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Arab youth have a heavy social media consumption and usage. Social media is where brands have to be. Here is how


No wonder connecting with youth is a key priority for many brands in a region where a majority of the population is under 25. Even if they may not be the brand’s current target audience, youngsters are the consumers of tomorrow.

In their pursuit to be where the young consumers are, brands have long identified social media as a crucial place to establish a presence. Where else will you find huge numbers of youngsters highly active and engaged?

Results from market research company TNS indicate that 68 percent of MENA youth spend 12 hours per week on social networking websites, says Mennah Ibrahim, head of brand intelligence at communications agency JWT MENA, while, according to digital media company Yahoo! Maktoob’s “MENA Digital Consumption” study, around 37 percent of youth spend three hours or more on social media every day. This study also shows that youth use social media everywhere: in bed (55 percent), at a restaurant or café (47 percent), while watching a movie (38 percent), and on the go (36 percent). An interesting 26 percent even use it while in the bathroom. There really isn’t any particular time or place for social networking, as many youngsters are constantly logged on to their social media profiles via their smart phones or laptops. Smart phones in particular are becoming the primary way youth connect to social media, their convenience on the go being almost unrivaled. “Growing into and growing up with a range of electronic gadgets at hand, Gen Zs [those born after 1995] of the region are extremely connected; mobile devices being their ultimate social – if not ‘everything’ enabler,” says JWT’s Ibrahim.


Apart from being a place where they can unwind, stay in touch with friends and share, social media is also a doorway for youth to know the brands around them better.

Although the Yahoo! Maktoob research reveals that a majority would rather rely on the brand’s website, search engines, friends and family, and price comparison websites to get information about a brand, product or service, it also shows that more than 35 percent of youth place social media websites among the top three online services they would use for such information.

Moreover, according to a social media study conducted by media agency Omnicom Media Group (OMG) MENA, a majority of the UAE and KSA youth agree that social media spreads awareness of new products or brands and creates brand familiarity in terms of understanding the features and benefits: more than 80 percent in the UAE and more than 70 percent in KSA agree that social media helps in developing an interest in a brand, builds brands’ credibility and generates positive word of mouth. “[The] young audience in both the UAE and KSA actively seeks engagement with brands on social media, giving brands the golden opportunity to target them,” says Qadeer Ahmed, manager for market insights at OMG’s media engagement platform, Integral, who adds, “Social media has become a daily part of their life and they are always keen to see the benefit they can get from the brands.”

Not all youth in the region are open to brands’ messages on social media as the portals are often considered a personal space, and not much of a commercial one. Moreover, other challenges surface when it’s the brand that’s doing the pursuing – either through engagement or ads on social media.

Dubai-based social media marketing agency and consultancy Socialize has worked on a number of campaigns targeting teens in the region, says founder Akanksha Goel, and one thing she’s learned is that it’s harder to reach teens in this part of the world through marketing communication tactics, than it is to reach the older audience. “Whenever we have done campaigns online we have found that the most engaged audience is between 25 to 34 [years old],” she says. “The only time the below-25 or below-18 year olds tend to get involved is when it’s for night clubs or entertainment experiences, or when there are music concert tickets to be given away and such. If you were to do something online where you say ‘Click here, play this game and win a tablet,’ you’re mostly going to see young executives take part, rather than university or high school students,” she adds. “A lot of that – especially in the GCC – is because most of the interactions that we see are when people are in the workplace. We see engagement drop at night. Especially in the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, you see very little engagement at the weekends. In this part of the world, most people engage with brand pages or engage with social media for commercial purposes…during the work day. During lunch hour or after lunch [is when] you see a spike.”

For the Gen Zs, marketers have to make sure they have the right level of entertainment. JWT’s Ibrahim says, “These networks, where these youth have the highest number of friends (even higher than global averages), are really a marketer’s or brand’s playground, where brands have a lot of opportunity, but they need to make sure their presence is relevant to what these youth need: [for them to] delight, engage and inform. I either have to give them an interesting piece of content about myself as a brand, or reward them personally through discounts and coupons, or I have to give them the status reward that they are looking for which is social fame.”

