The Six Essentials for Promoting Brand Building and Trust Among MENA Consumers (MEPRA/YouGov Research)

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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.

I’ve written three blog posts on the issue which I’ve already published on the blog, 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.

1. Face-to-Face with family/friends is key to influence

It should be obvious to us all, and here’s another reminder for anyone working in communications/marketing. If you want to build trust in a brand, its products and services, then look at how you can engage the public through word-of-mouth. Across the region, 85% of respondents trust product and service recommendations from their family and friends. Nothing else comes close to these positive statistics.

2. Online works if you focus on friends and family, less so on social influencers

Over the past couple of years we’ve shifted for an incessant focus on digital to idolizing anything social. As the first big finding shows, in-person interaction is still the most persuasive. Online engagement does work, but it’s not as effective; 52% of respondents trust online recommendations about products and services from family and friends (interestingly, the percentages are highest for the Gulf and lowest for the Levant).

When it comes to social influencers, consumers are conflicted – 34% do trust social influencers/people with large online followings on products and services, compared to 29% who find them untrustworthy. A lack of transparency re paid/sponsored content probably isn’t helping. What’s helping even less is a tendency for social influencers in the region to say little which is negative when reviewing products and services.

3. There’s not as much trust in the media as we PR people may think

I was surprised by how low the scores were when it came to trust in the media as a source of information on products and services. The top-rated media was a brand’s own website (which should make sense, but given how bad websites are in the region this is still surprising), which scored 46% for trustworthiness. Every other medium scored in the 30s, which is a surprise considering how much faith public relations professionals put in securing editorial coverage with media outlets (for many, it’s still the essence of their day jobs). Blogs scored the lowest, at 31% trustworthiness (they were rated as untrustworthy by 30% of respondents). Should brands invest more in their own online media? The answer would seem to be an obvious yes.

4. Advertising is trusted almost as much as the media (except when it’s online)

The research is a mixed bag for the advertising sector. Out-of-home advertising such as billboards seem to be the most trusted by consumers, with a trust rating of 36%. Television is close behind with 35% trust, followed by radio at 31%. Online comes in last, at 28%. There’s more mistrust than trust for online advertising, with 33% of those polled not believing product and services information they see when displayed as an online ad. This may be due to misleading advertising around product pricing and availability. Whatever the reason for the low trust levels (especially online), marketers need to do more to win the trust of consumers, especially with trust in advertising dropping; 61% of those polled agreed with a statement that they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago.

5. Social media is a popular news source, but it’s not trusted thanks to ‘fake news’ concerns

Social media is becoming/has become a key source of news for most people (58%) in the region when compared to five years back (and there’s no distinction either by age, which is surprising). However, there’s still a trust issue. Almost half (48%) agreed they they have low trust in social media, which isn’t that surprising given the amount of fake/incorrect information out there. Which goes to underline the need for brands to focus on their owned media channels even more so.

The research did hammer home the power of third-party advocacy. When asked if they have 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, 65% responded by saying yes. Brands need to focus on winning over trusted individuals/groups who can influence consumers.

6. When it comes to social media, Facebook is King

If you’re looking to find out about a product or service in the region, it seems that Facebook is the place to go. Over half (53%) said that they found Facebook to be the most useful platform as a source of information (this rose to 72% for Egypt). Nothing else came close. WhatsApp was a distant number two, at 12%, and Instagram third at 9%. There was no mention of Twitter, and it would have been good to have understood where Twitter and YouTube featured as sources of information on products and services for the public.

So that’s the big picture for you. Keep an eye on the blog in the coming few days as I put out country-by-country reports. If you need more specific information, please do reach out to me.

Brand Building and Trust in Saudi and the UAE, Based on YouGov/MEPRA Research (Part 2)

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This is the second post on the research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and looks into consumer trust, both online and offline, when it comes to advertising and media recommendations in goods and services.

This second post covers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which follows the post from the first four countries yesterday.

Saudi Arabia

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1003 people were surveyed in Saudi Arabia, 64% of whom were Saudi nationals and 36% were expat. When it comes to gender, 56% were male, and 44% were female. Just under 47% were aged between 18 and 29, 31% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 22% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, just over 30% live in Riyadh, 24% live in Jeddah, 7% in Mecca, 6% in Dammam and 5% in Madinah. The other 28% live outside of these areas.

