Understanding The Influencer Marketing Bubble in The Middle East

The trend of influencer marketing has been so huge in the Middle East untill everyone did believe it is true.

In the last 3 years, global brands spent a huge amount of their advertising budget on Arabic influencers. The trend has been massive in some industries such as beauty, fashion, entertainment, travel, and tech. Even local startups and boutique businesses have been desperately chasing micro-influencers to increase their brand awareness. Undoubtedly, influencer marketing has been going crazy in the region and everyone was competing to acquire social media influencers.

Quick facts about influencer marketing in the Middle East:

  • According to survey by BPG Cohn & Wolfe in 2017 of 100 in-house marketing and brand managers across a range of industries in the UAE, 49% currently work with social media influencers. 55% said their biggest challenge was finding relevant influencer while 41% said negotiating terms and conditions was a major concern.
  • The Arabic consumer are highly consuming videos and stories. Around 30,000 Middle East-based YouTubers have more than 10,000 followers. While almost 12 million daily Snapchat users in the GCC, including 9 million in Saudi Arabia and 1 million in the UAE.
  • According to Gulf News, 94% of influencers in the UAE get paid between $1000 to $5000 per post, while the remaining 6% the price per post could reach more than $10,000. In some cases, 76% influencers agree to products or experiences.
  • The top beauty influencer Huda Kattan reportedly earns $18,000 per post, according to com.
  • The GCC market leads the Middle East as the highest demand from brands and the top paid influencers. Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco influencers are paid less.
  • Among social media platforms, Instagram stands as the top place for the influencer marketing game while Facebook is rapidly declining. YouTube is becoming the golden gate for micro-influencers who are targeting Gen Z.

However, some of these stats belong to 2017 and 2018. The scene is shifting.

The Influencer bubble is about to burst

Some would argue that influencer marketing is going to be even bigger in the region, I wouldn’t argue but let us remind ourselves that in this world everything changes faster than you think. There are some facts we need to review the phenomena of influencer marketing.

1. The Market Size is Hard to Figure

Don’t be fooled by numbers of increase. Due to fraudulent influencer marketing, the estimates of the market size and increase is totally inaccurate. The global demand for influencer marketing is much smaller than announced numbers and not stable in terms of growth. Mike Schmidt wrote a great analysis regarding this in the Forbes magazine. He predicts that in the coming two years, influencer marketplaces and brokerages will have a tough time. In contrast, let’s remember that the Middle East has no figures or researches about the market size to be able to identify growth or even regression. Eventually, we need to exclude the top global brands out of the equation since their huge budget spend is just a shift from traditional TV Ads with celebrities to influencer marketing. This would leave us in a total jungle of untraceable activities and influencers who are desperate to increase their value with overestimated charges.

2. Brands are chasing the vanity metrics

It is time to release the secrets and state one important fact about the return of ROI per influencers. Brands are exhausted by the process of tracking influencers. The complex behind tracking influencers exceeds the regular set up of affiliate management tools. There are many metrics are required to measure the ROI including sophisticated social media analysis, brand metrics, conversion rate and more. Investment wise, while the influencers are raising their cost, the ROI of each influencer is problematic to trace.

3. Fraudulent Influencer Marketing is Costing Brands

According to a research by American Marketing Association (AMA), engagement on sponsored content from fake followers is costing brands $1.3 billion a year which is almost 15% of the total spend. In an audit of 10,000 influencers, SocialChain found that 25% of their followers were engaged in fraudulent activity. According to research, 50% of paid influencer post engagement is fake. The rise of fake followers and engagement have been another huge pain for major brands. Major brands are now fully aware of this issue and some started to review their influencer marketing strategy: Unilever is refusing to work with influencers who utilize bots and fake followers. In addition, based on Marketing Week, A third of brands admit to deliberately not disclosing influencer marketing as sponsored content as they believe doing so will impact consumers’ trust, instead choosing to come up with “creative alternatives”.

Example: Huwai has launched a campaign early in 2020 with an influencer. It turned out the influencer has been involved in some political debates and the campaign triggered a huge backfire to boycott the brand. The agency was not aware of this? It could be a fatal mistake.

influencer marketing

4. Influencer Can Damage the Brand’s Reputation

The brand image and values are always at the risk of unprofessional behavior brought by influencers. Eventually, influencer marketing programs are hiring influencers based on their popularity, relevantly and engagement stats. It is extremely difficult to be able to move these social media celebrities to become a real “brand ambassador”. They are independent and driven by their own values and local competition among each other. Hiring an influencer is mainly like hiring an independent on a contract basis, not a partner. Some brands could be able to achieve a partnership level with influencers and have major control over the influencer, but this is a complex mission that requires a highly professional branding team and a big budget. However, the region has witnessed crucial issues when some of the influencers went out of control.

Example: In 2018 a Kuwaiti beauty influencer made a negative comment regarding domestic workers which triggered massive anger. As a result, several beauty brands decided to cut relations with the influencer to maintain their brand image.

