5 things to consider when customizing social media for the Arab World

Localizing content can be an interesting thought exercise. On the one hand our audiences all belong to the same species: we like to have fun, eat good food, seek sun, and be loved –more or less. On the other hand, we belong to communities that subscribe to very particular rules and habits that sometimes translate into wildly diverging internet usage behaviors.

One of the most important tasks in communicating your organization’s message involves tailoring your strategy to make sure you are addressing a specific audience, but not so specific that you end up making no return on your investments.

In light of this need to strike a balance between the global and the local, it may help to consider these five aspects of society prior to formulating your social media messaging.  All five considerations are viewed through an Arab World prism, however you should feel free to apply each truth to your local context.

1. Language

It’s amazing for me to witness the number of organizations, including large multinationals, which have an established social media presence somewhere in the Middle East, but aren’t targeting Arabic speakers. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about it for a while now and just need a little motivation to make the proper investments for a good localization strategy. Well how about this?

There are a total of 61 million Arabic speaking internet users in the Middle East.


What we are seeing among those companies who dare to allocate resources into localization, are campaigns that are translated into Arabic and English back-to-back. But in my experience, it is a little frustrating to fire up and sustain community interaction between everyone when half the group can’t communicate so well to the other half. This is where the optimist finds the perfect opportunity to attempt exclusive Arabic language campaigns that maximize the amount of interactivity which can then take place.

2. Religion/culture

Depending which part of the world you are focusing on, religion could be the first or last consideration. As an agency that is based in Dubai, it is not uncommon for us to work for institutions that deal within the framework of Islamic law as it would be interpreted by a panel of judges. Sharia compliant banks, while not averse to online socialization in mixed gender groups, tend avoid even considering  Facebook as an appropriate medium through which they would run any kind of social media strategy.  When thinking about which platforms to use in whichever religious environment you operate within, always consider the degree of propriety and control that your clients wish to exert over the whole process.

3. User behavior patterns

Unlike religion or culture which tends to shape behavior from the top down, we have user behavior which, thanks to nice a survey report which we draw from below, gives us a glimpse into how people actually behave when left to their own devices. When we drill down and compare behaviors between neighboring countries,  some interesting variances can be seen. Take for example preference for local content. Some localities tend to demand more local content than others. It’s a data point that can give you very strong guidance when determining how much you want to focus on local.

Internet usage in Lebanon

Egypt and Lebanon are both considered part of MENA. But you may want to think twice about targeting both countries with the same strategy given the statistics circled in red.

Internet usage in Egypt

While a perfectly bilingual Arab-English campaign will cover most linguistic bases across both countries, the survey data above shows that a much larger percentage of Egyptians prefer to read information that is exclusively relevant to their country compared to Lebanon. Other important aspects of culture: literacy, product savviness, and content consumption vs. production habits.

With 16 million internet user in Egypt alone, it would be hardly a waste of time to spend resources tailoring the campaign to exact specs.

4. Age demographics

These days age is better used to predict of how people use the internet rather than predicting where they will use it, now that mega destinations like Facebook have figured out how to cater to everyone. The Arab World is predominantly under 30, brand savvy and connected to the latest trends in mobile technology. These are all points to consider in the design phase of your campaign.

5. Yourself

At the end of the day, these large masses of people are intelligent and very capable of digesting and reacting to all kinds of messages and symbols that float within their media ecosystem. 2011 might have been the perfect year to provide example of what happens when the masses decide that a message or experience is no longer welcome. It is thus important to understand your place within the greater scheme of history and politics. What does your organization stand for? What does it mean for you to be doing business in the Middle East? It is my hope that when answering this question, you will be better prepared to engage one-on-one with your audience. An inevitable reality with social media.


One might argue that a universal rule of branding in this new digital environment is that we are constantly battling for peoples’ attention.  The more people you try to please at once, the less specific the message, and the less memorable it will be in a sea of information competing for everyone’s attention.