UAE. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has successfully joined the social media revolution. With a cohort of young adults who are both multilingual and technology-savvy, the region has seen a significant rise in social media applications and networks, whether for social, commercial, or political purposes.
The private sector is making diligent use of social media to reach key audiences and improve brand and marketing efforts; experts from Booz & Company provide strategies on how governments can do the same.
Driving the E-Revolution
Given the current period of transition in the Arab world, it is more important than ever for governments to con¬nect with their citizens. Governments need to take stock of their digital efforts to date and understand the causes for the rapid growth in adoption of social media applications in the region.
“Young adults in the region, thanks to educational opportunities, are com¬fortable using mobile technologies and are proficient in English, the standard language of most mobile content and services. They treat their mobile devices as a standard tool for commu¬nication, commerce, and overall social engagement and simply expect that others can and will do the same,” said Ramez Shehadi, a partner with Booz & Company in Beirut. “A study conducted by Insights MENA in December 2010 shows that the average user in the region spends up to nine hours a day interacting with media, whether accessing the Internet, watching television, or texting.”
Now that the Internet is no longer tethered to fixed-line connections, both the number of Internet users and the time spent online are increasing dra¬matically. This is creating significant opportunity for applications and ser¬vices that serve users who are always on some kind of connected device.
The Network Effect: Social Media
The most successful of these services have been social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media has created a realm where users constantly share information, track responses, and explore news and opinion in a transparent environ¬ment.
CNN reported in the summer of 2011 that Facebook accounted for more Web traffic than Google, the search giant. Google has responded to the rise of Facebook and other social media applications by develop-ing social media applications of its own—a dramatic response, given the company’s dominant share of the search engine market.
Traditional companies are turning to social media as a primary means of marketing products and interacting with core customers. For example, in 2009, Dell turned to Twitter to deploy a marketing program called ‘Dell Swarm’. The program used the group-buy model in which custom¬ers were invited through social media to join a ‘swarm’.
The more people who joined the swarm, the lower the price was for each member, giving each member an incentive to draw in more members and buyers. Using this simple technique of self-motivated marketing, Dell was able to reach out to around 2 million users—a highly effective campaign.
The Private Sector Gets Social
A number of companies in the MENA region have followed the lead of Dell and others. For example, du has launched campaigns on both Facebook and Twitter to improve customer service and feed¬back, boost sales, and increase brand awareness and promotion.
In the region, locally developed crowd-sourced platforms are now emerging. Aywaa.com is a social network that supports a user inter¬face very similar to that of Facebook. Yallatunes.com supports peer-to-peer sharing of Arabic songs and video clips. Arabfriendz.com is a social media site geared to the region’s singles. Although still in their infancy, these websites aim to repeat in the region the social media successes of the West.
Consumers Prefer Digital Media for News and Information
People’s transition to social media as a news source is driven by their preference for eyewitness accounts of news and citizen journalism—reports from people via Twitter, Facebook updates, Flickr photographs, and other real-time updates to their own networks.
The rising use of social media by news makers themselves suggests that those who make the news as well as those who consume it want less intermediation and more direct access. Digital media users, especially in the social media realm, value variety in news sourcing, as well as transparency.
This search for more crowd-sourced news is putting pressure on regional governments to be more deeply engaged in social media instead of just relying on traditional channels. This is starting to happen, though only occasionally.
For example, in August 2010, the UAE government announced it was banning BlackBerry services. Rumors started emerging in traditional news outlets that this ban would extend to other countries in the region, such as Bahrain.
The Bahraini Minister of Information sought to dispel this rumor by posting on the ultimate social media platform, Twitter. The willingness to engage personally and directly, rather than through a spokesperson or through a media interlocu¬tor, is a critical element of any social media strategy. The random tweeter, blogger, or mobile user uploading footage to YouTube is now on a par with the traditional news providers.
During the 2011 Arab Spring, social media played a critical role in disseminating news—even selectively— and marshaling popular support for specific causes. This in turn led to significant increases in social media participation:
• Facebook subscriptions in the region increased by an average of 30 percent between the months of January and April 2011. Given the size of some of the region’s countries, this increase in subscriptions is statistically significant (e.g., as of April 2011, 29 percent of the UAE’s population was subscribed to Facebook).
• In Egypt and Tunisia, the number of daily tweets peaked with an increase of 140 percent and 160 percent, respectively, between January 1 and mid-March 2011.
