Many global brands find emerging markets such as the Middle East and North Africa a bit of a ‘black box’ in terms of understanding how consumers’ online perceptions and expectations of them differ from those in markets where they have been operating for many years.

Some excellent studies have been undertaken about social media usage in the MENA region, but many of them tend to dwell on the fact that social media users are much more likely to share their views on politics and community related matters than users in other countries. Whilst this is fascinating in itself, it casts very little light on how MENA consumers talk online about brands.

Social Media in the Mid East

The sheer cultural diversity of the MENA region adds to this feeling of “not knowing what we don’t know”.
Much of this comes from the dearth of social media monitoring, engagement and analytics tools offering Arabic functionality and coverage, compared to the huge array of these tools available in English language speaking countries. It’s led many brands to take a ‘safe’ route of building Facebook Pages and seeking Fans and Likes, and means that in terms of advanced uses of social media monitoring and engagement, the MENA region is currently around 2 years behind the USA (see the diagram below). However, as the sudden and rapid take-off of Twitter usage in the region last year shows (Arabic’s now the fastest growing language on Twitter), it’s unlikely to take brands anywhere near as long as two years to start using social media more strategically: all they need is for the tools to catch up.



Consumers are already embracing the opportunities offered by the social web to share opinions, connect with like-minded people, research purchases and create communities. Studies show that 88% of the Middle Eastern population who are online use social networking sites daily, and Dubai recently emerged as the world’s 20th leading city in terms of Facebook penetration.

However, the region is so culturally diverse, that listening properly to consumer conversations in order to understand where people are talking online, about what, and the language and terminology they are using, becomes vital for better informing product development and marketing localisation strategies.

Many marketing practitioners in the region know instinctively that consumer preferences vary widely between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq, but they have very few tools at their disposal to measure the differences in online behaviour.

Unanswered questions include whether Twitter really is the only important place on the web where people talk about brands in Arabic or whether forums actually dominate the Arabic online world, but their influence is hidden because most Western-centric monitoring tools don’t crawl them. The importance of sites such as Youtube, Pinterest and Instagram and the influence of bloggers is also subject to debate. As are the demographics of consumers talking about particular brands or topics in each country and what share of the conversation each brand has.

The only way to effectively answer these questions is to use tools capable of providing accurate quantitative and qualitative insights to find out the story behind the numbers.

It took Twitter 6 years to be able to cater for left-to-right languages, but that challenge is nothing compared to the difficulties associated with developing Arabic Natural Language Processing and Automated Sentiment capabilities within monitoring tools. Without this, monitoring and analysis will remain a labour-intensive and unscalable process.


User generated web content is a cluttered mix of Modern Standard Arabic, lahjaa (Colloquial Arabic, complete with regional variations), and latinate characters, including the use of numbers as substitutes for letters (for example, Ain ع looks like an inverted 3, so 3 is often used when chatting on the Web using latinate characters). In addition, slang words tend to be very varied and country-specific: for example, the word ‘cute’ is pronounced as brtish (“كيوت”) in Egypt, but mlih in Algeria, zwin in Morocco, and fino (or fin) in Tunisia.

At Synthesio, we’ve found the only way to ‘teach’ our computers whether clusters of words are positive or negative in Arabic, is to constantly crowd-source updates to our slang lexicon. Web users located in each country are asked what words they use to describe different things. We then teach our software to understand the differences depending on where a piece of content is geo-located.

Using Automated Sentiment Analysis to ‘break the back’ of analysis on big data sets and provide a sentiment barometer around topics and brands can provide an excellent springboard for more hands-on and accurate analysis of a sample.
The result of this analysis can be actionable insights which optimise decision making across a business – whether it is the development of a new product, providing the creative spark for a new advertising campaign, or a better way to measure the impact of marketing against pre-agreed KPIs.

There are numerous examples of this type of monitoring and analysis in the Middle East resulting in changes to business practices. Recently, social media monitoring helped a major pharmaceutical brand better understand the experience of diabetes patients. This led to a refresh of its educational and product packaging materials in the region to address areas of patient confusion.

One of the world’s biggest beauty brands sped up the development and release of a wider skin-tone range for its grounding-breaking BB Cream on the back of an analysis of customer sentiment online.

A global babycare brand has also been able to successfully identify influential mums – not just those who are active bloggers or have huge followings on Twitter – but those who are highly engaged in forums such as – to invite them to become members of a special advisory board helping the brand to better meet the needs of mothers in the region.


These are just a few ways companies are starting to use social media monitoring to improve their offering in the Middle East. The complexity of the social media scene provides companies with a great opportunity to gain an edge by adding social intelligence to their marketing armoury. By investing in quality social media monitoring and analysis tools, businesses can get closer to the real voice of their customers, and discover insights into their brand or products which can manifestly improve how they do business.