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

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

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

How are they doing it?

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

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

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

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

The train-wreck.

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

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

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

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

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

 The future.

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

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

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

Forget that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not without reason, either.

To begin with, the word influencer is horrible.

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

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

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

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

There is also something deeper to this influence.

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

Let’s talk about true influence.

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

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

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

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

What are content creators achieving?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

WhatsApp and why communicators should care about Dark Social (at least in a crisis)

When it comes to harmful materials, WhatsApp should be a key source of concern for communicators in the Gulf

When it comes to harmful materials, WhatsApp should be a key source of concern for communicators in the Gulf

Let me ask you a question. Name the most popular application on the phones of consumers in the Gulf. It’s not Instagram. It’s not Twitter, and it’s not Snapchat. As you clever ones may have guessed from the title of this post, it’s WhatsApp. At the last count, in a survey by TNS in 2015, the instant messenger app was used by 84% of smartphone users in the Gulf. And yet, it would seem that WhatsApp is hardly used, either by marketers or by communicators.

Part of the challenge is that WhatsApp is a closed network. It’s dark social, a term coined in 2012 that refers to online activity which cannot be monitored. WhatsApp and other applications such as WeChat and Facebook Messenger cannot be mined for data, and as they’re closed the only persons who know what is being written or shared are the sender and the recipient.

And that’s often the problem. For people who are responsible for looking after corporate reputations, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss. I wanted to understand more about WhatsApp and what it means to communicators during a crisis. And so I asked them. I asked communicators in the Gulf what WhatsApp means to them. And I want to share their responses with you.

First of all, let’s start with what communicators are using. The most popular social media channels for communicators are Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These are followed by LinkedIn and YouTube. Snapchat and WhatsApp are the least used, which is surprising considering their popularity in the region. This may suggest communicators are still struggling on how to use such channels.

Open platforms are the most popular among communicators. Dark social platforms are less popular.

Open platforms are the most popular among communicators. Dark social platforms are less popular.

What’s interesting is the channels that are used during a crisis. While Twitter again comes out tops, followed by Facebook, other channels don’t figure as much.

Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media channels during a crisis

Twitter and Facebook are the two most popular social media channels during a crisis

The majority of communicators I spoke to do see WhatsApp as a factor in the spread of harmful materials. However, relatively few have experienced crises over the past year.

The majority of comms practitioners have not seen a crisis spread over WhatsApp in the past 12 months

The majority of comms practitioners have not seen a crisis spread over WhatsApp in the past 12 months

What’s also illuminating is confidence in dealing with a crisis online. When asked about a generic crisis on social media, communicators were fairly confident in dealing with the issue. When you throw WhatsApp into the mix, that confidence level drops.

On the left, the question asked was, "I believe my organization is prepared for a social media crisis." On the right, the question asked was, "I prepared my organization is prepared for a crisis spread on WhatsApp."

On the left, the question asked was, “I believe my organization is prepared for a social media crisis.” On the right, the question asked was, “I prepared my organization is prepared for a crisis spread on WhatsApp.”

The issue that many of us face online is decreasing levels of trust in brands, particularly when it comes to social media pages. Whereas a couple of years back consumers believed that reaching out to branded Facebook pages or Twitter accounts would solve their issues, few hold such beliefs today. Add in issues such as defamation for online comments, and it’s no surprise that consumers are turning to WhatsApp to share their views with their friends and family and to ask them to take action against the brand.

Based on this research, there are a number of recommendations communicators (and marketing folks) need to take into account when it comes to dark social:

  • Communicators need to be familiar with dark social – it’s apparent that consumers are online and are using dark social tools to communicate. Communicators need to be conversant in these tools if they’re going to be effective in getting across organizational messaging, particularly during a crisis.
  • Dark social tools need to be part of crisis planning – one question which wasn’t asked was to do with which social media tools formed part of crisis planning. However, it’d seem that dark social doesn’t come into consideration when planning crisis scenarios or a response. This needs to change.
  • Communicators need to utilize dark social – certain industries, such as the media sector, have begun to make use of dark social in their public outreach. Communicators in this region may be advised to look at adding dark social to their social media planning, to increase the level of engagement and also to understand how much such channels are used vis-à-vis open channels when sharing from websites and other public sharing channels.

If you’re interested in the full research, drop me a note. Sharing is caring, especially when it comes to crisis communications and social media

Out with the old Social Media, in with the new? Twitter & Facebook supposedly declining, Snapchat and WhatsApp on the rise across MENA

Some more stats for you, this time from Northwestern University in Qatar and the Doha Film Institute. And the outcomes are an eye opener.

The survey, which polled 6,058 adults (4,529 nationals) in Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, looked to explore the relationship between cultural attitudes, censorship, regulation and online surveillance, online and social media, film, TV, music, games, sports, news, and children’s media. When it comes to the social media side, the results surprised me. To quote the press release.

Use of Instagram across the region increased by 24 percentage points between 2013 and 2016, and Facebook’s popularity has declined in the last three years by 6 percentage points. Twitter, however, shows the biggest decline over the past three years—17 percentage points—with a 12 percentage point drop from just one year ago. Three-quarters of Egyptian internet users say that concerns about privacy have changed the way they use social media, second only to the 89 percent of Saudis who say the same.

Or, to put it another way.