The use of social media is clearly more than a passing trend, and governments are scrambling to formulate their response. Those that can mobi¬lize these tools to reach their citizens stand to realize a number of benefits.
Getting Social Media Right
Regional governments have only recently started putting social media to use, often in an ad hoc fashion: They have been reactive or used social media to monitor constituents’ activities and to anticipate future events.
Fewer examples exist where regional governments have used social media in a proactive manner, to relay information to constituents directly. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, has launched a Facebook page in order to reach his constituents and announce upcoming cultural, social, and public events. His Highness’ Facebook page has attracted hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’ and his posts often receive thousands of comments.
But although social media use is start¬ng to grow among regional leaders, its adoption remains the exception to the rule, and use of the technology has been largely haphazard.
The Framework for Change
“Establishing effective social media channels at the core of a government’s engagement strategy is not as simple as setting aside the necessary funds and creating a department tasked with the responsibility of building it,” said Danny Karam, a senior associate with Booz & Company in Beirut.
“In many cases, it will require a fundamental rethinking of how the government communicates with residents, an embrace of transparency and collaboration, and a willingness to establish a platform without a clear sense of how it will be used. Governments, in general, are more focused on desired outcomes, and will have to adjust to the less predictable realm of social media.“
What’s more, a successful social media strategy will involve fully integrating all existing and traditional engagement channels with the government’s online network. In order to do this, governments will need to focus on a framework for change with three dimensions:
1. Positioning social media within its engagement/communication and media strategy
2. Establishing the right capabili¬ties to enable proper social media channels
3. Ensuring sustainable social media channels capable of growth
Governments that have successfully managed the transition to social media, and whose success sets a valuable benchmark for MENA governments to match, have tended to build a digitally integrated social media strategy around three core areas:
• e-Communication: Governments providing information must make sure that they do so in easily accessible digital communication channels, and build into their distribution regular updates of information.
• e-Contribution: Providing constituents with the means to offer feedback and raise concerns is a critical element of a social media strategy, because it permits constituents to draw attention to issues overlooked by policymakers.
• e-Participation and e-Inclusion: Giving constituents the ability to participate and be included in government processes via electronic means such as social media is essential, allowing citizens greater access to their governments’ socioeconomic and political developments.
Once governments have determined how to incorporate social media into their engagement strategy, the right capabilities need to be established across four areas.
• Governance: Notwithstanding the open-source ethic of most online media, it is critical that govern¬ments establish clear and effective governance to maintain and monitor overall quality and performance so that online channels meet government and national objectives. This may require a Social Media Steering Committee or similar body to set and update the social media strategy and make key decisions on content and constituent feedback.
• People: It is vital that those respon¬sible for originating and sourc¬ing digital content are capable of working within social media, or can be trained to do so. This may well need to be a decentralized effort, with individual departments in charge of their own social media deployment, supported by central best-practices sharing.
• Processes: Governments will need to establish the means by which social media content is developed, published, and later archived. In addition, governments need to be assured of processes to produce and manage social media in case of crisis and emergency.
• Technology: Governments must be sure that they deploy the most appropriate technological plat¬forms for social media strategies. Otherwise, their efforts will fail to drive engagement and lead to missed opportunities.
A Growth Strategy
“Once social media has been established within the government, it must be managed and nourished to ensure it remains sustainable and relevant to its audience. That will require governments to allow constituents to rate and comment on published content. This is a critical element of the social media culture and will help guide managers on existing weaknesses in content. Constituent insights can also help bring forward ideas, topics, and solutions,” said Fady Kassatly, a senior associate with Booz & Company in Dubai.
The key to success in adopting a social media strategy is to adopt many of the features of social media—e-communication, e-contribution, e-participation, and e-inclusion. As governments in the MENA region approach this issue, new engagement strategies that place social media at the center of their efforts are critical. No organization will be able to graft onto its existing traditional media and engagement channels a social media approach—the two channels must be integrated. This will require investments in capabilities as governments assemble the right people, processes, governance models, and technology platforms to enable and sustain the growth of social media activities.
Without these actions and efforts, the gap between traditional engagement and social media engagement will continue to grow—as will the number of constituents who increasingly rely on social media— and governments will struggle to reach their constituents effectively. As the demographic bulge of young people grows and their numbers reach one-third to one-half of MENA populations, governments that don’t understand the language of social media could find themselves speaking into a vacuum.
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