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The Arabic-English Content Conundrum: Communicating To A Multilingual Market Should a MENA-based business be investing in content marketing, be publishing in Arabic, or English?

By Suha Nasir

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Living in a cultural melting pot like the UAE, it is not uncommon to have interactions with people of several different nationalities on a daily basis. Your boss might be all the way from the United States, your colleague and close friend from the Philippines, and your roommate could be from a city in India. Even though the UAE is located in the Middle East and considered an Arab country, 80% of the population consists of expatriates, and among them, 50% don't speak Arabic. With such a diverse population, it's a constant struggle for businesses in the UAE to decide which language they should offer their content in. Despite the numerous other languages spoken throughout the Emirates, Arabic and English are the two most popular, with Internet World Stats reporting that 45% of internet users in the Middle East view internet content in Arabic, whereas 48% of them use it in English.

So, with this being the case: should you, as a business investing in content marketing, be publishing in Arabic, or English? Here are three steps that might help you decide which language works best:

Step 1: Know your business
The quest to determine which language suits your content begins from within. Ask yourself:

  • What does your business do?
  • What does it represent?
  • What is expected from it?

For example, if your company is based in Dubai and is an Arabic brand, or if its name is an Arabic word, there may be certain preconceptions already made about it. Although the product you're selling may be targeted to both nationals and expats equally, just having an Arabic name means that most of your webpage's visitors will at least expect a toggle to switch the language to Arabic.

An example of this is Tahawal, one of UAE's quickest growing digital startups. The company's name literally translates to "Transform" in Arabic. By associating its name with the Arabic language, it implies that this company establishes a brand identity that is unmistakably regional, and because of this regional branding, its audience may develop regional expectations from it.

Step 2: Know your audience
Market research isn't limited to introducing a new product onto the market- before you publish content online, you need to know your audience and what they want. Things like age, gender, and nationality are some of the information you need to have to best cater to the those who view your content.

Discover insights The best place to start is Facebook's Insights. This tool allows you gain valuable insights regarding the age, gender, country, city and language of your Facebook audience. So, if Facebook Insights tells you that your audience is primarily English users, does that mean you should limit you content to English only? Not so fast, as further research reveals that the Internet World Stats reports that 45% of social media users operate their accounts in Arabic. This information, plus the fact that Emirati teenagers are amongst the highest social media users in the world (with 97% of them having at least three social media accounts), shows that releasing content in Arabic could open new doors to your business. So, we need to know a bit more.

Survey your audience Another way to gain insights into your existing customer base is to ask them about what language they want to see and get an idea about what to post next. It's important to compare what your audience claims they want to see with what posts actually get the most attention. If a significant portion of your audience is requesting to see more content in Arabic, upload a few posts in Arabic, similar to the ones that are the most popular right now, and monitor their attention. If this change results in more engagement i.e. more likes, shares, comments and follows, then great! You have successfully catered to your audience's needs ,and now know what to focus on- more content in Arabic. If the feedback is not so great, then go back to the drawing board, and see where you went wrong- was language the problem, or do you need to adjust your content?

Step 3: Know your industry
The next step is to benchmark. Benchmarking helps you to compare your business against other players in the industry, and identify areas where you can improve your performance. In this context, ask yourself how others are publishing content, and does their website have more traffic than yours. If yes, then find out why.

The players you should focus on are those with the following traits:

Similar audience Compare your content to those who have a similar audience to yours, but have more engagement with them. What does their content look like, and how many languages is it translated into?

Similar marketing tone/strategy It is helpful to look into companies who market their products or services in a similar way to yours. If their strategy is succeeding, then find out where your content is going wrong and theirs is going right.

Industry leaders When you benchmark your industry's leaders, you are encouraged to dream big. Look at some of the top UAE companies, and take notes on how they manage their content to gain an insight of what they are doing right, and how can you get there.

The final word
At the end of the day, since Arabic and English are the two most popular languages on the internet in the Middle East, companies in this region often opt for offering their content in both -if not more- languages. Limiting your content to only one language can lead to missed opportunities in a multicultural environment such as the UAE.

Keep in mind that in order to effectively create content in Arabic, you must be aware of the priorities in the Middle Eastern culture. Simply translating your English content to Arabic verbatim is not enough as the words, phrases and metaphors that are in one language might not make sense in the other. Keep this in mind when humor is involved as well- some jokes are only funny in a specific language.

Advertising agencies and online marketers based in Dubai aim to use several languages to help the companies address their audience. Some of the other languages spoken in the UAE include Urdu, Tagalog, Hindi and Farsi, and this unusual combination of target languages often requires professional translation and localization services.

It requires time and resources to compose a well-crafted message that will resonate with all the cultures and languages in this marketplace, and it can be quite expensive as well. But if it leads to business rewards, then it's certainly worth the effort.

Related: Made For The Middle East: Halla Walla Offers Emojis That Are Characteristics To Arab Culture

Suha Nasir

Content Marketing Manager at Tahawal

Suha Nasir is a Content Marketing Manager, and one of the newest faces at Tahawal, a digital agency specifically designed to assist startups build their online presence. She’s passionate about volunteering, reading, and Nikki Minaj. Although the startup life offers her the job satisfaction and unconventional challenges she craves, she believes big dreams are the product of a well-deserved nap. 

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