According to Goel, in targeting the younger generation, it all boils down to what one brand manager she worked with defined as youth’s main principle when they are online:  “Why share? Why care?”




Trying to gain active fans is one of the ways marketers are trying to keep their brands alive on social media.

According to the OMG study, the primary reason why UAE youth follow a brand online is, unsurprisingly, the fact that they like the brand. Other reasons include that they’d like to share their ideas and that the brand represents who they are as an individual in terms of their values and lifestyle. Sagar Shetty, co-founder and director of digital media agency Clique Media, adds that one of the reasons youngsters follow brands is that their friends are following it too. Others tend to like being the first ones to receive an update from the brand about its activities, he says.

Indeed, the younger group knows what kind of brands it wants to follow. These youth are more likely to search for a brand of their choice on Facebook in order to follow it, and “not because they saw an ad, or heard about it through a friend or on a friend’s profile,” says Goel, who adds that similar behavior can be observed when it comes to discounts and coupons from what Socialize has noticed: “The slightly older audience…will go and join 10 pages which are all providing giveaways with the eventuality that they may want to shop at one of those some day; whereas with the youngsters, if they want to shop at a specific place, they’ll go and look for the coupons, if there are any.”

According to Ibrahim, “For the majority of Gen Zs, the Internet is regarded as both a functional tool and entertainment platform. Driving brand affinity may be in the form of personal rewards that make their life easier; such as discounts and offers; or status rewards that grant them social fame such as innovative, fun and engaging digital experiences to share or show off to friends.”

That is true of mature markets like the UAE; Ahmed from Integral says that “One of the key findings was that the UAE seems to be a more mature market for brands as active social media users are keen in following a brand, commenting and posting their views, whereas in KSA, social media users see social media as a source of entertainment.” In even less digitally mature markets such as Egypt, for instance, brand conversations are extremely minimal.

“It’s mostly about applications and music that is spoken about online. But again, for a market like Egypt, where you have low GDPs and low credit card penetration, it’s the relevance of talking about brands online that is the barrier, which is why brands need to give Egyptian youth a reason to connect,” says Ibrahim.


 Despite strong engagement on social media pages, the “like” itself doesn’t always translate into purchase intent. According to the OMG study, even though more than 70 percent agree that social media helps in deciding about brands and products at the point of purchase, less than 10 percent of youth in the UAE and eight percent in KSA agree that following a brand means they will buy it. “A brand can be followed for its inspirational or aspirational attributes and thus shouldn’t be a metric for finances,” says Integral’s Ahmed. “For brands, social media should be about building the community, not marketing any product or brand; it can be used as a platform to show more information which can’t be offered on any other platform. Sales definitely aren’t the communication objective for a brand who is present on social media.”

Brands know that once they have acquired fans, their Herculean task has actually just started. The key is to keep the youth engaged and retain them on their pages. The OMG study results indicated the main reasons UAE youth “un-follow” a brand are because the brand’s page is not interesting anymore, the brand is becoming irrelevant, posting too many updates, and spamming.

Whether it’s on a brand’s page or on social media in general, brands must keep stirring interest – be it through sending relevant updates or sharing interesting links, photos or videos. Keeping up with the latest trends and viral concepts is also essential to connecting with youth. For example, the newest type of content being actively shared among the younger generation on social media is “memes” (concept or ideas propagated through the net in the form of a hyperlink, a video, or just a word or phrase, such as intentionally misspelling the word “more” as “moar”).

Socialize’s Goel says humor is always welcome by youth, so incorporating it in a campaign – whether through memes or tone of interaction – can help brands capture the attention of youngsters. “Some of the brands who have good copywriters and good social media teams behind them are not just sharing content in the form of copy and press releases but are starting to create [their own] memes,” she adds.

And Twitter is one place not to be overlooked. Wassim Mneimneh, head of social media at Clique Media, says the 18- to 29-year-old age group, in particular, is more likely to follow a brand on Twitter. “People tend to use Twitter as a client servicing platform as well. If I have any problem with any brands, I’ll just tweet about it instantly,” he says, adding that the region’s high level of mobile penetration has a lot to do with it.


