Middle East marketers needs to get their head out of the sand!

Who will take the lead in effectively using social networking systems?

The MENA region (“Middle East and North Africa”) and in particular the UAE has on the most part, embraced social networks such as Facebook and Twitter recently. According to Facebook there are over 17.3 million users in the MENA region of which 50% use English, 25% use French and 25% use Arabic. The data indicated the majority of new users communicate in Arabic and this trend is expected to continue. Twitter in the Middle East and Africa now has nearly 5 million users It is clear all the social networking groups are experiencing significant growth including LinkedIn and Foursquare, but it seems marketers in the region are not taking advantage of these important tools.

Reporter Ben Flanagan of the National in his story “Marketing Lacks Social Media Skills’” interviews Mohamed Parham al Awadhi, the Emirati co-founder of the Wild Peeta restaurant in Dubai, who states “advertising and media agencies have been slow to evolve and recognize the new ways in which people are communicating.” “Media consultants in the region have “no idea” how to use tools such as Twitter and Foursquare for marketing,” “The “fusion” a shawarma restaurant, which is in talks with possible franchisees over expansion plans, is highly active on Twitter and was one of the UAE’s first businesses to use Foursquare, a social networking application in which users “check in” to broadcast location to peers. Mr. al Awadhi said his company has built its brand “without spending a dime” on marketing.

“The problem with advertising agencies, especially the large established ones, is that they are very slow to evolve. There’s no need for their involvement because they have no idea how to do it (social networking). We don’t need them.”

“Wild Peeta have done really well, but for a larger brand you need a full strategy,” said Rayan Karaky, the MENA region general manager for digital operations at the communications network Publicis Groupe Media.

“If Wild Peeta came to me today and said ‘can you handle our social media?’ I’d say don’t waste your money.” Mr. Karaky said that while location-based sites such as Foursquare had “big potential”, it was too early to tell if such services would become successful marketing tools in the region.

But Yousef Tuqan, the chief executive of Flip Media, one of the largest digital marketing agencies in the Middle East, said Mr. al Awadhi made a “fair comment”. “The problem with social media [in the Middle East] is that everyone is talking about it, but few are actually doing it,” Mr. Tuqan said. “The people who are doing social media the best are the people who are doing it themselves.”

Mr. al Awadhi said his company was looking to expand its use of “location-based” services such as Foursquare and the similar Facebook Places application. The company was also studying Layar, an “augmented reality” mobile application.

It was also among the first companies in the Middle East to have an official Foursquare promotion, he said. The promotion grants the “mayor” of Wild Peeta, or the Foursquare user who had amassed the most “check ins” while at the restaurant, a free daily drink.

From my own personal experiences as a user of multiple networking platforms including Foursquare, the MENA region has yet to take advantage by building their brands to millions of users. In particular I believe the use of Foursquare has great possibilities in driving business and building loyalty.

Starbucks in America recognizes Foursquare users and “mayors” by providing discounts and free drinks, yet in the UAE they seem unaware of Foursquare existent. Example I am a “mayor” in four Starbucks in Abu Dhabi and according to the check in statistics I have been in there stories over 100 times in a four-month period (I really need slow down on the venti Latte’s). Assuming I spend 25 AED ($6.83) per purchase I have spent 2,500 AED ($683) in four months. Now in the world of coffee shops or even restaurant business this is a loyal customer. You want them to continue to frequent the store or encourage others to go to Starbucks instead of a competitor. The use of applications like Foursquare tells the store who are your customers, how often they visit and in turn, send them special discounts as a thank you.

Middle East marketers needs to get their head out of the sand (forgive the pun) and find effective ways to communicate with social media users. Social network marketing will soon be a part of the everyday plan, but the companies who are the first to be innovative and daring with the marketing dollars should reap a highest rewards.

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