5. Social Media is Becoming Highly Saturated

In the Middle East, social media feeds are becoming saturated with posts from all the wannabes and lookalike influencers more than ever. The ongoing floods of pretenders and followers’ buyers have widely impacted the consumer behavior. Engagement rates for Instagram influencers dropped in 2019, according to a Trust Insights analysis. Instagram started to prepare to the shift in consumer behavior by removing the likes counter. This step from Instagram proves that the change is coming. Consumer are now more aware of the commercialized approach of their influencers and filtering out paid content. They might gladly engage and like the influencers content, but they will not trust it all.

influencer-marketing

6. Influencers with Nothing to Influence

My mom says “Put a donkey in front of the camera for long and he will be famous”

We have first to stop calling everyone that generated a substantial number of followers as an influencer and define who is qualified to be an influencer. The name can explain itself clearly.

The influencer is someone who can influence the public audience with an idea, opinion, and most importantly a style of life. Yes, the style of life is the key concept behind the whole idea. The critical factor of being an influencer relies on the ability to influence your context of choice not just your choice. What is the difference then between influencers and content creators? It is a massive difference. Content creators demonstrate their skills and knowledge which engage the audience but don’t follow a systematic and planned agenda. Let’s imagine the content creators as a TV entertainment channel with an objective to attract as many views as it can so it can sell Ads.

On the other hand, influencers are more like the News channel with an agenda to influence public opinions in a certain direction. The main difference here is not particularly the content but it is more about influencing the audience according to a predetermined strategy. The relevancy is a matter of consistency. In an industry like fashion and beauty, the major amount of Arabic influencers are themeless. They are crazy about chasing trends and showing off to stay connected with the audience. You cannot blame them for following such a strategy, however, the issue relies upon the fact that it is becoming hard to differentiate who is who.

Huge number of Arabic influencers are copying style of life, stories, content, tips and rotating around the timeline. Therefore, the social media is more saturated with endless posts of people who is trying to influence the consumer with whatever.

7. Change in Arabic User Behavior

According to a recent Social Media Influencers’ Survey  of 1000 Emirati and Saudi residents aged 18 to 35, 79% said they have unfollowed an influencers for flooding their timelines with promotional content.

People will be smarter with social media before you know it.

Eventually, that’s not the biggest fear yet. Another major factor is rising in the horizon. Let’s welcome Gen Z who will dominate everything soon (In Egypt I call them Yassta Z due to their overuse of Yassta word). The consumer who are born after 1996 are evolving to become the biggest segment in the region. How Gen Z are using the internet and social media is going to be totally different than us as Millennials. They are native digital consumer, faster, smarter detectors and sensitive to authenticity. Forget the old times of the picture-perfect, super-edited type of content. They know the filters; they sniff the promotions and they need something authentic.

Therefore, what influences this generation is going to be a different game. Gen Z is not influenced by the trend, they are the trend itself. Eventually, Gen Z will continue to follow influencers, but they have more control on direction than the influencers himself.

social media

Millennials will have to follow the Gen Z era

So, in the coming years, the shrinking part of the pie will be Millennials while Gen Z will grow rapidly. Millennials will need to adapt to the native digital consumer who will dominate social media. The first impact of Gen Z first we started seeing in the last couple of years was emerging from the influencer into Micro-influencers. Moreover, Nano-influencers is arriving. Gen Z is decentralized and extremely diversified segment across the Middle East and regular segmentation won’t work out. The reason for this is pretty simple: They are not receivers like older generations, but they are influencers themselves. They are not the customer unless they are part of the game.

8. Arabic Influencers Are Hard to Deal With

As a marketing consultant, I have worked with tons of influencers in the region for several brands and always faced three common issues. 1) The majority are buying followers and engagement, 2) They are not authentic, and they rely on heavily edited photo sessions instead of creating content, 3) Unprofessional attitude and lack of commitment, 4) Overestimation of their value and expected results.

In conclusion, the brand had to spend a lot on building campaigns, hiring teams and paying for a list of influencers and the results showed that only small percentage had a positive impact on the brand and ROI. It was extremely problematic to handle the Arabic influencers.

9. Brand Strategy Inconsistency

Another regional issue appears with the culture. While brands are looking for straightforward strategy and focused groups of influencers who can control, each country has its own preferences when it comes to influencers. The market is saturated when it comes to values and consumer. The Arabic dialect, shopping preferences, and social trends are all part of the influence game. The segments across the region are completely diversified and it requires deeper research on the culture and consumer, not just the influencer popularity. An example: While I was working for a beauty brand in the UAE, we chased several Arabic makeup artists but the surprise we discovered later that the majority of the consumer in the market are expats who rather influenced by an Indian expat beauty blogger. We have been following a completely wrong assumption.

Bottom Line: Influencer marketing is evolving rapidly in the region and brands started to consider it as an overestimated market and expensive. In-house marketers started to predict the danger of the big bubble and step back while media agencies are trying to push hard on gaining more. While some brands will withdrawal, there will be others who will focus on Micro and Nano influencers. In the last round of consultation, I advised the brand to turn influencer marketing into an affiliate and push towards a partnership based on commission instead of paid posts. However, it obvious that consumers and brands are losing faith in people who claim to be influencers.

Marketing in the Middle East: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Marketing in the Middle East is becoming the topic that a substaintial number of people are wondering about.  Targeting the consumer in the Middle East is not limited anymore to international companies, it is increasignly important for startups and mid-size companies in the region who are trying to expand across different countires in the Arab world. We are in the era of startups where everyone currently is having some sort of idea or services or even a talent that they need to market. Therefore, marketing in the Middle East is attractive topic and becoming a demand for everyone search for opportunity around here. I get it, it is one of the millennial generation’s lifestyle and thanks to the social media and its tools for small businesses.

