By Lubna Hamdan
Social media stars from the Arab world explain what it takes to make a name for yourself, one post at a time
"In ten years, blogging will be better than television, magazines and billboards,” says social media blogger and influencer Hamid Fadaei.
While that may seem like a big statement to make for someone who is 28, the Iranian-born model, athlete and photographer is likely making twice as much money as a television presenter, reporter or model. In fact, some influencers earn as much as $10,000 per social media post.
Yet Fadaei, who has 320,000 Instagram followers, is not nearly as big as some. Mega-blogger turned businesswoman Huda Kattan has 19 million followers on Instagram, while nearly 6 million people follow beauty magnate Joelle Mardinian.
A survey in 2016 by market research firm YouGov found 71 percent of UAE residents aged 18-40 refer to social influencers and bloggers before purchasing beauty, fashion and food products or before booking services.
It showed 68 percent of residents look to online reviews before deciding where to eat out, while 63 percent said they refer to influencers’ recommendations before buying fashion and beauty products.
Fadaei’s statement, therefore, may not be too far-fetched.
With internet penetration in the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia significantly rising from 2013 to 2016, according to a recent Media Use in the Middle East survey by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) and Doha Film Institute (DFI), the opportunity for bloggers and influencers to grow is larger than ever. Internet usage among GCC nationals has never been higher: 93 percent amongst 18 to 24-year-olds; 85 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds; 72 percent of 35 to 44-year-olds; and 39 percent of respondents 45 years and older.
Another reason Fadaei is betting on blogging is because smartphone ownership follows internet penetration in the GCC, where nine out of 10 nationals use at least one smartphone.
“People like to see everything on their phones, because it’s so easy and it’ll take you two seconds to find anything,” says Fadaei, who often collaborates with fellow Iranian blogger Elnaz Golrokh.
“I think in 10 years’ time, blogging will be better than television. You have television on your phone right now. You have Instagram live. It’s live TV, without any difference. You have a camera and everybody can see it and it’s so easy to use and access. You can do it through your phone without spending any money, without using any studio, without having any budget, any lights; just your phone. So easy and so cheap, but such a huge platform,” he says.
Despite sharing a passion for social media, the duo perceive it as a gateway rather than a profession, calling it a “door to a lot of opportunities”.
“I’m a makeup artist. That’s my main profession,” says Golrokh, whose Instagram account has almost a million followers. “I have a lot of clients and I work in a beauty salon in Dubai Marina. I started blogging about makeup two years ago. But, of course, I have other jobs. [Blogging] is not my only source of income.”
In the next six months, the blogger and beauty influencer expects to launch her own false eyelash and lipstick lines, while Fadaei plans to expand his already existing women’s clothing brand in Iran to Dubai. Though he agrees it is difficult to make blogging his main profession, he says it gave him insight into marketing and has helped expand his modelling, photography and retail careers.
“You can advertise yourself through blogging; make yourself a brand. You can understand how a lot of the big brands work. By blogging, you are a student and you learn how to market yourself every day. It’s not just blogging. It’s a big business,” he says.
It is not unusual for bloggers and influencers to branch out to retail products built upon their brand. For instance, blogger Huda Kattan famously launched a beauty brand that quickly became a top selling cosmetics line throughout the GCC in retail giant Sephora.
Today, Dubai is working to allow business activities on social networking sites, with the Dubai Department of Economic Development (DED) having recently launched a new e-Trader licence to allow Emiratis and GCC citizens in the city to sell on the platforms. The DED’s Business Registration and Licensing (BRL) sector said the initiative is part of enhancing transparency and regulating the practice of offering products and services on social media. It expects nearly 3,000 e-Traders to be licensed in Dubai in 2017.
If applied to expats, such regulations could further aid the expanding pool of bloggers looking to launch similar Kattan-inspired success stories. But some have already dived into the market. One such Dubai-based blogger is Zeynab El-helw, founder of the Fashion Pirate online clothing store.
During a stint in marketing with Christian Dior, El-helw pursued a once-ignored fashion career by starting a blog. Originally a fashion designer, she began garnering enough attention on Instagram to reach the point where she could open a store. But that was not what she had in mind when she began blogging.
“I had no idea [blogging] could turn into a source of income. It was a mere hobby opening Instagram/blog, not understanding the strength of these platforms that lay ahead,” El-helw says. “People were interested in my outfits and wanted to know and see more, so that's exactly what I did. I launched the blog and focused on a more regular approach to my Instagram channel, linking them together. I eventually opened an e-commerce platform, which consists of an online one-stop shop for items I sell that I curate with other brands or create with partners. It started when I was receiving a lot of items from brands that I liked and offered the opportunity to sell online and during pop-up events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and London, such as Fashion Forward,” says El-helw, adding that blogging is “absolutely” a major source of income now, including the hosting of events and campaign collaborations with brands that come with it.
