After regional director at Memac Ogilvy’s digital consultancy [email protected], Emma Linaker, visited Beirut back in March 2014 as part of her regional roadshow tour, she came back home excited about the possibilities of the market. “The social media scene [in Lebanon] has a vast potential and it has already started making use of it. I am looking forward to seeing some truly great social experiences and award-winning works coming out of this highly creative and exciting market,” she writes on the [email protected]’s website. It so happens that Linaker’s visit took place at a time when Lebanese brands started to experience the boom of hashtags – a social media tool that soon become a trend, a self-expression medium and a lobbying weapon.
Linaker recalls a couple of huge social trends back then, such as the “Strip for Jackie” campaign, known for its hashtag #IAmNotNakedLeb, and Kafa’s lobbying campaign to pass a bill protecting women from domestic violence, known for its hashtag #NoLawNoVote. Brands with a flair also took part in these social media events.
“It seems that many Lebanese brands have a good understanding of real-time marketing,” writes Linaker. “Today, whenever brands are able to make a link between themselves and something popular happening globally or in the country, it is called real-time marketing. However, to succeed in it, the brand’s agency or marketing department has to be able to identify these popular incidents and react to them quickly, making sure to stay consistent with the brand’s identity. Moreover, brands have to realize that the effect of real-time marketing is only temporary,” says CEO of digital and social media agency Think Media Labs, Ayman Itani.
In real-time marketing, the hashtag is a primary tool, but as much as it can be effective, it is sometimes misused by brands and people. “Historically, hashtags weren’t natively built-in within social media channels; they were created by users in order to ensure better communication. Seeing the importance of this tool, owners of social networks started to build it into their features. Twitter was the first to adopt it, followed by Instagram that heavily relies on it, then Facebook that added it recently. Knowing that the concept of a hashtag was initially to create a context to a conversation, brands that are adopting hashtags today are aware of their importance to create a unified link for everybody to follow a certain subject, event or cause, etc.,” says Itani, adding that the misuse of this tool starts whenever it is placed out of context, such as when brands use the spam method to try and get visibility, by using trending hashtags that are totally irrelevant. “A hashtag is relevant only when you can rally people around it,” says founder and CEO of digital agency, Born Interactive, Fadi Sabbagha. The agency’s KSA managing director, Riad Afyouni, considers that the two best ways of using hashtags today are in events and tactical campaigns. “The hashtag was originally created to give a theme and foster a conversation where multiple parties can intervene, search and participate. The best usage of hashtags today happens to be during events, especially the ones that drive international exposure or attract expats that are likely to be interested in the topic of discussion happening in the host country or region. Another use of hashtags is in tactical campaigns, yet abusing hashtag usage may sometimes move the brand to a conversation it shouldn’t be part of,” says Afyouni. Regional sales director of Levant at Choueiri Group’s digital media representation unit Digital Media Solution, Omar-Karim Kfoury, says that, in the Arab world, we tend to abuse some social media portals and tools. “It was the case with Foursquare, a platform that was initially created to find hotels, restaurants and other locations around you, but has been quickly turned into a fun tool for people in the Arab world that started to check-in everywhere. The same is happening today with hashtags that are also being abused. However, what is nice about them is the fact that people are grasping the trend; even the older generation that was never connected is starting to take part in these trends,” says Kfoury.
“There are a couple of mistakes that we make whenever we are dealing with hashtags and this mainly happens when an offline agency is proposing online services to clients. The agency can offer, for example, to build a campaign around the hashtag #ILoveYou, which is such an impersonal one that it will be close to impossible to follow it or aggregate on it or tie it into the client or the brand. Thus, the challenge is to choose an indigenous hashtag that will actually remain and grow,” says business development director at AddBloom, Samar Layoun, adding that, in Lebanon, social brands use hashtags much better than commercial ones, and gives the example of the crowdsourcing Instagram account of #LiveLoveLebanon. “Instagram has a non-commercial feel; it is more people oriented and, when we use hashtags on the personal level, they are more of a self-expression tool,” says Layoun.