Eventually, the world is currently living in the era of startups where everyone is having a talent or an idea and want to make a profit out of it. I can understand this, but why everyone thinks that marketing is the last thing to consider? That’s what I cannot understand!!

The Middle East region is rapidly evolving, especially in the last 5 years, and getting highly influenced by the global trends such as e-commerce, business entrepreneurship, media and fashion influencers, and brands lifestyle products.

We might be able to confirm that the region is emerging fast and everyone including individuals is looking for jumping on board, yet marketing will be always a challenge that is everyone is struggling with.

Apparently, you cannot have a straight vision which can answer all the questions when you are establishing your marketing startegy for the Middle East. That’s why I would like to invite you for a nice ride (I hope) to explore this market and to understand the nature of the consumer around here.

First, do you like western movies? This is some kind of metaphors I will encotuner. Yet, if you don’t get it you can still ignore and you will miss nothing.

The Good

The Middle East market is huge

The Middle East is rising as one of the fastest-growing markets and it is becoming more attractive due to some major factors.

  • Demographic structure of the region is playing a big role with approximately half of the population in Middle Eastern countries are currently under the age of twenty-five. Yay, young and energetic.
  • This young segment is spending more time on social media more than  the global average. Therefore, there is a great opportunities for marketers to use social media and content marketing especially for industries such as consumer products, fashion, food & beverage, and entertainment.
  • In the Gulf area, many of these younger consumers are affluent professionals, and this presents a big market for luxury brands and electronics. In marketing language this means a higher customer value and higher revenue per customer. Sophistcally, higher Return on Ad Spend (ROAS).

While some countries in the region are facing economic instability, the market is still having low taxation compared to the European markets. Lovely fact: The region has the highest spending on cosmetics per capita in the world and the appetite for beauty and fashion products is getting bigger. Tempting!

Easy to segment

While starting your marketing in the Middle East you will discover that Arab consumers are relatively easy to segment and you need less efforts to identify the customer persona. However, If you are going to use traditional surveys, then it is a bad idea. The Arabs, in general, are unlike other nations and they are more conservative about sharing their honest feedback. Not to metnion the absent of solid market researches. You are alone in a vast dry desert of data.

Monitoring trends and tracking the social media engagement are more effective tactics to define the key motivations for your potential customers. Furthermore, proper data-driven approaches can definitely get you the insights you need. But, if you know how to collect data smartly not by portion.

consumer research arabic

Finally, localize your apporach. This doesn’t mean localization of your marketing content and campaigns, but effective localization of your marketing strategy for the the Middle East. Channels, creatives, user experince and all. I am not talking about translation. It is all about the culture. If you don’t have locals who are crafting your marketing message, then you need to hire someone who is expert with the local culture, slangs, and trends.

Common marketing tactics are effective

Some of the well-established brands are using the same marketing tactics in the region for decades and guess what? It is still working.

When I was in the advertising business someone told me an interesting story: “Back in the early 90s we had a meeting with P&G and they rejected many new creative ideas for a new campaign. The reason is that they believe that the Egyptian consumers only engage with the Ads that contains a song. Simply they didn’t want the campaign to be focused on the product features and wanted it more entertaining”. They eventually did have a good understanding of the market and made the choice to stick to what it works. Now, which is 20 years later, you would still see that advertisers didn’t change their tactic. They only adjusted it to fit with the digital media platforms but the tactic is still the same.

Common advertising and campaign tactics are still effective for the mass consumer in the Middle East. The consumers in the region are highly influenced by the media and mass campaign over the personalized experiences. A viral campaign is widely effective in shaping the consumer habits and it works for big brands, media production, and even politicians.

The Bad

The social concerns

arabic consumerThere is one important factor you need to fully understand about the Arab consumer and never forget. Arabs are highly influenced by the social concerns. They tend usually to buy the things that recommend by their circle of friends and family while putting fewer efforts on exploring the specific features of a product. Surprised? well it is even more. The regional consumer tend to buy products to gain a higher social class appearance. Yeah, to some degree this happens everywhere, but it is bigger over here.

The majority of consumers in the Middle East are trapped in trendy and fashionable brands and desperate to be part of one social group or another. They are suffering from an inability to choose based on their individual needs as this might lead to a prejudgment by the society and their circle of friends. Maintaining a certain social image is a quiet big concern which highly affects the consumer habits in the region.

If you are wondering about where the big brands are exceeding in creating a fashionable brand image? You will need to spin the world map and land in the Middle East. You might not find every girl wearing Nike shoes like in Singapore, but you will find that moving up in your social class requires an iPhone. Arabs don’t just believe it is fashionable, they believe it a star added to their exclusivity. If you are selling a product with high quality but it is not a fashionable trendy product, then you are going to struggle. Big time!

marketing in the middle east brands

Marketing tactics: How to build a marketing campaign in such market? My advice for you is to try to build up a group of loyal customers and create a very personalized email campaign. Focus on this small base of customers and make them feel exclusive and spoil them. Don’t rush the growth and position your brand with fabulous marketing materials such as high-quality videos. Grow your segment gradually using an effective social media engagement and never forget to maintain important factors such as excellent customer support, loyalty programs, CRM, and retargeting tactics.

