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)

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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

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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

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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.

Podcasts, Podcasts and more Podcasts. Just remove the Comments!

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Podcasting is a popular move for publishers in the UAE (image source: theodysseyonline.com)

If, like me, you’re a news junkie who feels they spend far too much time in a car, you’re in luck. The UAE’s media outlets have gone on a Podcast frenzy.

The Gulf News business desk began their podcasting about five months back. Named Dirhams and Dollars, the series is an eclectic mix of anything and everything business related, from social media and e-commerce, to the impact that politics has on economics and economies. Headed up by the trio of business editor Scott Shuey, and staff reporter Ed Clowes and Sarah Diaa, the casts are hosted on Soundcloud and usually run for about 15 to 30 minutes. The series is distributed by Twitter  as well (disclaimer – I do love the team picture).

As part of their relaunch, The National has launched a new series of current affairs podcasts, named Beyond the Headlines, where they aim to deep dive into issues which the editorial team feel deserve more attention. The podcasts are hosted on Audioboom and are normally curated by the Assistant Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Alrawi for about 30 minutes.

Others are set to follow. Motivate’s Emirates Woman will soon be launching a podcast series focusing on women’s issues across the region.

While some publishers are putting out more content, in new formats (I’d love to see if the move to podcasting will have any impact on radio in the region), others are doing away with some sections of their website. Al Jazeera is removing its comments section, and here’s why:

The mission of Al Jazeera is to give a voice to the voiceless, and healthy discussion is an active part of this. When we first opened up comments on our website, we hoped that it would serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with each other.

However, the comments section was hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism. The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually non-existent.

Also, over time, we found social media to be the preferred platform for our audience to debate the issues that matter the most to them. We encourage our audience to continue to interact with us this way.

This decision also comes at a time when we as a publisher need to evaluate what our priorities are. We feel that rather than approaching the problem with a collection of algorithms and an army of moderators, our engineering and editorial resources are better utilised building new storytelling formats that resonate with our audience.

Al Jazeera are looking at how to host comments, so this may only be temporary. However, it does highlight the issue of anonymity online, especially in a region which is beset by a number of political disputes between different countries.

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 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.

What does the blocking of the Doha News website mean for media?

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Many Qatar-based visitors to the Doha News website will have seen this block message yesterday. No reason has been given for why the news site is blocked.

It’s not been a good week for the region’s media. First of all 7Days announced that it’d close by the end of the year. And now, the Doha News website has been blocked by Qatar’s two telecommunications firms, Vodafone and Ooredoo. The news site, which is the only independent media outlet in Qatar (i.e. not government owned, was inaccessible to many inside Qatar. To quote from the site’s own announcement:

As many are aware, Doha News became inaccessible to most online users in Qatar as of yesterday, Nov. 30.

Our URL – dohanews.co – was apparently blocked by both of Qatar’s internet service providers, Ooredoo and Vodafone, simultaneously.

Since then, the majority of people in the country have been unable to access our website on their desktop computers and mobile devices.

Exceptions included access to a VPN (virtual private network) or unfiltered corporate internet.

Yesterday, Doha News put in requests for information from the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Ooredoo, Vodafone, the Government Communications Office (GCO) and Qatar’s National Information Security Center (Q-Cert.)

While we waited for their response, we temporarily diverted readers from dohanews.co to another domain name, doha.news.

However, that URL also stopped working in short order.

Deliberately blocked

Given this development and the silence from the government and ISP providers, we can only conclude that our website has been deliberately targeted and blocked by Qatar authorities.

We are incredibly disappointed with this decision, which appears to be an act of censorship.

We believe strongly in the importance of a free press, and are saddened that Qatar, home of the Doha Center for Media Freedom and Al Jazeera, has decided to take this step.

There’s been no announcement from Qatar’s authorities as to why Doha News has been blocked, and there’s been much speculation on Twitter about why the site has been blocked (follow the hashtag  which translates to Doha News website ban to see more).

I’ve written about Doha News before. I respect their team for writing about subjects no other media outlet will cover. I value a free media because I understand the good it does for society. Journalism encourages debate and discourse, it promotes an exchange of ideas and it supports transparency. Doha News is a credit to Qatar. I hope that whoever was behind the decision to block Doha News realizes this, and flicks the proverbial switch. However, given the prevailing sentiment, this hope may be ill-founded.

In the meantime, I wish the very best for the Doha News team. As they’ve shown, there’s a futility to blocking websites in today’s age. They’re already publishing on Facebook and Medium. We are in an age where it’s easier than ever to share information, and attempts to block this only result in more coverage of an issue.

Today the only effective way to stop a story breaking is to jail the reporter. However, this approach will do major harm to Qatar’s reputation, particularly as the home of the Arab world’s largest and most influential broadcaster (Al Jazeera’s acting director general was talking about professional journalism only six weeks back). Already the Doha News story has gone global thanks to reporting by the Associated Press, with coverage as far off as America.

For Shabina, Omar and Doha News team, I and others will keep on supporting you in your mission to report on everything that is happening in Qatar.