And while blogging has undoubtedly become a line of work all on its own, the ones who made it to the top insist the best way to go about the business is to leave the business part behind.
Twenty-one-year-old YouTube blogger Hayla Ghazal began her channel as a means of preparing for a career as a TV presenter. Due to the conservative nature of Ghazal’s Syrian background, she opted for what seemed like a safer option — YouTube.
“Because of the society we live in, not a lot of people like the working environment for females in media, so YouTube was the alternative for me, where I was able to present content, but in a more controlled environment, which is my home,” she says.
Things started to kick off for Ghazal thanks to a lack of female YouTube creators in the MENA region. Her online blogging even led to her appointment as a change ambassador as part of a collaboration with the United Nations (UN) and YouTube for gender equality. Yet regardless of her current success, which comes in the form of 3.1 million subscribers on YouTube and 1.2 million on Instagram and endless brand collaborations, Ghazal insists she did not dive in for the money.
“The money came but it doesn’t come quickly when it comes to social media,” Ghazal says. “You need to build yourself first, build your account, and that takes a lot of time. So if you’re going in with the objective to get money, you’ll be disappointed. And a lot of people go in for that and they leave in a couple of months. They see [the money] not rolling in as fast as they expect.
"At the end of the day, it is a business. [But] I think people should start this as a side business first because it is a bumpy ride. You need to learn what people like, and what people like changes all the time. It can change in a second. It’s tough for you to open an office and say ‘that’s it, this is what I’m going to do’, if you still haven’t experienced it.
“You need to try it for a long time, change your content a lot, be very flexible with your personality and content. You have to go with the content people want, because not everyone is going to like what you want. In the beginning, you need to do what everyone likes. When you’ve built that empire, you can do what you like,” she says.
Despite abundance in brand collaborations, Ghazal says social media is not her only source of income.
“I have the shop Hayla Couture, [for bridal and evening wear]. My plan is to expand as a brand, and not just be an online talent. So I’m looking at different opportunities, not just being stuck to YouTube itself. I started managing all my [social media] accounts seriously. And the next step is booming offline, branching out as a brand name,” she says.
John A C Marques, a Portuguese blogger and luxury consultant for such brands as car manufacturer W Motors, agrees that the right approach to begin blogging is sans business.
“My advice to someone trying to become an influencer is to select something they love and explore it: do research, be creative and don’t give up easily. Start it as a hobby and grow it from there. It might take a while to get noticed, but that’s the time for you to practice, make mistakes and develop your own style that will make you stand out from the crowd,” he says.
Marques, who has 27,100 followers on Instagram, says the photo-sharing app is the leading platform when it comes to engaging with an audience and growing organically by generating relevant content.
And the numbers seem to be on his side. Last year, Instagram overtook Twitter in the UAE and Saudi Arabia as its use increased 24 percent between 2013 and 2016. Its users grew from 38 percent in the UAE to 60 percent. Usage in Saudi Arabia also rose, from 57 percent to 82 percent, according to a survey by NU-Q.
Qatari blogger Abdulla Al Abdulla agrees with Marques, but says event coverage and hosting, as well as social posts on Instagram, are equally important when it comes to generating maximum reach and income.
Al Abdulla, who left a law career for a future in blogging and influencing, says maintaining transparency with followers is just as important.
“I would never post about a product that I haven’t personally tried or believe in. At the end of the day, it is a business and all these brands are paying us to promote certain products, but unless I believe in it, I don’t want to be putting my name to something that I don’t believe works. It’s difficult because I’m a specific person and I wouldn’t want to promote something I don’t believe in,” Al Abdulla says.
But the most difficult aspect for bloggers and influencers alike is the fact they cannot log off.
Yousef Al Sudais of Saudi Arabia started sharing his passion for travelling before gathering thousands of followers, which inspired him to take on influencing as a full time job — something he did not expect would be more difficult than a traditional nine-to-five career.
“It’s a 24-hour job, seven days a week. There is no off day. I can’t be offline. I can’t just switch off my phone and I can’t go to some place and just disappear. I have to be online, [posting], every day. When I see my followers, I have to smile, greet them and talk… to them no matter if I am sad or tired. This is the big challenge, because it’s stress every day,” he says.
Yet Al Sudais insists he is used to the pressure after several years in the business. With 93,000 followers on Instagram, the 29-year-old admits the future of blogging and influencing is unknown. But he is “in the game now”, he says, and hopes to ride this new career as far as it will take him.
Like most social media enthusiasts, Al Sudais believes in the business of blogging and influencing. Looking at where both are headed, one cannot deny there is little reason not to have faith in the future.