Lack of standards

Marketers in the mature markets such as some European regions are highly considered about the conservative consumer who tend to read and check the specifications in order to compare services/brands before they make a decision and convert. The Middle East is considered as a region of emerging markets with less concern of critical thinking and product comparison practices. A quick tour in the most popular e-commerce websites would help you to understand that the number of product reviews is relevantly lower than most of the global markets.

If you are selling for the Germans, you should be ready with very dense product description and very caution with the customers’ feedback. Montioring the customers opinion is very painful process for a conservative consumer who tend to have high standards and highly concerned about reviews. In the Middle East, this is not exactly the case. Arab consumer are shopping because they just enjoy it. It is not a plan or investment, it is an entertainment. Huge difference in consumer behaviour. Keep that in mind.

Marketing tactics: Branding and marketing message are the most sensitive marketing materials you need to consider when you are releasing a product for Arabs. Build a campaign that will make your brand stand out in the market and always deliver your USPs in straightfoward and easily consumed ways. The landing pages should carry out a clear message up front and avoid any lengthy descriptions. Simplify your approach, aim well and hit right in spot. Push aggressively on offers and the Arabic consumer will go banana. They never disappionted my KPIs during the seasons.

The Ugly

Consumerism at its peak

The consumerism is drastically changing the lifestyle of the local consumer in Arab countries. Consuming more might sound like a great opportunity for businesses to market, but that’s not true and you have to think about it again. Consuming more of the cosmetic doesn’t mean a great opportunity for you to open your state-of-art cosmetic. The well-established brands will absorb this growth by producing a variety of products and acquiring small companies. Big brands are eating most of the cake down here.

Over the years we were able to witness how the local investors were filling the malls, the store shelves and road billboards with western brands,  leaving a tighter window for the consumer to browse the alternative products. The biggest local firms are investing heavily and there are few big players who are dominating the malls and international brands. From fashion to beauty, F&B, media production, electronics and even resturants it is a closed game. Amazon jumped in and acquired Souq.com to dominate the e-commerce in the region. The top players are manging the game.

That’s the ugly fact about the Middle East market; the consumers are surrounded by big brands which are massively funded by local investors (The Gulf money). The consumer will end up consuming more of the same item or same brand instead than being open to alternatives and new experiences.

Don’t be deceived by the initial figures about the market size and charts of your sector or industry. Don’t launch your business model and marketing strategy based on these tricky stats. If you don’t dig deeper into the market insights and adapt your strategy considering the price-sensitive consumer, you could lose a vast amount of time and resources.

Consumerism is also changing the lifestyle of the consumer and instead of satisfying people’s needs it is constructing commercial needs and desires to keep the production growth. In a country like Lebanon, you would see that some consumer tend to buy a piece of branded clothes instead of buying normal varieties of outfits. In Egypt, some would buy an iPhone even if it is beyond their ability.

Marketing tactics: If you want to conduct an effective strategy for marketing in the Middle East, you shouldn’t only focus on the factors you developed your product based on. It is more like a “Blue Ocean strategy” where you need to focus on how to brand your product. In other words, it is not quality concern, it is differentiation.

Moreover, it is important to know that Arabic consumer interact with the promotion campaign more than they do interact with the product itself. They will have higher awareness about the piece of the advertising than the product name. Make sure you campaigns are effective and delivers strong message.

Controlled by brands

UAE Top Rankings
UAE Top Rankings

Brands are turning into symbols of lifestyle and exclusivity in the region which is bringing huge struggles for startups and SMBs. Back in the 80s, the market had the first wave of international brands which boomed in the recent years. The brands’ big investments and the massive advertising made the local brands lose a huge chunk of the market share. Some of the local brands started to change their strategy and try to become more specialized and localized, but the ugly truth that many of them are exiting the market.

We have seen many creative and out-the-box solutions joining the market but after a while, they discover that the local consumer is more attracted by the international brand. Here we come to a major issue which is the marketing investment. These huge budgets play a big role in the game and eventually the marketing know-how of these big brands will give them always an edge.

Recently, I’ve wondered why all girls in Arab countries are wearing a “Datejust” Rolex? I found out that most of them are wearing a fake copy. They still would prefer to wear a fake copy of a big brand than going for another Swiss brand like Swatch. I wouldn’t call this as a final resolution but I can see that local brands are struggling to grow in industries such as beauty, fashion, and retail.

Marketing tactics: Don’t compete with the big brand and build a strategy that can help you identify the gaps. Use gorilla digital strategies and maximize the use of data insights. Establish organic acquisition channels with your SEO and Social Media to decrease your advertising needs. Build an extensive content strategy and gain the client confidence by being a reliable source of information.

Influencer marketing is the key to success in the region. To get people to trust your product or services you need to influence them with a celebrity or opinion leader or media advocate. This works much better than building a creative concept for your marketing campaign. When Vodafone wanted to beat the competitors in the Egyptian market, they hired Mo Salah and that’s it.

Is not a startup-friendly

For decades, marketers always wonder why startups are able to drive vast growth in the U.S. market while it is diffcult to grow in other enviroments. I believe that the nature of the market and the consumer behavior is the key. In contrast, Arabs don’t tend to try new solutions or services to fulfill their needs. Once you launch a new app or product, then you will generate a niche segment which is not enough to sustain your growth plans. This is Have been the main struggle for the majority of startups in the region I have consulted.

