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05 December 2016Last updated
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Features | The big story

In the UAE: The rise and rise of social media influencers

One fashion blogger has close to 100K followers. Another has over 526K followers on Instagram. Social media influencers are fast shaping the way consumers spend their money and time in the region, says Shamoly Khera

Shamoly Khera
30 Oct 2016 | 12:07 pm
  • Source:Shutterstock

Latifa Al Shamsi is an avid food lover, not unlike many of us. Comfortably ensconced in a high-end restaurant in Dubai, the 29-year-old tastes the main course, relishes it, and then fishes out her smartphone to take a picture of the dish.

Head bent over her phone, she then quickly types out a few lines about the restaurant’s ambience, the flavour of the dish, and a comment on how she feels, before hitting the share button on her blog.

In just a few moments, more than 250,000 of her followers will be viewing the post, liking, sharing and commenting on it.

If Latifa’s comment about the food and ambience are positive, over the course of the week and perhaps the month, the restaurant could see a huge increase in footfall.

Welcome to the world of social media influencers – the online moguls who are changing the way consumers spend their money and time. ‘Consumers trust recommendations from a third party more often than a brand itself. So when an influencer recommends a product, it [is perceived as] trustworthy,’ says digital marketing manager Ivana Tillich from This Is Crowd, a Dubai-based creative communications agency.

Influencer marketing may be a trend now, but it’s not new. Brands have been using celebs, athletes and leaders for years to promote their products and services.

‘We believe brands started to accept the rise of social media some three years ago, and that was the beginning of a new generation of influencers,’ says Ivana. ‘They realised these influencers had the power to overshadow celebrities due to their increasing online fame and credibility.’

The term social media influencer today refers to a person who has a strong digital presence, a strong voice and is viewed as a reliable source. That we might be spending more time in the virtual world than in reality is no longer a surprise. The quality time that we do spend in the real world is now majorly being influenced by the info we pick online, by what our peers say, where our favourite people hangout… According to experts, we are increasingly yet very subconsciously overpowered by a domineering social media influence.

According to a recent study by a social media agency in Dubai, people at work spend at least an hour surfing social media, picking up latest information and browsing through peer history and whereabouts. The social media scene itself is buzzing with life, albeit virtual and evolving by the minute. While Facebook adds about 500,000 new users everyday (six new profiles every second to be precise), Instagram reports 400 million monthly active users.

All this means getting a reasonable number of clicks online is crucial to be able to stand out from the clutter. And it is here that the social media influencers play a role.

According to a survey conducted by BPG Cohn & Wolfe in tandem with YouGov, beauty, fashion and food are areas where UAE residents are ‘most likely to turn to social media influencers for recommendations’. And 63 per cent of those polled admitted that they are more likely to buy fashion or beauty products based on what these influencers might say.

That’s not all. A whopping 68 per cent of those polled admitted that their eating out decisions are prompted by online recommendations or reviews.

According to a report by Forrester Research, 92 per cent of people trust recommendations from individuals they find influential (even if they don’t know them personally) over brands.

More than 80 per cent – 84 to be exact – consumers become buyers based on reviews from trusted sources.

Not surprisingly, food is not the only area where influencers are today becoming a force to reckon with. Fashion, beauty, health, art, design… you name it and there are social media influencers who are fast becoming popular, gathering followers by the thousands.

Laeeq Ali from the Dubai-based advertising agency Origami Creative says: ‘The digital era has allowed a new realm of influencers and it is evolving.’

This new breed are pretty much celebrity personalities of the internet, with their own popularity and reach – each standing on their own unique voice and persona.

Several personalities in the UAE have followed suit and in a span of months or few years managed to gather a genuine fan following – fans who actually listen to what they have to say. Max Stanton, 28, also knows as Max of Arabia is one of them. He boasts of over 526,000 followers on Instagram.

Then there’s Tala Samman, a fashion, lifestyle and travel blogger who set up her account in 2008 and already has over 99.9K followers on her blog Myfashdiary.com.

According to experts, one reason consumers appear to be moved by a social media influencer is because he/she is seen to ‘humanise’ a brand. The influencer is not just a model on a billboard or a movie star who is being paid to advertise the product or service. But while social media influencers too are paid, the interaction is much more subtle and seemingly guided by an intelligent and informed decision.

So are influencers paid for all that they post? Tala Samman sidesteps the questions: ‘Let’s just say 99.9 per cent of what’s out there is not sponsored,’ she says.

Experts in the field, however, say that a post by a social media influencer could cost anything in the range of Dh1,500 to Dh5,000 per post, depending on the reach and popularity in the social media.

Almost all bloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers belong to the millennial generation who are conscious about their social image. Thus, they usually refrain from endorsing products that do not resonate with that image. They also are seen to possess a social conscience, which in the long run favours the brand, the consumers and the influencers themselves. Trust clearly forms a huge part of being a social media influencer.

That they are resonating with the millenials is clear from the fact that many advertisers are now including influencers in the media buying mix. ‘Companies now have to take these online influencers seriously and listen to what they have to say and find creative and engaging ways to work with them to tell their story and reach customers in that vital 18-40 demographic,’ said Taghreed Oraibi, director – consumer practice at BPG Cohn & Wolfe PR.

Today, it is not uncommon to see influencers at product and campaign launches.

City Walk, the upmarket mixed-use destination in Dubai, recently had a who’s who of influencers spotlighting its Dubai Summer Surprises campaign. Among those who were on social media at the venue were Bin Baz (1.8 million followers), Saleh Al Braik (over 77,000 followers) and Anas Bukhash (48,000-plus followers).

