Guest Blog Post From Feras Hilal of The Online Project

Last week, one of the leading social media agencies in the Middle East, The Online Project, published what may well be the first report and infographic that answers the question: ‘Who in the Middle East uses Facebook the most?’

Global brands wanting to tap into Middle Eastern market, with its 300 million inhabitants, the majority of which are youth, are definitely the biggest beneficiaries of such a report. With many barriers of entry, starting from cultural and socioeconomic differences, to intricate trade regulations and finally linguistic challenges, it has been difficult for global brands to craft marketing and communications that resonate well with local audiences. The Online Project, which has been working with Fortune 500 clients, such as Nestle and Samsung, gained unique insights that would assist in-house social media experts, community managers, product developers and advertising executives. It essentially sheds light on user behavior, demographics in the region, how users interact and engage differently on Facebook than in the US. A few key findings include:

Despite the high percentage of youth, Middle Eastern users are more conservative online versus their American peers

In comparison to counterparts in the US, Middle Eastern users shy away from disclosing personal information, such as relationship status. With 85% of users interested in women, one can safely assume that the majority of female users are not comfortable with the idea of signaling any interest in men (only 9% of female Arab Facebook users pronounce their preference). Furthermore, in terms of gender, the majority of Facebook users in the Middle East are male, whereas in the US, female users are more prevalent.

Despite some commonalities between its inhabitants, behavioral differences still exist among users residing in different Middle Eastern countries

Although Middle Eastern users share a common language, there are many differences in behavior and outlook that dispel the misconception that this is a homogenous region. For example, Iraqis have significantly fewer friends than other nationalities, thus limiting the impact of viral marketing campaigns. Also, language settings vary; in the UAE and Lebanon, users are comfortable with English, while users in Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia prefer using an Arabic interface.

Due to lack of access to broadband Internet, photo continues to dominate as the best media to use when engaging with users in the Middle East

With the challenge of low broadband internet penetration rates, coupled with interruptions in internet service, the most reliable and effective media to engage users is photo. Video campaigns may prove to be a challenge to be successful, while in using text, it is important to mention that each country enjoys a different dialect. Localization when producing content is key and understanding the cultural nuances between different users is paramount.

This report covers the basic components of user behavior and how they consume Facebook. It is a first step in the direction of producing more research that will help brands and marketers understand the user. As more brands and organizations adopt social media to engage in conversations with their audiences and consumers, we will be able to identify how these users interact with different segments, industries and what lifestyles they lead. The Middle East is definitely a region ripe with opportunities for growth. How users mature as their behavior online develops will be an interesting phenomenon to observe.

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