Middle East weighs costs versus benefits of social media influencers

Updated 05 December 2019

Middle East weighs costs versus benefits of social media influencers

  • The social media influencers phenomenon is reshaping the global marketing industry
  • Compulsive viewing of social media updates has been linked to depression in some cases

DUBAI: In the course of the last decade, social media platforms have evolved from being communication networks into an integral part of nearly every aspect of daily life.

Online platforms have generated an influencer marketing industry that is currently worth an estimated $8 billion globally.

The practice of using influencers to promote a product or service on social media has come to dominate the marketing industry, creating a ripple effect on consumer choices.

Celebrities, artists, experts and aspiring influencers can be found in fields ranging from food and travel to fashion and beauty, leveraging the power of “likes” and a massive following to promote products in return for fees.

All this raises questions with potentially profound implications for society: Is social media influencing more than just purchasing decisions? More worryingly, has it become a contributing factor in the rise in mental health cases around the world?

Important light has been shed on the subject by the findings of the fourth edition of the “Social Media Influencers’ Survey,” and a panel discussion held during the release of the report recently in Dubai.

Brands are projected to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022, with one in three people in the world already known to be using social media.

Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter have been ranked as some of the most popular forms of social media.

These trends are no different when it comes to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.

About 85 percent of millennials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE follow at least one social media influencer, and “entertainment” is ranked as the most followed category (94 percent) on these platforms, according to the survey, which was conducted jointly by the BPG Group and YouGov.

The poll questioned 1,000 Emirati and Saudi residents, aged 18 to 35, to highlight consumer views on social media influencers.

The results showed that 59 percent of users were less likely to trust an influencer’s review if they had been paid to advertise it and 73 percent could tell if the content was paid for.

Discussing the findings of the survey, Taghreed Oraibi, a BPG Group business director, said social media consumption trends were similar in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The survey found that 73 percent of respondents had purchased from a brand or tried a service mentioned by an influencer.

About 79 percent of respondents in the two GCC countries said they had unfollowed several social media influencers due to their increased promotional content and disagreement with their values and ethics.

However, Oraibi confirmed that influencers who deal in relevant content continue to have a strong following, retaining customer trust and impacting purchasing decisions.

“Brands and agencies alike are following international and local regulations and guidelines in a step to support authorities regulate influencer marketing and increase content transparency to protect consumers,” she said.

Summing up the survey’s findings, Arif Ladhabhoy, a BPG Group business director, said it “confirms that content is the key factor driving consumers to follow influencers. Brands and influencers have to invest in developing content that resonates and connects with consumers.”

That being said, sponsored content and posts are not the only way social media platforms are influencing consumers.

Numerous studies have shown that excessive time spent surfing social media channels can have a negative impact on self-esteem, attention span, human connection, memory, sleep and overall mental health.

Dr. Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai, says the increasing number of people immersing themselves in the world of social media is “more dangerous than a regular addiction.”

She believes the world is living in an “attention economy” — one where technology experts are treating human attention as a scarce commodity and therefore altering their approach to information management.

“Social media platforms are based on different algorithms made by coders in Silicon Valley who are using them to get more people addicted to these apps,” said Afridi.

Websites known as “dopamine labs” use technology to predict patterns of human behavior. Based on the results, smartphone apps are altered through sophisticated algorithms that increase potential user engagement and deliver addictive power.

“Many people ask how social media apps play into addiction,” Afridi said, adding “they don’t — they are the addiction.”

The trend of social media influencers is only adding to the problem, according to her.

Users are following more profiles and increasingly interacting with live videos, comments and shares, ultimately spending hours on end staring at a screen.

Afridi believes social media apps are “conditioning people” through recommended posts.

“When it comes to children, the consequences are even worse. Frequent exposure to social media can hinder a child’s inclination to explore different parts of their personality,” she said.

“This results in an identity crisis that appears way before their adolescent years, which are intended for identity formation.”

Many young consumers of social media are also likely to lose out on the natural process of identity-building through socializing with people in the communities around them.

Social media platforms that reflect stereotypical ideas around self-image, fame and happiness can also promote a distorted notion of life for children at a vulnerable age. Even worse, the harsh reality of online communication can severely damage a young person’s self-esteem, Afridi said.

“When asked what do you want to be when you grow up, many children today will reply ‘rich, famous and thin,’” said Afridi, who calls social media “one big crazy experiment.”

Many consumers have fallen into the trap of accessing different aspects of their lives through feedback in the form of “likes, comments and posts,” she said.

The BPG Group-YouGov survey confirms that social media influencers are increasingly shaping the daily decisions of many consumers.

In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, 78 percent of users said they followed a brand on social media after seeing it in an influencer’s post.

Another 71 percent said they dined at a restaurant mentioned by an influencer, and 54 percent said they travelled to a destination based on an influencer’s recommendations.

The power that influencers have over their consumers plays on the basic human instinct that pushes people to listen to those they admire, said Afridi, adding that “the more relatable and authentic a person is, the more influence they will have over you.”

Many people will also listen to individuals who appear as experts in a specific field and who “hold a sense of authority,” she said. This can include anyone from a well-known chef, a model or a health care promoter, to a micro-influencer and even a trending teenage personality.”

The social purpose theory, which states that “if more people like something, then you’re more likely to like it too,” can also explain the influence of social media.

