Are GCC businesses leveraging social media enough?

M.R. Raghu, managing director of research house Marmore Mena Intelligence, examines whether social media is being tapped in the region



As social media penetration continues to grow exponentially, so does the opportunity for Gulf businesses to engage their customers.

This increasing reach, twinned with the growing presence of young people on social media, has opened up new avenues for companies to interact with their customers of the industries that are currently active on social channels across the region, the retail industry leads engagement on Facebook in almost all of the GCC countries, with over seven million active followers.

This is followed by the telecommunications industry at close to five million users. While the remaining top five industries in the GCC, based on the number of Facebook followers, are e-commerce, electronics and airlines. The most used social media channels for businesses in the region are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

In terms of the total number of fans on Facebook, the fast moving consumer goods industry is one of the most popular in the region. According to recent industry estimates, the GCC’s FMCG market will likely cross the $270bn mark by 2018, with the regional population expected to expand to around 56.5 million. Faced with ever increasing competition, it is becoming crucial for FMCG companies to increase their visibility in the market by tapping social media and engaging with end users.

Qatar Airways has a significant presence across all social media platforms and the largest number of followers compared to its regional competitors with a Facebook fan following of 11.6 million people. This features news, videos, pictures of the cabin crew at new and interesting destinations, and other elements aimed at engaging with existing and potential customers.
The airline also has a Twitter account with close to a million followers, and a YouTube channel with more than 36,000 subscribers.

In the retail industry, Arabian Oud, with 4 million Facebook and 1.5 million Twitter followers leads the pack. In telecoms, STC and Mobily have a stronger presence on Twitter compared to Facebook, and Souq.com dominates social media outreach in e-commerce, with 8 million Facebook followers and 380,000 Twitter followers.

The social media presence of SMEs is also on the rise, according to a 2015 survey of 260 regional SMEs by LinkedIn. In the study, 92 per cent of respondents said they were already on social media platforms, with a further 5 per cent preparing to establish a presence. Many of these will surely have taken the plunge since the survey was conducted.

The main driving factor in the adoption of social media was found to be the ease of generating business, with 34 per cent of Gulf SMEs claiming that they gained new customers through social media advertising and 32 per cent directly linking their social ad spend to revenue growth.

However, other industries like banking have a very limited presence on social media platforms, or are not using them to their full potential. Banks in the region should look at social media as more than a simple marketing tool. They should see it as an essential factor to develop actionable insights and gain real value from consumer interaction, especially at a time when fintech solutions are threatening existing business models across the globe.

There are a few exceptions to the overall trend of banks in the region underutilising social media channels. Some such as QNB, Saudi Investment Bank and Emirates NBD have significant fan followings on Facebook. QNB’s posts on Facebook are related to the products and services it offers, the financial performance of the group and its social initiatives. The bank also has a reasonable presence on both Twitter and YouTube, unlike other GCC banks.

Social media can be used as a marketing tool to help businesses achieve growth, improve brand image, procure talent, and become more consumer-centric. Especially by getting, feeding and addressing complaints.

With growing internet and smartphone penetration, and rapid advancements in technology, it has become imperative for businesses to engage with customers or risk losing out to competition. And while challenges exist – such as lack of Arabic content and data security – the benefits outweigh the costs.

But tools used to enhance brand image can also be used to tarnish it. For example, Subaru Emirates paid a hefty price for social media mismanagement after a road accident occurred that claimed four lives. The company was branded sexist and insensitive after posting an image of the accident with the status “woman driver at it again”. By the time it was taken down 26 hours later the damage had been done.

Another issue faced by companies is that it is difficult to quantitatively assess the impact of social media activities on business growth. It can be cumbersome to measure a return on investment, so many do not go through the process.

Digital and social network ad spending in the Middle East and North Africa region is below the global average and significantly lower than other parts of the world such as North America and Europe. It can therefore be said that GCC businesses have not fully realised the potential of social media, despite rapidly growing MENA expenditure.

Businesses in the region have, however, recognised the importance of engaging with their customer base to improve both their reach and operational efficiency.

With penetration figures continuing to rise, and social platforms becoming increasingly prevalent in every aspect of our lives, customer engagement and ad spending is sure to grow in response.

So while GCC businesses might not be leveraging social media to its fullest potential, they are fast making up ground and we can expect much more activity in the months ahead.