Influencers & the Importance of Credibility – an Example from SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

life-lessons-article-by-khalid-alameri-in-the-national

When choosing influencers, brands and publishers need to ask themselves if the person has the credibility and expertise to influence others.

As anyone working in comms will have noticed, 2016 was the year of the influencer. That trend will not only continue into 2017, but it’ll pick up pace. Everywhere you will look, you’ll see brands and organizations working with influencers to address public issues with their stakeholders.

There’s many issues around working with influencers. One, which I’m going to highlight here, is the importance of credibility. Often brands (or publishers) will seek out an influencer  who has a wide following and is popular. That’s unfortunately not the best approach to follow. Instead, brands need to think about credibility, by asking themselves if the influencer they’d like to work with is 1) an expert in this field, and 2) has talked about the issue before, and 3) are considered to have integrity.

I’ve talked about this topic before, most notably when Etisalat brought on-board a load of social media influencers from rival Du. It’s a topic I’ll probably have to keep coming back to again and again, as brands (and publishers) keep on making the same basic mistake.

A fellow communications professional shared with me an opinion piece from the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper yesterday. It was on why Abu Dhabi and SeaWorld will be a good fit, and why both will benefit the wider environment. The piece was written by Khalid AlAmeri, a well-known and well-respected influencer.

The piece is well-written in terms of the argument, and while I could argue to the contrary I’m going to focus on the choice of the influencer. Firstly, Khalid writes prolifically on entrepreneurship and issues around Emiratisation. He’s well-known and admired for this work. However, he’s not an expert on the environment or wildlife (if he is, his expertise should be highlighted here). He’s highlighted some criticisms of SeaWorld, which is the sign of an experienced writer who knows how to engage in a debate. But again, why should I believe someone who firstly isn’t an expert in the field, and who hasn’t written previously on the subject.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not an easy task to find influencers on issues that aren’t mainstream (fashion, food and travel). However, there are organizations in the UAE which do oversee the environment, such as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (which I assume Khalid references in the piece), or the Emirates Diving Association. There are also associations and people who take part in marine life conservation, such as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. These bodies would have made for a much more powerful and compelling argument, primarily due to their expertise. Knowing this, I’d be much less willing to question their lines of argument. As it stands, Khalid’s opinion piece is weakened due to his lack of credibility in this area (as opposed to his expertise on entrepreneurship). To me, that lack of expertise weakens an argument rather than promotes it.

Will Saudi’s telcos, government charge Saudi consumers to use social media?

Saudi is a country that isn’t well understood by many, especially by communicators. However, for all of the stereotypes the Kingdom has the capacity to surprise. Take for example a piece published by Saudi Arabic-language newspaper Al-Watan on the 15th of December. If true, the short story was a good piece of investigative journalism. To summarize for non-Arabic speakers out there, a number of telecommunications companies have met with the Communications and Information Technology Commission, the national regulator which oversees the telecommunications industry, to discuss levying on consumers a charge for social media services (the full story in Arabic is below).

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

Saudi telco operators have apparently met with the national regulator to discuss levying a social media charge on consumers, according to this piece in Al-Watan

The Kingdom has the most active social media base in the region; Saudis are avid users of services such as Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. Saudis have taken to social media to call for boycotts against the telcos for what they describe as poor service and high costs. Quite understandably, this report didn’t go down too well with Saudi consumers. A new hashtag was conceived, named fees/charges on social media (#رسوم_علي_مواقع_التواصل).

The regulator has moved to deny the initial story – Al-Watan carried a denial piece the day after. However, partly due to a lack of trust in both the telcos and the regular, many Saudis online have expressed their belief that the news is true. The report prompted many Saudi influencers to share their own views online on the quality of service offered by Saudi telecommunications firm; below is a vblog by Saudi Gamer.

Globally telcos have been seeking solutions to redress the challenge of revenues lost to social media channels or applications which offer lower or free services such as messaging and calling. The issue is going to get worse, according to London-based research and analytics firm Ovum. The telecommunications industry will lose a combined $386 billion between 2012 and 2018, the firm predicts, from customers using over-the-top (OTT) voice applications such as Skype, or Whatsapp.

Some operators such as Verizon are looking to become content producers as well as deliver the content through the pipes. However, charging consumers for accessing social media would be a short-term but unpopular option for telcos to use as they seek to fill the revenue gap. How much it may impact online consumer behavior and advertising is anyone’s guess. We may find out next year.

The need for clear communications – Saudi’s drive to balance the books

lazy-saudis

Saudi’s social media scene has been on fire over the past week due to a number of controversial issues regarding government officials. This is a news story from the Times on a comment made by a minister regarding Saudi inefficiency.