I know that there are tons of articles and figures about how the Middle East is becoming a big hub for startups, and I don’t disagree with that. Yet, when I get to sit with a lot of entrepreneurs I am always getting the same complaints: We are able to fund the business but the marketing is an issue. How to increase our market share? How to expand in the region? and many more of these utopian questions…

Let’s say the answer to this is pretty simple. The consumer habits in emerging markets requires much more than a creative idea. The business model should have room for adoption and product changes to be able to survive. The key here is not the consumer needs but the business model flexibility and ability to evolve.

Marketing tactics: Don’t rely only on the product and find ways to communicate the benefits. Reshape your marketing message to provide a compelling message. Open your platform or product for demos, gifts, samples, test drives and influencers. Be realistic and market what you can deliver. Don’t focus on going viral and focus on building more effective campaigns. Use data analytics effectively to feed your CRM then get it connected with online analytics. You need to master your own funnel and to gain a better understanding of the buyer’s persona.

Marketing in the Middle East: final thoughts!

In conclusion: Marketing in the Middle East has its gaps which you can benefit from. To launch an effective marketing strategy for the Middle East markets you need first to have a solid base of information about the market possibilities. Understanding the consumer doesn’t come right away from published statistics or conducting surveys, it requires running intensive researches in order to get the proper business analysis.

Finally, while social media is one of the best channels to generate leads for conducting marketing in the Middle East, but yet I still believe that content is the king.  Organic is the best method to generate leads on the long-term and at a lower cost per acquisition.

An Overview of Digital Advertising in the Middle East [Infographic]

Over the last few years, the Middle East had a small share in the global digital advertising expenditure. I made a research to dig deep into the current figures and the stats of 2011 to 2017 to better understand the landscape of the digital advertising in the Middle East including market trends and the status.

1) The global trends in digital advertising

According to eMarketer report in April 2017, paid media advertising outlays worldwide will increase 7.3% in 2017 to $583.91 billion. Growth will be roughly on par with previous estimates, and spending will rise steadily throughout the forecast period, driven by increased investments in the e-commerce industry and mobile ads. Digital will remain as the fastest growing medium with 14% in 2017.

Market size: Worldwide digital ad spending will reach over $205 billion in 2017 and represent 38.3% of total paid media. The numbers are expected to see double-digit growth at least 2020, eMarketer estimates. Mobile ad spending will reach around 63.3% of digital and 24.3% of total media ad spending. Developed economies are expected to show a slowdown in investments in this sector in 2017. Counterwise, ad spend in the APAC market, followed by Latin America are showing a high growth in revenue.

Digital vs TV

Digital vs TV in 2017: Several organizations and researchers also expected a new fact: For the very first time in history, with a projected $205 billion digital ad spending compared to a projected TV ad spend of $192 billion, global digital advertising spend is expected to exceed TV advertising spend in 2017. However the predictions still in process and it might vary from a market to another.

Who are the top Players? In 2017, Google and Facebook, the big two in digital advertising are expected to take more than 50% of all revenue worldwide, and more than 60% in the United States, according to research firm eMarketer. Apparently, Baidu is controlling the Chinese market while some local media networks are competing in display market share.

2) The digital advertising in the Middle East

In the recent years, experts have predicted that the Middle East and North Africa will show a strong growth in digital advertising. Is that true? We will be looking closely at the top trends in the region to better understand the market share and growth rates.

infographic digital advertising middle east 2017

Advertising Spending in The MENA region: According to Statista, a year-on-year timeline presents the total advertising spending in the Middle East and Africa. In 2017, the region is expected to account for 4.1 percent of the global ad spend. Ad expenditure in the Middle East and Africa would amount to 24.25 billion U.S. dollars in 2017, up from 23.1 billion a year earlier, which would constitute a  growth rate of 5%.

MENA Digital advertising stats

Growing or decreasing in 2017: However, a recent global ad spending forecast from Zenith had another opinion. According to the source, The MENA (The Middle East and North Africa) will be suffering from the low oil prices. The region forecast expected a decline in ad spend (-9%) in ad spend between 2016 and 2017.

Digital Advertising vs Traditional Advertising in the MENA

Although the Middle East has a small share in the global advertising spend, the region has become a hot spot for international companies. Unlike global markets, TV has the biggest share of Ad spending while only 10% of MENA ad spend is on the digital market according to Istizada, but I believe that the shift towards digital ads is going to catch up in the coming years. GCC countries are expected to grow faster than the other markets like Egypt (which has the biggest share of TV consumers).

Digital Ad spending in the Middle East and Africa

Digital advertising spending the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is growing in the last three years, but the growth rates are expected to slow down.

Currently, estimated at 10% of the total global Ad spend, the Middle East’s spend is expected to reach $3.80 Billion by 2017 (eMarketer report). While forecasting from ArabNet, a group of digital professionals and entrepreneurs, estimated the digital advertising spending in the Middle East and North Africa is as low as $1 billion.

