Allan Biggar

Social Media: Are Brands Getting the Revolution?

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One noticeable, but unsurprising aspect of the ongoing political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is the age of the activists. Unsurprising, because youth is normally associated with regime change – think the Young Turks and (young) Free Officers, or the student protesters of Tiananmen Square – and with the idealism that inspires such confrontations.

The MENA region is a young region after all. One-third of its 350 million citizens are below the age of 14. In fact only Bahrain, with 48 percent, has less than half its population under the age of 30 – most countries have 60 percent or more, with Yemen topping 70 percent.

This, coupled with increasing internet penetration, has meant that more young people in the region are interconnected online than ever before. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all experienced a stratospheric take up in the number of MENA users.

Last year, for example, the region’s internet growth stood at an astonishing 1,800 percent, against a world average of 430 percent! Estimates suggest that there are 30 million social media users regionally, with 15 million or so on Facebook.

Twitter has about 5.5 million users, with 40 percent of them living in the UAE. Saudi Arabia saw its Twitter audience increase by 240 percent last year. These are trends that are unlikely to plateau any time soon.  Young people, with common interests, likes and dislikes, are uniting online, recommending and reviewing products, people and places  – all at the click of a button.  They start trends that permeate across borders – a phenomenon that more traditional advertising and marketing struggles to achieve as effectively.

But while the potential for marketers and advertisers online in this region is huge, there is an underlying reticence by organisations and business to invest. For most companies in the region, traditional methods still remain the order of the day. The tangible nature of a TV commercial, radio or print ad is something that decision makers seem to believe is justifiable in expenditure terms.

The opportunity to use new media to promote a product or organisation is there, but the perceived lack of an obvious return on investment coupled to, perhaps, a lack of awareness of tracking techniques, make it a less preferable option for company CEOs at the moment.

Their fear is that, by handing the brand over to the masses of social media users, they will surrender ownership. Why would they expose their investment to the risk of an online panning?  However, when brands and products do go viral online, the rewards can be huge.

But, in the long term, Western and Arab brands will simply have to capitalise on this younger, technologically literate generation. They will achieve this by shifting from traditional advertising channels to online methods of consumer promotion.  While the new demographic has demonstrated its willingness to embrace new technology, it is the brand managers (and the CEOs they report to) who need to catch up with this massive, untapped new audience.

Reaching these consumers effectively and across such a geographically large area is the next challenge for advertisers. But we can expect to see more pan-regional campaigns targeted at the 16-34 year old age bracket and greater use of Arabic content social media to target the 30 million plus users already in the region.

Another of the ironies of the Arab Spring is the arrogant assumption that the groundswell of popular opinion could simply be stopped in its tracks by switching off the Internet. But it proved unstoppable, as people turned to their mobile devices to get round the disruption. They proved, in the process, that new media is to be embraced, not feared.

The path is now open for a Western-style consumer revolution in the MENA region, where a new generation will be more influenced by recommendations from social-network contacts and friends than by traditional marketing messages or by visiting company websites.

CEOs, brand managers and advertisers take note!

2 Responses to Social Media: Are Brands Getting the Revolution?

  1. Carrington Malin 18/04/2011 at 1:27 PM

    Agree 100% with the Internet opportunity for brands in the Arab world. However, we do need to be a little weary of re-quoting and repeating some of the statistics that are out in the public domain as some can be misleading.

    In case it’s of interest to marketing planners, here are some notes on the stats mentioned:

    i) the 1800 percent growth quoted for the region, is for the Middle East including Iran and Israel (not MENA) over the past 10 year period (2000-2010) Source: internetworldstats.com

    ii) as of March 2011 there were 24 million Facebook users in the Arab world (Arab countries in MENA). 15 million is the May 2010 figure. Source: Spot On PR

    iii) I believe that the 5.5m Twitter user figure quoted is actually Comscore’s figure for ‘unique visitors’ to twitter.com and is much, much higher than the actual number of registered Twitter users in the region. Sadly, there is no reliable stat available for the number registered Twitter users in MENA.

    iv) The stat of 40% of Twitter users in the UAE looks like it originated from Spot On PR’s 2009 survey of Twitter users. It’s still probably not far off as an estimate today, but it’s not 40% of 5.5m though (that would mean Twitter would have nearly as many users in the UAE as Facebook does, which for those that are familiar with Twitter in the UAE, doesn’t make much sense).

  2. Jemima Gibbons 06/04/2011 at 6:51 PM

    Hi Allan,

    As you so rightly say, the issue of failing to capitalise on these new opportunities does not just exist for MENA-originated companies, it is both “Western and Arab brands [who] will simply have to capitalise on this younger, technologically literate generation.”

    The role that social technologies have played in the Arab Spring has no doubt brought the tremendous power of social media home to local brands, but they shouldn’t worry too much about “catching up” with the West.

    The “Western style consumer revolution” you mention is itself being replaced by something newer, more dynamic and more intangible. The global playing field is levelling, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s going to happen next. The ball is in the MENA region’s court, as much as anybody’s.

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