This week has been an interesting one for Social Media watchers in the Kingdom. Thousands of Saudi nationals have taken part in online campaigns/used popular hashtags relating to three high-level government officials who have either made controversial statements or who have been accused of using their influence on behalf of family members (you can see media coverage on two of the issues from Saudi Gazette here and Arab News here). The campaigns follow a decision a month ago to cut benefits for Saudi government employees. The decree, which was made in light of low oil prices and a rising Saudi budget deficit, is biting hard; this week Reuters reported that the Saudi central bank had asked retail banks to reschedule property loans for those affected by the cuts.

One of the campaigns began after a government document was leaked online, with personal details including name, position and salary. It’s only logical to assume that many government officials in the Kingdom are angry at seeing their pay cheques shrink; they’ll become even more angry when they see what they feel to be others not doing the same. In this environment, it wouldn’t be hard to also imagine officials being able to take a picture via their smartphone of a document which may reveal an embarrassing situation and then sharing it via social media (or, more likely, dark social).

I had the pleasure of listening to a senior Saudi journalist this week. He made a pertinent point when he said, “We can spend billions on consultants. We could have spent millions on a PR agency to convey the message behind the cuts and why they were necessary.”

In times of hardship, good communications becomes even more important. Saudi’s citizens need to understand the logic behind government decisions. They need to feel that they are engaged and are part of the debate. And they need to see government’s leadership doing just that, namely leading by example (as I’ve said before, actions are much more powerful than words in shaping perception).

We may see more issues coming to light in the Kingdom over the coming months, and more skeletons being revealed in government closets. When it comes to the government’s engagement and communication with its people, the transparency, clarity and consistency (or lack of) will either help get many Saudi citizens on board, or it may alienate them further. I for one hope it’s the former, rather than the latter.

 

How will Snapchat’s Dubai opening change the region’s social media landscape?

snapchat-02c-02-592x333

The Middle East’s social media scene is going to get much hotter with Snapchat opening up in Dubai (image source: hashtag-me.com)

It’s finally happening. The ephemeral social media network, the reason behind the doggie nose pictures and floral crowns, is coming to the Middle East. Yes, Snapchat is almost here. The story was broken by Communicate Middle East last week, with Cairo-based online publisher Digital Boom adding more details. I’ve included all the information below from both stories.

As reported by multiple industry sources, Snapchat is ready to make its entry into the Middle East market with its first office in Dubai toward the end of this year.

Heading the operation will be Hussein Freijeh, who is best known for his long-standing role with Maktoob – and then Yahoo – for more than a decade, until Yahoo shut down its Middle East operations in late 2015.

While pricing levels have yet to be set for Middle East customers, Snapchat will be offering a number of products, including geofilters and SnapAds. The service, which is especially popular with internet users under the age of 18 across the Gulf region, revealed in June that 150 million people were using the service each day globally, surpassing the daily active users on social media micro-site Twitter. The app had 110 million daily users in December 2015.

Snapchat’s timing of its move into the region is fascinating. The company may IPO as early as March next year, and the Gulf is a fast growing market for the firm’s app (possibly its fastest worldwide). How will brands react? It’s a difficult one to say, as Snapchat has an interesting range of advertising products which are different from anything in the market. In terms of the youth market, Snapchat will be the key platform to use. However, how will this affect spending on other platforms? Will Snapchat pull in dollars from Instagram, its closest rival, or from other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

What is clear is that with Snapchat opening up its platform to advertising in the MENA region, brands here will have to develop a Snapchat presence and start learning about this unique social media channel. To date, there are few Arab brands on the site (Souq.com, Al Hilal Bank and a couple of hotels are some exceptions I know of), and brands will face a steep learning curve if they’re to get the best out of Snapchat and engage with its young audience.

Saudi Telecom, Boycotts, Social Media (راح_نفلسكم#) and Stock Price Impact

Forgive my wordy headline, but there’s a lot to get into this story. Before anything else, let me spell out the context. Saudi and Saudis love social media, but they haven’t been enthused by the efforts of the telecommunication providers in the country to block free call apps or services offered by the likes of FaceTime, SnapChat and WhatsApp. To add insult to injury, consumers have claimed that the Kingdom’s three telcos (Mobily, Saudi Telecom and Zain) have rolled back unlimited data services.

So what have the country’s social media-crazy consumers done? Yes, you guessed right. They’ve taken to social media to call for a boycott. Under the hashtags (which basically means we’ll bankrupt you) and  (boycott telco companies), the idea is simple.

Starting from last weekend, Saudi users have begun to switch off their phones. The hashtag and others have gone viral, and users have taken to Twitter to demand action against the telcos, including physical boycotts of stores.

The ultimate mark of consumer sentiment is cartoons, and Saudi’s most prominent cartoonist Abdullah Jaber stepped in to pen his own thoughts on the issue (the below translates as the Telco company on the right, saying to the consumer, “why are you angry?”

