The latest research from the Middle East by Econsultancy indicates that the digital industry is experiencing rapid growth.

The State of Digital Marketing in the Middle East and North Africa report (supported by shows that on average, 27% of of overall marketing budget is spent on digital, up from 22% since the last report was published 10 months ago in April 2011. 

Overall, 58% of companies are planning to increase their digital marketing in 2012, and of these, 52% plan increases of at least 20%.  

Despite the impressive growth rate, there's still a long way to go, as beyond restricted budgets, company culture, reliance on traditional marketing and the lack of skills are holding back marketers from making the most of the digital opportunities in the region.

In addition, the inability to measure return on investment is thought to be a barrier by 28% of marketers this year, up from 19% in the 2011 survey. 

In an interview with AMEinfo, published earlier this week, Econsultancy's CEO Ashley Friedlein said the digital industry in the Middle East was five years behind the UK and US:

Broadly speaking, the appetite, interest and growth within digital is very buoyant and the percentage of digital spend within a marketing budget has gone up from 22% last year to 27% this year. These are encouraging signs.

That said, I think clearly the market feels like the UK was five or six years ago in terms of the maturity of businesses and agencies. Not many companies have big teams dedicated to digital and a lot of what they're doing is experimental. So it's just a little bit less mature, though in some areas, like social media, [the Middle East] is actually not far off where the UK is, I would say.

The State of Digital Marketing in MENA report shows that company culture is preventing 29% of companies from investing further in digital, indicating that some companies may be slow to adapt to the changing digital environment.

The tools and technologies are clearly there, but there also needs to be a change in the broader organisational structure, including focusing teams around digital, which may take longer to be addressed. There also needs to be a shift in mindset, as company culture may prevent organisations from acquiring senior management buy-in, holding back further investment in digital.

One sign of the industry's developing maturity is that marketers are increasingly focused on return-on-investment and what this means in the context of their own business.

In this year's survey, 54% of companies indicated that their understanding of ROI was excellent or good, while 17% said it was poor or very poor. In comparison, in 2011, 64% of companies said understanding of ROI was excellent or good, while only 8% reported understanding to be poor of very poor.  

Though on the surface it may seem that understanding of ROI is worsening, the reality is that as their knowledge develops, marketers are much more aware of what they could measure and metrics that are important for assessing marketing value.

Consequently their perception of their own understanding of ROI becomes much more realistic. A similar pattern can be seen in UK research, which shows that marketers become increasingly less confident in their understanding of ROI as the industry matures, and measurement of multichannel campaigns and attribution becomes more complicated.

The results of the State of Digital Marketing in MENA report were presented by Ashley Friedlein earlier this week at Econsultancy's second annual Digital Cream Dubai.

Monitoring Twitter during the event allowed us to look at real-time feedback about the research as the results were presented. As digital is inherently measurable and provides a wealth of built-in metrics, some expressed surprise that so many marketers are still grappling with the question of how to measure return on investment. 


However, understanding ROI in this region is still very focused on generating traffic, increasing clickthrough rates and driving brand awareness.

As companies use increasingly sophisticated digital marketing techniques, and employ a joined-up approach, measuring ROI typically becomes more challenging, as Ashley notes in his interview for AMEinfo:

In the UK or indeed the US, the focus is much more on analytics, data-driven decision making and conversion rate optimization. So there's much less focus on getting traffic for traffic's sake, it's about optimizing the business and the commercial results. 

At the moment I think the ways it needs to catch up are around moving away from the focus of driving traffic and looking at what actually is the key metric we want and often that's sales, leads, cost savings and things. It's quite an analytical, data driven business in the UK, whereas here it's a bit spend, get some traffic, and job done. Though this is not true of all.

The rise of social has made it more difficult for marketers to tackle return-on-investment and measure true commercial value. Social media is contributing significantly to the rate of growth in this market as 81% of respondents say they are planning to increase investment.

However, it's still in its infancy in this region, as over a third of respondents (36%) are dipping their toes into the water by experimenting with social media. 

It's natural that as digital develops in the Middle East, companies will invest in the analytics tools to make the most of the wealth of data available to them.

However, as well as investing in the tools and technologies, companies also need to invest in skills, training and education to nurture local talent. The survey found that a lack of Arabic speakers with significant online experience is holding back the industry. And as digital develops, there will be increasing demand for Arabic copywriters with a background in digital. So companies must skill up now in order to avoid getting left behind in this fast-paced digital environment. 

There's plenty more statistics, trends and charts in The State of Digital Marketing  in the Middle East and North Africa report 2012, which is available to download for $400. Silver+ members of Econsultancy get access to all of our reports (more than 400) for the one-off annual price of just $495. 

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Aliya Zaidi

Published 26 February, 2012 by Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi is Research Manager at Econsultancy. Follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn or Google+.

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Comments (4)


My Secret

Its great to see some discussion on this topic. We are the first of a kind online guide to Bahrain and have launched in Jordan and its great to read about what others online in the region are experiencing!

over 6 years ago


Hamid Sirhan

While it's interesting to look at the development of digital in the ME, I think it's almost pointless without accompanying discussion about the audience which has slipped by your other focuses. Eg I don't think company culture, lack of infrastructure and lack of internet access/broadband penetration are really that separate.

Most surprising is broadband penetration not highlighted as a bigger barrier and I'd like to know more about the methodology behind the research and the countries involved. For example, penetration in Turkey will be less of a problem than Jordan. ME economies are so diverse in fact that it would probably be more worthwhile to look at this in the context of regional splits - the Levant, the Gulf, North Africa, Turkey and Persia - rather thn the ME as a whole.

over 6 years ago

Aliya Zaidi

Aliya Zaidi, - at Mrs Aliya Zaidi

Hi Hamid,

Thanks for your comment. The research was in the form of an online survey, which naturally means there is some bias towards countries that have stronger internet infrastructure.

If you download the report, you'll see the majority of respondents (56%) are from the UAE.

As you say, there are significant differences between the countries in the MENA region and broadband penetration will vary across the Middle East.

over 6 years ago


Adel Radwan

It is also important to understand the targeted consumer. Digital marketing is indeed in its infancy in the MENA region if compared to the rest of the world, however the slow growth I believe can also be attributed to the purchasing power of the consumer.

In a study done by the IPQC reported that 10% of respondents stated that they feel their audience wont respond. Now this number may not be significant in the statistical sense, but is an indicator of the dynamic of the market and its lack of responsiveness to digital marketing.

It is also worth noting that in recent years most digital campaigns in the region have been spearheaded by large FMCG brands. Mobile advertising has also increased and it wont be long before digital advertising becomes a critical component of a small business' marketing strategy.

over 6 years ago

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