Following the trend

Four years ago the Arab world set out on a journey of change.

Amid the tumult of revolution, social media and the digital realm grew beyond all expectation, changing the face of society, business, and just about every other area of modern life.

With so much evolution in such a short space of time, PR and communications agency Active, along with their UK partners Hotwire, have published their first Digital Trends Report of the Middle East – an analysis of eight key digital communications trends in the region, as well as the highlights of 2014, and what organisations, brands and technophiles should be looking forward to in 2015.

The chapters include: Politics Finds its Voice, Social Media in School, Cultural Sensitivity, Death of Anonymity, Data for the Moment, From Customers to Consumers, Digitalisation of Retail, and But How Much?

With digital and social media so pertinent for start-ups and SMEs, we quizzed the report’s author, Fatima El Malki – digital communications manager at Active – about small business’s role in the bigger picture.

Why is it important for start-ups and SMEs to stay up to date with digital trends and issues?

The pace at which new technologies, social platforms and applications are introduced is fast.

Besides new concepts in digital entering the market, we also have the established platforms that constantly keep on changing and evolving, adapting to the online behaviour of active users.

For start-ups and SMEs it is quite challenging to keep up with the pace as they are focusing on establishing their core business first. However, it is imperative to stay up to date with digital trends as a business to be able to spot opportunities that will help you establish your brand in a more effective way.

What are the key digital issues that most affect new businesses?

There are several issues that affect new businesses when they’ve started managing their online presence on social media.

A key issue is having all their preparation and work put into their content being completely ignored by their target audiences. A complementary issue is not being able to cut through the noise and have your brands’ voice be heard in the infinite space of the internet.

Another problem is businesses handing over their social media management to an intern due to limited budget allocated for social media. What businesses fail to recognise here is that they have put their image in a vulnerable position. Going this route by using as little budget as possible for social media, the output usually reflects that by having no distinctive brand ID, no strategy or roadmap to where a business is reaching for through social media.

Back in the day, we used to call the customer service line to complain about a product or service, nowadays it all goes online. We have witnessed certain scenarios in which new businesses delete negative feedback they have received on their platforms out of sheer panic.

The list of issues goes on and on, but what needs to be addressed is that there is a solution to all of them. These issues are small hurdles that businesses can easily get over. The road to establishing an effective digital campaign is a long but useful one where businesses will find they can reap the benefits from.

Is it easier for smaller businesses to adapt to the fast-changing digital landscape? Does it give them an advantage over bigger businesses?

Yes certainly, while bigger businesses usually consider new technologies entering the market which they can use for marketing, it takes them longer to implement. Various processes and procedures are involved, whereas a small business can start implementing as they’re more flexible in terms of agreeing to a new strategy than a larger company.

Another advantage is that small businesses are closer to the customer than larger companies. A customer can visit and meet a small business more frequently and easier to develop a personal relationship than a large business.

Due to many layers of management in a large company, customers usually don’t know who they’re talking to online, whereas with small companies, customers usually know the owner and are more inclined to engage online with the company as a means to continue their conversation where they left it when they physically met.

Naturally, there are certain advantages that large companies have that smaller ones don’t, such as a team dedicated to social media with the expertise to develop a strategy as soon as they can, the budgets for a social media campaign that a smaller company couldn’t afford with their own budgets.

It is not necessarily easier for small businesses to adapt to fast-changing digital concept than larger ones; there are pros and cons for both parties that they should both leverage.

Has digital made it easier for start-ups to compete in the market, or has it levelled the playing field, meaning it is harder for a company to stand out from the crowd?

Digital has certainly made it less challenging for businesses to market their brand. It is more cost-effective than other marketing disciplines such as traditional advertisements.

A brand can be big and very well-known on digital, and the great thing about it is that in reality, it is a team of two to three people behind it making their digital campaigns happen. While it is hard for companies to stand out, businesses come to realise that social media is a powerful marketing tool; standing out isn’t an unrealistic goal to reach.

There are plenty of agencies out there who are happy to consult businesses on how to construct their digital strategy and align it with their PR- and/or Marketing plans to be able to stand out from the crowd.

Being active on all appropriate platforms for your brand doesn’t cut it nowadays; it’s all about approach and executing campaigns that will entice your target audiences to engage.

What are the implications if small / new businesses disregard social media?

From our experience when coaching and/or convincing certain businesses in the region to get on the social bandwagon, we often get the same responses when they don’t see the necessity of social media.

The reasons vary from not having the time to manage their social media, to lacking the know-how of how to tackle the challenges of digital and leveraging it to their benefit as a business.

When discussing to possibly outsource their social media management to an agency, the reason to disregard that is ROI – they can’t see how being active on social media will affect their sales. Lack of know-how plays a big part in small or new businesses for not considering social media to market themselves as you can tell by the reasons.

With the Digital Trends Report for the Middle East we hope to inform businesses, small or multinational, on the current trends and where we are in the region regarding digital communications.

There are some great case studies online for aspiring businesses to take inspiration from and making their first step to become digitally savvier.