Zain Ramadan’s ad, the MBC ban and how politics & business mix in the Middle East

This week Zain put out its Ramadan ad. The Kuwait-based telecommunications company has a reputation for mixing politics into its messaging during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. The company’s advertisement last year, which took on the issue of extremism through a portrayal of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, became a viral hit in the Arab World.

This year, Zain’s timing is impeccable. The topic of the video is Jerusalem. You can watch the video below (it’s subtitled and includes a couple of nifty cameos by global leaders such as Angela Merkel as well as Donald Trump). There’s also a good description of the video and its context provided by The National’s Naser Al Wasmi. Already there’s been two million views of the video in less than two days.

Zain’s stance on political advertising is unusual. While there’s been a movement in the West for companies to take a stand on political issues that were once deemed to be off-limits (for example, immigration in America), companies in the Middle East rarely speak about wider societal issues.

While Zain’s latest Ramadan video may prove popular with many (Zain has operations in eight countries in the region, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon), there’s been reports in the Kuwaiti press that the MBC Group, the largest satellite television station, has banned the airing of the ad on their stations during Ramadan. MBC, which is Saudi-owned, banned the airing of Turkish soap operas in March of this year, a decision which surprised many given the popularity of Turkish dramas across the Middle East but which must be viewed in light of recent Saudi-Turkish relations.

Zain’s Ramadan ad is a rare example of a Middle East business taking the brave decision to use its media voice to take a stance on a political issue. But as has been shown by MBC and other voices online, it’s neither easy nor simple to take on a political issue in a region which is already politically divided across multiple fault lines.

Creatives, PR and Media – Where are the Gulf’s Faces to Watch?

There’s many young faces to watch in the Gulf’s creative, public relations and media industries, but if you’re looking for Gulf nationals on the agency side you’ll be sorely disappointed. The industry must find ways to solve this issue of diversity and inclusion.

I’ve enjoyed reading about the future of the region’s marcomms sector over the past couple of weeks in Campaign Middle East. The publication has listed the ‘ones to watch’ in the creative, public relations and media sectors. The people featured are an impressive bunch, and just reading about their abilities, potential and experiences at such a young age (they’re all 30 or under) is inspiring.

I was struck, however, by one detail. I didn’t see anyone I recognized as a Gulf national. There was so much talent from countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, but no one from Saudi or the UAE.

For anyone based over here, it’s probably not a surprise that there’s not enough diversity and inclusion in the marcomms industry/function, especially on the Agency side (this listing was Agency-focused). While there are Gulf nationals working agency-side, especially in Bahrain and Saudi, there’s certainly not enough.

How Can We Attract More Nationals?

The marcomms industry isn’t alone in struggling to attract enough young national talent – only one percent of the Emirati labor force is employed in the private sector, compared to 60 percent in government. But the landscape across the Gulf has shifted in a number of countries. Governments in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia are heavily promoting the idea of nationals applying to the private sector. More nationals are also eager to try new fields, particularly in the creative space. Here’s my suggestions on what each party must do to change perceptions and encourage diversity and inclusion.

The Industry and National Misconceptions

Let’s begin with the agencies and private sector firms who hire (the client side). We’ve got to break down the misconceptions and stereotypes around nationals, focusing on two key points. First, there’s the issue of work ethic; for far too long, there’s been a view that Gulf nationals don’t want to and won’t work the longer hours that the private sector asks of them (governments traditionally worked from 7 or 8am to early afternoon). Second, there’s compensation; Gulf nationals have often earned more working for the public sector.

I’m not going to be naive and pretend that these issues don’t exist. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE there’s a high differential between private and public sector pay for nationals, as well as additional benefits such as longer vacations.

However, we’ve already seen a shift in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, where it’s common to find a national working in marketing or comms on the client side. To their credit, some agencies such as Gulf Hill and Knowlton have always looked to hire local in these markets (they had a large roster of Saudis some years back, and they’ve also hired a number of Bahrainis). In these markets governments are both telling their nationals to look towards the private sector and reducing the compensation differential.

For many in the private sector, they’ve not even put in the effort to test if the old stereotypes are true. There’s nowhere near enough engagement with universities across the region, not enough internships for nationals, and little in the way of mentoring. These are low-cost activities, which both agencies and clients should be undertaking. At the very least, they need to look for local talent, so they can benefit from insights that only nationals can bring to the table.