Finally, 38% described themselves as single, 51% as married with children, and 7% were married but had no children. The remaining 4% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

When it comes to those closest to them, Saudi respondents scored the lowest in the Gulf; only 82% trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services. Younger respondents showed the lowest trust; 79% of 18-24 year-olds, compared to 90% of 35-39 year-olds. Saudi nationals scored 79%, and Saudi-based expats 88%. The other large discrepancy was between singles (77%) and those who were married (85%).

When it comes to trust in social media posts by friends and family about products and services, the scores were much better; 54% found such posts trustworthy, compared to 13% who found them untrustworthy. There’s a seven percent difference between young respondents (18-24) who trust the least (52%), and respondents in the 30-34 age bracket, who trust the most (59%). Saudi nationals were also less trusting than expats, with scores of 52% and 59% respectively.

Those surveyed in Saudi did show higher levels of trust in third-party endorsements of products and services, in comparison to a brand’s own positioning; 59% trust third-party endorsements, compared to 7% who don’t. There’s a 15% differential between those working (67%), and those who aren’t working (52%).

Trust in Social Media

Overall, the Saudi respondents showed slightly higher levels of trust (37%) than mistrust (29%) in social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services. Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (42%) than women (30%). And those who are working are also more trusting (41%) than those who aren’t (33%).

Social media has become a much more important source of information to the Saudi respondents than it was five years ago (53% agreed with this statement, opposed to 15% who disagreed). This is especially true of younger respondents and those on lower incomes. However, trust is still an issue with what people see online; 43% have low trust in what they see online (this jumps to 52% for those earning US$5333 and higher), compared to 17% who disagree.

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (28%), followed by WhatsApp (16%), Instagram (14%), and Snapchat (9%). One-tenth (11%) didn’t use any social media. Facebook was least popular among the youth (24%), who prefer visual applications and instant messaging. In contrast, Facebook was the most popular among expats, almost half (49%) of whom use the platform.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media for Saudi respondents when it comes to products and service recommendations differed to the rest of the Gulf. Whilst branded websites scored top as the most trusted media (45%), television content, radio news and website articles also rated highly, with scores of 44, 39, and 39 percent respectively. Newspapers came second to last, at 36%, and blogs were the least trusted, at 33%.

When it comes to advertising, there’s a slight drop in trust among respondents. Television advertising is the most trusted, at 38%, followed by billboards at 37%, and radio at 31%. Online advertising is the least trusted, at 28%. A higher percent of respondents (32%) found online advertising untrustworthy than trustworthy.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 55% agreed and 13% disagreed. Men and those married with children were most likely to trust advertising less today than five years back. Saudis scored the lowest when it came to the impact of fake news on their trust in media sources. Only 58% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 11% disagreed.

United Arab Emirates

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At 1010, the respondent base for the UAE was the largest from all the countries surveyed. Of this total, 18% were Emirati nationals, 24% Arab expats, 55% Asian expats, and just under 3% Western.

When it comes to gender, 65% were male, and 35% were female. Just under 42% were aged between 18 and 29, 38% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 20% were aged over 40.

In terms of salary, 37% earned over US$2,666 a month, 18% earned between US$1,066 and $2,665, 12% earned between US$533 and US$1,065, 8% earned between US$266 and US$532, and 7% earned less than US$265. The remaining 18% didn’t give their salary.

In terms of geography, 33% live in Abu Dhabi, 41% live in Dubai, 17% in Sharjah, and the remaining 9% outside those three Emirates.

Finally, 35% described themselves as single, 52% as married with children, and 11% were married but had no children. The remaining 2% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Approximately 84% of those polled said they trusted face-to-face recommendations of products and services from their friends and family. The groups which exhibited the highest levels of trust were Western nationals (96%) and those earning over US$2,666 a month. Those groups who exhibited the lowest trust were earners below US$266 (70%) and those people living in other Emirates (77%).

When asked the same question about online, social media-based recommendations from friends and family, that number dropped to 55%. Young people aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to trust such recommendations (60%), as were Emirati, Arab Nationals and Westerners (65%, 66%, and 64% respectively). Asian expats (48%) and those living in Sharjah (49%) recorded the lowest levels of trust.

