By June 1 this year, anyone wanting to post promotional or advertising material on a website or social media channel will need a license. At last week's ITP Live Influencer Summit, we asked the main players in the sector what the new regulations mean for social influencer marketing in the UAE
Fiona Robertson, senior associate at Al Tamimi & Company, used the ITP Live Summit to explain what the new law is, who it affects and why it shouldn’t really be called a social influencer law.
The new law proposed by the National Media Council was formulated with the idea of trying to regulate the online publishing industry. It isn’t directed solely at influencers, even if that feels like that’s the effect. The law governs the use of what they call electronic advertising, which they define as “any paid or unpaid form of presentation or promotion of ideas, goods or services by electronic means or network applications”. While there are a lot of big, nasty words in there, I think it’s clear: if you’re paid to promote a brand on social media, you’re pretty much doing that.
For influencers, then, this is the part of the law that really matters. If you are offering paid media advertising services, you must now obtain a license from the NMC. It costs AED15,000 and you have two months to get one. It lasts for 12 months, and all brands are aware you need this, so it’s probably going to become part of a pre-requisite if you are going to undertake social media services for clients.
The law is also very clear when it comes to liability: the account owner is responsible for all the content placed on their account. What that means is that the account holder is responsible for compliance with the media laws, not the brand or the agency that employed them – even if the agency paid for their licence.
There are still some things that need clearing up, though, and we’re trying to clear them up with the NMC right now. One the main ones is whether you also need a trade license in order to get a new media license. One part of the law says “yes”, but another part clearly talks about people instead, so there is still some confusion there.
Laws in place
It is really important for influencers to understand that, in conjunction with the license, existing media laws apply to them and their activity – and they could, if ignored, lead to a license being revoked. So, a 2012 cabinet resolution, which was reinforced in 2017 with much clearer language, stated: all paid advertising material must be explicitly and clearly stated as paid advertising material.
I don’t think there is any ambiguity about that. It doesn’t say “use hashtag-ad”, but if you are putting up content that someone has paid you for, you should be identifying it as such. If you’re not, you’re in breach of that cabinet decision – and the National Media Council can come after you. So that is something that influencers will really have to think about when it comes to differentiating between editorial comment and advertising content.
It’s also important to note that the 1981 decree on publications and publishing also applies. People tend to ignore this as they feel it only relates to newspapers and magazines, but the government confirmed a few years ago that it covers everything online, too.
Then there are the NMC regulations on advertising, particularly when it comes to promoting products and services in the healthcare industry, a whole series of laws from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which is the body that can shut down a website or ban content, and the cybercrime laws, which can lead to fines, jail or even deportation for transgressions.
While it might sound scary, the new framework will add certainty. The brands know exactly what they have to do and how they have to interact with the influencers. The influencers know what they have to do in order to receive payment.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s about the consumer of the content. They can know that the people promoting products on their feed are legitimate. And that’s a welcome step.
Filip Jabbour, regional CEO of GroupM, the world’s largest media advertising company, assesses the gradual rise of influencer marketing as traditional advertising activities fall by the wayside.
On measurability: The reality is that to be an influencer, you have to actually influence people to act – and unless you can measure that, you aren’t an influencer, it’s just a label. Everything we do as a company needs to drive value and ROI to our clients. You go way back to when the social space first developed and all you had were likes. And this evolved into performance-based media where we could track how behaviour turns into a download or a test drive or whatever it is. And we need to do the same with influencers. What’s the value of a like or a share from an influencer? How much should they be paid? Is a post from one influencer worth as much as a show such as Carpool Karaoke, just to pick one random example?
On “native” content: Ultimately, it is all about the content. Consumers aren’t stupid and if an influencer posts a different product every day then it loses its value. And let’s not pretend that this is something entirely new. We’ve always had debates within the publishing industry about what we class as an advertorial – or “native content” as we renamed it. We’ve had debates about the rules and regulations, and conversations about what’s ethical and what’s not ethical to promote. The same questions need to be asked in this new context: is it informative, intelligent and contextually relevant? Or will it blatantly be seen as an ad?
On the term “millennials”: How can you tell me every person under 30 years old can be targeted in the same way? Even the broad perceptions are misleading – according to which study you read, millennials are either self-entitled narcissists or open-minded do-gooders. And the biggest disconnect is this: millennials are supposedly the “Generation Me” demographic, so by definition they can’t all be the same thing. And seeing as we can talk to every person differently as advertisers, labelling everyone as being the same just doesn’t make sense on any level.
On the opportunities ahead: I would call myself a realist rather than a sceptic when we talk about this space – but I do think the opportunities are huge. This region is undergoing a huge period of transformation. The social changes in Saudi Arabia are massive and the influencer market space has an opportunity to really develop as a result. And if we develop the right tools to measure it then it will evolve rapidly.
Roman Atwood used YouTube pranks as a means of finally quitting his factory job. He says working out how to get paid is a key consideration for every influencer.
What was your starting point?
