [are] many others besides Zenly that haven’t even attempted to monetize in Russia. I think this is a bit of a unique space,” said Tian, the Yale researcher.
Zenly operations in Russia showcase thorny nuances for Western companies deciding whether or not to leave the market. Two months after the invasion, most industries are finding consensus over what withdrawal looks like, but the Yale CELI database shows there has been little uniformity in the tech sector. Most social media companies that continue operating in Russia do so after a murky “partial exit,” potentially pausing monetization features, while maintaining 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’re a restaurant chain, you’re either selling Subway sandwiches in Russia or not. You’re either selling a Rolls-Royce or not,” Tian added. “It’s not as straightforward for the tech platforms.”