Conversely, almost two-thirds of people (63%) have 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.

Trust in Social Media

Only 39% of respondents trusted online recommendations from social media influencers or people with large followings. Unsurprisingly, considering how much time they spend online, younger people aged between 18 and 24 years are more likely to trust such recommendations (45%), as are Emiratis (52%).

Social media has become the most important source of information for people; 57% said social media has become a key source of information about goods and services today compared to five years back. However, half of the respondents also said that they have little trust in what they see on social media.

On social media Facebook is by far the most useful source of information for goods and services, with 52% of respondents using the site to know more about brands. Whatsapp was second, at 17%, and LinkedIn was third, with 10%. Surprisingly, Asian nationals and Westerners are the major outliers here, with only 45% and 44% respectively using Facebook, and 21% of Asians using WhatsApp as their preferred social media platform (I’m still not convinced however that a messaging app can be defined as a social media platform).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

For advertising, the most trusted formats were television and billboards (both at 45%), followed by radio (41%), and online (37%). Over half of respondents (57%) said they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago. This was most noticeable among those who were married and didn’t have children (75%), and those earning over US$5333 (64%).

Brand websites scored higher than both media and advertising for trustworthiness; 53% of respondents said they trust corporate websites. Trust in print publications, in newspapers and magazines, was highest, at 48%, followed by radio and television, both of which scored a 44% trust rating. Blogs were the least trusted source of information, at 39%. When asked about fake news and their trust in the media, the UAE respondents polled like their Saudi counterparts. Only 59% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, with 10% disagreeing.

Is Your Content Legal? A Q&A with Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson

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If your content is in breach of the UAE’s laws, you may find yourself in the courthouse (maybe not with Matthew McConaughey, however).

There’s few people who know more about media laws that Al Tamimi’s Fiona Robertson, who has strived to raise awareness of legislation that impacts those working in communications and marketing. I had the fortune of sitting down with Fiona, to talk content. I started by asking, what is legal and illegal when it comes to content.

Fiona: All content must comply with the print and publications law, which was first published in 1980 and then expanded upon by and executive resolution in the 2000s. This law applies to all media, and how it is distributed, including online. The other law people need to be aware of is the Cybercrimes law of 2012.

These laws include a list of issues which are off-limits, such as criticizing UAE culture, the UAE government, Islam and any subject which could bring disrepute to the country. In relation to the Cybercrimes law, the penalties are stiff, with up to 500,000 AED in fines as well as jail terms. Anyone who is prosecuted and found guilty under the 2012 Cybercrimes law and who is not a national will be deported.

There was a case a couple of weeks ago where a media outlet didn’t obtain the correct releases for material. This material was published on a website, and the two hosts of the show were deported. When these laws are broken, there are serious consequences.

Q: Are enough publishers, brands or agencies aware of these laws?

Fiona: We don’t see enough awareness that people are concerned about this. We get to do pre-publication compliance review for foreign brands, who often approach us, but not for local brands. People don’t realize the laws are there, as they’re not well publicized.

Q: Who oversees these laws?

Fiona: It’s the National Media Council, and Telecoms Regulatory Authority who have the power to block websites.

Q: So how are these laws applicable to social media and social media influencers?

Fiona: The provisions of the Cybercrimes law does not specify who is liable for the content. The brand, the publisher, the agency or the author could be liable for the content under the Cybercrimes act. It could the content producer, the influencer. It could be the owner of the blog. If it’s on a Facebook site, then it could be you or the brand as the account owner. In the recent case which I referred to above, the authorities prosecuted nine parties for one action which was considered to be against the Cybercrimes act.

Q: Wouldn’t the platforms, the likes of Facebook, Snap or Twitter, potentially be liable?

Fiona: Potentially, yes, they could be liable. Most are based outside of the UAE’s jurisdiction so it becomes difficult to apply sanctions against a foreign entity. But the TRA could block their sites for being in breach of the UAE’s content regulations, as they do with materials relating to topics such as gambling.

Q: So what should brands and agencies do in terms of making sure that content is legal?

Fiona: There’s several laws that brands, agencies and publishers should be aware of, including both the Cybercrimes laws and the National Media Council advertising regulations. Familiarity is the most important thing. I’m still alarmed by the number of people who tell me there’s no media laws here, where there clearly are. Start there, train your staff to know what the big red flags are in relation to content, so they’re picked up before the content goes into production.