Governments and Talent Development

The private sector is only one half of the challenge. The other is governments.  Understandably, the region has long sought to develop its own talent. The number of nationals working in the marcomms function has risen rapidly, at least on the government side. It’s understandable that many nationals, particularly in Qatar and the UAE, would want to work in the public sector – pay in these two countries is, generally speaking, much higher. Plus, there’s a preference for locals, meaning there’s less competition for positions.This has become a double-edged sword. There’s more marketing and communications jobs in government, pay is better, and there’s less competition for these roles. What this has led to is young nationals being advanced into senior roles, often when they’re not yet ready or experienced enough.

If governments are serious about developing local talent, they’ve got to change this approach to public sector hiring and instead focus on long-term development, in partnership with private sector firms. This could include funded internships, either at home or abroad, as well as engagement with industry associations such as the IABC to promote certifications and long-term career mapping (I’ll share more about this soon). What’s clear is that national communicators who have worked only in one sector are missing out on all the potential learnings and development the other can offer, including the ability to work with and learn from other nationalities and culture (diversity and inclusion is also an issue on the government side).

Advice for Young Gulf Nationals

My advice for any young Gulf national is simple. Go and explore the private sector, understand the training and development it can offer you, and ensure you’ve tried every single option before you go into the public sector. If you’re after a challenge and you’re passionate about what you do, the money and position will follow. But if you want to be the very best you can be, and learn from a wider group of people from around the world, then moving into the private sector will be the best thing that you can do.

Likewise, we need you. We need the industry to be more diverse and inclusive (this equally applies to the public sector, where there aren’t enough expats working today), we need your insights and knowledge, and we need your understanding of the local culture, behavioral psychology, and awareness of how the Gulf’s local communities are changing. Today, we don’t have enough of this on the agency or client side. And it’s our loss. This scenario needs to change.

If you want to talk more, message me. I’m always giving my time to universities, to talk about the profession and help you understand your options. I’m happy to answer any question you may have, and point you in the right direction.

Findings on Brand Building and Trust – YouGov/MEPRA Research for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar (Part 1)

trust-in-blue-marker

Trust is one of those intangibles which we as communicators must always focus on. Trust, that notion of one person relying on and believing in a second person, is key to changing attitudes and behavior. But how do you build trust, and what channels should you focus on? These are the questions that we need to answer to be able to do our job of building and protecting reputations. So, where should one begin when looking to build trust?

Based on research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and which included a survey of across the six Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the place to begin isn’t online, but rather face-to-face. Fake media, less impactful advertising, and third-party advocacy are also reshaping where consumers in the region put their trust.

This is the first of four blog posts on the issue, to explore the findings country-by-country. but here’s the big picture headlines from the research, which surveyed 4,475 people across the region.

The first three posts will be a glimpse into the results, country-by-country, for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, followed by Saudi and the United Arab Emirates in the second post later on in the week. The Levant and Egypt will follow next week. I’ll share big picture thoughts next week, in partnership with Gulf News.

Bahrain

Bahrain Map

152 people were surveyed in Bahrain, a third of whom were nationals and two-thirds expat.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Bahrain’s population think highly of their friends and family. They scored the second highest in the Gulf for trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services, at 88%. That trust doesn’t carry online, to social media; only 42% of respondents trust social media posts from friends and family about products and services. In contrast, 20% find such posts untrustworthy.

When it comes to third party endorsements, 69% of respondents agreed that they had more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services. Only 8% disagreed.

Trust in Social Media

When it comes to social media posts by influencers, and people with lots of followers on products and services, there’s less trust and more distrust. Only 28% trust such posts, opposed to the 34% who show mistrust.

While social media has become more of an important source of information to Bahrain’s residents than it was five years ago (55% agreed with this statement, opposed to 14% who disagreed), just under half (47%) have low trust in what they see online (interestingly, the percentage of those who don’t is also 14%).

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (31%), followed by Instagram (27%), and WhatsApp came third (11%). A note on the research here – Twitter doesn’t appear in the responses, presumably as it wasn’t included in the survey options.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media and advertising in Bahrain is mixed. At the top was a surprising choice – brand websites; 40% of respondents trust what they see on a brand’s own website. Newspapers and magazines were second, at 38%, website articles at 36%, and TV and radio reporting both at 34% respectively.