*Since there are major differences in the numbers, I believe that the numbers could exceed both if we consider that there are big segments of individuals and small businesses are directly financing Facebook Ads. I have been also working with direct Ad placements on local portals and forums specialized in financial and stocks market. The size of this market is big in the GCC but relevantly unclear when it comes to global statistics.

Digital Ad Spending MENA

Search advertising comes on top of the list with over 58% of total spending in the region. Google remains the top player in the Middle East and Africa with the huge demand on YoutTube advertising in 2017. According to agencies, YouTube Ads is generating a great increase in digital budgets which is used to be allocated to TV advertising. KSA is leading the region in the numbers of YouTube reach.

3) Digital advertising agencies in the Middle East

According to mideastmedia.org, The region has more than 500 digital agencies offering a range of services in the digital marketing, most of which employ less than 15 people. Governments, consumer brands, telecommunication operators, and real estate respectively, are the largest buyers of advertising in MENA.

Egypt and the UAE are the most important economic bases for digital agencies and employees. Thanks to the increasing numbers of digital startups, Egypt represents more than half of the advertising agencies and employees in the region, due to its creative talents in content production, translation resources, low salaries, and its main role as a local content creation hub. The UAE represents 30 percent of advertising companies and employees, which benefit from its economic stability and regional headquarters. Majority of the top agencies in UAE are international media and digital firms based in Dubai.

4) Media Buying in the Middle East

Media buying in the region represents a large-scale business, involving bulk advertising, space acquisition, and trading. The media buying unit (MBU) market, therefore, consists of fewer but much larger players who deal predominantly with larger buyers. 70 to 100% of their ad spend is sourced through MBUs. However, like advertising agencies, MBUs are typically owned by international companies. MBUs in the region tend to hold premium advertising spaces across the major platforms (60% share of digital ad spend, 70% of TV, and 50% of newspapers).

5) Programmatic Advertising in the Middle East

The stale growth is largely due to the sluggish transition from traditional to digital media ad spend. Unfortunately, with the digital Ad spending still represents only 10 percent of the total advertising market in the region, the investments in programmatic advertising is very low. Collectively, MENA countries trail other regions in innovation and adoption of new advertising and digital marketing technologies (e.g., limited digital measurement, programmatic buying, and non-advertising forms of marketing).

The programmatic advertising has been growing through the GCC region in the past years due to the growth of Dubai based digital agencies and Google partners. However, some of the biggest brands in the MENA market are heavily relying on external agencies based in London.

According to “Status of Programmatic Trading” survey, skills shortage at 39% and deeper understanding at 33% are still considered the top obstacles for its wider and faster adoption.

The region is still lacking behind when it comes to the use of advertising and marketing technologies including machine learning advertising such as Google DoubleClick as well as advanced analytic platforms such as GA 360, Adobe Marketing Cloud and attribution models.

As a result, I believe there are many of the opportunities for digital advertising have yet to be realized, despite high levels of digital consumption in the region. There is a big room for digital agencies to tap into the Middle East digital advertising.

6) The MENA digital markets

Let’s take a look at the advertising spend in several of the Middle Eastern countries.

United Arab Emirates: The UAE has topped advertising spend in the GCC in the first quarter of 2017. At AED1.5 billion, it accounted for 46% of the total advertising spend in the region for the said period, according to TBWA Worldwide.

Meanwhile, digital ad spending in the UAE dropped 14% in January 2017, after rising by 21% for the first 11 months of 2016. Television remains the biggest medium for advertising in the UAE — which accounted for 3.37 billion in revenues in 2015 — and the market is seeing a decrease in some offline mediums and an increase in digital.

Turkey: Despite the firewalls and political conflicts in Turkey, digital ad expenditure is expected to grow in 2017. According to IAB Turkey AdEx-TR 2016 Report, the digital ad spend in Turkey reached TRY 1,872.4 Million with a growth rate of 13.7%.

The display ad spend grew by 11% and reached to TRY 1,059 million. In Display Ad Category, while video ad spend rises by 34% to TRY 179 million. Search Engine Ad Investments reached to 706.6 million TL. Out of 1,872 million TL of total digital ad spend, TRY 30% was invested in mobile platforms, and 64% of social media ads. In 2016, programmatic trading proceeded to grow and reached to 993 million TL.

Iran: Digital ad spending in Iran is estimated to be worth $53 million (without including social media networks), according to Adro. Though experts believe that there’s a big potential in this market due to the increasing numbers of online users and the enhancements in local ad networks. Due to financial sanctions imposed on Iran, social media advertising and Google search are not active in Iran. Only Telegram which is a messaging app/social media is accounted for almost $23.3 million in revenue in Iran.

Syria and Sudan: Sadly Facebook and Google doesn’t allow advertisers to target the Syrian and Sudanese markets. I believe that

Conclusions and Insights on digital advertising in the middle east

  • While TV advertising is still leading traditional advertising to dominate the biggest share of advertising in the region, digital ad spending market will continue to grow in 2017 with a huge opportunity to catch-up with global market rates in the coming years. The region cannot resist the global change in advertising.
  • Clients have started demanding payment by results (ROI & Return on ad spend ROAS) as well as enhanced consumer insights and analytics. Even from creative agencies, as well as media buyers. This means the whole industry will shift into digital and sophisticated programmatic advertising which is more accountable.
  • YouTube Ads is one of the hottest trends in GCC region which is going to attract a big share of TV commercial spending in the coming years.
  • UAE is still leading the digital advertising in the MENA region. The majority of international and local brands based in Dubai are heavily spending on digital. However, the agencies are outsourcing a big chunk of technical and creative work to Egypt, Lebanese and Jordanian startups.
  • Sadly, there is still a huge gap in digital advertising efficiency in the region due to the lack of advanced tracking, programmatic technology, and skills. Some of the top brands are still relying on UK’s agencies when it comes to search engine marketing. However, there are very advanced local agencies that need to invest more in building solid capabilities in digital advertising technology.

