Social Media Marketing in the Middle East Is An Opportunity For Global Brands

by Loic Moisand on Apr 29, 2014

When brands decide to actively engage and research their customer around the globe, the list of challenges gets long quite quickly.

Understanding how international social media efforts can work well is a big challenge for these brands. Different regions present entirely new social networks, languages, cultural expectations and many more barriers for marketing teams to overcome.

Emerging markets, like those in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region), are an especially tough nut to crack for many global brands. Understanding what consumers in the MENA region want from social brands is a completely different challenge than in the US and other western countries.


Source: Wikipedia

In these markets, perceptions and expectations of businesses can greatly differ from those in markets where they have been operating for many years or decades.

Some excellent studies have been undertaken about social media usage in the MENA region, but many of them tend to dwell on the fact that social media users are much more likely to share their views on politics and community related matters than users in other countries.

Whilst this is fascinating and useful information in itself, it casts very little light on how MENA consumers talk online about brands.

The sheer cultural diversity of the MENA region adds to this feeling of “not knowing what we don’t know”.

Technology Is Catching Up

Much of this comes from the dearth of social media monitoring, engagement and analytics tools offering Arabic functionality and coverage, compared to the huge array of these tools available in English language speaking countries.

It’s led many brands to take a ‘safe’ route of just building Facebook Pages and seeking Fans and Likes. In terms of advanced uses of social media monitoring and engagement, the MENA region is currently around 2 years behind the USA (see the diagram below).

However, as the sudden and rapid take-off of Twitter usage in the region last year shows (Arabic’s now the fastest growing language on Twitter), it’s unlikely to take brands anywhere near as long as two years to start using social media more strategically: all they need is for the tools to catch up.

Businesses Are Catching Up To MENA Consumers

Consumers are already embracing the opportunities offered by the social web to share opinions, connect with like-minded people, research purchases and create communities.

Studies show that 88% of the Middle Eastern population who are online use social networking sites daily.

Additionally, Dubai recently emerged as the world’s 20th leading city in terms of Facebook penetration.

Diversity Is A Challenge

However, the region is so culturally diverse, that listening properly to consumer conversations in order to understand where people are talking online, about what, and the language and terminology they are using, becomes vital for better informing product development and marketing localization strategies.

Many marketing practitioners in the region know instinctively that consumer preferences vary widely between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq, but they have very few tools at their disposal to measure the differences in online behavior.

And as we mentioned language is a challenge, with almost half of the region using Arabic as their main social network communication language.

Unanswered questions include whether Twitter really is the only important place on the web where people talk about brands in Arabic or whether forums actually dominate the Arabic online world, but their influence is hidden because most Western-centric monitoring tools don’t crawl them.

The importance of sites such as YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram and the influence of bloggers is also subject to debate. As are the demographics of consumers talking about particular brands or topics in each country and what share of the conversation each brand has.

The only way to effectively answer these questions is to use tools capable of providing accurate quantitative and qualitative insights to find out the story behind the numbers, such as developing Arabic Natural Language Processing and Automated Sentiment capabilities within monitoring tools.

Without this, monitoring and analysis would remain a labour-intensive and unscalable process.

Though we find that users prefer to use Arabic Language and transliteration (Arabic words written in English letters), user generated web content is a cluttered mix of Modern Standard Arabic, lahjaa (Colloquial Arabic, complete with regional variations), and latinate characters, including the use of numbers as substitutes for letters (for example, Ain ع looks like an inverted 3, so 3 is often used when chatting on the Web using latinate characters).

In addition, slang words tend to be very varied and country-specific: for example, the word ‘cute’ is pronounced as brtish (“كيوت”) in Egypt, but mlih in Algeria, zwin in Morocco, and fino (or fin) in Tunisia.

Visual Content Is Significant

Due to this difference in colloquial Arabic spoken across the region, visual content – pictures and short video clips – has a strong presence in the Middle East. As a result, Instagram has witnessed a rising popularity and more frequent use in the past couple of year. This popularity, however, has not replaced the tendency to post visual content on Forums and blogs.

Blogging Is A Growing Trend

Blogging has witnessed a shift since the beginning of Arab spring, and gained rising popularity and a stronger presence as a powerful means of commenting on current events, sharing voice of real people and connecting with the rest of the world.

Bloggers from the Arab world meet on a regular basis to network, share experiences and discuss work. Similar to many blogger meetups that have taken place in the US and other countries for many years.

Arab Bloggers Meetup

Last year, two bloggers from the Middle East, Nervana Mahmoud (Egypt) and Razan Ghazzawi (Syria), were among the BBC’s 100 women initiative.

It worth mentioning that while getting popularity, blogging is still considered a bit of a risky business, especially when it comes to blogging for activism.

Forums Have Also Seen Growth

Forums continue to be a popular social media platform, with region wide coverage. Generic Forums (those with focus on different topics) enjoy the highest popularity. Some of these forums include Sedty, UAE women, Arabs Gate.

Some of the major industry specific forums are those relating to football, automotive and telecom.

Twitter Is More Competitive With Facebook Than In Other Regions of The World

Facebook remains one of the top social media platforms and where many companies connect with consumers, while Twitter is used more in some areas than others.

Twitter users in the gulf region, for example, are among the most active, resulting in a lot of public and government institutions relying on the microblogging platform to connect with the wide public. This might be taken for granted in some parts of the world. It is, however, a case to be noticed in the Arab World.

It fair to say that Twitter use is affected by certain seasonal events such as Ramadan. In this month, promotional content on Twitter / Facebook witnesses high activities given the significant increase in Twitter users activity during this month (especially post Iftar time).

Sentiment Requires Constant Crowdsourcing

At Synthesio, we’ve found the only way to ‘teach’ our computers whether clusters of words are positive or negative in Arabic, is to constantly crowd-source updates to our slang lexicon. Web users located in each country are asked what words they use to describe different things. We then teach our software to understand the differences depending on where a piece of content is geo-located.

Using Automated Sentiment Analysis to ‘break the back’ of analysis on big data sets and provide a sentiment barometer around topics and brands can provide an excellent springboard for more hands-on and accurate analysis of a sample.

Results Can Be Huge

The result of this analysis can produce actionable insights which optimize decision making across a business – whether it is the development of a new product, providing the creative spark for a new advertising campaign, or a better way to measure the impact of marketing against pre-agreed KPIs.

There are numerous examples of this type of monitoring and analysis in the Middle East resulting in changes to business practices. Recently, social media monitoring helped a major pharmaceutical brand better understand the experience of diabetes patients in the region. This led to a refresh of its educational and product packaging materials in the region to address areas of patient confusion.

One of the world’s biggest beauty brands sped up the development and release of a wider skin-tone range for its grounding-breaking BB Cream on the back of an analysis of customer sentiment online.

A global babycare brand has also been able to successfully identify influential moms – not just those who are active bloggers or have huge followings on Twitter – but those who are highly engaged in forums such as – to invite them to become members of a special advisory board helping the brand to better meet the needs of mothers in the region.


If global brands are looking for opportunities to get ahead of their competition, looking more closely at their social efforts in underserved regions like MENA is a big opportunity. Social monitoring that can navigate the challenges of the region successfully is an important tool in better understanding these opportunities.

Post Author

Loic Moisand co-founded Synthesio in 2006 to provide marketing and communication departments with monitoring, engagement and analytics services tailored specifically for the web. Under his leadership, Synthesio has achieved 100% growth in revenue and clients every year since its founding...