Bringing up the rear were billboards at 31%, television ads at 29%, radio advertising at 24%, blogs at 22%, and online advertising at 20%. Trust has fallen in advertising over the past five years, with 68% saying they trust advertising less now than they did five years ago. While you may think this is good news for trust in media, you’d be wrong. Almost three-quarters of respondents (74%), agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. Only 7% disagreed.

Kuwait

kuwait map

251 people were surveyed in Kuwait, just under a fifth of whom were nationals and over four-fifths expat.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Kuwaiti residents are a little less trusting of their friends and family than their Bahraini counterparts; 85% said they found service and product recommendations in face-to-face conversations with friends and family as trustworthy. However, they’re more trusting than others online; 53% trust social media posts from friends and family about products and services. In contrast, 15% find such posts untrustworthy.

Third party endorsements are less trusted among Kuwait-based respondents; 63% said they had more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services. Only 6% disagreed.

Trust in Social Media

Considering the number of social media influencers based in Kuwait, the response to the question of influencer trustworthiness was fascinating. Only a quarter of respondents found influencer posts on products and services trustworthy, compared to 31% who didn’t.

Social media has become an essential source of information on goods and services to people in Kuwait, according to the survey, with two-thirds agreeing that social media had become more important compared to five years back. However, trust online is an issue, with 48% having low trust in what they see online (this is opposed to 16% who don’t).

The most popular social media channels for information on goods and services are Facebook, which dominates at 56%, followed by Instagram (17%) and WhatsApp (9%).

Trust in Media & Advertising

Kuwait’s respondents view media in a similar fashion to their Bahraini brethren in terms of their most trusted choice, which was a brand’s own website (47%). The next most trusted medium was website articles (34%), and radio stories (32%). Newspapers and television fare worse, at 28% and 30% respectively, which is surprising considering Kuwait’s wide selection of newspapers and television (Kuwait has the most open media in the Gulf). Blogs were the least trusted, at 28%. Seven out of ten respondents (71%) said that fake news has dented their trust in mainstream media reporting.

Radio and online advertising are the least trusted, both with a 23% approval rating. Television advertising fares slightly better, at 28%. The most trusted advertising medium was that of outdoor, with billboards scoring a 33% approval rating. Two-thirds of respondents trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, with ten percent disagreeing. Similar to Bahrain, just under three-quarters of respondents (71%), agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media (5% disagreed).

Oman

omanmap

The map of Oman excluding Musandam

151 people were surveyed in Oman, over 57% of whom were Omani nationals and 43% were expats.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

The Oman-based respondents were the least trusting of face-to-face recommendations for products and services from friends and family; 83% said they’d trust such a recommendation. That dropped to 43% for recommendations from family and friends on social media; in contrast, 23% of Omani respondents don’t trust product and service recommendations on social media from friends and family.

Third party endorsements are trusted by three-fifths of the respondents in Oman, with 12% distrusting what a third party says about a good or a service compared to what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

When it comes to influencers and social media, there’s little to tell when it comes to trust and mistrust – 33% trust posts by influencers or people with large followings recommending products and services, but 34% say the opposite.

Roughly half of respondents (52%) say that social media is a more important source of information about products and services than five years back. Half of the respondents (48%) have low trust in terms of what they see online (14% don’t).

Facebook is the most popular social media network, but only by a slim margin. A quarter of respondents said it was the most useful for information on products and services, compared to Instagram (19%), and WhatsApp (15%). LinkedIn came fourth, with 12%.

Trust in Media & Advertising

Trust in media among the Omani respondents is much higher when compared to the results from Bahrain and Kuwait. Radio is trusted the most (45%), followed by newspapers and television (both at 42%). Unlike Bahrain and Kuwait where they were the most trusted, brand websites are the fourth most-trusted, at 39%. Website articles are trusted by a third, with blogs coming in last at 29%. Sixty-three percent of respondents agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, opposed to 13% who feel to the contrary.

When it comes to advertising, billboards and television are the most trusted, with 32% ratings respectively. Radio follows in third place, at 29%, with online advertising as a source of information abut products and services only trusted by 19%. Approximately 58% of respondents trust advertising today less than they did five years ago, compared to 11% who don’t. Fake news is little less of an issue in Oman, where 63% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 13% disagreed with the statement.

Qatar

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150 people were surveyed in Qatar, 5% of whom were Qatari nationals and 95% were expats.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

The Qatar-based respondents were the most trusting of face-to-face recommendations for products and services from friends and family; 93% said they’d trust such a recommendation. That dropped to 57% for recommendations from family and friends on social media. Only 15% of Qatari respondents would not trust product and service recommendations on social media from friends and family.

