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Five Key Aspects SMEs Should Consider For Their Digital Strategy In The Middle East The opportunities for SMEs to utilise the growing opportunities that digital platforms and tech-savvy consumers offers are immense.

By Robert McGovern

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A recent report from Newzoo (Global Mobile Market Report 2017) highlights how the Middle East region leads the way when it comes to digital communications. At 80.6%, the UAE has the highest smartphone penetration rate in the world, along with Saudi Arabia which is not far behind at 65.2%.

When it comes to internet penetration, UAE at 99% and Kuwait at 98% are in the top three highest ranked countries in the world according to the 2018 Global Digital report by Hootsuite & We Are Social Global. Mobile internet usage in particular is very high, with Saudi Arabia (64%) and UAE (61%) in the top 12 countries globally when it comes to using a smartphone as opposed to a computer to access the internet (StatCounter). Middle East audiences are a very well-connected bunch with more mobile connections here than there are people (128%), higher than in the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Africa.

The opportunities for SMEs to utilize the growth that digital platforms and tech-savvy consumers can unlock is immense. Here are some other key aspects to consider for your digital strategy in this region:

1. Be aware of the competitive digital landscape. Consider having a local website.

You'd be surprised how many companies in the Middle East don't create a region-specific website. Nothing will frustrate your customers more than not being able to find simple information about you when searching online like basic product details, your location and contact information, opening hours etc. According to a recent Gartner report, only 15% of businesses in the region have an online presence. This is quite a low hanging fruit, so make creating a local mobile-responsive website your first port of call when entering a new market. Don't forget to include an Arabic language option for the content on your site too.

2. Understand your target group's online search behaviour. Local keyword optimization is key.

Speaking of customers searching for you online, it's important to realize how people's search behaviour differs around the world. It is essential to treat each market separately when it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Conducting simple localized keyword searches around topics related to your product or services is a must, as well as doing so for the Arabic language too, as most highly-searched keywords can differ across languages. Don't forget to include the local country in the meta tags of each of the web pages in the process, and make sure to create business listing pages on Google for your head office and retail locations. Make it as easy as possible for your customers to find out about you online.

3. Get ready for a pioneering social media ecosystem. Reach your target group on social media.

With almost 50% of people living in the Middle East region being under the age of 30, it's no surprise that social media is incredibly popular here as a form of expression and communication. In such a diverse region, visual channels such as Instagram and Snapchat have become especially popular in recent years as a way of propagating a common visual language. Similarly with video content- YouTube is the most used social platform for video consumption in the region. Saudi Arabia, with a staggering of more than 90 million active daily video views, has even surpassed the USA to become the #1 consumer of content on this platform!

The Middle East as a region is built on respect for people and culture. Whilst most markets in the region have been adopting a more relaxed approach to social content, countries like Saudi Arabia have far stricter rules regarding the type of messages and imagery that can be leveraged. Despite, or maybe because of that fact, user generated content is an extremely popular form of content that brands in MENA try to encourage. The Middle East also has its own community of super influencers who use Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube to collaborate with brands and communicate a more relatable, yet personal story. This could be a relevant approach to consider when entering a market in the region.

4. Learn how consumers shop online. E-commerce is growing.

Up until recently, most purchases made online in the Middle East would be paid for in cash on delivery as many customers remained sceptical of paying online. This has changed over the past five years, with more and more businesses accepting online payments and customers finally feeling comfortable with handing over their credit card information to companies online.

Amazon's acquisition of Dubai-based Souq.com in 2017 was a boom for the region and signals a validation of the concept of e-commerce here in general. According to the Middle East-based online payment platform Payfort, the e-commerce market here is set to double to more than US$69 billion by 2020 with the UAE accounting for $27 billion of that, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia $22 billion, making them by far, the two largest e-commerce markets in the Middle East. Food for thought when considering whether or not to facilitate online payments on your local website.

5. Last but not least: have a positive mindset and consider digital an opportunity, not a challenge

While it might seem like a lot to take in, you should consider digital channels as an opportunity rather than a challenge to overcome when entering a new market such as the Middle East. Understanding the region with its 17 countries and how the consumers use digital technology in their day-to-day lives can help you build up a loyal customer base and create a solid foundation for future success.

Related: Infographic: How Digital Marketing Is Affecting Financial Organizations

Robert McGovern

Digital Strategist, Horizontal Integration Dubai

Robert McGovern is a Digital Strategist at Horizontal Integration Dubai. He is passionate about the intersection between technology and creative marketing, and has been living in Dubai since 2011.
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