Saudi Telecom in particular has been hit, both in terms of its social media following (the carrier has lost almost 150,000 followers on its Twitter account), as well as its share price which dropped by several percent on Sunday morning after trading opened on the Saudi bourse.

stc-followers

Saudi Telecom’s Twitter account @STC_KSA lost over 140,000 followers in the space of two days as boycott calls spread (source: Twitter Count).

stc-stock-price

Saudi Telecom’s stock price was also hit on Sunday, with an initial fall of 8% (source: Google Finance)

There’s a further dimension to this story, with some online accounts in the UAE calling for similar action to be taken against the two telco incumbents (see the hashtag  and ).

Is this type of online activism on a single economic issue going to become more common, particularly with the state of finances across the region? And what can communicators do about an issue that is about a product and a strategy that consumers don’t like?

As always, it’d be good to hear your thoughts.

Snapchat and what it offers communicators

I’ll be the first to admit, that Snapchat is still a mystery to me. And, judging by my conversations with others, I’m not the only one. However, Snapchat is the social network for young millennials, with 60% of users in the US aged between 13 and 24 years. The service has over 150 million daily users (these numbers are higher than Twitter’s own daily usage). The service reaches 41% of all 18 to 34 year-olds in the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see similar numbers over here in the Gulf.

As communicators, we have to embrace Snapchat (whether we understand it or not). While much has been written on Snapchat, on how to use it, as well as how Snapchat compares to other products such as Instagram, I wanted to share different ideas on how to reach an audience via the hottest social media channel for youth in the Middle East region.

Several of the most effective options that we communicators have to reach out via Snapchat are paid-for. Snapchat’s advertising solutions are very different to what you’ll be used to on other social media platforms. Here’s three of their top solutions.

Your Traditional Video Ads

Let’s start with the basic Snapchat ad. Called Snap Ads, these products begin with an up to 10-second vertical, full screen video ad that appears in the context of other Snaps. Brands can give Snapchatters the choice to swipe up and see more, just like they do elsewhere on Snapchat. Snap Ads give brands the opportunity to embed further content as well; by swiping up on the video, the Snapchatter will be able to access extended content including long form videos, articles, app install ads, or a mobile website. Snapchat claims that the swipe-up rate for Snap Ads is 5x higher than the average click-through rate on comparable platforms.

Sponsored Lenses

And now we get to the fun stuff. Sponsored Lenses offer a different take on brand activation, offering not just an impression, but what Snapchat calls “play time” — the time Snapchatters spend playing with the interactive ad you’ve created for your brand.

It couldn’t be easier for Snapchatters to use the Sponsored Lens product. To activate Lenses, Snapchatters press and hold on their faces. The product is designed to promote engagement; lenses can include prompts like “raise your eyebrows” to trigger an animation. Snapchatters can send Lenses to a friend or post a Lens to their Story. On average, Snapchatters play with a Sponsored Lens for 20 seconds.

Sponsored Lenses can prove extremely popular – take the example of Taco Bell and its Cinco de Mayo Snapchat Lens which was viewed 224 million times.

taco-bell-filter

The Taco Bell Sponsored Lens was the most popular in the app’s history, and was used by millions of Snapchatters.

Sponsored Geofilters

The third option for creating paid-for engagement on Snapchat is sponsored geofilters. This product does what it says; when Snapchatters in a specific location(s) take a Snap, they’ll be able to see the Geofilter and use it to explain where, when, and why they took the Snap. The campaign can cover a country, a city, or even a location such as a mall, an airport, a monument or a hotel. In the US, a single National Sponsored Geofilter typically reaches 40% to 60% of daily Snapchatters. A good, simple example of a Geofilter is shown below from Yankee Stadium, and was created by 6S Marketing.

6s-snapchat-sponsored-geofilter

Snapchat Geofilters give Snapchatters the option of branding their Snap with your location-specific messaging. Check this out this filter from Yankee Stadium courtesy of 6S Marketing

The Drawbacks

These options aren’t available as of today in the MENA region. However, my hope is (well, it’s more than a hope) that Snapchat will be opening up soon in Dubai and provide these products to brands locally. The other caveat is cost. Snapchat advertising products don’t come cheap. The Fast Company reported that Snapchat was asking US-based advertisers to cough up hefty sums of cash for a Sponsored Lens: $450,000 per day for Sunday to Thursday, $500,000 for Fridays and Saturdays, and $700,000 for holidays. There are cheaper options, but you’ll have to have a decent budget to play on Snapchat.

However, if budgets allow and once Snapchat expands into the Middle East, be prepared to go Snapchat crazy!

Birth of digital influencers = death of true journalism! Who’s to blame?

Have social media influencers negatively impacted our profession?