Even though Instagram has been gaining traction in Lebanon in the past couple of years, Facebook remains the most used social media platform in the country, with 1.7 million users, when compared with 251,000 active users on Twitter. “As per statistics conducted 11 years ago, five percent of the global population went to a university and, in parallel, five percent owned a computer. Today, 3.1 billion people are online and the ‘third screen’ is the most influential in the world,” says managing partner of digital PR agency Telltale, Mounir Camel-Toueg, who considers that this crazy evolutionary jump is obviously changing the whole communication industry. “The digital world changed the PR landscape, because a PR company cannot rely anymore on traditional media as much as digital in order to create the needed engagement. Moreover, the many technologies that are being created and are changing the way people are engaging and communicating also make our lives exciting, creating incredibly successful digital PR stunts,” adds Toueg. “When it comes to the technical milestones of the digital industry, it started more than ten years ago in Lebanon, as well as globally with static websites – a non-interactive communication tool online that was equivalent to a billboard, since all it was displaying were pictures along with some information. The next step of the digital era, focused on creating interaction and conversation online, after which came the third stage, the user-generated content,” says account manager at digital agency Cre8mania, Assaad Ghanem.
“The digital market in Lebanon is evolving based on global trends, but also based on some specific local behaviors. For instance, social media adoption has evolved way faster in Lebanon than anywhere else in the world, given that it’s close to the habits and affinities of the Lebanese people,” says Born Interactive’s Sabbagha. However, the ability to “take advantage of social media still varies from a client to another. There is something called the social media life cycle that categorizes clients; some still go for it out of curiosity, while others are at an advanced level and are ready to change their offering based on the feedback they get on their social media channels. As an agency, we look at social media as a drive for businesses: it is a marketing, customer service and sales tool. While in the past, clients refused to disclose to us their sales and revenue numbers, considering that we have nothing to do with these business things, today they are looking more and more for specialized digital agencies that will grow their sales and improve their customer support and their marketing,” says Itani. In fact, “when the digital era started, we used to have digital boutiques that were taking big clients away from traditional agencies to work on their online presence (mostly Facebook), knowing that Lebanese big agencies didn’t have the time and resources to work on digital. This has been changing since 2014, as big traditional agencies are all opening digital departments, something that shows that the growth in the digital world is massive. In fact, this industry is growing step by step, which is a very positive thing, knowing that every fast growth usually leads to a fast drop,” says Kfoury, who considers, however, that progress in terms of education is still on-going on three levels: clients, agencies and suppliers.
For instance, in order to educate the client more, DMS introduced, in 2013, cross-selling techniques with the newspapers and television channels that they represented. “We increased the rates of some positions in the newspaper and, when a client buys one of these, a percentage of this increase goes for online. The budget that the client was then investing was split between the newspaper and the website. [With] TV, we offered a multi-screening experience – we featured the client’s TVC on TVs, PCs and mobile. This was a way to educate clients that never thought of advertising online before. The result of this experience has been very successful, since we had clients that started to ask for online services themselves,” explains Kfoury.
“The social media boom and the learning experience that came with it starting 2006 created awareness around the digital sector. Today, we are almost in a mature stage and we, as an agency, can say so based on the briefs that we are receiving from our clients. Clients know more about what they want. Today, we have already passed the learning by trial-and-error phase and clients aren’t simply experiencing or trailing this global trend, they understand that each business has to have its own strategy and guidelines,” says Born Interactive KSA’s Afyouni. And Sabbagha adds that Lebanon is not anymore in the “to-go or not-to-go” phase, but rather in the learning and optimization phase. “We can still see people that just want to be there, but mostly we are seeing people that are looking for results: impact on their businesses, customer care, reputation, etc.,” he says.
