Digital Influencer Mohanad Al-Hattab: Character, Comedy And A Whole Lotta Marketing Mojo
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Sacha Baron Cohen is famous first and foremost for his character development and outrageous tactics. Controversial material peppered his Ali G, Borat, and Brüno Gehard personas often under the guise of jest, and Cohen later transitioned his comedic success to more challenging (and serious) roles. Had Cohen began his career in the age of social media, he may very well have opted for Instagram and Vine as his first mediums. The MENA region now has our own hilarious version of Cohen's Borat, and he goes by the name of "Hassan El Coach"- one of the many fictitious characters developed by digital influencer and performing artist, Mohanad Al-Hattab. Al-Hattab uses social media channels to share his work, and yes, make people laugh. "I was watching standup comedy with my father, and we started talking about the art of comedy and he mentioned Lord Byron's quote, 'Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.' When I sat down to place a cover photo for my Facebook page, I felt that this quote would be just right."
A Syrian National, Al-Hattab was born and raised in the UAE, and started his now Instafamous account approximately a year ago, following up with a Vine account a few months later. The 24 year-old digital influencer has impressive reach. He's a heavy social media user, and at the time this interview took place in late October, he was at just under 165,000 Instagram followers from across the MENA region. His characters span dialects and genders, and they each have their own cult-like fanbases with some crossover between characters. After completing an undergraduate degree at the American University of Sharjah in Marketing and Management, Al-Hattab followed up with a Masters in Marketing at Brunel University London in England. Abu Dhabi-based, most of his videos are filmed at home, often with the help of his family who are in on the jokes. He develops identities and back stories for each character, and periodically releases highly-anticipated new installments in their individual sagas. The tech-savvy artist explains that while there are people who recognize the work that goes into each character and storyline, he is aware that many people assume it's all quite easy.
"I do also believe, that there is a number of people who do not comprehend the thought that goes into my work. For example, the fact that I try to diversify my characters could be perceived as a way of me trying to gain more followers from different regions, when in fact it is simply to challenge myself as an aspiring actor. I'll try a new dialect, and attempt to create new storylines and to be that new person. When I'm trying to explain to people all the thought that goes into my work, I try to show it to them through my commitment to my characters, and by trying to be as original as possible in my sketches. Every single word that has been said in my Vines are not derived from any other source but my head, and I believe people hopefully notice my hard work through this process of striving for originality." He remains optimistic that there are more people out there who see the creative process at work in his videos than there are casual dismissers, adding that he thinks that there "are aspiring actors and people in the creative fields who understand that this is not just a stupid character that makes them laugh. They can tell that there is a whole creative process behind each character ranging from their names, to their mannerisms, to the way they pronounce certain words."
A video posted by Mohanad Hattab (@mohanadalhattab) on Oct 10, 2014 at 7:40am PDT
Al-Hattab's character "Khaleh Ghusoon" is a sort of Syrian-hen mother, while character "Hassan El Coach" is a comical Egyptian TV-pseudo trainer. A popular female character of his named "Rash Rash El Mozee3a" is Rasha, a catty, pop culture commentator opining on the likes of Chris Brown, Bruno Mars, and Lady Gaga. Al-Hattab's grand dame, Hessa, is an Emirati middle-aged mom desperately clinging to her fleeting youth. Planning to relocate to Dubai shortly, Al-Hattab spends considerable time rehearsing each skit before the final video airs via his channels, garnering almost immediate virality after each new post. "My personal favorite character would have to be 'Ka2eban', a dramatic girl who always gets broken up with. In reality, I hate drama; I almost always find dramatic situations and people to be absolutely hilarious. It's the ultimate challenge -and fun- to play a character that people laugh at while that character hurts. It does sound cruel when you put it this way, but I like to think that Ka2eban will grow up and later look back at herself and laugh about her immaturity along with everybody else," he says.