Third party endorsements are trusted by two-thirds of the respondents in Qatar. However, 11% distrust whatever a third party says about a good or a service compared to what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

Qatar residents are similarly torn when it comes to trusting product and service recommendations from social media influencers or people with large numbers of followers. Roughly 30% do trust such recommendations, whereas 27% don’t.

However, what’s not up for debate is the importance of social media as a source of information on products and services today compared to five years back – 57% said it was, compared to 13% who said it isn’t. When it comes to trust in social media, almost half (47%) have low trust in what they see online, compared to 13% who don’t.

When it comes to which social media network is the most popular for finding information on products and services, Facebook is the leader by far with 60% of the vote. Surprisingly, LinkedIn is second with 10%. One in ten say that they don’t find any social media network useful for finding information.

Trust in Media & Advertising

The media trend in Qatar follows that of Bahrain and Kuwait; brand websites are the most trusted for information on products and services, at 44%. What does buck the trend is the second most-trusted source, which is website articles at 35%. Considering Qatar’s extensive media sector, trust in other media doesn’t show much difference to the other countries above: newspapers are trusted by 33%; radio by 31%, and television by 28%. Blogs are the least trusted, at 20%. Roughly 68% agree with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered trust in mainstream news media, with 9% disagreeing.

Advertising fares worse, with the most popular medium, namely billboards, only scoring a 31% trust rating. Television follows at 29%, radio at 23%, and online at only 20%. Approximately two-thirds or 67% of respondents trust advertising today less than they did five years ago, compared to 10% who disagree. When it comes to fake news, 68% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, and 9% disagreed.

A Guide to Media Relations in Ramadan (and Eid)

Firstly, Ramadan Kareem! I know I’m late (it’s the workload), but I wanted to share a guide on how to deal with the media in Ramadan. For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the holiest month of the calendar for Muslims globally. This annual observance of spirituality is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. This also means a shift in work schedules for many, with those fasting working shorter hours.

So, what does it mean for PR in Muslim countries or regions such as the Gulf? Here’s my guide to media relations in Ramadan below.

A season for greetings

It’s usual to receive two sets of greetings during Ramadan. The first is at the beginning of Ramadan, where people wish one another a happy or beautiful Ramadan (we usually say Ramadan Kareem). The second message is shared at the end of Ramadan, for Eid, the festival which marks the end of the month.

The Middle East is a society built on relationships, and it’s no surprise that many PR professionals send out such greetings to media to build their relationship with those in the media. A decade back, I used to receive greetings the old-fashioned way, in paper format. Today, I’m much more likely to receive an electronic version, either shared by email or via instant messenger.

Here’s two sample Ramadan message designs for you.

The start of Ramadan is marked by a crescent moon, and this image is commonly used for Ramadan greetings

Besides the crescent moon, there’s many different images associated with Ramadan. Another common image is the mosque, the place of worship for Muslims.

The Iftar or Suhoor Gathering

It’s also common to invite media to an Iftar, the meal which breaks the fast at sunset. The Iftar and Suhoor, which follows the Iftar later in the evening, are occasions to engage with others. PR agencies and clients will often invite a group of media to dine with them.

What’s great about a media Iftar is the opportunity to meet with and talk to journalists in a relaxed atmosphere, without the need to discuss work. The Iftar and suhoor gatherings are a great opportunity to build relations with key media contacts for an hour or two.

There’s other occasions during Ramadan, which are unique to certain parts of the region. In Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, many firms celebrate with their employees or media during a Ghabga, which is a gathering between Iftar and Suhoor. Whatever they’re called in their respective regions, make sure you know these events and how you can use them for media relations.

The Media Working Hours

Many companies reduce their working hours for those fasting (some reduce the hours for all employees). I asked three media people, one in a newspaper, the second from TV, and a third from a magazine, about how Ramadan changes their operations. Their responses are below:

  1. The Newspaper Editor: Working hours do change, and they don’t. My organization reduces hours like everyone else, but reporters must still find stories to fill our pages. The paper still has to come out. We try to reduce the workload but we still have to provide coverage. We’re less demanding on how many stories they file, but since there are fewer press conferences and events, reporters really have to go the extra mile to find people to talk to. Page counts come down slightly on slower news days, but that usually just means fewer international stories for the editors to source. But deadlines don’t change, reporters must still file stories, and the presses still need to be fed. And in the unlikely event that something big breaks… it doesn’t matter if Iftar is in 15 minutes. We want that story. Now, before competition gets it.
  2. The TV Editor: There aren’t many operational changes. Working hours are reduced for those in admin and management positions. For the editorial and operations teams, the hours are the same as outside of Ramadan. The biggest change is that we shift shows around, so the morning show is moved even earlier. Other program timings may change too.
  3. The Magazine Editor: There’s really no change to how we work in Ramadan.

