The Middle East is an area of interest and intrigue to many organisations. It is often seen as a region of promise and opportunity, however cultural differences, linguistic challenges and legal complexities can prove a stumbling block and a barrier to entry. The Arab Spring in 2010-11 was not only a major world event but also an indication of the digital development of the region and the possibilities that exist there for international businesses.
Such is the importance of this region, that it is on the agenda for the upcoming International Search Summit London in May, where Lee Mancini of Dubai-based SEO agency Sekari will be offering insights into internet behaviour in the Middle East and advice for businesses targeting an Arabic audience. Here, Lee answers a few questions to introduce the topic and preview his session in London.
How has the internet market developed in the Middle East in recent years? What are its key characteristics?
There is no greater evidence of the growth of digital in the Middle East than with the occurrence of the Arab Spring. In only a few months this event completely altered the political landscape, a landscape which remained unchanged for previous decades. The advent of digital mobile connections, the ability to connect and communicate (and organise) on social networks, the sheer power of the medium to communicate to millions broke the tipping point and took everyone by surprise. If such developments can topple governments, they can just as easily make or break brands. By mixing an incredibly young population (in Saudi 50% of the population are under the age of 25), and by simply giving them the ability to express themselves, you can see the new paradigm shift that has occurred in the Middle East.
In the Middle East, like the rest of the world, the economic downturn forced companies to have to take a deeper look at their marketing budgets and strive to increase their ROI – so, in some cases, digital became a more viable option then the traditional one page ad in a national newspaper. Couple this with this undeniable growth in internet adoption and finally, after many years, the inflection point has been and gone. Recent reports announce internet advertising spend to have reached 9% in the GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) and Levant, equating to $170m in 2011 out of a possible $2bn advertising market (Omnicom Media Group). It was 1% in 2009. And that figure is expected to grow 30%-40% in 2012.
What are the biggest pitfalls organisations face when targeting the region? Are there any common misconceptions made about it?
The biggest misconception we find with new agencies entering the market is that the Middle East is a license to print money. Business development managers and agency executives arrive here with a bold and brash attitude, ready to impart their vast experience upon the natives, with little respect for the rapidly growing maturity of the market. However, it very quickly becomes clear that the streets are not actually paved in gold.
In terms of promoting the actual service, the difficulty lies in selling the value proposition in a region with a mentality that ‘cheap is good’. This is coupled with the reality that the business is operating in a market where costs are high – for example the high costs of broadband internet connection and office rental. There are also monumental business risks when you are operating in a country where you could be imprisoned if you bounce a cheque and with entrepreneurialism stifled by the lack of bankruptcy protection. You have got to work very hard for your money and have a very thick skin.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The recent purchase by Publicis Group of locally born digital agency Flip Media is a real testament to how global brands are now seeing the value of digital in the region, and most importantly the value of local experience.
Why is the Middle East an attractive market for international businesses?
The region is growing at a phenomenal pace. According to Google Middle East, for example, travel enquiries have actually outpaced UK travel enquiries. We feel that the search market is increasing in the region, the number of Google searches are increasing, as are the proportion of searches in Arabic. The Middle East and predominantly Dubai are a great staging post for Africa and Asia as well. Mobile is taking off rapidly, and with some countries having 210% mobile penetration, mobile has the propensity of outstripping desktop browsing.
What challenges does the Arabic language cause when it comes to search marketing? How much does the language vary between countries in the region?
There are 221 million Arabic speakers in the world today yet Arabic online content only constitutes 1% of global totals. The quality of online Arabic content is also very low as confirmed by Google themselves and this can cause a great challenge in identifying genuine high quality Arabic websites. The multiple variants of Arabic used throughout the region also presents problems when developing Arabic content.
One of the biggest difficulties is the level of Arabic writing skills amongst general employees, it is far more difficult than one would ever imagine. And the reason is simple. Most Arabs conduct their schooling and university in English, and so when it comes to actually writing in Arabic at a report writing level generally we find the quality very poor. Interestingly we have found that in general Syrians have a higher level of Arabic writing skills then most, due to the simple fact that all their schooling and university is purely in Arabic. However, this is a generalisation and there is a massive pool of real untapped talent in the region.
Finally, why attend the International Search Summit?
The International Search Summit seems like a great way to find out what opportunities there are around the world and meet experienced companies and individuals that can give you a great indication of how viable your plans might be.