Whenever you read a report on this emerging market, you will always find facts and figures showing the strong increase in digital activity in the region. Much of the momentum of the recent Arab Spring was attributed to social networks and the ability for crowds to communicate freely and arrange demonstrations (something strictly prohibited in many Middle Eastern countries). This trend is mirrored both in the popularity of devices (laptops, smartphones etc.) and also the simple ability to have internet access (in 2012 the level of internet accessibility in the UAE was 70% compared to just 34% back in 2005).
However, this seems to be stuck on the social level – the rise of eCommerce in the region has been following nothing like the same gradient. Despite the clear rise in demand, and the many channels of supply, the two don’t seem to be converging. This is surprising since, on the face of it, most forms of digital marketing are created for a single purpose – to drive consumers to a company’s website. This could be for a promotion or a coupon or simply engagement between brand and consumer. So why aren’t businesses in the Middle East exploiting this great opportunity?
Part of this can be put down to mundane reasons, in particular in the area of payment. Safe and secure online payment systems have taken a long time to arrive and people have become used to alternative methods. Even today you can purchase a new MacBook Air from an electronics retail website and still choose to pay cash on delivery. However, this is changing and the more safe and secure payments systems are implemented (and, more importantly, trusted by the consumer), the more online transactions and use of digital marketing will come into effect in the region.
A more significant obstacle to overcome is the lack of experienced eMarketing providers in the region. Although a new generation of consumers is growing up in a mobile, digital world, marketing still has its foundations firmly based in bricks and mortar. I have spoken to a large number of businesses in the region looking to increase their digital activity and while there is a definite desire to adopt many new strategies, there is an equal lack of understanding in critical areas such as how to measure and track customers online, or how to personalise content.
In contrast to Europe and North America, even to East Asia, where large numbers of talented eMarketers are available, internally and externally, to guide businesses through their first steps, in the Middle East there is a distinct lack of management buy-in for increased digital marketing budgets. The decision-making becomes polarised – either sign up to a service and have your digital marketing managed by someone several thousand miles away, or use a free tool online which requires training and often won’t achieve the desired effects that the marketer actually requires.
The first option is a non-starter; even the global leaders in such services are largely unknown in the region and the initial investment is considerable and requires quite a leap of faith. Given the lack of experience and expertise, the second option is a gamble that could cause lasting damage if is results in bridges between software providers and digital marketers being burnt. What is missing is the middle way – regional providers with not only the understanding of key eCommerce concepts such as response analysis, segmentation and marketing automation, but also with the ability to express this in a way that the fits local business methods and strategies. More importantly, they need to match local behaviour, in terms of putting the right message on the right channel.
In short, the demand is there, the infrastructure is growing and the region as a whole is ready to follow the global leaders in digital marketing. What is needed to tip the balance is for the software providers from the west to continue to invest in the region not just from a sales perspective but more importantly from and support and services perspective too.