Socially gifted

The digital media revolution has captured the imagination of Dubai’s youth. And their preference for social media and mobile technology is a perfect opportunity for international and regional brands to engage and connect with them

Five years ago, when people in Dubai asked a digital marketer like myself about what I do, it used to be quite a cumbersome task to explain and I would end up saying, “I do websites”. People knew websites. It was the easy answer.

Today, when people find out you work in digital, the first thing they say is, “Ahh… do you do social media?”. And although that’s not all digital marketers do, it’s become the new way people in Dubai regard digital.

‘Twitter is undoubtedly opening up Dubai to a whole new world of international connections’

In Dubai in particular, Twitter has taken off. A report by the Dubai School of Government in July found that the UAE boasts the highest Twitter usage in the GCC, with more than 200,000 tweeters (a substantial number when you consider that there are 6.5 million Twitter users in the Middle East as a whole).

What’s more, Time magazine recently named Sultan Al Qassemi in its 140 Best Twitter Feeds, commending the fellow at Dubai School of Government for his live tweets around the Egypt uprisings in spring of this year. So Twitter is undoubtedly opening up Dubai to a whole new world of international connections.

But while Twitter might be giving more and more Dubai Emiratis a voice on the world stage, it’s the infrastructure in the city that makes tweets popular and provides an audience who can read, react and respond.

Perhaps most interesting is that mobile internet is the connection of choice for Dubai-dwellers when it comes to consuming content online. The latest Global Information Technology report by The World Economic Forum puts the internet penetration rate of the UAE (ie, the number of internet users in the entire population) at a whopping 75 per cent. However, the number of wired broadband internet subscribers in the UAE is only 15 per cent of that same population.

The stark difference between numbers of users and subscribers can be attributed to a mobile phone penetration rate of over 230 per cent. Step inside any mall in Dubai and you’ll see that everyone appears surgically attached to their phones. And that is because, in many cases, they are engrossed in social media.

The network infrastructure in Dubai is the best in the Middle East. As of late 2010, Dubai was practically completely rewired with fibre optic cables to each and every home and office, enabling users lightning speeds of over 100 megabits of data. (For the non-geeks, that means you can download an entire DVD in under six minutes.) There’s little – if any – content that is not within reach.

In terms of mobile technology, both of Dubai’s operators, Etisalat and Du, are powered by a 3G network (or 3.9G to be exact), making two-way transfer of multimedia content on mobile devices a breeze.

That’s the present, but an even more exciting future beckons.

Plans for updating the network to the very latest 4G technology are being executed. In addition, the ICT Fund, a part of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), has been set up to nurture grassroots ICT projects in the UAE. This will encourage development of start-ups, research and development, and additional investment in infrastructure. With a budget of Dh14m (US$3.8m) in 2011, the fund is expected to increase to over Dh50m (US$13.6m) in 2012.

Next, the active users. As of August, Facebook’s UAE penetration is 47.8 per cent. A massive 46 per cent of those users belong to the 25-34 age bracket. Dubai’s Generation Y is fully embracing social media, which means that for Generation Z, its everyday use will be second nature – as likely to feature in their day as getting dressed or eating a meal.

Top brands in Dubai are catching on to this phenomenon, and those targeting that same youth include The Dubai Mall, Etisalat, Emirates Airline, and BBC Arabic. But as the young of Dubai’s hunger for social media shows no signs of abating, they will need more content to feed that appetite.

And yet content is where the challenge will always lie. Brands in the Middle East generally seem to have little to no content to share with their consumers. The static and boring news and press releases that often flood the feeds of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn don’t make the cut.

On the other hand, international brands have started to speak the local language on social platforms. Pantene Arabia’s Facebook page sports over 40,000 fans who discuss and engage in hair tips and competitions, all designed specifically for the young females of this region, discussing the effects of the Middle East’s summer conditions and culturally specific hair care issues. Samsung Mobile Arabia started promoting Islamic applications during the holy month of Ramadan to its 50,000-plus fans.

Now that social media’s widespread usage in the region has been proven – not least with the socio-political uprisings fuelled by Facebook and Twitter over the Arab spring – we can expect advertisers to place it at the top of their agenda from now on. As Mediacom MENA CEO Eric Hanna says: “Advertisers [have been convinced] to integrate digital as an integral part of their long term marketing mix, beyond just display.”

However, display will continue to be popular, and it too can be adapted for the digital revolution. While Omnicom Media boss Elie Khouri’s declaration that “The UAE is leading the digital revolution” might be debatable, his additional point is indisputable: “[In the UAE], digital advertising is everywhere on the net – PC, phone, tablet, future internet-connected TV”.

Ultimately, Dubai’s increasing demand for digital content puts the onus on producing more of it, and better quality at that. This opens the doors for international brands to make better connections with Dubai’s consumers, as well as demanding improvement from home-grown brands. The important lesson here is that advertisers and marketers the world over need to recognise that Dubai has the perfect formula for the growth of digital marketing: physical infrastructure, consumers and content.