There’s not only legal issues, but also the reputational issues. Today, UAE nationals will take to social media to make complaints and disparage brands. Sometimes the issue isn’t so much legal as it is reputational. An issue is better resolved before it becomes a problem.

Q: Is producing content in Arabic more difficult than in English?

Fiona: Foreign brands and producers may not understand the culture of the region well. They may not understand the reality versus perception, and we’re often asked to help review not just from a legal perspective but also a cultural one. Having said that, the biggest advertising fail in the last 12 months was Arabic language content produced by Arabic speakers for an Arabic country.

The Media, the Web and Influence – a Journalist’s Response

 I wrote earlier this year about the waning influence of media, and how the media could tackle this through more transparency and better use of digital.

The piece elicited a response from one journalist here in the UAE whom I greatly respect. I wanted to share that response with you below.

On auditing and transparency:

Yes, there’s a lack of transparency and yes, there should be auditing but I’m not sure how much that would help. Most advertisers either don’t care or don’t understand that a publication with smaller numbers but the right target audience could still be valuable. In any case, an insane amount of deals are done because the media planners/agency guys and publishers are friends. So to your point, even if there were to be proper auditing, I’m not sure how much it would help the media industry regain its influence. 

On influencers and audience profiles:
Okay, the media and influencers should be treated separately. By default, media (and journalists) are – or should be – influencers, but in the context of the way the term is used here, they are not. So, why are we talking about an influencer who will give a breakdown of their followers? This is an issue, but a completely separate one.
With regards to media building reader profiles, yes they should but it’s important to define whether it should be sales or editorial. The issue of trust and transparency is relatively not as pressing when dealing with editorial because they have nothing to gain per se by bluffing/inflating numbers and audiences. Moreover, if editorial is interested in covering a story, they will do so (or at least, they should) regardless of PR/comms professionals pitching or not pitching said story. In fact, PR/comms need to think beyond what they want to communicate and instead look at what journalists want to do and try and be a part of that – something I’m sure you’re more than familiar with. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to speak to a company when they want to push something but not when you’d like them to weigh in on something.
On journalists as influencers:
There needs to be a line between journalism and whatever passes as content nowadays. Journalists should NOT be content creators and distributors for brands. It has to be either/or. They can’t have a balanced view if they’re speaking for a brand (understandably so)…it’s the whole reason we strive to keep editorial and sales apart. If anything, we need more journalists – not content creators or influencers – to dig up new stories, angles, and perhaps most importantly, be brave enough to pursue those stories.
Have a view? If you do, then drop me a line. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And to the journalist who wrote this, I’d like to say thank you.

What does the closure of 7Days mean for the UAE’s print industry?

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7Days was a refreshing change to the region’s media landscape. The paper, which is closing for good at the end of December, will be missed by its readers and by the industry.

Many of us in the media industry were saddened to hear of the impending closure of the English-language daily 7Days. The paper was founded 13 years back in Dubai, and ran on a free distribution model similar to the concept pioneered by the Metro newspaper back in London.

7Days was unique in many ways. First was its business model, which was to make money through advertising rather than newspaper sales. Secondly, 7Days positioned itself as a community newspaper. It had a strong roster of journalists who focused on local interest pieces. And the community responded in kind; 7Days became known for its letters page, where readers would often vent their frustrations (I’ll admit, I was a huge fan).

The paper had struggled with its finances; a month ago, the management team announced that they’d be cutting the daily print run to once a week and focusing online. And now, the paper will be shutting down completely. To quote the statement made by 7Days CEO Mark Rix:

“The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged. Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business. It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

While there’s been much talk about the decline of print, both globally and regionally, I have a different take on 7Days. Most of the papers in the region are government-owned, and as such their operations are bankrolled by the state. In addition, due to their ownership they’re seen as a means to communicate with government and hence attract a level of advertising that may seem incongruous with their distribution/readership numbers. For those who have worked in media here, they will be aware that a number of dailies have been unprofitable for many years.

