Digital Conferences in the Arab World: What Needs to Change

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Make no mistake. When a Digital Conference takes place in the Middle East, the online communities are always there tweeting their hearts out. Yet within all the praise, quotes, statistics, information and data being shared, there’s always one cynical voice in the background. That voice, ladies and gentlemen, is me.

I am often asked why I hold such animosity towards conferences that happen in the region. Some members of the community even attacked me on multiple occasions saying that I do not hold valid opinions on such matters and I’m just commenting because it amuses me. To an extent it does, but the reality is far from it.

I have enjoyed working in the digital space since early 2001, when I built Nokia Middle East’s website using static HTML and JavaScript using Notepad. I can’t even recall how many tools I’ve used  in the past  11 years , how many websites I’ve signed up to nor how many people I’ve encountered. Who would have imagined back then that the internet would turn from companies shoving information down our throats, to the people taking full command of the content?

The internet changes daily and so does the context of constants.

My problem with today’s conferences and speakers is that the internet is treated as a constant. As non-varying values that can be spoken about it without keeping in mind that as you present, your presentation is already out of date. The internet is on the move 24/7, yet we’re expected to sit and listen for hours while new rules are written every single minute.

During a private session I attended with Google last month, we were told that the Middle East is seeing 1 million new users join the web each month. Do our current rules and theories apply to such an influx? I’m pretty sure any trend or behavioral report pretty much goes obsolete on a daily basis as new people join the internet. Google also reported that 2011 saw only a 0.4% increase in online Arabic content. Clearly whatever we think we know about our consumers changes daily.

Another peeve I have is that we never get to see the true people behind social communication. CEOs, CMOs and VPs are the ones always behind the podium, but what about the people who truly manage the flow of information? Where are the community managers? The strategists? The executives sitting in focus groups for hours trying to understand users?  They are the ones I’d like to hear from because they are the ones with the stories. They’re the ones who get to interact on a daily basis with the internet’s newest users. If there’s anyone with a story, it’s those guys.

I’ve reached out to some of the big guns of the social media community in the region to ask them for their opinion.

@Bilalhouri tells me he feels all conferences in the region feel like really boring business conferences, with talks lasting for an hour or more. It’s always the same people and it’s always “Look at what we did” instead of “Here’s how you do it, resources, hands-on and here’s what we’re doing next”.

@RobaAssi on the other hand is interested in debates, statistics, and networking. “If I can find the content on Google, it’s an absolute waste of time to attend such events. I want insight that companies will not publicly share in reports and data about niche issues that aren’t often discussed.” She also adds that PR agencies should cut the bull and treat the web like they love it.

@iLady_B sees the social media industry as young and hip whereas the conferences hardly reflect that. “We sit in rooms for hours watching recycled content being thrown at us. A plethora of tools and gadgets are launched on a daily basis and we hardly get to see marketers discuss what’s coming. It’s always what was as opposed to what will be. Also the food menus are ALWAYS awful – NO MORE PESTO.”

@Nagham is tired of generic stories about the wonders of social media. “If they’re going to talk about Social Media, talk about something fresh like psychographic targeting or legal issues. It’s also always the same people and the same case studies. We need new faces with new stories.” She also wants local trends to be quantified, measured and studied.

@Bhavishya wants to see different people. “I want more discussions where people disagree with each other and debate what works and what doesn’t. There is no formula to success online and I’d like clients show cautionary tales from failed campaigns.”

@FunkyOzzi reckons that the people attending conferences are addressed as if they are from the offline community hence resulting in coffee and networking without any real added value.

So is it all grim in the world of digital conferences? Should we just cancel them all? I wouldn’t go to such lengths, but there’s definitely a thirst for fresh younger material. The ultimate goal of such conferences is to offer a community affect, networking opportunities and most importantly unique content. If any of those factors are missing, I’m afraid you’ll continue to hear me giving you all a hard time online.

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