I’ll be hosting more guest bloggers on the site. This piece is from Rijosh Joseph, and focuses on the contentious issue of social media influencers and their impact on the media and the concept of public relations in general. Enjoy the read, and thank you Rijosh!

Call me old-fashioned, but I am quite annoyed with the evolution of modern day PR! I often wonder, if not all but at least, some of us PR folks, have lost the plot or whether we are passing the buck to the modern-day advertisers?

The topic had been “vocal” both in my mind and among a few of my peers within this industry. A recent YouGov report published by BPG stirred further debate and hence I find the need to put forth a lay opinion.

When this study was posted as a pitch for editorial opportunities in “UAE Journalists”, a private Facebook group that has members within the media and communications industry, it laid the platform for members to “engage” with their views. And honestly, it was a very interesting thread to follow.

Coming back to the point, it frustrates me to sit with PR teams (clients + agency) only to educate them on the incorrect notion of treating journalists inferior to digital “influencers”.

For instance, a certified journalist, are in most cases, served with a press release, which PR folks expect them to carry in their publication. Yet a blogger or digital influencer, plugged to the cage of technology, and who does not possess any insights on journalism, gets pampered at an all-inclusive media event. I agree, product reviews, giveaways and meals never pay their bills. However, we hardly realize that it is a lifestyle choice that they made.

In my honest opinion, digital influencers could strive for a path wherein the real essence of journalism and the need for materialism, can co-exist. Instead of just showing up at events for the freebies, one can get creative in myriad ways of generating revenue while preserving the quality of good writing.

For starters, one can turn a blog into a revenue generating business-model with meaningful campaigns, rather than a platform for paid editorials or tainted and biased op-eds. For example, if you love travelling, then creating a memorable travel experience alongside partnering with brands that are willing to collaborate and for the same cause will let you fill your pocket and keep the sanctity of good blogging.

If one is in to fashion and beauty, then developing a fashion line or partnering with make-up brands they believe in for workshops etc., will lead consumers to their webpage, at the same time maintain the dignity of unbiased content with a penchant for money.

The core essence of blogging is channeling one’s opinion based on their passion points. It does not become a blog if it turns out to be a tool to endorse commercial products.

In the last couple of years I have come across several bloggers and digital influencers who “review” products, but end up in situations wherein they stoop-down to cringe-worthy negotiations, like refusing to publish the review without payments or price-tags being involved. It had also got to the point where they create a drama when we politely decline the opportunity and request to collect the product to return to the client as they are all part of a rotating media review sample quota.

Similarly for media events, if influencers expect them to be invited, it is only fair for PR folks to expect them to cover it. Be it, positive, negative or neutral – give us the coverage if you have shown up to the event and taken a press kit. It is highly frustrating when they send an email with their rate card following the event to publish or cover it. Instead, stop asking to be paid to be part of a media experience and honestly write your thoughts about it. That isn’t the role of true bloggers.

The point here is, I’m not trying to fully kill or disapprove influencer marketing. As communications professionals, we must tie up with influencers only if they can provide clients with tangible analytics to back up exactly what ROI they can bring to a campaign. But with the current state-of-affairs, too many lines have been crossed and it is appalling that we are forced to please every new kid on the block who claims to be an influencer and, worse, bend and break to their whims and fancies.

From the debate on this topic in the “UAE Journalists” Facebook post, there was one comment, which caught my attention to also reflect from the other side of the spectrum. The post stated:

“What is the difference between a paid influencer and a journalist who has absolutely no freedom or inclination to write a story unless there’s significant advertising spend? What’s the difference when a journalist calls you up, asking if you can get them tickets for a concert or movie, etc. Not saying all journalists do this, but let’s be honest, most do. Whether we like it or not, celebrity influencers have always been a part of the marketing and comms-mix, now with social media, the rise of the “digital influencer” is inevitable. You and I, may not have let an influencer sway our opinion on a product or service, but I think most of us, have tried out that new restaurant just because we heard everyone talk about it.”

And it is sad that I have to fully agree to the above post. All UAE journalists are not saints. We all have had our countless experiences that make us wonder as to why chose to be in PR. It is also a fact that in this region, the ethics in journalism among journalists have gone down. This might also be a reason for incessant rise in influencer marketing.

So, what can be done to clean up the mess?

To begin with, from a digital perspective, I feel it is time the scene becomes regulated by relevant authorities of the media council to make it mandatory that all paid editorial content on digital platforms get declared as “sponsored content” as opposed to how it is being offered to readers now. This should bring about a sense of equilibrium among all stakeholders playing within this sphere of media and communications.

And on that note, it is high-time, members within digital fraternity consider ways to stop asking for money merely to be part of a media experience. And as responsible PR professionals, we must not dig our own grave by fostering current practices with influencer marketing.