The survey by Northwestern University in Qatar shows a general decline in usage of Facebook and Twitter, along with an uptake for Instagram

The survey by Northwestern University in Qatar shows a general decline in usage of Facebook and Twitter, along with an uptake for Instagram

Another interesting point that the survey brought to light was usage of instant messaging services. The research found that, “though more young nationals use social media in general, WhatsApp is more popular among the oldest group (45+) than the youngest group (18-24) (83% vs. 74%).” One note on the below – as a VoIP service Viber is banned in the UAE, which may have skewed the results.

WhatsApp is by far the most popular social messaging service, particularly among older users

WhatsApp is by far the most popular social messaging service, particularly among older users

The research asked users what they were doing online, and what they were using each social media platform for. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming answer was to communicate with friends and family.

The overwhelming reason for using social media on most channels is to communicate with friend and family

The overwhelming reason for using social media on most channels is to communicate with friend and family

For you marketers and communicators out there, if you’re looking for more information on social media usage across the region, including a breakdown by the countries surveyed, do go and check out the research here. While I’d take certain findings with a pinch of salt, especially the drop in Twitter usage, do bear in mind that the social media networks rarely share their own internal numbers in the region publicly. So, if you’re looking for statistics direct from the social media networks themselves to create/develop your social media outreach, you may be best off approaching contacts at Facebook, Google and Twitter to try your luck.

Ramadan and the Impact of Social Media

We’re only a week or so away from the holiest month of the Islamic year, when Muslims fast to remember the first revelation of the holy Koran to the Prophet Muhammed. Just as the Middle East has embraced social media, so have Muslims. Ramadan is one of the most active times of the year for social media in the Middle East, on all social media channels, as Muslims reach out to friends and family, as they prepare for the Holy Month, and as they celebrate in the run up to Eid.

First of all, let’s look at Twitter. The short messaging service recorded over 51 million mentions of Ramadan last year, with 8.4 billion impressions.

The number of Tweets during Ramadan in 2015 based on Twitter's own internal statistics

The number of Tweets during Ramadan in 2015 based on Twitter’s own internal statistics

Google’s focus is on YouTube, in particular channels which have a specific relationship with this period of the year. Cooking is initially popular (Ramadan meals are cooked and served at home), followed by religious channels and general entertainment.

YouTube viewership during Ramadan changes dramatically as you can see from this internal Google data

YouTube viewership during Ramadan changes dramatically as you can see from this internal Google data

And last but not least, there’s Facebook. During 2014, 14.6 million Muslims in the MENA region posted 47.6m updates on Ramadan and Eid. The attached presentation from Facebook provides fascinating insights into when Muslims are online and how much more time they’re spending online, as well as the shift towards mobile and a breakdown of chatter by age and sex. Facebook believes that millenials are shifting away from television and towards the internet, which may be disconcerting for advertisers and television networks.

Facebook MENA Ramadan Insights

While it’d be fascinating to understand how Muslims are using Whatsapp and other messaging services to spread religious messages and other related content, I don’t have any data on this (and other) channels.

Whatever you’re planning for Ramadan, do remember the importance of social media channels to Muslims across the region. Make your content engaging (either entertaining or informative), relevant, and shareable. And Ramadan Mubarak!

Has Social Media Overtaken the News Cycle? The Story of the Kuwait Mosque Bombing

Last Friday was one of bloodshed and horror in Kuwait. The country, which has not been affected by regional sectarian issues in the same manner as its neighbours Iraq and Saudi Arabia, experienced something truly terrible. During Friday prayers, when men gather to pray together in the mosque, a suicide bomber entered one such mosque with the intent to kill as many of those inside as possible. To date, twenty seven people inside the Imam Sadiq Mosque, a place of worship for Shia Muslims. Two hundred people were injured.

Apart from the horror of this atrocity, which Islamic State claimed responsibility for, what is telling is the speed and amount of information which spread via social media, particularly WhatsApp, in the Gulf.

I was receiving messages about the bombing two hours before the news had made it onto websites such as Al Jazeera English. Not only was the information written down, but people were sharing both images and video thanks to the proliferation of smartphones as well as the availability of high-speed mobile data services.

Below is just a selection of the images that I received on that day.

What’s fascinating is not just the speed of information, but also the accuracy of that information. When Al Jazeera Arabic made a mistake with the name and picture of the suspected bomber an image was shared on social media of the correct suspect.

In addition, the amount of information was remarkable. While global networks provided a couple of minutes of coverage about the bombing, the images and video shared via Whatsapp built up a comprehensive picture of the incident, including video footage of the scene as well as interviews with witnesses and survivors. Unlike the news networks, many of whom don’t have correspondents in Kuwait, this was amazing, in-depth reportage of the Imam Sadiq bombing. Just two of the videos I received are below.

What was missing from all of this was context. On the same day there were terrorist incidents in both Tunisia and France, one of which was claimed by ISIS. Due to the local interest in Kuwait on my Whatsapp channels, no news on these two events was shared. This was a different story on the news networks where the three stories came together into one coherent piece on ISIS and its aim to spread terror across the Middle East and Europe.

Is the Imam Sadiq mosque bombing an example of citizen journalism working at its best in the Gulf? If so, how can media outlets catch up to ensure they have access to this information at the same time as its distribution through both private messaging networks such as WhatsApp as well as open platforms such as Instagram and Twitter? Twitter is looking to bring in a head of media partnerships for the MENA region, to work with publishers. It’ll be interesting to see how this and other efforts to get news outlets to work through social media impacts their ability to tell the story accurately in real time.

On a final note, my thoughts are with those who experienced this terrible incident. May all of those who were injured make a speedy recovery, and those who died always be remembered.