Established and growing businesses in the region are making full use of the popularity – and opportunity – of social networking sites
This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Explorer, Aramex's thought-leadership magazine that investigates issues critical to businesses, communities and the planet.
by Farah Shanti
It has become one of the first things we do when we walk into our offices every morning. Reflexively logging onto social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace and the 2009 breakthrough hit, Twitter, demonstrates how ingrained constant connectivity has become. Few can argue against the impact of this concentrated online community – socially and professionally. For companies, particularly start-ups, social networking provides a marketing and communication opportunity that more and more are embracing, especially in fiscally conservative times.
The world of online networking has innumerable advantages for new businesses, the most obvious being the competitive pricing of its advertising – virtually nothing when compared to traditional advertising campaigns. “Google derives most of its billions of dollar of revenue from small businesses,” says Ahmad Humeid, CEO of Syntax, a branding company that specialises in online communication strategies. “This means that in certain markets, SMEs are totally shifting their promotional activities online. Online advertising and social media word-of-mouth can be the primary tools for a small business to acquire and keep customers.”
That is certainly the philosophy of Lazmak.com, a new e-marketing service recently created to develop regional online marketing and promotion strategies. “Sites like Facebook were imperative in introducing our company to what is our target audience,” says CEO Ahmad al-Masri. “We were able to find potential clients, learn what they expect from e-market sites – what was their experience with Amazon, for example
– and how could such a service fit with their everyday lives.”
Although they will also develop more traditional advertising campaigns, such as print and radio, al-Masri is convinced that their social networking profiles will play the most important role in the company’s marketing future. “It is a vital investment, no question, and one we intend to continue supporting. When you’re living a region with one of the fastest growing number of people on Facebook, it’s not something you can ignore.”
And social networking is not simply about raising awareness. Al-Masri says that the feedback from this online community has been imperative in quickly moulding Lazmak.com into a user-friendly service that better understands its customers. “Comments, criticism and ideas have all come instantly from social networking,” he says. “Because the feedback is so simple to deliver – with a click of a button, a short message, another click and your done – it’s been very forthcoming, and it’s definitely helped us avoid a few big hurdles. Especially with the accountant!”
“Increasingly, we’re living in the truth economy,” says Ahmad Humeid, who has advised pan-Arab corporations such as Aramex and Mobily on the need to embrace social networking to communicate with their customers. “Companies cannot simply broadcast their messages to receiving consumers. People engage in conversations about brands and companies online, free from corporate control. They voice their likes and dislikes on blogs, on Facebook and a million other places. Corporations, or more accurately, people inside corporations, must re-learn how to have conversations with consumers. Social media is forcing them to do so.”
Joining the conversation
Indeed, this desire to be part of a region-wide conversation is leading directly to the creation of specialised networking sites for the region itself. Tasmeem Middle East (tasmeemme.com) is the first professional regional online networking site dedicated to creative talent, which couples the creative needs of organisations with regional providers. “Freelancing and outsourcing across the Middle East is still in its infant stages, especially in the creative industry,” says Noor el-Fadl, one of the brains behind TasmeemME. “With the tremendous increase in talent in fields such as design, writing, film, photography, music, architecture and programming, creative experts have not been able to easily connect with opportunities across the region to export their skills.”
TasmeemME, el-Fadl says, therefore, was created to easily match job or project opportunities with a service provider, thus eliminating the middleman. “We allow companies and individuals to share their work, find the right talent to help get a project done, and interact with fellow designers. All of this makes our presence on social networking sites crucial.”
For a start-up project with a limited budget, TasmeemME took advantage of social platforms that helped to promote the site at minimal cost. Facebook was especially useful, since the team could capitalise on their personal network – and the networks of friends – to help spread the word. “We have a group that we update and use as our permanent ‘home’ on Facebook, and through this group we invite our extended networks to learn more about our site, and update them regularly with the most recent work posts put up on TasmeemME.” El-Fadl believes it is this non-invasive aspect of the site that encourages users to send in their opinions and feedback, which in turn helps TasmeemME better serve its purpose.
Having experienced the important role an online presence played in TasmeemME’s startup, Noor is a firm believer in any small business creating its own online community. “The Internet is almost a must for any new business, whether or not it’s IT-based; websites have become a company’s face to the world. This is actually one of the main concepts behind TasmeemME: Providing online presence for creative people all across the Middle East, to take advantage of the internet’s outreach, post their work, advertise themselves, and network across the region.”
It isn’t only the service provider that is making its voice heard over the internet, but the creative types it is working with as well, the prime example being Design Jordan. DJ, as it has come to be known, is the Kingdom’s only industrial and product design institution. It recently launched its first design competition, an endeavour that has brought the company face to face with the importance of social networking. “We are looking for designs that combine function and form to create style with a purpose,” says Racha Tarazi, Creative Director at Design Jordan. “We want to provoke a pioneering creative spirit in the Middle East and, at the same time, expose latent design talent in our region. One of the best methods to get the word out there was, unquestionably, our profiles on social networking sites.”
Racha and the team set out to create a network that reflected their ambitious plan, coming up with groups, fanpages and even event micropages. “We went the whole nine yards!” says Omar al-Zoubi, one of Design Jordan’s graphic designers and developer of the company’s social networking plan. “By involving most of our team – who are Facebook and LinkedIn users – we worked on bringing in our friends to introduce Design Jordan, its philosophy, and how important it is to the Middle East.”
In fact, the company plans to extend the online work it has already done to include a blog with daily updates about Design Jordan’s news. “We believe Internet users relate more to an online journal,” continues Omar, “since it’s more approachable and easy to regularly update. We’re also considering accounts on video-sharing sites that will function as a backbone to our blog with video material.”
It is unthinkable then, with the region and the world’s most influential minds putting so much effort into it, to suggest that an Internet presence is of little importance to any business, new or established, in the Middle East or Japan. The medium can give any company a direct relationship with its customers, creating a dialogue that helps the former establish itself without having to guess if it is, in fact, making an impact on the latter. This avalanche of opportunity means that any business venture setting its sights on becoming an influential institution will have to make sure that it is followed on Twitter. Or joined on Facebook. Or even linked on LinkedIn.