I started filming myself when I was old enough to hold a camera. I had this crazy passion for it even back in school. My teachers would ask what I was going to do and I’d tell them I was going to make videos. Looking back, I must have sounded pretty stupid, but it was embedded in my head. This was my passion.
When did it become a career?
When I graduated high school, I got a job in a factory. And for 12 years that was my life. I was still making videos on Saturdays and Sundays, but there was nowhere to put them until my friends told me to put them on YouTube. I remember getting to 50 views in the first 24 hours and being so excited. In two and a half years, I think I made 58 cents! But it was proof that I could make money. It was when I made a prank video that went viral that my parents told me to quit the factory and focus on it.
You’ve since changed to family-oriented stuff. Why?
A year before pranks died, I knew it was going to happen so I knew I needed to evolve. That’s a huge lesson in social media: you have to evolve constantly. You have to notice trends. You have to see what the next thing is and get in on it first. Family was a new trend and no one was doing that.
How big a part of your channel is branded content?
We’ve been pretty picky when it comes to brands and it’s based on finding brands that we love. We have a lot of viewers who look up to us so we always try our best to find a brand we love so that our viewers will love it too. So, for instance, I love Nissan. I have a GTR and it’s become part of the family, almost become a character in our lives. YouTubers started buying GTRs after that and it’s become a very popular car in that community.
You also use your platform for positive messaging, particularly around the “Smile More” brand.
This is a very personal story. I was going through some troubled times in my life and they were two words I would say to myself constantly to lift me up through the hardest moments. I started to see comments from people saying they loved the phrase and it sort of became a movement and now a brand with a product line. It’s just an uplifting message.
What about the pressures of constantly creating content?
There’s a certain point where you become overwhelmed by trying to create the best possible vlog and you have to take a step back. Now I’m trying something new with a 90-minute long piece with no ad breaks. It will have really high production values, lots of great b-roll. And that 90 minutes will never pay for itself. But finding brands to go inside that 90 minutes is interesting. There’s a lot more room in there. And this is just a guess, but as movies decrease in popularity, long-form videos on the internet might become more popular.
What’s your advice for starting out on YouTube.
When I started, the everyday kid could make a video and make the front page. If you’re doing it for business and money now, then it’s going to be a very long road. You have to be patient, original and consistent.
What the UAE’s social media stars think of the new regulations on paid-for posts
Ola Farahat, fashion and lifestyle blogger
“I think bloggers are now going to have to invest more time on content, especially if we’re showing that our partnerships with brands are paid partnerships. When I do paid partnerships, my followers come back with feedback, asking how much I was paid, or saying the post was ‘just’ a paid partnership. To keep the authenticity, we will have to do things that are more personal and try to share more real-time things, not just ads.”
Mohanad Alwadiya, real estate expert
“I think transparency is good. It’s going to help all parties, the brands, the marketers, even the target audience, the influencers. I’m all for it. I think it’s very important. It’s going to help people. It’s all about survival of the fittest, and the fittest in this sense are the people who are trying to be transparent. I think that if the content is relevant, people won’t mind it. I would compare it to having celebrity endorsements on TV.”
Lowi Sahi, lifestyle YouTuber
“I opened a company last year because my social media career became a real job and I wanted to be legal. So I’m already covered. Brands are not buying our space, they’re not buying our channel or our video. They’re buying our talent. We sit with them in a meeting and we discuss things. It needs a story that is yours, because if it’s not, people will see it. We say no to some brands. That’s why I’m sceptical of the tag #ad, because sometimes, worldwide, it’s already obvious.”
… I’m an overseas-based influencer and I’m promoting a product from an overseas brand in Dubai?
“The law as I understand it says that it applies to influencers who are based in the UAE. You have to be here, and by the way that includes free zones.”
… I’m an influencer based in Dubai but I’m being paid by an overseas entity to promote an overseas product?
“By the letter of the law, yes, even if the content relates to another domain and you are receiving money from another domain. That said, in this case, it might be that you’re not raising your head above the legal parapet to trouble the regulators here. They’d have to notice. The regulators are really only going to be looking at those people whose output is targeted at and is being read by the community here.”
… I have existing celebrity status as a sportsperson or performer and I’m showcasing a product on social media from a long-term sponsor?
“That’s an interesting question. In that case, as a professional in their field, they might well already have a trade license for their business. The social post might be considered as an ancillary activity related to that. It might depend on the case, but they should probably be okay.”
… I upload videos to YouTube, which has inbuilt revenue-generating abilities?
“In a word, no. The whole point of the law is to regulate anyone receiving money to say positive things about a product or service. If you happen to be making money from ad-serving on your site, that’s not the same thing. If your cat becomes an influencer, though, then maybe you’ll need to revisit.”
… I have a license from the NMC and I now want to shoot a video in a public place in Dubai. Do I have to come to the DFTC for additional permits?
“If you’re just there with your phone to vlog your latest series then, no, you won’t need a permit from us. If you have a camera crew, a sound engineer and look like a professional set-up, then yes, you’d need a permit.”