Ramadan Themes

The other major change during Ramadan is a shift in coverage. Top of the list are issues related to Ramadan, such as charity, spirituality and other related issues. A simple example of a charity initiative is shown below.. The Dubai-based Virgin Megastore launched an initiative called Pay it Forward, in collaboration with delivery service Fetchr, to support the Dubai Foundation for Women & Children, which provides protection and support services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking.

Unsurprising, there’s less discussion about certain subjects (think alcohol, conspicuous consumption on luxury goods, and other issues which contradict the spirituality of the month). Many have come up a cropper on this issue, such as the below which was put out by a hotel in Dubai.

Atelier was criticized on social media for its gold-themed Iftar (and for the advert also mentioning alcohol)

Make the most of the holy month

Ramadan is a great time for engaging with media, and building relations. I hope that you’ll enjoy this time of year as much as I do, both for the spirituality of the occasion as well as the opportunity to see media friends.

Expats, Localization and the Need for Balance

The marcomms industry can and should benefit from both local talent as well as foreign expertise (image source: The Daily Telegraph)

There are some places that are so inspiring, they fill me with passion and energy. I just love working with colleagues and friends in London and New York. Their creativity and insights are exceptional. What strikes me most about these places is their ability to absorb talent from abroad, to the extent that you can’t even tell who is the native and who is the immigrant.

Whilst there’s much to admire about how the region’s marcomms industry has developed, there’s still much work to do when it comes to marrying local insights and talent with foreign know-how. For years there’s been a divide between the Gulf’s public and private sectors: the public was staffed by nationals, and the private by expats. Whilst there were exceptions, this was the norm.

There have been changes, both good and bad. The economic changes in countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi, combined with the increasing number of local marketing and communications graduates, have helped to increase the number of nationals working in the private sector. An insistence on hiring nationals in both government and semi government organizations have led to there being fewer expats in comms and marketing roles in both Abu Dhabi and Doha. For many multinationals, there’s still an over reliance on expat communicators, many of whom don’t know or try to learn about either the local language or culture.

I’ve always believed that there should be more locals in marcomms in the Gulf (one such person who is an inspiration to me and who I will always be proud of is my wife, who is both a local and who heads up marcomms for a multinational across the Middle East region). However, we need to place people based on merit, and we need to have structured succession planning in place. Both are missing today, across the public and private sectors.

Let me highlight my point. I live in a city which wants to be a global hub, attracting investment and tourism from abroad. That city’s government has been prioritizing national hiring to such an extent that it’s rare to find a foreigner in a mid or senior level comms post today in either a government or semi government role. What has happened is young nationals who don’t have the necessary experience or knowledge have been brought in (or roles have been left open), and as a result the work done and respect given to the function has dropped. There’s less diversity and inclusion in these government organizations, leading to a lack of understanding of foreign audiences and stakeholders.

I’ve also come across countless multinational executives who don’t understand the importance of hiring local knowledge. To them, global strategy only needs to be translated. There’s no understanding of local insights, and an inability to communicate with local audiences because of the lack of any marketing or communications people who are from or connected to the local population. I’ve known regional comms people in the private sector who’ve never even gone to Saudi, despite it being the biggest market in the Gulf. It’s all too easy to manage issues remotely, and let the agency deal with an issue.

We’ve got to change these two approaches in the region. There needs to be a balance, an understanding that foreign expertise is often needed whilst initiatives are created to support knowledge transfer to capable locals. Rather than replacing foreign expertise overnight (which has happened in some places), let’s get these professionals to pass on their expertise through job shadow programs, teaching and mentoring. In one of my previous roles I was asked to do this, and I considered it part of my role in developing the local profession. Others should do the same.