Let’s wait until the end of the year to have the final numbers and keep evaluating the industry.

Do you have any experience in digital advertising in any of the Middle East and Africa region? What opportunities do you see lying in this sector?

How to build an effective Arabic Digital Marketing Strategy

Reaching the right audiences with the right messaging is the core of your Arabic digital marketing strategy.

What if you need to reach the target audience in the Middle East? Localization is one of the essential keys to hijack any market, but most importantly you should come up with an Arabic digital marketing strategy for the local markets in the region. Eventually, most of the international marketers would come up with basic steps as Arabic website translation and maybe a social media profile in Arabic. While such initial steps are highly important, but it is still not going to help in increasing the online acquisition and conversion rate.

Digital marketing in the Middle East is becoming more challenging and highly competitive just like any marketplace. Without an effective strategy, your digital ROI will be always disappointing! Even though, I wouldn’t recommend any paid advertising such as Arabic PPC or Facebook advertising before getting things right and starting with the basic foundation of performance.

There are few basic steps for any successful campaign in the Middle East marketplace:

  • Conduct a Market research: Avoid treating the whole region as one market and start packaging your Arabic campaigns to broad segments all over the countries. Arabic audiences are slightly or largely different and you need to learn how and why.
  • Get the Competitive analysis: Your competitors might have a solid digital marketing foundation in these markets. Discover what they do and their tactics in each country to understand the gap. Learn how to compete and where before you take any steps.
  • Understand the Localization: Customize your messaging, visuals, social media and Arabic SEO based the facts that the Arabic language has so many dialects, cultures and traditions might vary from a region to another. Moreover, English campaigns could much effective in some countries such as UAE and with B2B businesses.
  • Divide and Conquer: Don’t set all your budget for the same market. Track your conversion rate and update the budget for each market/segment accordingly. Don’t stash all the money in one campaign targeting all while thinking it is one market. Learn from the analytics and divide the region into separate segments.
  • Build a Successful Funnel: Building your online funnel properly requires a great attention to organic as the cornerstone of every conversion. Invest in a long-term strategy to achieve a successful rate of organic results using Arabic SEO, Optimized Arabic channels on social media, strong brand identity and voice.

In conclusion: The Arabic digital marketing strategy could serve your strategic goals if you consider the market properly. Arabic website translation or PPC keywords/Ads translation is not the only key to gain results in this emerging market. To build an enhanced strategy you need to treat the market with different customized tactics and proper analysis for each segmentation. Focus on effective market research and organic results as one of your main tasks before you allocate any advertising budgets.

For consultation and Arabic digital marketing strategy, contact me to discuss your objectives and vision.

How to Build an Arabic Content Marketing Strategy

The main concept behind content marketing is filling the gap between what the company produces and what the consumer is searching for. Arabic content marketing strategy will always be one of the top marketing activities for companies to grow in the Middle East.

Middle East North Africa’s (MENA) online audience is currently one of the fastest growing online segments with high rates of growth. Although the demand for Arabic content is growing, the online Arabic content is still way behind.

Only 2% of worldwide content is written in Arabic. And 5% of Fortune 500 websites have an Arabic language version. The gap between the size of the market and the percentage of the content available online is huge. Although there is a gap in content, there is a bigger gap in the distribution, topics varieties, and specialized websites. Social media is playing a big role in the region but would you do if you need you need to discover your content marketing opportunities beyond the social media? What if you want to enhance your organic search results through inbound links? The answer is Arabic content marketing.

Do I really need to create a content marketing strategy for Arabic?

When it comes to the Middle East region, companies rely heavily on Paid Ads and Social Media as an effective tactic to accelerate their results. Since Arabic content creation is one of the biggest challenges, the marketers would not recommend it as one of the top approaches. Over the years, clients used to ask me why you always recommend Arabic content marketing. The answer is; simply because it is underestimated!

As I’ve learned from the market, not only do you need an Arabic content, you also need to market it to go viral.  Now, let’s try to find out the most important practices for an effective Arabic content marketing strategy.

Define Your Business Goals for Each Local Market

What is content going to do for you? Create awareness? Generate leads? Improve loyalty and retention? Those are all important question you’ll need to answer with your strategy. Yet, the most important goals for the regional market would be tricky.

It is very important to define first your goals for each local market separately. Avoid the common concept that since all those countries speak Arabic so it takes one strategy. Well, that’s not true! The dialects are different; the trends are tricky; the channels are specific. To get the right conclusion, you will need to divide your goals in the region by countries.  Your KPIs and analytic reporting should be defined for each local market accordingly. Separate the KSA market from the Egyptian market to get real insights and to enhance your approach.