Afridi sounded a strong warning about the introduction of artificial intelligence and the virtual world into our daily lives.

“This takes the problem to another level,” she said, adding that many people were already losing their ability to communicate and relate to the “real world.”

In a virtual world, an individual’s mindset may change as it begins to believe that virtual beings do not having feelings or feel pain, and anything can be said to them. Such behavior can translate into the real world, “desensitizing” people to events happening around them.

“Today we see a rise in narcissistic traits and autistic traits, where more people are not able to converse with humans or maintain relationships with each other,” said Afridi, referring to afflictions like Snapchat dysmorphia, Facebook depression and Techno burnout.

“This is going to be a serious issue for this generation and future generations. The worrying thing is that no one is really conscious of it.” 

Hit play: Sports content takes on new life on social media

Updated 26 October 2020

Hit play: Sports content takes on new life on social media

  • Sport — along with related topics like fitness and health — is one of the top three categories on TikTok right now

DUBAI: Whether you are playing or watching, sports are best enjoyed in person. But with social distancing measures in place since earlier this year, like many other activities, sports have gone virtual.

In May, when ESPN aired the final two episodes of its Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance,” 20 of the 30 trending topics on Twitter were related to it. That night saw more than 1.5 million tweets about the final episode, bringing the total volume of tweets about the series above 11 million. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, 22 percent of consumers were seeking sports content on social media — up 47 percent from just 2016.

In fact, sport — along with related topics like fitness and health — is one of the top three categories on TikTok right now. “In the last couple of months, we have built a concentrated community that started allowing us to engage with different pillars of fitness and health,” said Rami Zeidan, head of video and creative at TikTok. These pillars include everything from fitness motivation and health, lifestyle and workout tips to stunts and street performances, such as parkour and freestyle football.

A 2020 study in Saudi Arabia found that 73 percent of people on Twitter are football fans, with 85 percent of them using Twitter to follow along while watching a game on TV. The respondents also said that they use Twitter to follow the official accounts of players (27 percent), to check out the latest video clips (38 percent) and to view pre-match news and post-match analysis (28 percent). The football fandom on the platform is evidenced by the 91 million tweets related to the 2019-20 Saudi Professional League (SPL) season just this month.

According to recent research by Twitter, football is the most popular sport on the platform in Saudi Arabia. In fact, the SPL season was marked by a three-day Twitter campaign that was launched on Oct. 19 under the hashtag روح_الدوري# (“The League’s Spirit”). The first day of the campaign saw Twitter’s account in the Middle East invite comedians to share their takes on the best SPL commentary moments. These were shared through voice tweets, which add a more human dimension to conversations and which allowed the comedians to incorporate their own personal style in the commentary. Although the feature is currently being tested on iOS devices, everyone on Twitter is able to hear voice tweets and reply to them.


Sport and Social Media

- 73% of Twitter users are football fans.

- Sports is one of the top three content categories on TikTok.

- 520% more Instagram Live videos were produced from March-July 2020, compared to 2019.

The focus for the second day of the campaign was Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology. The comedians created their own VAR moments through humorous video content shared on the platform, which illustrated real-life scenarios in which VAR could come in handy — for example, to settle a challenge between friends or to find out who really spilled the popcorn. “Fans have always turned to Twitter to be part of the action in real time. We’re seeing the passion and energy of the football stadium now surging online. Twitter is where fans, players, experts and leagues weigh in with a range of viewpoints. With humor being a key element of Twitter conversation in Saudi, the روح_الدوري# campaign brought levity to a much-anticipated event in the Kingdom,” said Kinda Ibrahim, director of media partnerships, Middle East and North Africa, Twitter.

More than 170 million people follow fitness-related accounts (e.g. weightlifting, cycling, yoga, etc.) on Facebook, and more than 120 million people follow similar accounts on Instagram. Based on an index of Facebook and Instagram’s top fitness partners, 75 percent more Facebook Live videos were produced during the months of March through July in 2020 as compared to 2019, while 520 percent more Instagram Live videos were produced during the same months as compared to 2019. These numbers have resulted in the company capitalizing on the rise of sports and fitness content by building a team to focus on fitness, introducing products to help fitness businesses build an audience and generate revenue, and planning a Fitness Summit, where Facebook will share the latest product tips and best practices with fitness organizations. 

Even for fans that consume sports content on more traditional media like TV, social media platforms are almost always a part of the experience as a second screen. For instance, Snapchatters in the US send Snaps and Chats to their inner circle (29 percent), watch friends’ Stories (28 percent), post their own Stories (20 percent) and check out Discover highlights and shows (26 percent) while watching sports. Moreover, approximately 30 percent want sports leagues to use Snap to go behind the scenes, share news and player interviews, and tap into augmented reality (AR) that recreates the sporting venues they cannot visit.

The Middle East and North Africa region is among the most socially active and engaged regions, as well as one that loves consuming sports content. Social media plays a huge role, whether it is for clubs like Al-Ahli, celebrities like Mo Salah or independent social media fitness star Walid Yari. And with 26 to 33 percent of people in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, South Africa and Egypt saying that they use social media to follow sports news and events, it is time for brands to start paying attention. The sports industry is already realizing the power of social media, but advancements in technologies such as AR, accelerated by post-pandemic digitization, present new opportunities for growth.