DUBAI -- For its most recent advertising push, the Saudi Arabian telecommunications giant Mobily did not turn to the street or television to engage with customers. Mobily paid to promote itself on Twitter.
The use of social media exploded during the Arab Spring as people turned to cyberspace to express themselves. On the back of that, social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, have moved into the region commercially, setting up offices to sell advertising products to companies like Mobily, which has over 200,000 Twitter followers, to capitalize on the growing audience.
"In Saudi, social media gets everyone talking to everyone, which is something we just don't have in the streets here," said Muna AbuSulayman, a Saudi development consultant and formerly a popular television talk show host, who has over 100,000 followers on Twitter.
"It's a unique opportunity that lets people have conversations in a boundary-less way that wasn't possible before," Ms. AbuSulayman said. "In addition to promoting social and political discussion, it carries a powerful economic incentive for businesses, too."
The rise of social media in the Arab world is changing the game for regional advertisers, pushing growth in digital advertising in a part of the world where traditional methods like television and print advertising have so far remained dominant.
Digital advertising in the Middle East and North Africa accounts for only about 4 percent of the region's total advertising spending, at a value of $200 million, according to the most recent available estimate, but it has become the fastest-growing media platform in the region, said a study by the business services firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, published in 2011. Deloitte's Arab Media Outlook projected growth in digital advertising spending in the region of 35 percent a year over the next three years, generating about $580 million across the region by 2015.
"The fact is that consumers are online, so brands need to be online," said Reda Raad, chief operating officer of TBWA\Raad, the Middle East arm of the global advertising agency TWBA. "The use of digital channels has continued to increase dramatically after the Arab Spring and advertising on social media has become a highly targeted, cost-efficient way of communicating with consumers."
Major brands, including Pepsi Arabia, are taking note. Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab world, holding 38 percent of the region's two million users, according to a report by the Dubai School of Government's Arab Social Media Report released in June. In the past year alone, the number of Twitter users in the Arab world tripled, according to Shailesh Rao, Twitter's vice president for international operations.
Thanks to the platform's popularity in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Arabic is now the fastest-growing language on the Twitter platform.
"We prioritized a list of regions where we wanted to have a business presence, and the Mideast rises toward the top because the region's user base is one of the fastest-growing in the world," Mr. Rao said during an interview. "This represents a huge opportunity for brands looking for a large audience that is rapidly growing."
Twitter has formed a partnership with the Egyptian digital advertising company Connect Ads to market and sell advertising services across the Middle East and North Africa region. Connect Ads will offer brand managers and marketers Twitter's products, which include promoted tweets, promoted accounts and promoted trends.
Through these, a brand can reach broad Twitter audiences or more narrowly defined geographic or demographic segments. They can even target users of specific smartphone brands, like iPhones. Brands that have signed up so far include Mobily, Pepsi Arabia, the resort company Atlantis The Palm, and the events portal Dubai Calendar.
"Companies can learn a few things about their customers by optimizing for country and targeting those with specific interests," said Mohamed El Mehairy, managing director of Connect Ads.
"They can probably uncover this type of information through market research," he added, but it would come "at a higher expense and with more time and effort."
For Facebook, the number of Arab users nearly tripled in two years, to 45 million in June 2012 from 16 million in June 2010, according to a report on Arab social media by the Dubai School of Government. Facebook began commercial operations in the region in May, when it opened an office in Dubai.
Similarly, LinkedIn, a professional social networking and job search site with five million Arab users, started advertising services in the Middle East in October, after identifying the region as one of its fastest-growing. The site sees tremendous potential in the region's combination of rising Internet use, one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, and a characteristically young demography with 40 percent of the region's 380 million population under 30 years old, according to a report by Booz & Co.
"Nearly 90 percent of Internet users are on social media, and add to that the economic stability in the Gulf and young demographic, and you can see why it was important for our business to have a presence in the region," said Ali Matar, head of talent solutions at LinkedIn in Dubai.
The social media networks are aggressively moving into smartphone marketing in the region as well, where mobile penetration rates are as high as 190 percent in Saudi Arabia -- meaning, on average, nearly everybody has two phones -- according to a research report by a Madar Research and Development team on technology adoption. Global data from Google show that mobile ads are noticed by 93 percent of smartphone users, 39 percent of whom follow up by making purchases online.
With Pepsi Arabia focusing on adding to its 1.6 million "likes" on Facebook and Mobily pushing to add to its 200,000 Twitter followers, the introduction of commercial operations by the social media networks aims to monetize the interest for themselves and the brands.
"We let the brands have a conversation with the relevant audience," said Mr. Rao, of Twitter. "Our products allow them to reach a broader, more specific audience -- that's the key."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.