Research, Customize and Adapt

Forget about the standard principles and drive your researches further into the market. Based on the insights you’ll need to adapt and build a customized strategy. Learn as much as possible about the target segments, their preferred channels, their top sites, their search behavior and the competition. The market is full of gaps and it is a golden chance for those who are willing to take advantage. An effective Arabic content marketing strategy should be fully customized for the local culture.

Enhance Your Arabic Content

Investing in quality content is one of the most critical issues. Some would imagine that translating their English content is all that it takes. In fact, this would never help you reach your audience in the region.

Enhance your content quality and originality. Avoid translating your marketing materials from English to Arabic and start creating original and localized content. Bring in native copywriters, designers, and creative artist to create engaging content. Include the trends into your content calendar. Get the local team involved in the process of content creation. Take the advantage of creating different types of content. There is no enough infographics, video reviews and presentation slides in Arabic and that’s a huge chance.

Finally, investing in Arabic content is profitable and very effective in growing your Arabic SEO SERPs.

Open Up Your Network

Content marketing is challenging in Arabic. One of the major issues is the lack of specialized websites. If you exclude social platforms and global websites, almost 90% of the traffic in the region is dominated by news portals. If you are trying to market your products, you should think of creating a new story around your product. It might sound tricky but the Arabic news portals are trying to cover all the Arabic readers’ interests from light news to product reviews.

The practices of discovering content marketing channels are not the same as in the USA or Europe market. You will have to dig for different approaches. Partner with startups who are taking initiatives of creating content platforms and specialized website. Open a platform for contributions and content creation contests. Get your PR and Social Media teams busy with pushing the content into your network and top influencers. Maintain a very solid relationship with press and media in the local market.

Finding Arabic channels for content distribution is not hard after all. It is all about team effort and in-depth researches.

Build it to Grow

Content marketing is an ongoing effort. It is very important to have the seeds for growth and to get all the team involved. Building content and marketing it requires effective online communications as well as offline events. Explore for partnership opportunities on content creation and marketing. Benefit from your internal team and partners feedback to enhance your content marketing plan. As long as your network keeps expanding, your content exposure will grow over time.

The Arabic online market is already changing

Over the years, the online market in the region is continuously changing. 8 years ago the forums took the control of Arabic content. Later on and due to Arab Spring, the news portals started to dominate. Now and as we speak, all this started to change again. The startups are taking huge steps in creating platforms for Arabic quality content (check startups like 7awi and Wamda). Video bloggers and independent YouTubers started to generate huge demand vs TV shows, especially in Morocco, KSA, and Egypt. With increasing funds and digital investing the region is a hot spot for content marketing.

Digital Marketing in the Middle East: Where is the Gap?

Digital marketing in the Middle East has been growing and expanding, but what about effectiveness? The Arabic consumers have changed. The digital experiences are no longer new in the local markets … They are expected to bring a value.

While there is a massive amount of digital campaigns in the region, the Arabic consumers are eagerly looking for something more specific, personalized and unique.  The gap will increase between the consumer and the marketers if the digital experiences don’t adapt to these changing expectations.

I have spoken to a large number of brands in the Middle East region looking to increase their digital marketing and while there is a definite desire for investing into digital, there is an equal lack of understanding in critical objectives such as how to measure and track the results, or how to personalize content. In most of the cases, they are more convinced with quantities and the short-term results. I have been watching digital agencies running everywhere on social networks to just fill the plate with numbers.

So what is next? We all know that the market will certainly have to consider new expectations or to be more accurate “the right expectations”. To put digital marketing in perspective, you have to implement it in your overall strategy. It is not anymore something you can just assign it to an agency or team and expect it to work like magic. Yes, digital marketing not anymore a “plug-and-play” tool.

The Evolved Customer

It is clear to everyone now that the evolution of marketing is moving beyond the goal of creating new customers to the concept of creating an evolved customer. No wonder that the content-driven experiences are now the natural-selection process that moves the customer along.

To succeed in the Middle East, marketing departments must themselves evolve. They must not only advertise the brand by describing the value that has been created in the product but also to create differentiated experiential value that is separate from that product.

Personalized Digital Marketing

Personalized digital marketing is no longer a luxury. Some would even say it is the future. I believe that the consumers in the region are more interested in relevancy more than anything else. With those multiple social networks feeds and buzz feed at every corner, there is a major need for personalization. Arabic content is still suffering from the lack of quality and quantity. Companies and brands are still relying on translating their marketing messages from English into Arabic instead of creating original content. Products are not providing enough content targeting the behavior of the Arabic users.

Personalization is one of the major gaps that digital strategists and content marketers should work on to achieve better results in each market.

Conversion Optimization

Conversion metrics are not only helpful for setting the right expectations and ROI, but it’s very effective to learn more about your consumer. Understanding the audience is always the key to creating a targeted message and digital experience that appeals to that particular audience. Put in mind that every local market in the Middle East should have a different conversion and metrics.  I always brought the conversion as the main topic for every campaign discussed with a client and with that I was able to set the right goals for the campaign.

Finally, digital marketing is not always about the top 10 practices or following the notes from speakers and gurus, it is all about innovation and testing. Middle East markets are not a major challenge if you get closer to your target segmentations and learn how to avoid the gaps.

If you want to start putting your Arabic digital marketing approach into the right action plan, contact me for consulting and discussing the opportunity.