Because Arab youth are active gamers, brands increasingly look into advertising on social gaming platforms, such as those on Facebook: according to UK-based provider of social in-game advertising solutions SuperSonic Ads’ research, there are more than 12 million monthly active users on Facebook’s social games in the MENA region (namely the GCC, Levant and Egypt), and “roughly speaking, the UAE is about 1.2 million and KSA is about 1.8 million. The largest single territory is Egypt with about 4 million,” says James Salins, vice-president for business development and brand advertising at SupersonicAds, that has recently partnered with Clique Media to handle advertising sales in the Middle East, Pakistan, India and Africa.

Ibrahim from JWT adds that 65.3 percent of Saudi youth plays games online, according to the Arab Advisors Media Survey 2011. “Playing is increasingly being viewed as a shared activity bringing people together. The popularity of gaming and activations with gaming mechanics lies in both the entertainment factor and the social ‘fame’ it generates among peers on social networks,” she explains.

“In markets like Saudi Arabia we have noticed that gaming is also a means to self-actualization,” she adds. “The games they play the most are games that enable them to do things they couldn’t normally do in the offline world. In Saudi Arabia, you’ve got limited outdoor and entertainment venues.”

But brands need to keep addressing the “Why share? Why care?” principle by providing an incentive to youth. According to Salins, in the Facebook gaming economy, for instance, things work on a task and reward basis. One way gamers can be encouraged to engage with ads is by providing an incentive for them to view an ad. The incentive often comes in the form of free Facebook credits, which is the virtual currency for Facebook games.

In-game advertising, where a brand’s ad or brand-related content appears within a game, is another way brands can deliver messaging without being too intrusive. Social gaming is even more engaging when it comes to young males. Goel says, “If you were to do a game and [ask the player to compete] while saying this is the score among your friends on Facebook, then you start to see higher engagement coming from the young male audience.” When developing social games, Goel says simplicity is the key as youth have a very short attention span. “Quick-play, fun games work better for youth than if you would create a complex game where there are multiple steps and challenges that need to be done.”




In this connected world, one thing is certain: youth’s tendency to use social media through smartphone devices is only going to increase, and there are several ways that marketers can leverage these devices to continually engage with the young “on-the-go” population. Developing relevant apps is only one of them.

“This generation is addicted to their mobile device, which offers ‘always on’ and ‘always with you’ access to social networks and is aspired to as the primary tool for all digital activities,” says JWT’s Ibrahim. “Mobile provides ‘immediacy,’ resulting in consumer utility and provides this generation of digital consumers with a new way to talk about brands. With smartphone penetration among MENA youth at 28 percent (according to the TRU MENA study 2011), consumers will demand better experiences that follow the three S’s – simple, secure and seamless.”

Goel says, “When it comes to connecting with youth, you have to give them more of a functionality than just a marketing tactic… For example, because we know they are engaging with mobile, they’re checking into places like Foursquare, they’re sharing things with mobile, the tactic is not to have a mobile application, but to make sure that your brand is friendly to the type of application they use such as Instagram or Foursquare. It’s even something as small as making sure your brand offers geo-location-specific marketing offers or that you create hashtags on Instagram that they can follow. [You] have to try and make sure that whatever you are doing online has to have fun elements, because most of these youngsters are online to have fun.”

Mneinmeh expects to see an aggressive take-up of social media by brands in the near future. “As of now, only 51 percent of brands use social media in the region,” he says. But “brands are [becoming] very interested in social media as it helps in terms of client servicing, marketing, advertising, and it helps to humanize the brand.”

And as social media proves to be a fruitful touch point for youth, the interest in it will only get deeper.

“[In terms of] how well we tune into the potential of social networks against these youth’s needs, the possibilities are endless because it’s not only platforms, it’s devices. We’ve actually been provided with a plethora of tools, devices, gadgets and platforms to work with. It’s really up to us [as marketers] to listen and understand what these youth are talking about, what is it they want, so we can perhaps define what the world is going to look like in future and accordingly how brands and marketers should react and respond,” says Ibrahim, who adds that, at the end of the day, the challenge for brands is – as always – to earn the youth’s advocacy.

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