The state of social media in the Middle East

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Consumers in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) are among the most active users of social media platforms. The region’s large youth population and high mobile penetration rate have made it the ideal market for companies like Instagram and Snapchat, but it is Facebook that remains the most dominant platform for the Middle East with more than 180 million users, up from 56 million just five years ago.

In a report recently published by Crowd Analyzer, which analysed more than 172 million interactions for its State of Social Media report, social media users in Mena are becoming more active and engaged online where conversations are taking place about brands, businesses and services alongside fashion, politics and religion.

The automotive industry was the most talked-about sector across all social media platforms in 2018 in Mena, followed by the telecommunications industry and the media industry. The financial technology (fintech) sector came in last with only 5 million interactions.

The annual report was created in collaboration with Hootsuite and public relations firm APCO Worldwide and provides an overview of the languages used, gender participation, sentiment analysis and location analysis across several industries, including automotive, telecommunications, finance, banking, fintech, ride hailing, media and e-commerce.

“Our findings from this year’s report offers readers fascinating insights on how social media continues to shape the way people use, share and access content,” says Ahmed Saad, chief executive officer and co-founder of Crowd Analyzer.  “Relevant data, information and knowledge are fundamental drivers of business success in this part of the world and are the keys to understanding audiences.”

Arabic was the dominant language used across almost every platform and all industries with the exception of fintech, where English was more commonly used. However, when broken down by country, the statistics show that while 82 per cent of users in Egypt and 96 per cent of users in Saudi Arabia opted for Arabic, in the UAE, 60 per cent of users prefer to post in English.

“The UAE is the trickiest market, because you don’t just have to post in English and Arabic, you have to post in Hindi and Urdu and other languages too,” says Bahaa Galal, chief technical officer and co-founder of Crowd Analyzer.

Out of the three categories that were analysed - males, females and businesses, it was the businesses that were the most interactive. Conversations relating to the telecommunications and banking sectors were led mainly by men whereas women dominated conversations about e-commerce and the media industry.

While Facebook contends with privacy issues following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Twitter is still seeking ways to prevent online bullying, these concerns are not being played out in the region.

Instead, userbases are growing on every platform, driven mainly by Generation X, those born between the 1960s to the early 1980s.

Saudi Arabia

According to Bain and Company, Saudi Arabia has a social media penetration rate of 75 per cent. The most popular platform in the kingdom is Snapchat with almost 14 million users with an almost equal split between male and female users. With messages and posts that disappear after 24 hours and notifications if someone takes a screenshot, the level of privacy that Snapchat affords is one reason why it is so popular in the country.

“The Saudi community is closed, and people want something open to share something on. This is why Snapchat has evolved in the GCC, it’s very secure and you know these texts won’t last so you’re free to experiment and experience your own interests and desires,” says Galal.  

In a similar vein, the ability to post anonymously on Twitter has propelled the platform as the second most popular in the country with the 11 million Saudi users ranking the most active and engaged in the world.  

Twitter really took off in the country after Prince Waleed Bin Talal invested $300 million in the company in 2011. In a constricted political society, hiding behind a pseudonym has enabled users to air their views without much fear of repercussions, although the majority are tweeting about music and gaming.

The number of Arabic users on Twitter grew by 100 per cent on the platform from 2017, led mostly by Generation X, who now also make up 4.2 million of the 15 million Facebook users in Saudi. Meanwhile, it is the millennials who are driving growth for Instagram, which now has 13 million users in the country.

Across all the platforms in Saudi Arabia, users mainly showed interest in religion, nationalism, social development and culture and interacted primarily in Arabic.

“KSA has always had a strong national identity, it comes as no surprise therefore that online users prefer using Arabic to communicate,” according to the report.

Egypt

Social media in Egypt was once hailed as the tool for hope and change, helping to bring about the revolution of January 2011. It was during this time that the userbase for both Facebook and Twitter boomed and while growth for the latter has dissipated somewhat, Facebook remains the dominant platform for Egyptians with 40 million users, a growth of 20 per cent since 2017.

With greater governmental crackdowns on dissidents in recent years, it is not so much the desire for political change driving Egyptians onto social media platforms, but rather the proliferation of cheaper Android smartphones and a competitive telecoms market. The social media penetration rate in the country stands at 40 per cent according to Bain and Company.

There are now a little over 2 million Twitter users in the country, a growth of 18 per cent driven mostly by millennials who are tweeting mainly about food and travel.

Instagram is the country’s second most popular platform with 11 million users posting mainly about fashion, music and travel.

There are 3.5 million Snapchat users, of which more than 2 million are female who tend to consume primarily the news, followed by lifestyle and fashion topics.

Across all the platforms, users in Egypt were interested in a much broader variety of topics, including politics, religion, sports and social development.

UAE

The UAE’s diverse population is evident in the country’s social media trends. English language users tend to outnumber Arabic users while social media penetration stands at 99 per cent according to Bain and Company.

Facebook is the most popular platform with 8.8 million users, similar to the userbase recorded in 2017. Instagram has added 700,000 users over the year and now has 3.7 million users while Twitter boasts 2.3 million users, a rise of 15 per cent from 2017 driven mostly by Generation X. The country has the lowest userbase for Snapchat at just 2 million.

The country also has some of the region’s most popular social media influencers including makeup artist Huda Beauty who has 36 million followers. An analysis of the most followed social media influencers indicates that the UAE’s interests lie predominantly in culture and nationalism, with users expressing interest in leaders and artists. As of June 2018, social media influencers in the UAE must obtain a $4000 yearly licence for any commercial work on such platforms.

Chinese Apps

China’s social media platforms go beyond messaging and updates to apps that encompass ride-hailing, financial technology (fintech) and e-commerce. One of the most popular Chinese social media networks to have made a mark in the region is Tik Tok, which launched last year in partnership with Emaar, developers of the Dubai Mall. Tik Tok is a short-form mobile video platform and claims to have more than 500 million users worldwide.

As foreign direct investment (FDI) from China grows in Mena and the number of Chinese tourists and students rise, they will likely bring more of their technology and services to the region – including social media platforms.

Online Conversations

Generally, people are more likely to post about a bad experience with regards to services than a positive one and this can have a detrimental impact on a business.

“The conversation is happening on social media,” says Galal. “If people have a bad experience with your product, they will post it on social media and your business will be impacted.”

When former employees at Swvl, the Cairo bus-booking app complained about the company’s culture on Facebook, the post went viral, spurred news stories and impacted the company’s reputation.

“It all started with one social media post. That kind of impact can happen all the time and you need to react to your customer quickly,” says Galal who also highlighted the importance of social media to generate sales. With regards to e-commerce, consumers in the Middle East use search and social media for research with the latter playing an important role in purchasing decisions.

One small business in Dubai, a wholesale bakery called For The Love Of Bread, believes that more than 90 per cent of its customers have come through its Instagram account.

So the best platforms to use to target consumers in Egypt according to Galal is Facebook with a healthy advertising budget dedicated to it. In Saudi Arabia, Twitter is likely to churn the best returns if you post in Arabic and in the UAE, it is Instagram that will engage the most number of users since it transcends the language barriers.

Wamda Capital has invested in Crowd Analyzer.

 

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