The Middle East’s love for Instagram (including its adverts)

Here in the Gulf we just love our pictures and photos. We love it so much that you’ll be hard pressed to find many in the Gulf who aren’t on the social media app. Only yesterday and in a period of less than five years Instagram announced that it had crossed the 400 million user mark (the app added 100 million users in the last 10 months alone). Seventy five percent of those 400 million users live outside the US, and the Gulf in particular has taken to the photo and video-sharing application.

In terms of the Gulf, it’s no surprise that Saudi leads the way – there are 10.7 million monthly active users in the Kingdom (just over a third of the population). The UAE follows with 2.2 million monthly users. And, to the West, Egypt has 3.2 million monthly active users. What’s even more impressive is daily active users – a whopping 6.1 million for Saudi, 1.2 million for the UAE, and 1.1 million for Egypt.

This all makes good news for Facebook, Instagram’s owner, which introduced advertising to the platform this month in the MENA region. Facebook rolled out advertising for select partners this month. The launch earlier this month included both regional brands such as telcos Saudi Telecom and Zain and retailers Souq and AlShaya, as well as global advertisers such as Unilever, P&G, Nestle, Mondelez, Visa, L’oreal and Pepsi. The first ad to go live was Souq’s, which you can see below.

Souq's Instagram advert was the first to be seen by Middle East users of the app

Souq’s Instagram advert was the first to be seen by Middle East users of the app

So far, from what I’ve been told, engagement with the adverts has been far higher than expected and much more than these advertisers are used to on Facebook. While there’ll be some negative sentiment from consumers who aren’t used to seeing advertising on their Instagram feeds, it seems that both Facebook and advertisers are onto a winner when it comes to Instagram advertising.

And for those of you curious people out there, the country with the highest penetration, is Bahrain which is closely followed by Kuwait. Both enjoy over 50 percent usage for Instagram; Bahrain’s penetration rate is over seventy five percent. The below visual was shared by social media expert Khaled El-Ahmed, and while the numbers may be slightly off from the above in terms of users, they’re still valid in terms of percentages.

PS For disclosure, I’m a P&G employee.

What do #brands do with #franchises when consumers get #socialmedia angry?

A couple of recent events, both personal as well as public, have highlighted the challenges facing brands when it comes to franchises and customer service. Social media has given consumers the ability to interact directly with brands in ways which were never before possible. Today’s consumers expect a response from brands’ social media feeds, be it on Twitter or Facebook.

So what do brands do when they’re not in full control? How do brand communication teams deal with a consumer who is angry at a franchise? It’s an interesting question, especially for us consumers and comms professionals here in the Middle East.

A number of high profile examples have brought to light the limited scope for communications between consumers here in the Middle East and brands from locations outside of this region. The best case study would be the #noshaya Twitter-led campaign against the Kuwaiti-based retailer M.H. AlShaya. The call to boycott the company’s stores back in December was a response to AlShaya’s decision to stop providing cash refunds to customers throughout its stores.

AlShaya owns tens of franchises across the Gulf, including Top Shop, BHS, and H&M. It’s by far the largest retailer in the Middle East and thousands of Saudi consumers took to social media to vent their anger at AlShaya’s decision (for the full reasons behind the boycott please see this previous blog post).

After only a couple of hours of the campaign going live online activists started messaging the retail brands directly.!/Maialshareef/status/143021336778903553

Activists sent hundreds of messages to the official Twitter accounts of retailers who had franchise agreements with M.H.AlShaya. While I may be wrong (and I hope I am) I didn’t see a single response from these retailers. These retailers weren’t helped by promoting their own refund policies on their websites, most of which were much more generous that AlShaya and included cash refunds on returned products – the activists’ key demand.

Another consumer-led campaign which hit the headlines this week relates to a nightmare incident in Saudi involving a Toyota Landcruiser which was stuck in cruise control at a speed of 210 kilometers per hour. For those Arabic readers out there check out this harrowing news piece from Al-Hayat newspaper. #ToyotaCruiseFailSa has been a top trending hashtag in Saudi for the past two days.

Out of all the car brands in Saudi Toyota probably has the best reputation for reliability and customer care. Does Toyota rely on its distributor Abdul Lateef Jameel to step in a repair the public relations damage done (so far, there’s been little word from the distributor) or do they step in themselves to reassure Saudi drivers? The response of one Toyota Landcruiser owner is typical of those trending the topic on Twitter.

The Arabic translates as, “I haven’t used the cruise control since buying the car because of this story.”

To ask again, when do brands step in to protect their brand value? How or what do they agree with their franchise and distributor partners as to who is responsible for what? Social media has changed the communications sector in ways that few could have envisaged. One short but interesting article online has found that consumers who contact the brand via social media are much more likely to expect a response to their queries. Check out The State of Social Marketing 2011 – 2012 by Brian Solis

I wonder how many of us in communications are taking note of what is happening around us before the same thing happens to the brands that we are entrusted with?

The customer is always right – AlShaya and a social media backlash

My favorite retail marketing phrase is the customer is always right. While this may be the case in Europe and America where the phrase was coined, here in the Gulf retailers can and often do put in place policies that would not seem to be consumer-friendly.

One of the largest retailers in the Gulf is Kuwait-based M.H. AlShaya. According to media reports AlShaya manages over 55 brands across the Middle East and operates 2,000 outlets in 15 countries. AlShaya is a monster retailer, and its brands including Debenhams, H&M, The Body Shop, Starbucks, Boots and Mothercare.

At the end of September Alshaya announced a new policy whereby it was scrapping its previous returns policy. No longer would shoppers at AlShaya stores be able to return faulty and unwanted goods for a cash or credit card refund. Instead, they would be given store credit.

To put it mildly this policy hasn’t gone down well online. Today twitterers used the hashtag #noshaya to blast the retailer for its returns policy. Prominent Saudi twitter activist @maialshareef and Dhahran-based @hindkz came up with the hashtag to vent their frustration at the change in policy returns. Those in the GCC in particular have been criticizing the policy, especially in Saudi Arabia where most retail shops do not have changing rooms. If the clothes you purchase do not fit when you try them on at home, you will not get a cash or credit card refund.

Twitterers have called for boycotts of M.H. AlShaya’s stores until the policy is changed. Some have also been contacting M.H. AlShaya’s retail partners such as H&M asking for them to force a change on M.H. AlShaya. One twitterer with the handle of @b_e_s_t wrote to @HM

Could you please review H&M store policy in Saudi Arabia. Your agent in the region refuse to pay refunds even with the receipt #noshaya

Some people online have defended M.H. AlShaya. One with the username neenoism noted that people should be angry at the Saudi authorities for refusing to install changing rooms.

Ill be buyin smthin from some ALSHAYA store eventually. Put the money on the damn card. Boycott Saudi for banning changing rooms. #noshaya

While it’s been a few months since the initial announcement re the returns policy, the only assumption for the timing of the backlash is that M.H. AlShaya has only implemented the policy recently. One of the region’s most prolific bloggers @khaled has summed up why people are upset. When compared to the brands they represent (most of whom seem to give consumers a refund even if the product or purchase is not faulty) M.H. AlShaya’s returns policy is anything but consumer friendly.

Recent social media campaigns against the likes of Qtel and AlMarai have resulted in major concessions either being promised to or made for the public’s benefit. This seems to be the start of what either may be a very short but focused campaign against M.H. AlShaya’s consumer policies or a long-term hashtag which sums up the dissatisfaction of its customers.