“Lebanese clients are aware that, today, using digital media reaches more people, but, until now, they aren’t allocating enough budget to this industry,” says key account manager at Cre8mania, Zeina Hachem. AddBloom’s Layoun adds: “We should shed the light on a common misconception of digital assuming its services are very cheap, which is not the case. Many resources are needed behind the scenes, from strategists to community managers, copywriters, designers and account managers, among others. There is, thus, a whole ecosystem behind this little Facebook page, which a lot of clients don’t always understand. It is relatively more cost efficient than traditional media, but it is not free. That being said, ideally, between 25 percent to 40 percent of a client’s advertising budget should be allocated to digital.”
“The fact that digital performs are exponentially more efficient than traditional media has led some clients to assume that, since acceptable results can be achieved with a miniscule investment in digital, why pay more? It is disappointing to see brands’ reluctance to allocate a larger budget to digital marketing,” says CEO and founder of digital agency Socialaim, Nehme Lebbos, who explains that this kind of behavior has worsened due to several elements: “Agency-shops – agencies that operate much like a shop would, with a menu-style listing of services and fixed prices – deliver mediocre products and abysmal results; their cheap rates make them a go-to resource for the undiscerning, uninformed, or me-too client. The undiscerning/uninformed client is bombarded with mass mails touting the ridiculously cheap Facebook + website + mobile app + SEO + logo + massage package offered by many agency-shops, and often ends up trying to compare the difference between a Ferrari and a golf cart. As for the me-too client, a competition has 10k fans? A totally irrelevant Facebook campaign is running? All of 20 people have downloaded a useless mobile app? Then this client wants those things too. Ranging from buying Facebook likes to building a mobile app that doubles as an alarm clock, the digital ambitions of these clients extend to as far as mimicking what others are doing, but never quite reach the point of really adding value for their customers.”
“The year-on-year growth of the digital budget in Lebanon doesn’t exceed seven percent to eight percent, including social media, display and mobile advertising spend,” says Kfoury, who sees a challenge here for local websites. “It is a challenge for us to compete versus Facebook and Google that are getting the biggest chunks of the market. In fact, 65 percent of the digital spend goes to them. However, local websites are on the right track in their evolution processes; they are all moving into revamping and, if we look at them from two years till now, we notice a big change in terms of content, user-friendly interface, etc.,” he says.
“Facebook remains the number one channel in Lebanon that attracts advertisers. However, this year, more budgets are going to YouTube, knowing that it recently introduced to Lebanon the possibility of advertising. As for Instagram, even though it is the new trend today, it still doesn’t have any advertising in the region, but is still very much based on the attraction of people to visuals and hashtags,” says AddBloom’s Layoun.
On the same note, founder of the e-consultancy E-comLebanon.com, Karim Saikali, sees that the industry is heading to a saturation of the portals. “I see the digital market growing more and more in the coming years and, eventually, we may need some new portals to advertise on. The ones we have in Lebanon today are probably going to be saturated. Even Facebook is starting to be saturated. Even though news portals remain the ones that attract most of the advertising traffic in the country, because we unfortunately live in an unstable region, Lebanon needs some new entertainment websites that include positive news, jokes, nice images; people in Lebanon need to see something different,” he explains.
What probably matters is that change is happening in Lebanon and new trends emerging on the digital market. “Lebanon has witnessed a big evolution in the e-commerce sector in the past couple of years and people aren’t hesitant to use their credit cards online anymore,” says Cre8mania’s Hachem, with Ghanem adding that: “In the past couple of years, tens of online selling websites have been created in Lebanon and selling via social media platforms is becoming a trend – something that started to be popular globally some five years ago.” “The evolution of e-commerce everywhere in the world is historically very much linked to broadband services and Internet speed. Thus, since we have had a better Internet connection in Lebanon in the past few years, e-commerce is seeing a growing demand,” adds Sabbagha.
On another note, “when we think about digital, we tend to think that it is always about online. But, it is not very much the case, because, today, we are starting to go beyond the web with QR codes, for example, or by linking hardware to any community online, such as interactive holograms and vitrines. These out-of-home digital techniques are being used a lot in the gaming industry,” says Ghanem.