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Mon 22 Oct 2018 12:45 PM

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How to be a #social startup in the UAE

Prominent voices in the world of hashtags and filters join the Arabian Business StartUp Academy to share lessons they have learned, and continue to learn, about making the best of social media when setting up, sustaining and growing a small business in the Middle East

How to be a #social startup in the UAE
The Arabian Business Start Up takes place four times a year, boasting a different theme each time (ITP Images)

As with any industry, social media boasts platforms aimed at various audiences with different wants and needs. Twitter users join the most relevant conversations while Instagrammers compete for the best visual content.

Those on LinkedIn look for professional opportunities whereas Facebook users connect with far away friends and family. But if you’re setting up, sustaining or growing a business, how do you know which platform to use? What should be your social media strategy? Should you have one to begin with?

And if you’re a complete beginner, what do you do with all these social tools?

A panel at the Arabian Business Start Up Academy answers these questions and more with industry experts including Benjamin Ampen, managing director at Twitter MENA and Pakistan, Kamel Al Asmar, director of community and data at Wamda and founder of Nakhwah, Ghassan Talhouk, head of LinkedIn talent solutions in the UAE and Marwan Al Awadhi aka DJ Bliss, artist, social media influencer and founder of Bliss Inc. Entertainment in Dubai.

What is the first step to an effective social media strategy for small businesses?

Benjamin Ampen: Running a small business goes beyond marketing. So when it comes to a multifaceted platform like Twitter, it can help you with marketing, but because it’s an open and public platform – probably the only one out there today – it can also help you get to know your audience. And by audience, I don’t mean just your customers, but also the people who influence your customers.

Benjamin Ampen, managing director, Twitter MENA and Pakistan

That’s important because when you think of a platform like Twitter, it is where you have the most receptive audience such as micro influencers or trendsetters, who will potentially push your brand messages to your audience. When it comes to small businesses, I would say Twitter is the perfect place to simply listen.

If you’re in F&B or entertainment, every day you have millions of conversations about your business. Once you’ve listened to that, take a look at the platform’s tools and how you can use them for your business. And in the case of small businesses, it is for jumping into relevant conversations and constantly connecting with your audiences in that way.

Kamel Al Asmar: Our volunteering and development network Nakhwah became one of Jordan’s top 22 NGOs because it was on social media, despite being a one-employee NGO. What worked well for us was identifying the right channels to use for the type of work we do.

Kamel Al Asmar, director of community and data at Wamda

Our audience on Twitter was corporates and more serious entities, while on Facebook it was the more casual youth who we were targeting for our platform. Instagram, on the other hand, is what I call ‘the happy place’ where you have to be very casual and target your audience with cool visuals.

The same applies to Wamda, because we almost have the same set of audiences; corporates, government, entrepreneurs and the general mass.

Identifying the channels and finding out how to target different audiences was really important, but it is also important to actually speak their language. So for Wamda, 80 percent of our audience on Facebook use Arabic as their primary language.

We realised that later on and had to switch to Arabic to relate to the audience. In a nutshell, we like to act as human beings versus a brand, and know how to speak to them.

What are some of the ways in which small businesses can better use social media platforms? What are they doing that they shouldn’t be doing and vice versa?

Ghassan Talhouk: We’ve seen LinkedIn grow fast in the region when it comes to startups. What we’re seeing is people using the traditional or obvious tools, which are mainly for hiring and creating your brand. So a lot of startups and SMEs are using LinkedIn to build their companies and personal brands.

Ghassan Talhouk, head of LinkedIn talent solutions, UAE

But what we need to work more on is to show people the full power of the platform and other services that we offer, including marketing, learning and B2B sales solutions. That way, they can leverage the full services of LinkedIn and get much higher returns on their investments.

Marwan Al Awadhi: When social media platforms first launched, I tried to jump on all of them as quick as possible. I had my BlackBerry clipped to the side pocket of my trousers, and was forever tweeting away. But it’s not easy trying to keep up with all of them, especially in our line of work, as it’s about being on all of them. Sometimes people get stuck posting on one platform and sharing on the other, but people don’t want you to post a picture on Instagram and share it on Twitter.

They have to be unique. For example, my personal Instagram was really bad at first because I used to just post flyers all the time. All I was doing was telling people where I was playing next. A year ago, I took a step back and changed my strategy, because people don’t want to just see flyers.

So I took a different approach and let people be part of the experience. It’s like when you pick up a magazine, you don’t just look at the ads, you read the articles. But it’s a new learning experience every day; there are new formulas and changing algorithms and trends.

Marwan Al Awadhi, aka DJ Bliss, founder of Bliss Inc. Entertainment

More importantly, the audience changes every day. The new generation moves fast, especially in the music industry. Eminem recently dropped an album and everyone was talking about how he hasn’t come up with a hit album during the last 10 years, and it really boiled down to the fact that if you don’t move with times, you are going to be a dinosaur and get left behind in that era.

Benjamin Ampen: Firstly, the voice you’re going to talk to your customers in is really important. Just like in real life. If there’s a scandal that’s happening, just acknowledge it and be sorry.

With all these public platforms, if you try to hide things, the risk of a backlash is huge. And to be able to talk directly to your audience through a platform like Twitter is fantastic. If you misbehave, use the platform to send your own message to your audience.

You might think that you’re a small business and the message you’re breaking is not important, but it is. Always be in control of your news, no matter how small it is. When we talk to brands, we always say that an angry customer who you address and try to help will more likely be a happy life-long customer than a customer you ignore.

So I get that a small business may be overwhelmed and scared of a social media platform, but you can actually always control your image through it.

How do you stay original in a marketplace where everyone is trying to do the same thing?

Kamel Al Asmar: A social media strategy is not something constant. It actually changes with time. Every day, we see a new product on all social media platforms. Back in the days, Facebook and Twitter were the main trends, and it was Twitter that was very driven with everything that was happening in the Arab Spring.

So when you went on Twitter, you would find political conversations. You would also find them on Facebook, but you would also find people who were completely disconnected with the reality of the Arab Spring. This helped us identify what was happening on Twitter, and the platform’s audience is more serious than what is happening on Facebook.

But things change with time and are led by trends and people. At end of the day, a lot of startups miss the ‘social’ part of social media.

A lot of brands and companies use it as a distribution channel, but it’s not. If you miss the engagement part, you are missing whole part of being on social media. To understand how to engage people on these platforms, you have to start actually engaging with them and see what works for them, then adjust your strategy. These 36 month strategies for social media don’t work.

There are no ‘experts’ on social media. An expert on something that is constantly changing does not exist. To be an expert on that specific point in time, you have to listen to people in that moment and adjust to what they like.

For example, we noticed that people like fame on social media. One of my favourite hotels in Beirut started taking positive reviews they liked on travel websites like TripAdvisor or Booking.com and giving a shoutout on their channels to the people who wrote them. So people started writing more reviews just to get a shout-out and be featured on their timeline.

The hotel probably came up with the idea just to thank people, but it turned out to be a trend, because it was appealing. So you come up with an idea and you test it. Whether it works or not, that’s up to the audience, and not to you.

Ghassan Talhouk: There are two ways of doing things. You see what is working and what people are engaging in and then you perfect it. You can be more relevant than most people and be more informed. That’s the easier way. Or there’s another way which Kamel just gave an example of with the hotel in Beirut. You try something that is relevant but original.

There are so many projects that didn’t see the light because of lack of preparation, where someone else came and launched the same project and succeeded in doing so. We saw many failed projects where someone else picked up an idea and it became a hit. The iPhone is the ultimate example of that.