ABU DHABI: They are the self-proclaimed fitness gurus, gaming addicts, beauty bloggers and fashion experts who use their online popularity to influence our buying decisions, lifestyle choices and even careers.
Now regulators are looking at the way these so-called “influencers” accept payments from brands and agencies to capitalize on their social media presence.
A move by the UAE to regulate the growing online world of paid social media is likely to be rolled out across the GCC in a bid to bring in tighter controls on the thriving industry, experts say.
In recent years, brands increasingly have been using social media influencers as the face of their advertisements. These influencers — for a fee — place products in the social spotlight by endorsing them on their social media platforms, where some have hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of followers.
In a bid to regulate this young industry, the UAE’s National Media Council (NMC) announced new measures in March that make it mandatory for all paid influencers to obtain an e-media license, as well as a trade license if they are not working through an agency.
Tanaz Dizadji, founder and CEO of Brand Ripplr — a platform that connects influencers and brands across the MENA region — welcomed the move.
It is only right the UAE has sought to protect consumers and brands from the misuse of influencer marketing.
“For too long, the industry has been unregulated, and it is only right that the NMC has sought to protect both consumers and brands from the misuse of influencer marketing,” he said.
Dizadji said that it is a question of when, not if, the rest of the GCC follows the UAE’s move.
“Whether other GCC countries will follow the UAE licensing approach is yet to be seen, but transparency of paid posts will certainly be demanded. You can already see the social giants building new features to ensure such transparency, so it will become the norm.”
Within a month of the UAE’s new measures being announced, more than 500 licenses were issued to social media influencers, influencer agencies and online media companies, according to Dr. Rashid Al-Nuaimi, NMC executive director of media affairs. The NMC told all government departments and companies in the private sector across the emirates to work with only licensed influencers.
Those who simply wish to blog as a hobby or pastime will not need a license. But influencers who receive payment for promoting a brand or goods must have a license, which are available in three categories and cost about 15,000 dirhams ($4,000).
The e-media license has to be renewed each year at the same price. Penalties for failing to do so include fines of up to 5,000 dirhams, verbal or official warnings, and/or closure of the website or account.
“The new regulations promote and develop an advanced legislative and regulatory environment for the UAE media sector, keeping it up to speed with technological developments that have transformed media,” NMC director-general Mansour Ibrahim Al-Mansouri said at the time.
As with any new regulation, there has been confusion, with some companies using the measures as a way to unethically demand “influencer exclusivity,” tying an influencer to certain brands and reducing the number of potential employers.
“There has been a lot of commotion,” Dizadji said. “Some agencies have seen the new legislation as an opportunity to enforce ‘influencer exclusivity’ without justification. However, this will lead to the over-commercialization of influencers and further inflate influencer pricing in the market.”
Dizadji said that the initial reaction to the legislation had been “one of confusion,” but “now the laws have started taking effect, it has been easy for us to reach out to our influencers and reassure them.”
Some social media influencers have joined agencies such as Vamp and Brand Ripplr, which cover them under an e-media license, cutting costs.
“Our influencers are welcoming a move that meets industry standards without crushing their ability to create awesome content and collaborate with the right brands,” Dizadji said.
He said that it was difficult to estimate the number of social media influencers in the UAE. “There are thousands claiming ‘influencer status,’ but brands need to understand the data behind the social media masks to decide if these ‘influencers’ have real influence.”
The NMC’s new regulations are set to professionalize and legalize many aspects of the influencer industry, providing legal protection for both clients and influencers. It will also encourage global companies selling media content online from abroad to apply for a license and open offices in the UAE — a boost for the country’s economy.
Vamp, a joint venture with Motivate Media Group — Gulf Business’ parent company — was the first official influencer agency allowed to cover influencers exclusively registered with the platform.
Regulations create transperancy, which not only builds trust, but also ensures consistent best practice.
In the UAE, Motivate-Vamp has more than 400 influencers on its platform, all of whom are eligible to operate under the new agency license.
Karl Mapstone, Vamp’s business director, believes other GCC countries could follow the UAE’s step to regulate the industry.
“Media bodies all over the world are watching how these new licenses will affect the social media landscape for influencers in the UAE,” he said.
“Whether this affects their own regulations remains to be seen.
“Regulations create transparency between the brand, influencer and their followers, which not only helps build trust, but also ensures consistent best practice within the UAE. The new guidelines help influencers and anyone representing brands by making what is expected from them very clear,” he said.
Social media influencer Nadia Rahman, who goes by the name @dubaigirl, also welcomed the move. “The changes will make a positive difference as there are guidelines that must now be followed and, hopefully, no one will misuse social media,” she said.
Regulating the growing online social media industry is not limited to the UAE.
In Egypt, legislators have approved the first reading of a bill that would monitor popular social media users to combat “false news.”
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have become one of the last forums for public debate in Egypt since a November 2013 ban on all but police-approved gatherings, and more than 500 websites have so far been blocked, according to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression.
SIX OF THR BEST SAUDI INFLUENCERS
With more than 3.9 million subscribers on YouTube, Dyler (real name Abdulazizi Al-Dulaijan) gained fame for his vlogs on daily life and travels, and reaction videos to fellow social media celebrities. The 17-year-old’s rap video clips have sparked controversy. His most popular song, “Samoly” (“A loaf of bread”), gained 10 million views in 10 days.
The social media influencer (@sarah_wad3ani1) is known for her unique work in cinema make-up. Al-Wadaani has 1.5 million followers on Instagram, but shares mostly on Snapchat. Her daily life makes up most of the content. She recently celebrated her wedding in the Maldives, with photos and videos of the event going viral.
Has 5.9 million subscribers on YouTube and is now a full-time vlogger. Made a name for himself with spontaneous videos of everyday life with his three children, Anas, Iman and Yusuf. Involving his family had been key to his online success. Moshaya has been vlogging since 2010 and is one of the most successful Arab YouTubers.
The Los Angeles-based fashion model has 8.6 million followers on Instagram (@model_roz). Roz was born in 1992 in Madinah city, Saudi Arabia, and says she wanted to model professionally since childhood. On her social media accounts, mainly Snapchat, she shares her daily life with followers and offers fashion advice.
Saudi vlogger (@MoaSalem) is known for the eponymous YouTube channel detailing his everyday life. The 28-year-old started the channel in 2010 and now has more than 550,000 subscribers. He also has more than 2 million followers on Instagram.
His popularity has led to work as a television presenter and actor.
The businesswoman and stock analyst is considered one of the most inspiring Saudis on social media.
She is a winner of three Capital Trading Market competitions, a professional guitarist, author of a best-selling book, a licensed pilot and one of the most influential figures on social media in the GCC region — all at the age of 25.