Our region can be as diverse and as exciting as London and New York, and I don’t see why the marcomms industry should be any different. Let’s start making use of both local insights and foreign experience, and combining them to create better work. We need balance in approaching this issue. As always, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

The rise of the Khaleeji Woman as online content creators (part two)

As it’s International Women’s Day, I couldn’t wait any longer and, I’ll be brutally honest, I wanted to see lots of cake porn! Here’s the second of a two-part guest blog on how women across the Gulf are using social media and their skills not only to create entertaining and informative content, but to also earn a living. In this second post, Paul Kelly, creative director and co-founder at Digital Ape, argues that brands need to rethink how they both develop and execute content creation strategies with online female content creators in the Gulf. Enjoy the read, and let Paul know what you think!

During the last post, we discussed a survey of MENA based women, and their attitudes to content, particularly food content online. This week we will focus on the content creators who these surveyed women follow and imitate. We will look at how they are creating engaging content and why that matters for brands and publishing houses alike.

How are they doing it?

People are attracted to people. If I can find someone online, who understands what happens in my day, speaks my dialect and knows what I need better than say a publisher in Dubai, then I will follow their content, and my friends will too.

Women across the GCC are doing this in their millions, Khaleeji women want to see themselves reflected in their entertainment, and they want advice and recommendations tailored to them. Gone are the days when they must consume content created by an American in New York, and served to them on TV or in print. Women from the UAE to Saudi and beyond and seeking out other women who look like them, speak like them and understand their lives.

This I believe is one of the reasons why old fashioned publishing houses, should be quaking in their boots. As much as we try, Western or Levantine men in Dubai will never truly understand what Khaleeji women want in entertainment content, and now that they have a choice, these women will choose to consume content made by their peers and when that happens at scale, these content creators become publishers in their own right.

A content creator who builds an audience and keeps them engaged is no different to a publisher, and creators with a female Khaleeji audience, have an audience underserved by content, and exponential growth rates equal revenue.

The train-wreck.

So how has it come to influencers being ridiculed for their work? Worse still, how has it come to people calling themselves influencers, buying audiences and getting a free meal ticket?

Aside from the typical Dubai-syndrome of echo chamber marketing; it’s a mix of naïve marketing managers chasing trends, agencies ill-equipped for creative relationships (trying to replace banner ad revenue) and people who see social media as a shortcut to making a quick dirham.

Instead of actively investing the time needed in these powerful communities, brands, in place of real strategies, throw wads of cash at so-called influencers and hope for big results, often leading to disappointment.

At Digital Ape, we’ve got this down to an art. Just like money is a hygiene factor when it comes to employment, so too is it when it comes to dealing with real people creating content. It’s about giving content creators what they need; Props, filming equipment, sessions with filmmakers, assistance in real-time sessions with editing, contract help, this way everyone gets the best of the relationship. Creators develop better content with help from the brand thereby growing audiences, which in turn helps the brand. Women develop a revenue stream from content that fits and that the audience understands. This isn’t horse trading it’s about developing a win-win situation for creators, brands and audiences.

Find the fit for your brand by having an empathetic network of people to draw on, then seek out their audiences. Work WITH them. Don’t use influencers, work with your content creators. It’s an investment that pays handsomely.

 The future.

It’s no surprise that local publishing houses are scrambling to get on board with the creator craze – they after all, were the content creators and influencers of an older generation. Less able to respond to a new reality of screens and pixels, and even less able to understand how to convert revenue from the eyeballs they’ve been left behind as content becomes borderless and habits are quickly changing.

After all, is what someone like PewDiePie doing any different to what VICE was doing in 2010? Arguably with 54mn subscribers (at time of writing) on YouTube he has as much impact as a medium sized cable network. Is Kim Kardashian any different to Hello! Circa 1998? Her ability to shift units of anything she sells is phenomenal.

Some will argue until that until we have proper regulation in the GCC we’ll never achieve a level of sophistication that will mean any content creator is taken seriously.

Forget that.

What I am, and us at Digital Ape say, is that the content creators are the new publishers. Instead of being locked up in an edit suite at MBC, they are at home in their own bedrooms with their phones, doing the exact same thing, for an audience which increases with every post.

What we are seeing is a new model of content democracy where the 1% who make the content for the 99% are now starting to take back their revenue. Where once it was the Newscorps or CNN’s or ITP’s relying on their talent to sell time, space or inches, it’s now the Felix’s, Rayyan’s and countless mothers, wives and daughters who have a passion to create that will shape our entertainment for the next 20 years.

