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Business leaders get tech savvy with digital media strategies

Attendees listen to speakers talk about utilizing social media and the Internet to do better business. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Top experts in advertising and online content from the Middle East and Europe gathered in Beirut Wednesday to show how companies can take business to the next level through better digital content.

“It’s not a question of if you do it. It’s how well,” said Marc Dfouni, chief executive at Eastline Marketing, a Beirut-based online advertising firm at DGTL#U’s conference “Embracing the Digital Era,” at the Movenpick hotel in Raouche.

“Dare to change and be ready for it,” the CEO said.

More people worldwide get their news, socialize and share views about their favorite and least favorite brands from their computers and mobile phones. The Middle East and North Africa houses 70 million Internet users – a number expected to more than double over the next five years. The conference stressed that given those realities, regional businesses must understand how to engage their customers in effective ways.

The evolving arena of online marketing presents businesses with challenges and opportunities that didn’t exist in the past.

“Never before have people had such a loud voice, a voice that’s heard and can change things. It can change governments and it can have an influence on a series of things,” said Dani Richa, chief operating officer at Impact BBDO in the Middle East and North Africa.

Richa gave examples of how customer reviews online have cost companies money.

In one case, a Lebanese blogger in Kuwait wrote about a bad meal he had had at the Japanese restaurant Benihana, and the restaurant sued him. In another instance, a man in the United States got frustrated after United Airlines didn’t address a complaint he made when baggage handlers broke his guitar. He wrote a humorous song about his experience, which quickly went viral on YouTube.

On the other hand, positive reviews have likewise made the rounds online – at least those that are as entertaining as the negative ones. Richa showed an amateur video of a flight attendant from Southwest Airlines who gave the pre-flight passenger safety instructions in the form of a rap song.

The spread of such reports by customers shows that advertising has shifted from a monologue, in which companies talk to customers, to a dialogue between customers and businesses as well as among customers, Richa said.

“People talk to us, we talk to them, but more important they talk to each other about us,” he said.

“We no longer decide what we stand for. They decide. This new dimension has been allowed by technology. Everybody agrees word of mouth is effective. Now, think of it as word of mouth on steroids.”

Indeed, with all the competing forms of advertising online, it is becoming more important than ever to make ads relevant and meaningful – particularly for the varying cultures they are trying to penetrate.

Tarek Atrissi, a graphic designer and founder of Atrissi Design based in the Netherlands, warned against using advertising that uses cultural clichés – something he has noticed all too often in the Arab world.

He acknowledged catchy images are important, but urged people to be creative and perhaps find inspiration from the street – rather than resort to using camels for promoting Middle Eastern products, the color gold for luxury and green for the color of Islam.

He suggests if a company really wants to reach customers, they need to follow the age-old advice that’s so rarely followed: be yourself. “Share your story and your personality.”

“People want to see personality more than product,” he said.

In a testament that this genuine approach is the best way to reach people, Ramzi Raad, chief officer of advertising firm TBWA, showed a video of a Facebook advertisement for Tunisia which commended the country for sparking revolutions across the Arab world that then inspired protests on Wall Street. In one scene a protester in New York thanks Tunisians.

“What happened to Hosni Mubarak [and other Arab leaders] is not unrelated to my business. Upheavals are coming,” Raad said. “Those who understand and adapt will be winners.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2012, on page 5.

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