BEIRUT: Think back to 2007.
A young U.S. Senator, named Barack Obama, has just announced his candidacy for president; later that year, Apple released their first iPhone.
For many it sounds like it wasn’t long ago; yet, in technology terms, it’s almost an eternity – digital taxi and hotel sharing companies hadn’t existed yet; the first generation of social media platforms had just been hitting the mainstream.
It’s only been 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee made the World Wide Web available to the public; during that time, the Internet had become an integral part of everyday life for most of the world’s population.
The present time marks a momentous milestone in all things digital, with several studies revealing that more than half of the world’s population now uses the Internet. In fact, according to a study done by Canada-based HootSuite, a social media managing platform, a 10 percent year-on-year (YoY) growth of Internet users was realized, which equates to almost 354 million people.
“The pace of change was a key story in last year’s report, but considering that global Internet penetration has now surpassed the 50 percent mark, we were surprised by how much the rate of change continued to accelerate over the past 12 months,” the report said.
Narrowing the scope to the Middle East, the region claimed the top spot in 2017’s growth rankings, with all key indicators showing impressive growth and future expansion, according to the study.
Internet users are up 15 percent YoY, with the regional total rapidly approaching the 150 million mark.
“Social media use has grown a staggering 47 percent in the past 12 months, with mobile social media up 44 percent, while penetration for both key social indicators remains below 40 percent. So, there’s plenty of room for more impressive growth next year,” the report read.
A decade ago, for example, many companies placed their primary focus on data mining, search technology, and virtual collaboration. However, in recent times, executives are directing their energy toward artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
According to a study done by the Harvard Business Review, companies previously lacked a mobile strategy, let alone a mobile presence for engaging with their customers or for helping employees collaborate.
“Companies had not yet turned en masse to leverage social media platforms, such as Facebook, to advance their business goals. Consumer technology and its potential went largely ignored in the enterprise,” the study said.
Even the word “digital,” which was synonymous with IT, now means something completely different. Nowadays, a company’s digital strategy practically drives the roadmap and goals of many departments, from marketing to sales to HR.
“Digital marketing is currently the second largest method of advertising in the world. The industry in the MENA region is catching up and growing at a tremendous speed of 50 percent yearly,” Nemr Nicolas Badine, co-founder of Eastline Marketing, one of the first independent digital marketing agencies in Lebanon, told Annahar.
Badine highlighted that with high Internet and mobile penetration; and a plethora of targeting options available, companies are constantly increasing their digital budgets and diversifying their digital expenditures across relevant channels.
Marc Dfouni, another co-founder of the Beirut-based agency, noted that the advent of social media initially sparked this change, while its evolution and the transformation in consumer behavior have further driven this metamorphosis.
“Today storytelling, content, and interaction create an impact; hence, content marketing initiatives are the way forward,” Dfouni added while defining digital marketing to be the practice of delivering a company’s message to the most accurate target audience, through electronic means using a wide array of technology platforms.
According to the study by HootSuite, social media use surged by more than 20 percent this year, with nearly 2.8 billion people around the world currently using these platforms, at least once a month, 91 percent of them doing so via mobile devices.
Focusing the lens toward the Middle East, the region scored a mere 38 percent social media penetration; with the highest countries being Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“It may take a little longer for the Middle East to pass the halfway mark,” the report read.
Badine explained that AdTech has evolved considerably in the last few years, with “the advent of global data management platforms, advertisers are now able to target audiences by interest, lifestyle, demographics, intent to purchase, and social and search behavior.”
He also noted that programmatic media buying is yielding a much higher performance and return on ads spending than conventional style of mass marketing.
In terms of Lebanon, Dfouni considers that regardless of the country’s weak digital scene, companies that start incorporating digital into their business would allow them to reap its fruit later down the road.
“Early adopters will have less competition in the beginning and improved brand loyalty, leading to a greater and more reliable revenue stream,” Dfouni told Annahar, considering that, as customers, come to expect their access to goods and services to be facilitated in this transformational era; then going digital is a must.
Early-adopting businesses will be better attuned and at ease with digital, while late-adopting competitors will fight to catch up, according to Dfouni.
From an outside perspective, companies and customers are responding more to digital marketing in comparison to old-fashioned mass media; since “with the current economic downturn, businesses are looking for more cost-effective ways to advertise, and digital is becoming the channel of choice since it’s measurable, interactive, and affordable,” Badine said.
Eastline Marketing is big on turning companies and brands into content publishers, because with the transformation of the media landscape, the fragmentation and proliferation of digital and social channels, companies now more than ever, need to engage with consumers in more and more meaningful ways, according to Badine.
“In such an environment, businesses are going into content publishing; however, a handful of brands have been successful at it, mainly due to the lack of strategic vision, talent, process, and technical infrastructure required to support the ongoing creation of effective content,” he added.
Many would expect that today’s companies have a much better Digital IQ than they did way back in 2007; however, the numbers prove otherwise.
According to a survey done by UK-based auditing firm PwC, which polled 2,216 executives at companies with annual revenue of more than $500 million, found only 52 percent of executives rated their digital IQ as strong.
“That said, companies and executives have improved at embracing digital transformation. CEOs recognize how much their digital strategy influences business goals, since back in 2007, only 40 percent of CIOs were involved in strategic planning; now they’re regarded as some of the most integral members of the C-Suite,” the survey said.
But actions speak louder than words; and despite this pivot in the recognition of the importance of digital, the average investment in emerging technologies grew just one percent as a percent of total technology spending over the 10-year period, according to PwC.
“So while management recognizes the importance of the digital transformation, technology has also accelerated at a breakneck speed, making it more difficult for businesses to keep up with the curve, much less stay ahead of it,” it added.
But they are trying.
Senior leaders realize what the stakes are. The CEOs who aren’t prioritizing digital are either changing their tune or being phased out: just 33 percent of executives in PwC's 2007 survey said their CEO was a champion for digital; that number has doubled to more than 68 percent today, the report highlighted.
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