Digital companies in the know quickly wised up to Al-Hattab's reach and influence, and he has teamed up with megabrands like Lay's potato chips (a division of PepsiCo) and Chiclets gum (a Cadbury Adams division) after resourceful marketing people happened upon his videos. He was recently negotiating to act as an influencer for a major automotive company's regional launch, but as the campaign goes live late November, Al-Hattab isn't able to disclose more details.
What is a digital influencer? In brief, a digital influencer can be defined as a social media user like Al-Hattab who is able to generate traffic, user discourse, and sometimes viral activity for their content and the content of others that they share or re-share through their chosen mediums. Reach, a term often used to describe both how far an influencer's material travels and its longevity (except on the ephemeral mediums like Snapchat), is key to measuring influencer capabilities.
A good analogy often used to describe reach to those outside of digital arenas is water waves. Those waves, and the subsequent smaller waves and ripples, explain the initial release and the eventual diffusion of user content on the Internet. How far that content goes, and how likely people are to both engage with and re-share the influencer's content makes for tricky metrics, but it can be measured using viewer analytics and the influencer's overall audience demographics. Influencers with broad viewer appeal like Al-Hattab can pretty much be vehicles to market anything, due to his range of audience and high penetration rate.
A fashion-oriented digital influencer might be invited to be the first to preview a fall collection, and then share exclusive images pre-mass release. A tech-influencer might be given a new smartphone, and asked to discuss device features and maybe perform an online "unboxing", a popular tactic in reviews and promotions.
A video posted by Mohanad Hattab (@mohanadalhattab) on Oct 10, 2014 at 6:31am PDT
Who is Al-Hattab open to working with commercially? "Any product or service that is light, fun, and that has a positive energy would a perfect collaborative effort. I want my channels to be an escape from the real, harsh world that we live in, and my characters are developed to draw a smile from people. Basically, any commercials that I am allowed to incorporate into my videos in a comical form would be a good match." Al-Hattab has yet to really apply his marketing degrees to his profile as a digital influencer, but that hasn't stopped clever agencies from reaching out to him. He doesn't have his numbers and metrics on-hand, and instead talks about how much he loves entertaining his fan-base.
Ultimately, he says he'd love to pursue a full-time broadcast and performing arts career, but he knows that there is still some stigma attached to that particular business in MENA. "Unfortunately, I believe that a majority of the Arab culture look down on the performing arts. We are always taught to take the safe road by becoming doctors or engineers, because that will certainly secure good fortune which will supposedly result in a happy life. We aren't opening our minds to finding new ways of making money, and new ways of being happy. That being said, when I say Arab culture, I absolutely do not mean to include all Arabs My parents are fully supportive of my love for the performing arts. I'm sure that there are many more Arab parents that have a similar perspective on life- just not enough of them."
A lack of obvious advertising and product promotion on Al-Hattab's part only increases his credibility with his audience, since he so rarely promotes products and executes campaigns. Influencers as a general rule are walking a fine line, and must strategize carefully in terms of contractual promotions, lest they turn off and deter their existing audiences by appearing too commercial.
"I try to be as subtle as possible about that aspect. It can be extremely annoying pushing an advertisement into an audience who are visiting your channel to simply laugh. So I try to make sure that I hit two birds with one stone by making my audience laugh, and at the same time incorporating the brand. For example, in one of the videos I posted, I did a Christina Aguilera impersonation to encourage my followers to go and vote for me in the Lay's chips competition."
Like most digital influencers, Al-Hattab has his fair share of trolls, and like most many trolls, they attack everything from his appearance to his masculinity- the latter for his portrayal of female characters. This "generic hate", as Al-Hattab refers to it, actually serves to increase influencer virality; trolls in general are acting as de facto promo vehicles by visiting mediums and revving up the discussion on digital platforms, increasing the particular channel's relevance level. "In terms of how I deal with them, I completely do not acknowledge their existence. I never reply to any hate messages or comments, and I never delete them as well."
His comedic mini-episodes have the potential to become full-blown TV and even movie material, and perhaps the region will soon have our own Sacha Baron Cohen... once the non-digital content producers catch on to his onscreen charisma, and his hyper-loyal following.