Digital Ape’s research with MENA women underlines the role digital plays in offline purchase intent

The rise of the Khaleeji Woman as online content creators (part one)

In the run up to International Women’s Day, I’m delighted to share with you a two-part guest blog on how women across the Gulf are using social media and their skills not only to create entertaining and informative content, but to also earn a living. In this two-part special, Paul Kelly, creative director and co-founder at Digital Ape, will share his insights on the rise of the Khaleeji women as online content creators. Thank you Paul for two great articles; I hope you enjoy this read as much as I have done.

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With over 1.2 million followers, the Kuwait-based Instagram account omaziz_kitchen is just one example of many cooking-focused social media accounts in the MENA region.

In the echo chamber that is our social newsfeeds, I’ve seen an increasing amount of antipathy towards social media creators that are commonly being called influencers. Case in point is Felix Kjellberg’s (aka PewDiePie) recent poor decision-making transgressions and resultant glee of the cable news media in his corporate downfall (not that his followers seem to care in the slightest). This backlash against PewDiePie is reflective of a larger trend of hostility towards the world of so-called social media influencers.

It’s not without reason, either.

To begin with, the word influencer is horrible.

It feels like an archaic relic of when brand marketers relied on word-of-mouth via focus groups to influence purchasing decisions and has no place in the modern marketing dialect.

Next, there’s social media accounts that reference the word influencer in their bio to – a tip; if you see that run a million miles.

There is a better a way, which begins with recognizing true influence for what it is.

At Digital Ape we have been working with so-called influencers since 2009, first as web publishers and now as branded content specialists. However, influencer is not a term we use. We call them content creators, and we refer to their followers as their communities. In 2017, the creators’ influence on their own communities is very real, and has a lot of parallels with the Publishing Houses of the decades before it.

There is also something deeper to this influence.

It’s creating a movement amongst some of the most underemployed people of the Gulf – women – and setting them on the road to being financially independent, through employment on their own terms, at times that suit their family schedules. How?

Let’s talk about true influence.

Digital Ape commissioned a survey of 1500 MENA-based women late last year; we were interested in their content habits online, particularly in relation to food content. Even we were surprised with the results.

  • Content creators are trusted 3X more women than brands.
  • Online content creators are as important as friends and family recommendations when it comes to purchasing decisions offline – Interestingly brands are half as likely to influence a decision themselves;
  • In Saudi, non-branded (e.g. content creators) channels on social media are more popular than family and friends, and double that of brands, in trust weighting;
  • Digital content drives 65% of purchasing decisions compared to 35% offline;
  • WhatsApp is the most popular recipe sharing tool in the MENA region, with Snapchat becoming increasingly popular amongst 35-44 segment;
  • 84% of respondents don’t see any problem with a content creator featuring a brand in their content;
  • Facebook is for old people! At a factor of 50%, Facebook is more popular among 35-44 year olds compared to 18-24 and 35-34, with Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat far exceeding Facebook’s popularity;
  • YouTube is the most popular place for GCC women to find inspirational ideas for cooking;
  • TV and Radio are diminishing down the scale of importance in purchasing decisions by a factor of 3 compared to digital content channels, across all age groups.

If you think that influencers are a flash in the pan, you’re wrong. But likely if you’re thinking that, you’re not in the right frame of mind to begin with.

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Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp are the most popular apps for younger audiences when it comes to sharing among women in the MENA region. Facebook is most popular for women aged between 35 and 44.

What are content creators achieving?

There are hundreds of female content creators in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with communities of over one million people. Even I was skeptical at first, and thought, like you might be now, that the communities were fake, somehow generated from a click farm in a faraway country. However, a deeper dive and a more intelligent way to look at influence is to look at engagement rates from communities. Comments on each piece of content are a great place to start, apply cultural context to the creators and you begin to see that this influence is real.

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The most powerful online driver of purchasing decisions offline is a recommendation by family and friends, followed by cooking channels.

Our survey told us that the audience know the creators are working with brands, these “sponsored posts” get incredible engagement results. We have seen engagement rates of 5-15% on millions of followers, encouraging hundreds of actions from a single piece of creative content.

The best part? They are mothers, daughters and wives – making content for their peers, and earning their own money to ensure that if society makes it hard to get a job, they have an income from their passion anyway.

Now that we have seen what content creators, and women are doing, next week we look at how they are doing it and why this matters for audiences, brands and traditional content publishers.