‘Influencers are being used across every industry,’ Maurice Hamilton, global CEO of The SMC Group, which specialises in celebrity and digital influencer endorsements, told Gulf News earlier this year. ‘Fashion is one of the more popular, but F&B, travel and consumer electronics are just a handful of the categories we use influencers in.’

Of course, there might be the occasional pessimists who may declare this phenomenon as a passing trend. But is it one? ‘Technology is here to stay, hence it is necessary to awe your consumers through that,’ feels Laeeq. Maurice strongly agrees with this view. ‘Brands have recognised this category and it is here to stay.’

This is what social media influencers nourish – a virtual audience-brand relationship, before the real-life interaction has even begun. What we are really growing in the wombs of social media is our own brand advocate. For the millenials to take you seriously, the conversation should have a meaning and purpose – they wouldn’t put their money where their heart isn’t.

For a generation that reads before traveling, researches before eating, asks before buying – social media influencers are here to make space, in the real, non-digital place of their hearts.

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Name: Tala Samman

Claim to fame: Myfashdiary.com, a fashion, lifestyle and travel blog.

Where from: I’m originally Syrian, born in the US – Chicago – and grew up in Dubai.

Account started in: 2008

Number of followers: 99.9K

When did you start your Instagram account?

Myfashdiary.com was launched eight years ago, and my Instagram, when it joined the social media scene a couple of years ago.

Was the plan to be a social media influencer from the start?

Of course it wasn’t, and I don’t think that should be anyone’s plan. If your passion takes you there by luck, use the platform in ways to add to our community.

How long did it take for your following to really pick-up?

I was very lucky to get press around my blog when I first started, so possibly two months after starting my site.

What is your most favourite part of being an SMI?

The experiences and opportunities that I get to experience are priceless.

What is the worst?

The fact that some people think it’s all fun, and not much work. I work really hard.

What were you working as before you started running your Instagram account dedicatedly?

My Instagram isn’t my full-time job. I was a fashion student at the London College of Fashion when I started my site, then joined a magazine as fashion editor before resigning.

Is it challenging to create content on a regular basis?

Of course it is – once something is published, it’s on the internet forever. I also want to make sure anything I publish is relevant info to my readers – in the hope they can pick up tips, learn something new.

Do you charge for your posts?

Let’s just say 99.9 per cent of what’s out there is not sponsored.

Who generally captures your photos for you, when you need to be in the frame?

Anyone that is around! My sister, my dad, my mum or a housekeeper.

Can being a social media influencer alone be financially sustainable?

Definitely not; you need to be doing more than just running an Instagram account. Just because someone has made some money over a span of a few months does not mean it’s sustainable.

What is your long-term vision with myfashdiary.com and your Instagram account/online identity?

I always take the site to the next level, to bring better and richer content to my readers. I’m also working on a few things, and focusing on my music (I DJ on the side).

Advise to other aspiring SMIs?

I’d say, dream of doing more than running an Instagram account. I’ve seen young girls at university who are dreaming of becoming social media influencers. I hate to say it, but the online industry moves so fast. Most of the influencers on Instagram won’t be there when the next platform pops up.

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Name: Max Stanton

Claim to fame: Max of Arabia (Instagram account)

Where from: American father and English mother, but have lived in Botswana, Zaire, Yemen, the US and UK, and perhaps most importantly, have lived in the UAE since 2007

Account started in: 2012

Number of followers: 527K

What motivated you to start this account?

For the same reason as most people did at that time. I was pretty much just excited to share things I like, adventures, and my love for where I live and travel.

Did you plan to be a social media influencer?

Never. To be honest I find it strange that people see it as a goal. I am focused more on a message than on a format, so I think I would have been doing the same things and focusing on the same things with or without followers.

How long did it take for your following to really pick-up?

The initial growth was pretty meteoric, gaining more than a thousand followers a day for over a year in 2014-2015.

What is the favourite part of being a SMI?

Getting to know people I wouldn’t normally meet and some of the kindness that is shown to me by complete strangers.

The worst?

The lack of privacy that comes with the territory.

What were you working as before you became Max Of Arabia?

I was working in market research and internal consulting at a multinational in Dubai. I currently am working on launching two brands that build upon what I am most passionate about.

Is being a social media influencer alone financially sustainable?

For some people yes, but in most cases it isn’t easy money. Everyone reads the headlines and hears the numbers that are thrown around, but most people don’t fully understand the work it entails. Some people in the industry have decided to milk it for all it is worth and get as much money as possible as fast as possible.

I have partnered with a PR agency to ensure that long-term strategy is prioritised over short-term financial gains.

What is your long-term vision with Max Of Arabia?

I want to continue to travel the world, meeting people and sharing my experiences in a way that is fun and I feel breaks barriers between East and West. There are a lot of misunderstandings and stereotypes that are negative and couldn’t be farther from the truth, so if I can do anything to help change that, I’ll be happy.

What advice would you give to aspiring social media influencers?

Be yourself, never sell out in any way, and do what you enjoy. At the end of the day no amount of followers can replace your self-respect or the important people in your life. If are serious about this path, then I would advise you to seek a professional agency like I did to ensure you’re on the right path. And ignore the negativity. Take the good and brush off the bad, because in the end you are what you choose to be, and happiness is a choice worth making.

Shamoly Khera

Shamoly Khera