By Eliot Beer
Pan-Arab broadcaster MBC is revamping its website to include more rich media and user interaction, its group director says.
All over the world, media providers are grappling with the challenge - and enormous opportunity - offered by the internet.
While broadcasters in Europe and the US have been biting their nails over illegal downloads and copyright issues, Middle East broadcasters can afford to be more pragmatic.
If I invest all this money, do all this work on the TV side for so many years – and then the website is not up to standard, it means we’re messing up the brand.
Regional giant MBC is currently in the process of a long-term redevelopment of its MBC.net website, the broadcaster's main online portal for its TV programming. This involves increasing the amount of rich content - including video - on the site, and offering more scope for user interaction and e-commerce.
The reasons behind the redevelopment are clear for the broadcaster, according to Dr Ammar Bakkar, group director of new media at MBC. He sees the site as a key tool in reaching MBC's audience, and also for leveraging additional opportunities for the firm.
"We look at RoI from two points of view: first, you have the idea of preaching to your audience, promoting your programmes, showing them everything they need to know about the channels, connecting them with the characters and the personalities on the channel - giving extended service to them," explains Bakkar.
"This is our audience - they like us, they spend a lot of time watching our channels. We like them - we love them - and we want to give them more. It's the kind of free stuff you give to your customers - a promotion you offer to your audience," he adds.
This manifests itself in a number of initiatives - currently the site is offering a video-on-demand service for its Ramadan programming. Bakkar and his team are also working on and rolling out additional opportunities for site visitors to interact with MBC and each other, including offering the ability to upload user-generated content and comments.
"Even if everybody else does it, it becomes standard - if you're selling me a car, it comes with maintenance; if you're giving me a programme on TV, it comes with different services on the web and different platforms," explains Bakkar.
The other side to MBC's RoI proposal is more directly financial - Bakkar sees the growth of e-commerce and online advertising as potentially lucrative areas for the site. But, as he admits, this is entirely dependent on having a successful and popular website.
"If you have a large amount of traffic, if you're in the top five sites for traffic - which is our ambition for MBC.net next year, among Arab websites - you are going to get part of the cake. The advertising industry has grown in a very exciting way - so we think there's going to be a good return on the web investment," Bakkar says.
MBC kicked off its redevelopment strategy in 2005, when the company decided to revamp its online presence. After an extensive planning and consultation phase, MBC signed a deal with Vignette for a content management system, and in 2007 the broadcaster began hiring programmers and working on the sites in earnest.
Once MBC had complete the outline of its core strategy, the next key area to address was the choice of CMS, according to Bakkar.
"Content management systems have evolved over the years - when I started working on these projects six or seven years ago, it wasn't easy at all. In most cases you had to build your own CMS - if you look at most of the big web projects in the Arab world, you will find that most of them depend on home-made systems," he says.
"But that has evolved as software companies have learned how to create flexible, inexpensive, easily-customised software that people can use to create mega websites, that has the kind of reliability you need to create new pages, new templates, new sections - and at the same time has the reliability for the user to browse these pages without any problems or glitches," Bakkar continues.
However, he argues that CMS offerings are still not as far ahead as they need to be. In Bakkar's view, websites should be able to offer the same flexibility as print media - effectively, a new template every day. And while he recognises that there are technical problems which can only be overcome through technical work, he says this should remain an important goal to strive for.
"The second area of consideration for content-management is the ability to integrate text with rich media, and with user-generated content, e-commerce - different types of content in one page," says Bakkar. "The third key area is the ability to integrate the external website with internal systems - when I buy something on MBC.net, it's already connected to our ERP and CRM systems, so the whole process becomes part of our internal processes."
MBC looked at three different content management systems before settling on Vignette, thanks to its flexibility and integration with existing MBC systems. Following proof-of-concept work on the website, the MBC team began working on the live site.
Instead of switching over to a new design, Bakkar and his team decided on a programme of rolling updates, adding new functionality and features to the site gradually. Bakkar does not reveal any specific plans for 2008, but he hints that some major new changes may be on the cards for the new year. He is very open to experimentation and innovation on the live site, as the feedback from the site can be directly translated into how visitors are responding to new features.
"The internet has this great thing of having statistics - so you're not afraid. You can evaluate, you can look at the numbers and say this section is not doing well, I should keep it low-profile or remove it, and so on. This makes you comfortable to go and try things," he explains.
Perhaps surprisingly, one area that Bakkar is less overtly concerned with is security. While this remains an absolutely critical element in the site - especially given its e-commerce facilities - Bakkar feels that the security landscape has matured to the point where organisations can feel confident - albeit at a price.
"Nobody can say security is an easy thing, nobody can say 100% that they've done it - but I feel the security market has evolved in a very good way, and you now feel that things are under control. This issue would have been very important back in 2002 - but in 2007 hosting companies are better, they are protecting their clients very well. The link between systems is much more protected," he says.
"What is less satisfactory is that you have to pay for it - hosting and security is very expensive. Here there's been a transformation in the industry - several years ago, you could put together a website for several thousand dollars. Now, websites are very expensive - and no one's sure if they will make money or not. The whole model is transforming - from very cheap, to expensive and without guaranteed RoI," adds Bakkar.
Despite his slightly pessimistic comments on the shift in the online business model, Bakkar remains absolutely confident that MBC.net will be able to deliver a significant return for the broadcaster - although Bakkar recognises the risk in failing to deliver.
"This is a big responsibility - we're not taking the website for granted. We're scared, in fact. Because if I invest all this money, do all this work on the TV side for so many years - and then the website is not up to standard, it means we're messing up the brand. So we're scared - but, we're doing our best, and we're learning," he says.
This lack of complacency should mean that MBC is in no immediate danger of letting down its extensive brand just yet.