7Days was different – it was an attempt to redefine how a paper could operate and make money. 7Days didn’t hold the same editorial line as other papers in the UAE due to its ownership (the paper is part-owned by the UK’s Daily Mail General Trust). And its distribution setup was different as well; the paper made money from advertising and classifieds rather than paper sales. The paper was also audited; at its height the paper distributed over 62,000 copies daily (except Fridays).

The fact that 7Days was able to operate for 13 years with an operating model that was both new and unique to the region is a testament to how well the paper was run by the editorial and sales teams. 7Days survived many challenges, including one imposed closure and one recession. However, with money flowing from traditional to new advertising models such as digital and social, the model has not proven to be sustainable without the backing of government largess. Even in the Gulf, the future seems to be focused on digital media.

I was asked by one young public relations professional, Rehmatullah Sheikh, what would happen to 7Days digital assets, particularly its social media following. The paper has developed a large online presence, with 161,000 followers on its @7DAYSUAE Twitter account, and 644,730 likes on its Facebook site. Some have suggested that the paper, particularly its letters section, could live on through these sites. There certainly seems a will among the readership to see 7Days continue in some form or another. Could 7Days become a pioneer for the second time, and promote a public-led media forum through its online assets? I for one hope that 7Days will continue in some shape or form.

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.

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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).

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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.

Local Insights – the UAE’s Media Coverage of the Conflict in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen and the UAE's involvement has helped to bring the community together, according to Emirati editors (image source: vocativ.com)

The conflict in Yemen and the UAE’s involvement has helped to bring the community together, according to Emirati editors (image source: vocativ.com)

I wanted to share a fascinating view into Arabic-language media opinions here in the UAE. This week saw the Emirati Media Forum here in Dubai. One of the topics up for discussion was the coverage of the conflict in Yemen. The conflict, which the UAE has been an active participant in since March of this year, has claimed the lives of approximately 70 Emirati combatants. The text below is from Gulf News and is a unique glimpse into how the conflict and those Emiratis who have died have helped to shape the Arabic-language media sector in the UAE and its coverage of the conflict.

The ability of Emiratis to transform tragedy into a sense of unity and national pride was the focal point of discussion at the second session at the Emirati Media Forum.

The session’s theme was ‘The UAE media’s responsible stance on the Yemen events’.

Mohammad Yousuf, president of the UAE Journalists Association, said the media was able to transform the sense of shock, tragedy and loss to positivity and pride.

Sami Al Riyami, Editor-in-Chief of Emarat Al Youm, said the Yemen war was a new experience for the UAE and for the people in the media sector.

“The news came as a shock to us too, as we are humans and Emiratis before we are media people. We were shaken by it as we were not used to seeing the bodies of our martyrs wrapped in the UAE flag — it’s an overwhelming sight. But we were able to turn the tragedy into love and pride for our country,” he said.

Explaining through various media channels why the UAE went to war, what the martyrs died for and what war entails helped in [achieving] this transformation, he said.

The media had no shortage of stories of heroism to write about, Al Riyami said, as the stories just presented themselves.

“It was not about scooping [from] other media outlets; we were all working together so we could get the information out to the people.” Al Riyami said.

In one instance, he said, one of their correspondents lost contact and they had no material to publish. Al Riyami said he called one of his contacts in another newspaper, who gave him the news material to fill the gap in coverage.

“It is our national duty, not a competition about who is getting exclusive content,” he said.

Ali Obaid Al Hameli, director of Dubai TV’s News Centre, said that with the loss of the first martyr on July 16 this year, media outlets felt a great sense of responsibility on how best to break this news to the people of the UAE and, more importantly, to the families of the martyrs.

“The UAE leaders’ engagement and stance and their heartfelt visits to the families of the martyrs and the wounded helped change people’s attitudes and made our job easier,” he said.

He said that they were shocked when they visited martyrs’ families, as the families were the ones consoling them and raising their spirits and not the other way round.

“Many of the families wished that they had more children — brothers and sons — to fight for the UAE,” Al Hamli said.

Abdul Hady Al Shaikh, executive director of Abu Dhabi TV, said that the media also shed light on the humanitarian efforts of the UAE in Yemen — and not just on the military intervention.

“We also wanted to show the Yemeni streets and people, not just coverage of our troops there,” he said.

On the topic of social media’s role, Al Riyami said it is every Emirati’s duty to offset rumours that surface on this platform, by giving correct information on the subject.